Full Circle Everest Photographer Evan Green on Gear, Fear & Summiting
Days after summiting the world's highest peak, photographer Evan Green discuss his camera gear, the expedition, and its significance
Leah Balagopal, Graham Hiemstra
Sony A7 IV
Even before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first successful ascent of its summit in 1953, Mount Everest has been held in awe and attracted alpinists from around the world who hoped to test themselves against the highest roof on Earth. Known by the Tibetan natives as Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of Mountains," Everest stands close to 29,032 feet (and rising). Tens of thousands have tried, but to date just ~4,000 people have summited Everest—and here's a stat you won't hear in many conversations about the mountain: until recently, just eight of those have been Black.
On May 12, 2022 though, with Sherpa and Nepali support, seven members of a group called Full Circle Everest made history by becoming the first all Black expedition to make it to the summit of the highest peak in the world. Nearly doubling the recorded number of Black mountaineers who have made it to the top of Mount Everest.
Full Circle Everest was formed in 2021 by lifelong climber and outdoor educator Phil Henderson. Noting that historically, there has not been much representation of Black, Indigenous or persons of color (BIPOC) in the world of alpinism, Henderson and the other 10 members of the team joined together with hopes to change that. When the seven members of their expedition party reached the top—all who set out on the summit push—they undoubtedly succeeded.
Reaching Everest's summit is always impressive as a feat of physical and mental endurance, but Full Circle Everest’s achievement goes beyond that by drawing attention to how marginalized communities have been barred from the climbing industry for many generations. In this regard, the numbers speak for themselves, but as an overlooked (or ignored) issue, there's certainly a lot more to say.
To learn more about the physical experience and significance of the expedition, we recently sat down with Full Circle expedition team photographer Evan Green. As an avid backpacker, cyclist, climber, and snowboarder, he's no stranger to the mountains. And as a celebrated photographer and filmmaker, making images in trying conditions isn't new to him either—he returned from the Everest expedition with a summit under his belt and plenty of stories to tell, both visual and verbal.
Below, Green talks about how he came to join the team, what it was like making photographs at 29,000 feet, and what comes next for the Full Circle Everest team.
How did you find yourself on the Full Circle Everest Expedition?
Phil [Henderson] had called me about a year ago about this project and said he was putting it together and invited me to get involved. I was initially just doing the social media stuff and helping out with the content side of everything. Then there were weekly Zoom meetings and I just kind of went with the flow and eventually I got to step in further and further—it evolved from there into eventually standing on the summit. So it went beyond the initial scope haha.
You've bagged plenty of fourteeners and have considerable experience climbing. What was your actual ice climbing and snow mountaineering experience prior to this?
I’d say kind of a lot. I do a lot of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. I got into that world of crampons and ice climbing, so that part felt pretty comfortable, just moving in the snow and dealing with everything.
Describe the route to summiting Everest. How much of the expedition was hiking and lugging gear versus mountaineering?
It was mostly hiking, I would say, especially if you consider the trek into Base Camp, which took us over a week. And then the icefall is kind of extreme hiking—there's definitely rappels and vertical sections where you're kind of climbing straight up but also it's just meandering through the ice.
After that, going from Camp One to Camp Two was just a death march in the sun. I think it was only two miles and it took me well over four hours. It's right before you put oxygen on. It's a thousand feet of elevation gain just straight up this valley so it seems very simple, but it was really hard.
From there it goes up to the Lhotse Face, but it's not so much climbing. Honestly, fourteeners training was great because you’re doing 4,000 feet per day, going uphill, and it’s not actually climbing, but it's also not just your standard hiking. The summit was just a snow climb for the most part. Some rocks and stuff at the top. The rock and the crampons was probably the most difficult thing—just the points sliding around in the shale, not the best footing sometimes.
What were the conditions like on summit day?
We had a really good weather day. At the top, the winds were relatively calm and it was sunny. It was pretty nice that there wasn't a storm coming in or anything to run from. So yeah, I think the weather really played a big part.
Tell us about your camera set up? Did you carry a camera to the top?
I brought a Sony A7 IV and I just took one lens for the whole summit push, the 28mm f/2 because it's pretty fast, pretty general—it’s just the best for documenting everyday life. The battery did die in the cold, but then I just put in my glove for a little bit and carried it around like that until I needed to take a photo. Then I'd put it back in.
Did you shoot with anything other than the Sony?
I [also] took a Canon EOS A2E—so reliable, and has the eye tracking auto focus from the '80s. I shot two rolls at Base Camp. I wanted to get higher, but then I already was carrying two cameras. I guess I could have committed to film. I didn't know how it was gonna do at zero degrees.
[Ed Note: Stay tuned for a full photo essay with Evan Green from Everest coming soon]
Did you find that looking through the lens allowed you to experience these moments differently?
To be honest, I was kind of firing it a little blind. I had mittens on, at least for the summit stuff, and then it was either dark or I had on goggles or something. So I was just like, this is cool and then firing. Haha. But it turned out okay.
Other moments I was like, "Oh, this is awesome, I gotta capture it and figure out the right angle here." And you only have a split second.
Were there any hairy moments where fear crept in?
I'd say at the very top, you go from the south summit to the actual summit. You're just on a cornice ridge line. You're pretty high up there. It just drops off, so that was a little bit unnerving. But it was also right at sunrise and it was super beautiful. I just looked around and took in some of the moments and was like, 'Alright, you got this.' Then the wind gusts would come... and you're just up there.
Did your team feel full support of the rest of the mountaineers on Everest?
They were trying to limit interaction going between camps just because of COVID, but everyone that we met and ran into was really supportive. A lot of people were aware of the team and they were cheering us on. I felt like there was a lot of support and the community was behind us.
How did the Sherpas react to seeing and working with an all Black team?
The Sherpa team was just awesome overall. I mean, they crushed it. This would not have been possible without their help. I guess we were different as a team than what they were used to, but you know, same job. Super awesome and so helpful. I feel like we really bonded with our Sherpa team. That was one of the best parts of the whole trip.
You've worked with brands, magazines, and athletes before, but how has it been navigating the heightened media buzz around the Full Circle expedition?
It's been pretty cool. Especially because there is a lot more mainstream media, too. A lot of times things are either only in the bike world or only in a climbing magazine, unless it's [Alex] Honnold doing something. If it's an obscure technical route, no one really cares. It's been really cool to see all the media attention on this project and all this love and support.
Was there a moment during the experience where you felt or truly understood the full gravity of what the Full Circle Team was setting out to do?
That's a good question. I don't know if there's a specific moment. Probably just like getting back down to Base Camp when it was all over and realizing that two months of work had paid off. All the pieces and people coming together. There's probably 50 or 60 people that were supporting the expedition. That moment of safely returning was really special.
Were you limited on what gear you could bring because of weight? How did you decide on what to bring and what not to?
The first time we went up to the higher camps—there's probably a photo someone has—my bag is overflowing with so much that you can't actually close it. There was gear falling off the top of it. I realized I had to slim down the whole kit. I was prioritizing the sleeping bag and the puffy jacket and then I chose a toothbrush and a little bit of food. Then some like medicine and things like that. I decided to bring just one camera and one lens.
Looking at all your photos after the trip, did you have any new reflections?
That's kinda what got me into photography. I went on a few trips and then had no memories from them. I was like, wow, that kind of sucks. So I got a camera just because I wanted to start capturing these things and saving all the memories. I love having the photos to look back on and go through and just be like, oh this area or this evening was really special, just because of the light. Sometimes it's an out of focus photo, but you know what's going on in it.
Other than the photos, did you bring back any souvenirs?
I brought a little chessboard. I got a yak wool blanket. That was Eddie's idea to put down on the floor of the tent. And then a few bracelets, that’s about it.
Do you have similar diversity-focused projects set for the future?
Nothing big planned, but it's cool to see it all come together and hopefully inspire other people to put together their own expeditions and trips. It'll be really cool to see what Full Circle turns into. It has a lot of potential at this moment to facilitate other trips or just be name brand recognition for more diverse expeditions in the future. We’ll see what happens.