When Sophia Danenberg first tried her hand at mountaineering, she had no idea that someday she’d make history in the sport.

She’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Mount Rainier, The Matterhorn, Cotopaxi and many more of the planet’s giants. Still, she says she was “an average climber seeking out moderate routes and mountains to climb around the world,” until 2006, when she summited Mount Everest. In that moment, she became the first African American and the first Black woman ever to climb the world’s highest peak.

Born in Japan, her mother is Japanese and her father, who was stationed at a U.S. military base in Japan at the time, is African American. She spent some years growing up in Japan, and learned Japanese as her first language, but her family eventually settled back in the United States, in the Chicago area. She went on to Harvard University and became one of the first five students to earn an environmental sciences and public policy degree from the prestigious institution.

After college, she ventured to Tokyo as a Fulbright Fellow, and it was there she tried rock climbing for the first time. She liked it, and when she returned home to the U.S., she began to apprentice a “ragtag” group of climbers in Connecticut to practice her skills. “[It was] a lot of old guys, mostly men. I just started climbing with them,” she explains. “They would set up ropes and they would give us tips … but really, I learned to climb by climbing.”

Eventually, I saw that it was important to own it for other people who stand out and who don't blend in and who are never going to blend in — for them to own the way that they are different and not just try to be like everybody else.

Sophia Danenberg

Eventually, she worked her way up to her first technical ascents — Mount Baker and Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. “I had never thought about mountaineering until my best friend from high school decided that she wanted to climb Mount Rainier,” she says. “So, she asked me if I wanted to climb it with her, and I said yes — even though I actually hadn't heard of Rainier, I didn't know what it was.” Her first climbing trip to Washington turned out to be a gamechanger, spurring more climbs of that ilk. She says, “It was epic and fun and crazy, and all of the things I love about mountaineering.”

In 2006, at 34, she set out to climb Cho Oyu on the border between Tibet and Nepal, but a series of events led her to change her plans and take an open slot to climb Mount Everest. “I didn't know for certain until I arrived at basecamp, that I could be the first Black woman to summit Mount Everest … if I made it,” she says. She set out on the climb without sponsorship or media attention — and without a traditional guide, meaning she carried much of the gear and determined her own route and pace. “I spent the whole time thinking, ‘You can quit at any moment if this doesn't feel good, if it doesn't feel right, just go back,’” she says. “And in a lot of ways, I think that's what gave me the confidence to move forward: Knowing at every point that I had made a really conscious, intentional decision to keep moving forward, and not that I was there because I felt some kind of pressure from the outside.”

Sophia says that Everest changed her life, and with it came many opportunities and responsibilities. “I think when you're different, there's this tendency to try to just be a normal climber, to just blend in. But after Everest, it was really obvious that I couldn't,” she says. “Eventually, I saw that it was important to own it for other people who stand out and who don't blend in and who are never going to blend in — for them to own the way that they are different and not just try to be like everybody else.” She has since spent a lot of time volunteering, exposing young girls to rock climbing for the first time, and now she works on the policy side of things. She says, “It’s the way that we can make sure that we’re being good stewards of the land, through programs and initiatives.”

These days, Sophia is based in Seattle, working for Boeing as an international policy analyst. And the big mountains that once took plane tickets and weeks of preparation to climb, are available on a weekend whim. “When Boeing offered me the job in Seattle, the company I was working for countered with a better offer and a better job” she says. “But in the end, they couldn't offer me Washington State. They couldn’t offer me these climbs and these mountains and this land.”

The act of climbing itself brings balance to Sophia’s cerebral work and her busy life in the city, and she continues to seek out fun and solitude in the wilds of Washington and beyond. She says, “When I go into the mountains and I'm alone or I'm just with one other person, I feel like I can finally relax.” And she shows no signs of slowing down. “I hope I never stop climbing as I get older,” she adds. “I want to be like 80 and still just working my way up some 5.3 top rope on a tight belay.”

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