With nearly 900 weeks under his belt, James “KG” Kagambi is the most senior instructor in the 57-year history of the Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School. Those are “field weeks,” meaning he has spent the equivalent of 17 years in the wilderness teaching students technical outdoor skills, leadership and environmental ethics.
At NOLS, Kagambi is famed for celebrating his birthday each Tuesday during courses, hauling enormous hunks of meat into the field to supplement the freeze-dried rations and being a peerless educator.
Though the 62-year-old Kenyan recently took part in a historic expedition — the first all-Black ascent of Mount Everest — on Friday he was happy to be back in Wyoming. Come Sunday when he would be teaching another course in the Wind River range, he would be even happier, he said.
“That’s where I belong,” he said.
Kagambi grew up in a Kenyan village at a time when climbing mountains was not considered a legitimate pursuit. But when he was about 12 years old, his father roused him from bed one night and pointed to far-off Mount Kenya. There, a ranger was shooting fireworks in celebration of 10 years of the country’s independence. The sight ignited his imagination.
“I just remember thinking about, ‘Can I do that?’” Kagambi said. “And I promised myself I will try.”
The answer to his question, it turned out, was yes — 40 years later, Kagambi was part of an all-Kenyan team to hoist the independence flag on that same peak, the country’s tallest.
Kagambi started venturing into the mountains in his youth.
“I wouldn’t call it rock climbing then, but ‘let’s go have fun,’” he said. He would entice friends to attempt peaks, and as a teacher, take students on hikes.
He had grace and ease in the mountains, and others noticed. That included NOLS instructors who ran courses on Mount Kilimanjaro, where Kagambi worked and explored. He did a semester course with NOLS, “and from there, I never turned back.”
After he joined the school in 1987, he launched a NOLS program with courses designed solely for East Africans.
As his career as an outdoor educator took off, so did his achievements in the world’s craggiest landscapes. He was the first Black African to summit Denali, he has climbed peaks like Aconcagua in Argentina and the Eiger in Switzerland and he launched his own guide company, Kagambi Mountain Exploration.
In 2013, the year he considers the apogee of his career, he was part of the first all-Black team to climb Denali. “That is the first time I thought about, ‘what about the first Black team on Everest?’” he said.
Phil Henderson, a fellow NOLS alum who was also on the Denali team, had the same thought. But they didn’t talk about it at the time. And Kagambi sort of gave up on climbing Everest after another Black climber from South Africa summited it, he said.
When Henderson called Kagambi years later, in 2021, and asked if he wanted to be part of the Full Circle Team, Kagambi had plenty of reasons to say no: “I’m too old, my knees and if I commit to Everest that means six months of no work.”
The two men haggled. Henderson came back days later with “reasons as to why I should go,” Kagambi said. They included his leadership, his experience and his ability ensure the team’s success. The needle moved.
“And also I remembered, I want to promote mountaineering in Kenya,” Kagambi said. “And I got hooked.”
The team, which was also affiliated with a Wyoming student group, put seven members on the world’s tallest summit on May 12. Previously, fewer than 10 Black climbers had stood atop the mountain. Kagambi is the first Kenyan to do so.
The expedition was not particularly challenging in the scope of alpinism, Kagambi said. But after it was finished, he saw how momentous and meaningful it was when he returned to Kenya to a stunning homecoming reception featuring Masai dancers and a crowd.
“That was overwhelming,” he said, and proof that he had accomplished his goal. Even though people kept asking him to smile for pictures, he had to hold a stone face to keep from getting emotional, he said.