Photo: Andrew King

Higher Calling

Andrew Alexander King sees mountain climbing as a way to make the world a better place.

Record-seekers are easy to pigeonhole as such. And yes, Andrew Alexander King is motivated by accolades. He’s working to become the first Black person to climb the highest mountain and the highest volcano on every continent. So, it’s natural to assume that’s why he’s climbing. But his real motivation is much bigger than setting a record. He wants to connect and support local people and nonprofits that are working to combat climate change, racism, sexism, and other issues that negatively affect humanity. 

Even without such world-changing aspirations, King would stand out as an unusual seven-summiter. He grew up in Detroit, geographically and culturally far from any alpine terrain. But when he eventually connected with nature, he was inspired to do more than just enjoy the scenery. Today, he lives in L.A., where he works a 9-to-5 as a tech company program manager and spends his free time training and working on his climbing project (The Between Worlds Project). We chatted with King after he’d returned from training for big-wave surfing in the sport’s ultimate crucible: Nazaré in Portugal. 

PUBLIC LANDS: What were you like as a kid? 

ANDREW ALEXANDER KING: I lived with my mom in Detroit and grew up in a pretty solid village—my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, my brother, my sister, my uncles. Living in Detroit was very turbulent. You had to grow up fast. You didn’t get a real sense of childhood in the ‘normal’ sense because you had to grow up and look out for yourself and your siblings. But my family sheltered me from the realities and made it great. So, as a kid, I was the same way I am now—I was happy-go-lucky and just progressively looking to learn from others. 

You went to go live in Germany with your grandparents and continued to run track and field like you did in Detroit. What was that like for you?

Track and field was the only sport I did because it didn’t cost anything, you just ran up and down the block. As a kid, I told myself that I wanted to be the fastest man in the world, but I’m also 5’5”. My grandparents were very disciplined individuals, so they gave me structure and they gave me the ability to have access to resources to pursue track and field. During that time I really honed in on being coached and learned how to take feedback and get better. I went on to medal the majority of the time during my junior and senior years and went to meets in Italy and Brussels and the UK. It was good to see the world at a young age and learn how to be more receptive to my surroundings in an empathetic sense.

What was your first really memorable or formative experience in the outdoors?

That would be Hawaii. When I was exploring in Hawaii as a young adult I got to really feel a place of non-judgement. I felt a sense of happiness and freedom and calm. I think it’s because I learned how nature made me feel—hiking up volcanoes or surfing—and I just felt really at peace. 

How has your relationship with these outdoor pursuits—surfing and hiking and climbing—evolved over time?

Surfing was a way to take in a sense of what nature gives you and be present. When I saw a wave coming at me I felt like it was Mother Nature giving me a gift to take and learn from. I also got a lot of beatings—I learned that I can’t fight my way through a whiteout. I learned to read waves. I sat there and was mindful about which waves were for me and learned to be patient. This later translated into climbing. In Hawaii, I started to do higher mountains, like Mauna Kea, and that’s when I started to get a sense that I had the leg strength already and the mental toughness aspect that comes from Detroit.  I didn’t get into mountaineering or high-altitude to be like this grand old climber, per se, I got into it because I really like to go to the top and meditate and sit there. It wasn’t ever peakbagging, I didn’t even know what peakbagging was until last year. 

What initially drew you to climbing mountains?

I honestly just wanted to be at peace. I wanted a place where I felt I wasn’t judged for how short I was, what I look like, my skin color, or what I had no control over. I just wanted some place to be silent and peaceful. I felt that at the top, or along the way, I would find those answers within myself. It’s a place of flow for me. I know the Andrew that is starting is going to be very different from the one at the summit. They’re not going to be the same person. 

As a member of Black Diamond’s athlete-ambassador team, King credits the gear manufacturer’s support for his “ability to focus on feeling safe to climb, speak safely outside on humanity topics, and contribute more time and funding to nonprofits globally along my journey of The Between Worlds Project,” which entails climbing the seven highest volcanoes and mountains on each continent as well other notable peaks, expeditions and climbs for training around the world—while working with nonprofits local to the climbing regions that combat humanitarian issues “that limit many from finding peace and confidence outside.”

Do any climbs or summits or attempts stand out to you over your climbing career? Are there specific ones that made an impact on you, or on someone else?

All of them have. But one is Mount Jade in Taiwan. I learned I can be more than who I am when I travel to these places: I can do more with these communities and learn about their resources and how to give back to them. My first mountain will always be Asbury Park in Detroit because that’s where the mental toughness comes from. Another would be Aconcagua [located in Argentina]. I barely made it up. I learned a lot about my body, eating habits, and long expeditions. I learned how to ask for help. That was the journey of the adult ego cutting the thread and learning how to move and progress forward. I fell in love with mountaineering on Orizaba [Mexico]. Alpinism kicked off for me this year in the Alps and training in Chamonix [France].

What have you learned about yourself through climbing or through the outdoors?

At the end of each year, I always think about sitting across the table from myself and who I was. I’m always trying to impress the person I was last year, not anyone else. I’ve learned how to take feedback and always look to grow. The cool thing about nature is it’s always teaching you how to grow and be iterative versus perfect. I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in progress, and I think every mountain I’ve climbed and every wave I’ve surfed has taught me to always be progressive mentally and physically. I would say the best moments of my life have been taught on expeditions and surfing, and I’ve applied all that to my normal life and job.

What is it about outdoor spaces and expeditions that makes them such good teachers?

I think because they’re authentic. They’re not artificial. Nature is moving in a moment that can’t repeat itself and it’s showing you how time is moving forward. The first time I climbed Kilimanjaro [Tanzania] I vomited, the second time it was easy-peasy for me to do. The lesson that life teaches you in nature is that you’re growing. 

A number of mountaineers have completed the Seven Summits and the Volcanic Seven Summits. Where did the idea for The Between Worlds Project come from, and how does it differ from other expedition projects?

When I was climbing in the South Pacific I made it a point that I would never go to a place again without learning about the people and the community, and the local nonprofits that are combating racism, sexism, inequality, climate change or other issues. So using the funds I have from my job in tech, I donate $250-$1,000 of resources to nonprofits. I have this privilege now to have a job, and I can help other people find their freedom. I’ve always thought of the project as how I can help people find a way to crack through their glass ceiling and breathe, and have a chance at life or an opportunity to choose. 

Two years ago, no one knew who I was. When I started this project eight years ago, I didn’t want anyone to know who I was; It was all about the nonprofits. When George Floyd happened, a lot of the big outdoor brands had a hard time finding people of color on their roster to nurture. I didn’t find that surprising. Companies came to me and I said, ‘If you want to work together we’ll be partners, because I’m going to climb the highest volcano and mountain on each continent to speak out on these issues and make sure we keep having these conversations. When I’m done climbing all these mountains, it’s someone else’s turn.’ 

This year I donated the money for climbing Elbrus [Russia] to the refugees displaced from the war. I’m going to do Mont Blanc [France/Italy], the Eiger [Switzerland], the Matterhorn [Italy/Switzerland] and a few other peaks all in the same season to talk about climate change and the lack of diversity in alpinism and mountaineering. I don’t want to just go into a region and climb; I want to spend time there and work with individuals and give them resources—the whole point of the project is to give those that are marginalized the ability to speak freely on the issues that impact humanity and to be supported in a monetary fashion that has no strings attached. 

You’ve talked about not ‘conquering’ mountains, what do you mean?

I don’t think I’ve ever conquered a mountain. I think I’ve conquered insecurities and issues that I have inside of me. The mountains have been a platform for me to stand on and reflect back. I’ve climbed over 60 at this point but I’ve never conquered one. I’m never going to go for a world record or climb anything fast, being the first African American to climb all these is just a vehicle. When I get out of the vehicle, I hope someone else can get in. If anything it’s about conquering issues. 

What about the goal you’ve discussed of a more inclusive outdoors. What does that look like, and have you seen any progress?

I understand that America is still navigating what it means to be a minority, racially and sexually. I get that. It takes time to have those open conversations without being judged on either side. So when I look at the outdoor space, it’s a little bit uncomfortable because people say, ‘Oh, nature doesn’t judge you.’ 100 percent! Mother Nature is not trying to kill me with an avalanche or a wave. She’s not saying like, ‘OK, there’s a Black guy, send all this stuff there.’

It is uncomfortable for those that are usually hurt in the outdoor space—and by ‘outdoor space,’ I mean just going outside and trying to live their lives, like Ahmaud Arbery. Now imagine if Arbery was in the Blue Hills in Georgia or in the backcountry [going for a run]? You want someone that’s not even respected in society to go outside. It’s a conversation that has to be had because you have to let people feel comfortable in that space. Have I seen that? In the past two years, I’ve seen it in more of a wave state: It started as a high tide and then it was low. I’m still waiting to see more consistency. I see a lot of brands trying, and I love that. What I would like to see next is: Can you be consistent and can you be transparent?

Any other advice on the individual level? 

Stay true to yourself and never give up your passion. It’s OK to fail. I think being more open and vulnerable with our failures and our progress is the best way. Just be patient with yourself and other individuals that don’t see or understand because it takes time. Don’t get caught up in perfection, just stay progressive and consistent. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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