BEFORE SOPHIA DANENBERG became the first African American and the first Black woman ever to summit Mount Everest, she considered herself an average climber— never mind climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Mount Rainier, The Matterhorn and Cotopaxi, to name just a few of her conquests. When she reached Everest’s base camp in 2006, it was suggested that if she ascended the world’s tallest peak, she could make history. Sophia’s successful Everest expedition changed her life, and she’s since helped open doors to the climbing world for young girls, showing them that women have the power to accomplish incredible things.
Born in Japan to her Japanese mother and African American father, who was stationed at a U.S. military base in Japan at the time, Sophia and her family eventually settled stateside, 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, Sophia tried rock climbing for the first time while she was in Tokyo as a Fulbright Fellow. She was hooked. Inspired by the fun of playing on rocks and reaching summits, and the balance it brings to her busy life, Sophia says, “I learned to climb by climbing.” After Tokyo, she began to hang out with a group of ragtag climbers out of Connecticut — “a lot of old guys, mostly men,” she laughs. They welcomed her, setting up ropes and offering her tips on technique, and she continually honed her skills by just going for it.
She bagged her first technical ascents, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, on a weekend trip with a friend— though she hadn’t even planned on climbing Baker until her plane landed in the Northwest. “I feel like so much of my climbing has been that way,” she says. “Where it's just taking opportunities as they come. Making a plan but being ready to change and move around as the conditions and nature demands.”
No stranger to dedication and hard work on and off the mountain, she is an international policy analyst for Boeing, a job that brought her to Seattle — and closer to peaks right out her backdoor. “I love the Pacific Northwest because it’s the place that I really started mountaineering,” she says. “It’s a place I came to seek out the big mountains, and it's a place where people just love the outdoors.”
Since Everest, Sophia continues to train, running Seattle’s hills, and she escapes to the mountains any chance she gets. She says, “I think a lot of people focus on the physical aspects of climbing. But one thing that I've learned the more I've climbed is how important it is to be organized and to know how to schedule and plan.” And she always makes a point to block out climbing time in her packed professional calendar. “I hope I never stop climbing as I get older,” she says. “I can feel my body starting to rebel in ways to be expected, but there are always climbs that can be done.”