The adventures began early for Jermaine Middleton. Intrigued by anything outdoors, he would spend hours playing at the creek near his childhood home in Cobb County.
He was 8 years old when he decided to try skydiving. He took a trash bag from the house and reinforced the edges before looping string through the holes. Then he climbed up on the roof of the family’s split-level home and jumped 8 feet to the ground. He was not injured, and while his homemade parachute collapsed, his sense of adventure only expanded.
This spring, Middleton, 31, of Austell hopes to achieve one of his most aspirational childhood goals when he sets out to climb Mount Everest. “I consider myself an adventurer. That seemed like the ultimate adventure,” said Middleton, a graduate of South Cobb High School.
If successful, he will be the first American-born black man to summit since the first ascent more than 60 years ago. As his adventures have grown in scale, so has his desire to use his daring nature for good. Middleton’s quest, which he’s named Summit 413, embodies both a personal connection to his past and the positivity he hopes to share with others in the future.
“One thing I struggle with is that I have a lot of fun,” Middleton said. “It is about finding that balance of how to give back more and do more with the benefits I have in my life.”
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At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest, located in the Himalayas in Asia, is the highest mountain above sea level on Earth. Since 1953, the first official ascent, 5,310 individuals have summited Mount Everest, according to data from the Himalayan Database (HDB). Over the years, Everest has become an easier mountain to scale, said Alan Arnette, who summited Everest in 2011 and now shares information on his blog. Better gear, better weather forecasting and better routes have helped more climbers reach the top. “They have reduced almost all the unknowns,” Arnette said.
A safer climb along with a boom in commercial mountaineering in the 1990s meant anyone with the right state of mind and body who could afford fees ranging from about $38,000 to more than $130,000 could give Everest a try. Last year, records from HDB showed that of the 545 people who attempted the climb, more than 70 percent (397) summited.
“Everest still has huge cachet and it is a damn hard mountain to climb,” Arnette said. “If you do summit, there is reason for great personal pride and admiration.”
Middleton continued to indulge his passion for adventure since that first jump from the roof of his home. He made a habit of watching the now-defunct Speed Channel, which exposed him to a range of sports. “I would see things on TV and try to bring it to reality,” said Middleton on a brisk morning at Cochran Shoals Unit, where he takes regular runs and bike rides.
In fifth grade, he began to focus on bike racing. His dad found a BMX motocross course and would take him out to practice. At his very first race, Middleton was nervous. He didn’t know the ropes, and he was sure the other racers had more experience. His mom, hoping to help him focus, shared a Bible verse with him — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Middleton repeated the verse until he began to feel himself calming down. He ended up winning that race, and the verse, Philippians 4:13, became his mantra.
Middleton, who works as an operations director for a valet service, has since taken up snowboarding, running with bulls in Pamplona, Spain, scuba diving with lemon sharks and participating in marathons and triathlons. His position has given him the flexibility to pursue his outside interests. Last year, after viewing the 2015 documentary “An American Ascent,” Middleton decided it was time to focus on his dream of scaling Everest.
Climbers who summit Everest are overwhelmingly male, and few of them are black. In 2003, Sibusiso Vilane of South Africa was the first black man to summit Everest. The first African-American to summit Everest was a woman: Sophia Danenberg earned the title in 2006. In 2009, a Jamaica-born black man, Rohan Freeman, summited Everest.
“An American Ascent” chronicles the journey of the first African-American expedition to take on Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America located in Alaska. Years ago, Middleton had created a 10-year plan to scale the Seven Summits at a rate of one per year with the goal of hitting Everest by age 40, but seeing the black mountaineers tackle Denali inspired him. Middleton met some of the team members at the screening and mentioned his desire to climb Everest. He asked them how he could make it happen.
From there, he went into planning mode, working with mountaineering experts to help him assess his skills. Though he already had some climbing experience, having scaled Mount Whitney’s 14,505 feet in 2017, to prepare for Everest he would need to take a two-week mountaineering course to learn climbing basics. He would also need climbing prerequisites to help him understand how his body would react to higher altitudes and mountain living. The path to Everest would come at an estimated total cost of $100,000.
Middleton quickly got to work. He climbed Washington’s Mount Baker in August 2018. In September 2018, he tackled Mount Blanc in France, and in November, Kilimanjaro in Africa. On Feb. 14, he will begin his ascent of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina before attempting Everest in April. He’s had a few challenges, but the hardest was his climb on Mount Blanc with a stress fracture in his leg. “That is the closest I’ve been to quitting something,” Middleton said of the constant pain that made every step feel as if he were being hit in the leg with a baseball bat. “I would just pray and keep going,” he said. Reaching the summit was all the more gratifying.
His previous adventures have been self-funded, but Middleton knew he would need help with his goal to climb Everest. For most adventurers and mountaineers, support — both emotional and financial — is invaluable. “It is important to have someone who will support whatever your strange dreams are,” he said.
From his earliest days, Middleton credits his parents as his biggest champions, and he hopes to pass some form of that experience to individuals who may not have the same kind of support system.
Last summer, he established Summit 413, a reference to the verse that has kept him mentally strong through his various pursuits, to help him raise money for his climbs as well as for local charities including Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; Atlanta Dream Center, which helps reach and restore men, women and children through their ministries; and Four Corners Group, which takes a Gospel-centered approach to youth mentoring. Any money that exceeds his expenses for the climbs up to and including Everest will be donated to the charities, he said.
To date, Middleton has raised $41,000 from donors, which along with his own resources has helped cover the cost of gear and expenses for his prerequisite climbs. With his Everest costs looming at $65,000, he needs another $40,000 just to get on the mountain. But for all the planning and preparation he has already put in, Middleton said, summiting Everest is just part of the goal. “If I climb Everest and get to the top and don’t raise money for these charities, I would consider that a failure,” he said.