First Native American on world’s tallest peakCheyenne River Sioux tribe member combines medicine with mountaineering to empower indigenous communities
At 8:30AM on 13 May, Jacob Weasel, MD, became the first Native American to summit Mt Everest. Standing on the world’s tallest peak, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe member suddenly felt a deep connection with his ancestors from the other side of the planet.
And he also felt an immense sense of pride for not just his Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, but for all First Nation communities from the Americas and the world.
“My journey to becoming a surgeon and scaling Mt Everest is a story of perseverance, determination, and community support,” Weasel, 36, told Nepali Times in Kathmandu after the climb. “I am humbled by the encouragement I have received and proud to carry my people's legacy forward.”
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Weasel is also the first and the only person to become a surgeon from his tribe. Over 70% of Sioux children drop out of school, families are poor and the unemployment rate is high. Few go on to get a college education, or have prestigious professions so a surgeon-mountaineer could not be further from the stereotype.
But young Jacob Weasel was so inspired by the story of Sophia Dannenberg, the first African American and the first Black woman to summit Mt Everest in 2003 that he started researching her, and was surprised to find that no Native American has ever climbed the mountain.
“It took a year and a half of relentless exploration, alongside pursuing my education and medical career,” he said. “I completed my undergraduate studies, medical school, and surgical training all the while keeping the mountains in my heart.”
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Weasel and his two siblings were born in New Mexico and they moved to Omaha with their parents when Jacob was only 12. But only he went on to finish college, and studied medicine in South Dakota.
His father was born on a reservation, and had a challenging upbringing within a broken family. He dropped out of school in eighth grade and was pushed into drug dealing. But he managed to leave it behind, passed his GED test, attended Bible school, and became a pastor.
Weasel started climbing at Mt Rainier and went on various expeditions including ones to Ecuador, Kilimanjaro, and Denali, fuelling his passion even more. But the goal was always to get atop the world’s highest mountain.
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However, an Everest expedition meant much money and time, physical and mental strength and lots of training. But the fundraising efforts paid off, and Weasel was off to Nepal earlier this year.
Things were much tougher than he imagined: the weather was harsh this spring, the Khumbu Icefall was treacherous as ever, and the north wall of Nuptse was heavy with new snow.
The high altitude also took a toll on Weasel, each step felt like a tremendous effort, and monitoring oxygen levels became important. Weasel and his Nepali guides also narrowly survived avalanches in the Khumbu Icefall.
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Finally approaching the summit on a clear but windy morning, Weasel unfurled his Cheyenne River Sioux flag, with an eagle feather securely packed in red cloth in his backpack for protection.
“It was an honour to carry my tribe's symbol to Earth's highest point,” Weasel told us.
For Weasel, climbing Everest was not the only achievement, it was also to visit an Asian country for the first time and see how he can contribute as a medical practitioner to Nepal’s healthcare.
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“Leveraging my medical background, I aim to improve access to healthcare services, particularly for women and children in Nepal’s rural areas with limited resources,” he said.
He wants to fundraise to build women's health clinics and birthing centres in Nepal in collaboration with local organisations working exclusively on maternal health like One Heart Worldwide.
“I feel so welcomed here, Nepalis have been generous and shared wisdom, and taught me about resilience, humility, and the indomitable human spirit,” he said with feeling. “Leaving Everest, I carry those lessons to respect the mountains and the people who live among them.”
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Excited by his Everest success, Weasel now plans to become the first Native American to climb all seven highest peaks in the seven continents and complete the Explorers Grand Slam by reaching the North and South Poles.
With his adventures, Weasel wants to create a ripple effect of positive change that extends beyond individual mountaineering achievements. His ultimate goal is to raise awareness about and support Native American communities.
He wants his mountaineering feats to inspire others in his community to realise their potential, pursue their passion, break barriers, embrace their cultural heritage, and actively contribute to building stronger and more resilient communities.
What is his most important take-home? Weasel replied: “With perseverance and support, we can overcome obstacles and achieve extraordinary things. Let us uplift and empower one another.”
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