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To the Top, From Nowhere

To the Top, From Nowhere

May 2014

Words Shan Routledge

Rising above his lowly circumstances, real-life hero Sibusiso Vilane became the first black African to summit Everest twice and by two different routes. He has since completed the Seven Summits and the Three Poles Challenge – becoming one of only 38 people to have completed the ‘Explorers Grand Slam’.

Born at Shongwe Mission in Mpumalanga, Sibusiso Vilane never dreamt he would one day stand on top of the world. Moving to Swaziland at a young age, he grew up under tough conditions, not able to enjoy the luxury of three meals a day; he didn’t even begin formal schooling until the age of 11 – no one ever expected him to amount to much.

With so much working against him, and no matter how much life sought to make him lose hope and believe he was worth nothing, it’s an unbelievable feat that he could rise above the “conditioning and the inflicted limitations” to believe he was limitless, he acknowledged.

It was when Vilane was working as a game ranger in Swaziland that he finally found his catalyst for change: in the person of John Doble. He met Doble in 1996 and not only did they become great friends, but he inspired Vilane to take on the world and was instrumental in finding the necessary sponsorship for his Everest summit expedition. 

Vilane said that, “John Doble opened my eyes and made me believe in myself.” It was this that made him realise, “It is not our backgrounds that matter, but what we want to achieve for ourselves.”

After Vilane’s initial meeting with Doble, he started summiting peaks in the Drakensberg. Just three short years later, he summited Kilimanjaro – the start of an incredible journey that would eventually lead him to the summit of the highest mountain in the world, Everest.

In 2003 he set off for the Himalayas to become the first black African to summit the world’s most feared mountain. But the journey to the Queen of the Himalayas was not easy: before Vilane even started climbing, he experienced challenges. 

Finding a team was the greatest obstacle. “My experience of climbing big mountains was criticised, and I almost did not join the team as a result of it,” he explained. “Because I was not a popular climber or big-name person, no one wanted to sponsor me. Finding €37 000 was near impossible, but when one man decided to help, I was so pleased and I had to repay him by being the best – and I did.”

On previous expeditions to the Himalayas, Vilane had conquered the Pokalde, Lobuje and Island Peaks – all higher than 6 000 metres – in preparation for the giant Everest. He considered himself well prepared when he finally made the journey back to the Himalayas. 

But he attributes his success not to his training, but his determination. He strongly believes that once he has committed to something, he has to succeed. “I fight all odds to make it happen if I really want it to happen. I have a very strong self-belief and I am very adaptable.”

When asked to describe the feeling upon finally reaching the peak, Vilane said he was simply overwhelmed. “I wept uncontrollably for a long time. We had been pushed down the summit attempt twice in severe wind and snow storms – both experiences were very devastating and we were all losing hope on the weather. 

“But on the morning of 26 May 2003, after having taken a chance, we got to the top. I could not contain myself, the joy was overwhelming and it was the best feeling of my life! I get goose bumps thinking about it now!” 

Standing upon that summit, Sibusiso Vilane had defied all odds and changed his life.

Being the first black African to summit Everest was not enough, however, and in 2005 he summited again along the North Ridge – the more difficult and statistically less successful side. 

Though, summiting for the second time was not the highlight of his trip – as he always believed he would make it – but rather it was summiting with top explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom Vilane had personally asked to accompany him.

He was now the first black African to summit Everest twice AND by two different routes. Along with this success, three children’s charities benefited from his climb: the Birth to Twenty research programme at Wits University, the Africa Foundation, and the SOS Children’s Village in Swaziland. This was merely the beginning of his relationship with various charities: Vilane has since worked with Lifeline Energy, which provides underprivileged communities with renewable energy alternatives, as well as the Nelson Mandela 46664 Bangles programme.

After conquering Everest and Kilimanjaro, it seemed only natural to Vilane that he continue climbing and complete the Seven Summits: the seven highest peaks on each of the seven continents. With Kilimanjaro (Africa) completed in 1999  and Everest (Asia) in 2003 and 2005, in 2006 he took on Aconcagua (South America), Elbrus (Europe), Carstensz Pyramid (Oceania) and Vinson (Antarctica), and finally Denali/McKinley (North America) in 2008.

This was another world first for Vilane, but he wasn’t about to stop as yet – the next stop was the South Pole. The seed of this expedition had been planted by Sir Fiennes’ wife, Ginny, who – after Vilane had conquered Everest – suggested he try walking to the South Pole. 

Further encouraged by a fellow Everest climber, Børge Ousland, a Norwegian polar explorer, Vilane enlisted South African Alex Harris and they began planning. “The biggest challenge was the planning and ensuring we had done everything beforehand to stand a chance of succeeding – thank goodness we did! We succeeded because of our meticulous planning and serious preparation,” he said.

He dedicated the 1 113 kilometres he trekked to the South Pole – in some of the worst conditions imaginable – to the children of South Africa. In May 2008, as a result of this generous act and the hundreds of sponsors supporting him, Lifeline Energy was able to provide 300 radios to children from the Nkomazi District Municipality, where he was born.

On 17 January 2008, Vilane and Harris became the first South Africans to walk to the South Pole completely unassisted: they dragged all their food and equipment, weighing 130 kilogrammes, behind them – another world first.

Of course, this meant Vilane was two-thirds through the Three Poles Challenge (South Pole, North Pole and Mt Everest). So in early 2012, he trekked to the North Pole, thereby completing the challenge.

Vilane is one of only 38 people to have completed the ‘Explorers Grand Slam’. With a list of achievements in the Guinness World Records, and accolades that include being awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Bronze) by former president Thabo Mbeki and meeting the Queen of England, he could surely say he has done all he wants to do, but he says: “My bucket list is still as full, I am still to climb big mountains, I will venture into colder expeditions, I will take part in a number of adventure activities including Ironman.”

Returning home, Vilane no longer works as a game ranger, although he attributes many important lessons to his time working in the reserves, most importantly “being time-conscious”, which is something he applies in his climbing and guiding.  

Although he misses the knowledge he used to impart to guests and visitors about the bush and the environment, he is now a professional speaker, telling stories of his expeditions and trying to teach future generations that “we are limitless; we all have the greatest potential to achieve greatness – and it starts with a dream!”

Even after all his amazing travels and adventures, Vilane is still happy to return home to South Africa and his family. “They say home is home! Yes, I have seen almost every corner of the Earth, but the one thing I look forward to is returning home to the warmth of the people and the sun.”

His achievements are astounding and undeniable. With an irrepressible spirit and infectious enthusiasm for life which inspires and uplifts people of all backgrounds and circumstances, and particularly children, Vilane is a real-life hero. How this boy, who was once a goat herder, turned into one of the top climbers and expedition leaders in the world, can only be due to his pure spirit and determination.

“I feel very humbled by what I have tried to do and achieve in the world of adventure; the feeling comes from the fact that I never thought I would claim a first under my name, and now we talk of more than four of those firsts under the Sibusiso Vilane name. It is amazing, and I am very grateful to all those who have helped me to achieve all that I have achieved. Now, like most great men and women, I have a legacy.”

You can read all about Sibusiso Vilane’s journey in his new book, To the Top from Nowhere (Aardvark Press), which recounts his life and climbing experiences and conveys the message that we are all born with the ability to conquer if we dare to dream and strive for what we believe in, regardless of the challenges.


Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer