History-making climber Sibusiso Vilane still haunted by his Mandela challenge

Sibusiso Vilane knows a thing or two about facing a storm. His historic ascent of Mount Everest in 2003 was filled with them, but he pushed through and climbed many more peaks.

Mountaineer and adventurer Sibusiso Vilane. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - Seventeen years ago Sibusiso Vilane’s life changed forever when he reached the top of Mount Everest in 2003.

As the first black person to climb Mount Everest, he was hailed throughout the world as a pioneer and an inspiration to the continent.

Vilane is a career mountaineer. He returned to climb for a second time in 2005 and throughout his nearly 25 years as an adventurer, he has climbed the seven highest peaks in the world and walked to both the North and South poles. And he has climbed many more peaks in the Alps, the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and the Eiger. Not content with that, he runs the Two Oceans and the Comrades marathons every year. Few people miss the great outdoors more than Vilane.

In reflecting on that historic day 17 years go, Vilane thinks about the impact the climb had, not just on his life, but in the life of South Africa, which was a young democracy in 2003.

“It was a special day. I still recall I was walking from camp four down to camp two, and I couldn’t hold my emotions, I was just crying. Every minute I just thought about what had just happened, so that’s how massively it impacted me, standing on the top of that mountain,” Vilane told EWN Sport. “That journey to the top of Everest changed my life full circle. I had the belief that I could do it, but I don’t think you are able to realise that fact up until you have done it. I still had a little bit of doubt about it up until I summited the mountain but I got to the top. It changed the way I looked at myself, the way I look at life, and the way I look at Africans, mainly South Africans as well.”

Vilane knows a thing or two about facing a deadly storm, quite literally. His climb to the summit was threatened many times by bad weather that could have ended his attempt at any moment. But he persevered and triumphed, as a resounding metaphor for a moment in time where South Africa's COVID-19 infection rate climbs.

“It is all possible but it will take hard work, commitment and that perseverance, and having to fight through the storms – and we are fighting the biggest storm in the world at the moment. That is the only way we can live and achieve things in our lives.,” he said. “We’ve got to face up to the storms. I think most of us, including myself, many times we deceive ourselves that things should be easy, life should be plain sailing, and when you get hit by a pandemic, then it becomes chaos. We can never forget that the storms will be there, the wind will be there, the challenges will be there, but it is how you respond to those challenges. It’s not about the falling, but how you get back up and just go.”

Vilane's introduction to mountaineering was not typical of most climbers. He worked as a guide on a game farm in Mpumalanga and never really considered mountaineering as a pastime, let alone a career. “The mountaineers who came before me all did mountaineering as a social gathering. They socialised on the mountain, they would go out on the weekends and hike up a mountain and spend the day out there. We Africans had never had that. I had never seen mountaineering as a sport or even as a hobby, or something you can do on the weekend,” he said.

A chance meeting between him and then British High Commissioner to Swaziland, John Doble, in 1996 was a turning point for Vilane. Doble was visiting the game farm and needed company. Vilane was in the office at the time and offered to accompany Doble on his weekend or during his free time. One fateful day, Doble dropped his walking stick down a cliff. “He said ‘I’ve got to get it. I can’t lose that stick’. I asked him why he is so obsessed with wanting to go down the cliff, he could fall to his death. I told him, ‘I’ll go down and find your stick’. I clambered down very treacherous terrain, and luckily, I got to where the stick was, and picked it up and climbed back up to him. John thought ‘Oh, this fellow can climb with such ease, I wonder why there aren’t many black mountaineers?’

A conversation ensued between Vilane and Doble and it resulted in both men agreeing that Vilane would be the first African to attempt to climb Mount Everest, and Doble would help him. “I always wondered why Africans had never tried to climb the mountain. Probably a lack of interest, and then later on the financials that come with it. I then realised it’s not about the cost, it’s about whether you have the will. Do you have the desire to do it? I said to John, ‘if I get a chance to climb Everest one day I would do it’. At that moment, I knew if I got the chance to do it, it wasn’t my climb, it was for me to showcase Africa’s ability. It was that belief in the continent, in every child out there. It doesn’t matter where you grow up, it’s about ‘do you really want to get to the top?’ And that was the whole message. I had nothing to do with the mountain. All I had to do was promote Africa.”

Vilane made headlines across South Africa and the world for his historic feat. Even as time passes by, Vilane remembers with fondness and pride having earned the praise of former President Nelson Mandela.

“Seventeen years later, the one reflection is why have I kept on climbing? When I returned from Everest, it was quite huge for the country. I never thought it would be that big. Within a week of arriving home I got invited to meet former President Nelson Mandela,” Vilane said. “I always wanted to meet him, but I had no idea how it was going to happen until Everest brought him to me. I remember him addressing the media, and he challenged me. I thought he was challenging other Africans, but when I sat down and summarised what he was saying I realised he was talking to me. He said ‘we are very proud of this young man, and he has set a standard for Africans and he showcases what Africa can achieve, and he said ‘I wish other Africans can step up and follow in his footsteps, so the setting of a standard is the one thing that 17 years later still haunts me when he said I have set a standard for Africa.

“I said to myself ‘if you’ve set a standard, regardless of Africa, what do you do about that? Do you just sit back and say ‘Ah, I’ve summited the highest mountain in the world, and that’s it?’ I realised it was a confirmation of what I was capable of doing. Those are the words that echo in my head every day when I think about the significance of climbing Everest. It was that profound meaning to me and other Africans.”

True to form, Mandela set a challenge for Vilane and laid bare the significance of his historic summit. “Mandela said to me that what I’ve done has taken the monopoly away by the Western world to think that they are the only ones who can go out and challenge the near impossible. He said, ‘your story says Africa is here.’”

For decades, countless climbers have tried to summit Mount Everest and perished in the process.

"My will was so profound that it overwhelmed me. It’s people who think it’s beyond them that fail in the end. The motivation to keep fighting and to keep going wasn’t there anymore. And what brings that motivation is the question: ‘why are you doing what you do?’”

These days Vilane still travels the world climbing peaks and doing motivational speaking. While in lockdown he’s enjoying quality time with his wife of nearly 30 years, and four children.

When he ponders a life outside of mountaineering, he knows that being close to nature is where he belongs. “I had fallen in love with conservation. So I probably would still be at some big game park somewhere in a management position. Game ranging was my thing. I don’t think I would have done anything else other than with nature. It still pays off now when I go to the mountains and experience the beauty and peace that you feel there. I would probably be locked down in a game reserve.”