Sibusiso Vilane with two-time Kili climber, but first-time trekker, Vickey Ganesh. Picture: Kevin Ritchie
Sibusiso Vilane with two-time Kili climber, but first-time trekker, Vickey Ganesh. Picture: Kevin Ritchie
The Annual Trek4Mandela Kilimanjaro Climb is set to take place later this year. The climb was named Trek4Mandela to honour and celebrate Madiba’s legacy, on his birthday, as climbers summit on July 18.
The Annual Trek4Mandela Kilimanjaro Climb is set to take place later this year. The climb was named Trek4Mandela to honour and celebrate Madiba’s legacy, on his birthday, as climbers summit on July 18.
Caring4Girls is a programme distributing sanitary towels to ensure young girls can go to school during their menstrual period.
Caring4Girls is a programme distributing sanitary towels to ensure young girls can go to school during their menstrual period.
Johannesburg - Sibusiso Vilane is climbing Everest this year. And when he’s finished, he’s going to run Comrades and then climb Kilimanjaro for the Madiba centenary edition of Trek4Mandela.

But before then, he’ll run the Two Oceans over Easter.

It’s a stupendous amount of exercise, but then Vilane is no ordinary person. The first black African to summit Everest, which he did in 2003, he repeated the triumph two years later from the other side. Then he did the seven summits challenge, knocking off the highest peaks on the six other continents, in 2008, as well as going to the South Pole, with fellow mountaineer Alex Harris.

They walked from the coast of Antarctica all the way to the South Pole unassisted - a distance of 1200km. They became the first - and, to date, only - South Africans to do this.

In 2012 he completed the triple poles (the two ends of the Earth and the highest point) when he trekked to the North Pole.

To look at him, you’d never think it. He’s humble to the point of self-effacing, lithely built, but when he speaks, the room quietens and everyone listens. He exudes an unmistakable authority, even if you don’t know who he is.

“I don’t climb mountains,” he tells a group of aspirant climbers at The Nest in the Drakensberg. “I walk up them.”

There’s a bit of nervous laughter at his self-deprecation. The 40 hopefuls are in the Berg as part of this year’s Trek4Mandela, bidding to summit Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 5895m. The climb will be Vilane’s 23rd ascent of the Tanzanian peak - if you count last year’s double ascent on the Trek as two.

He pioneered the Trek4Mandela with Caring4Girls founder and social entrepreneur Richard Mabaso, after Mabaso phoned him in 2012 with his idea to scale the peak as a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the plight of poor girls forced to miss school because of their lack of sanitary pads during their monthly periods - and break the taboo associated with it.

The first year it was just the two of them. It has grown ever since, and now there are 40 people ready for their briefing before what will be for many of them their first ever climb in the Drakensberg, a "leg stretching" 22km hike up 1000m and across the face of Cathkin Peak and Monk’s Cowl in the Drakensberg the next day.

“Don’t think about tomorrow,” Vilane cautions, “in the mountains we only focus on one day at a time.”

Also read: Not just another mountain to climb

In the group are three of the six climbers who will be accompanying Vilane to Nepal on April 2. Two of them are products of the Trek4Mandela project. They are going to walk with him to base camp at Everest, and then he’ll spend the next 58 days building up his strength and acclimatising, before tackling the world’s highest mountain - without oxygen.

“It’s absolute madness to go back for a third attempt. I last summited nearly 13 years ago, and then the curiosity entered my head - only a handful of climbers have done it without oxygen, can I?” he asked. “I’m not interested in reaching the summit with oxygen - I’ve done that twice.”

Vilane is inspired by Reinhold Messner, the Austrian mountaineer who was the first to summit Everest without oxygen in 1978, and then completed the first mountaineering Grand Slam, summiting the world’s 14 peaks that are 8000m or higher, half of which are in Nepal, and the balance in Pakistan.

But Vilane’s not foolhardy. He will carry oxygen with him in his bid, but if he feels he has to use it in the mountain’s "death zone", above 8000m, that’s when he will descend.

“The summit will be when my body says no more.”

There’s every chance, though, that he will succeed in his quest. He is in incredible shape, and training hard. If he does, the fairytale will continue, just like when he first summited Everest in 2003.

Then, he was on a whim. He had been challenged to climb Everest after being told by a guest at the Malolotja nature reserve in Swaziland, where he worked, that he had all the makings of a natural mountaineer.

Vilane had dismissed the thought - he’d never even seen a picture of the mountain - but then the guest, John Doble, asked if he would do it if money wasn’t an option. Vilane said yes.

He started by climbing the peaks in the Drakensberg, followed by his successful first summit of Kilimanjaro in 1999. In 2002, having forgotten about Everest, he suddenly received a letter from Doble.

Doble had found a group going to Nepal to summit Everest for the 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent, but first Vilane would have to join a Trekking group going to Khumbu valley, near Everest, and do practice ascents on the nearby peaks. Vilane applied for his annual leave from the game lodge, without telling anyone why or where he was going.

“I didn’t think they’d let me,” he says.

He hadn’t trained, but he successfully summited Pokalde and Island Peak, both more than 6000m. He was in, but now he had to raise $40000 (R470000) in today's money).

“I told John: 'I’ve seen Everest, I want to go.'

“Who would sponsor a novice?” he asks, but he did get sponsored by a good Samaritan who believed in his dream, and eight months later he made history by getting to the top of Everest in 2003.

“I had to repay their faith in me; the mountain was kind to me,” he remembers.

Two years later, in the company of legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Harris, Vilane became the first black African to summit Everest from the south, and the more technically challenging north route.

This year’s bid will be his fourth visit to the mountain and his third attempt, but it won’t be his last. In 2020, he wants to fulfil his dream to lead the first all-African team to summit Everest.

He’s talking with mountaineers on the continent to create Africa’s own seven summits, iconic peaks and destinations that are all in East Africa: Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya.

“I was joking about taking a 7Summits- Africa team to climb Everest with some friends, who immediately said ‘We can make it happen'. We had our first meeting in January to discuss and plan the project. We want to promote Africa.

"Africa has all the resources needed to train climbers for Everest.”

The technical challenges are there, too.

“Mt Kenya was one of my toughest mountains to climb,” he says. “In fact I would like to do K2 (the world’s second-highest peak) because of the technical skills I have learnt over the years, which ultimately helped me successfully summit Mt Kenya.”

Vilane is married to Nomsa. The couple have been wed for 23 years and have four children - three girls and a boy.

“Tenzing once told his son, ‘I climb mountains so that you don’t have to',” Vilane said.

That hasn’t exactly been the case for him - he summited Kilimanjaro with his eldest daughter Setasbile when she was 18.

“If any of them wanted to keep on and climb mountains, I’d be there for them.”

Vilane climbs mountains not just because they’re there, as George Mallory once famously uttered, but because they make him feel closer to his creator.

“It’s better to be on mountains thinking of God than to be in church thinking of mountains,” he quips. “I connect in nature.”

Climbing mountains is also a great driver for charity, like Caring4Girls, while Trek4Mandela opens doors to people who have never thought of climbing mountains, even less going hiking - six of them are now going to Everest’s base camp with him in less than six weeks' time.

He’d been listening to the radio while he was driving, about the plight of poor girls and menstruation.

“The thing that got to me was that even the girls themselves don’t help each other, but embarrass each other, even in class, and that leads to most girls opting to stay at home during their menstrual cycle and then Richard phones me with this idea.

“You know, in Africa, the majority of people, if it’s a woman talking about anything related to women’s issues, no one will listen, it's just taken for granted. But if men are talking about such matters, then people will listen. Even Mama Graça Machel said the same to us afterwards,” he says of his motivation to break the taboo around the subject.

This year, he’s climbing on behalf of his sponsors, the Sports for Social Change Network, to raise funds to meet the educational needs of girls.

Last year he did the double summit on Kilimanjaro, hoping it would spark a donor to pledge more funds to Caring4Girls. It was gruelling, it was exhausting. When he got back to base camp after the first summit, he wasn’t able to get any sleep and recover before he joined the next group for the ascent.

He won’t do it this year. There’s no point. There’s no bravado; he can definitely do it physically, but it needs to be for a cause.

“You know,” he muses, “if someone pledges R1million to Caring4girls, I’d do the triple this year - but only if someone puts the money up. Imagine how many girls’ lives we could change?”

* If you would like to know more about Trek4Mandela or donate towards Caring4Girls, email Nkateko Mabale at: [email protected] or call +27 (0) 11 883 0379