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The Unlikeliest Mountaineer

Take a fatherless herd boy from poverty-wracked Swaziland, endow him with an indomitable will and a few wealthy friends, give him the lungs of Ed Viesturs, and you have...

I first met Sibu on Denali in 2007, when we piled onto the same glacier flight from the staging village of Talkeetna to the Kahiltna landing strip. Yes, black mountaineers are rare, but what really caught my attention were his custom-logo high-altitude boots, which indicated he’d been on Everest. We talked about South Africa, which I’d visited, and Sibu told me about his mission: He was on the verge of becoming the first black man–and more importantly to him, the first black African–to climb the Seven Summits. Denali was his last peak. He’d already done everything else, including two Everest ascents.

We climbed separately that spring, but remained friendly whenever we crossed paths on the mountain. Denali slapped us both down, but the defeat gave us common cause; we commiserated online and cooked up a rematch. Now, a year later, it’s been a hectic four days packing up, flying in, and humping 120-pound loads–split between pack and sled–up the lower glacier. Pinned down inside the rattling tent, this is the first real chance we’ve both had to get to know the exotic stranger we’re trusting on the other end of the rope.

I doubt that eHarmony’s computers would call it a perfect match. I’m a dwarfish Welsh-Irish subsistence journalist, predictably cynical and sarcastic, notably profane, and drawn to solitary rambles through the empty spaces of the slot-canyon Southwest. Sibu, just shy of six feet, is a quietly devout Christian and a gregarious, unrelentingly positive father of four with short dreadlocks and a quick smile. He’s hardly sanctimonious, but I find myself unable to swear in his presence–proof, I guess, that example makes the best sermon. Despite our ocean-size personality gap, we swap stories with the ease of two longtime buddies. And we soon discover that–more importantly–this odd couple tackles the business of snowbound survival with a complementary flow.

When the storm finally passes, we dig our way out of the tent expecting an easy day. Instead, we find deep, wet cement that makes for brutal hauling up the steep grade to Eleven Camp. Ahead, the West Buttress thrusts up like a granite castle. We lurch and grunt upward beneath aquamarine ice cliffs. At camp that afternoon, we collapse onto the sleds, chow down a block of cheese and an entire salami, and yak wearily about the absurdities of professional adventuring.

Only now do I learn just how high the stakes are for Sibu on this trip. It almost didn’t happen. After a management change, Harmony Gold, his mining-company sponsor, had suddenly terminated his contract–Sibu’s only source of income aside from occasional speaking fees. “It was devastating,” he tells me. “I was very uncertain that I could afford to come.” At the last minute, he secured a round-trip ticket from Batsalani Investments, a consortium of black African entrepreneurs; he’s financing the rest of the expedition costs with very hard-earned savings. This is likely his last shot at the Seven Summits.

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