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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...

Nobody who grows up in a rural Swazi village dreams of climbing the world’s highest peaks. Mostly, Sibu just dreamed of finishing school. “Even at an early age, I knew that education was the only way out,” he says.
Not long after he escaped the kraal, Sibu’s mom returned with a new husband. “He was a good man,” Sibu says. “He paid to send my younger sister and me to school even though we were not his children.” All through elementary and middle school, Sibu walked six miles each way to the one-room, stick-and-mud schoolhouse where he learned impeccable, British-accented English.

When Sibu was 15, his stepfather moved on and the money vanished. Sibu spent the Christmas holiday looking for work in nearby Mbabane. “I asked door to door for days,” he recalls. His persistence paid off when he met Canadians Doug and Penny Watts, who were in Swaziland drilling water wells. Every day after school and on weekends, he tended their gardens and trimmed the lawn with a hand scythe. The Watts paid for his schooling even after they returned to Canada.

By age 17, Sibu was lucky to have finished high school and landed a construction job paying hand-to-mouth wages. Then he met Nomsa, the 15-year-old sister of a friend. “It’s not like in Western cultures where you take a slow approach,” he smiles. “I just told her I loved her, and she told me to get lost.”

As Sibu explains it, the pair had a relatively modern courtship. A traditional Swazi might enlist his female relatives to kidnap and hold the bride, so they could overwhelm her with all his good attributes until she finally gave in. One of them might even give the girl a child, in permanent adoption, as a welcome to the family. The groom would pay a dowry to the bride’s family on a standardized scale: eldest daughter, 13 cows; second daughter, 12 cows. Sibu declines to quote Nomsa’s bride price. “Let’s just say I’m still paying,” he groans theatrically.
With kids soon to come, Sibu started searching for a better job. Paging through the phone book, he noticed Malolotja Nature Reserve, a small mountain park not far from Mbabane. “I thought maybe a ranger’s job was to herd the animals like cattle, and I’d already done that,” he laughs. Instead, he faced a grueling six-week boot camp that included tough physical tests and instruction on tracking game, handling firearms, and conducting tourist drives. The 14 applicants underwent daily emergency drills like fixing broken vehicles and evacuating injured hikers. “It was intense,” Sibu says. “We were always watched to see how we cooperated and filled roles. The slightest negative attitude got you expelled. Only six of us made it.” He became a ranger for Conservation Corporation Africa, a private contractor that runs many parks in the region. His starting salary: 500 rand a month, about $50.

The outdoors had always been Sibu’s refuge, and he loved the ranger’s job. He regales me with stories about angry black mambas and the downsides of trail running in lion country. Once a notorious bull elephant named Killer chased Sibu’s Land Rover, Jurassic Park-style, tusks scraping the tailpipe while Portugese schoolgirls screamed hysterically in the back.

By local measures, Sibu had achieved astounding success: an education, a good job, a modest bank account, a stable marriage, a house he built on land bequeathed by a local chief. The idea that someone might drop in and suggest he climb Everest was as unlikely as NASA inviting me to the moon. And then someone did.

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