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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...

The four-mile, 3,200-foot carry around Windy Corner from Eleven Camp to Fourteen feels even steeper than it sounds. Add bad weather and the route can be life-threatening. But Sibu and I luck into a bluebird day. We climb in crampons, released from sleds and snowshoes, reveling in the insane Peters Headwall, a 7,000-foot escarpment of rock and ice that rears overhead. “It’s so good to be on haul-ee-day,” Sibu shouts at the sky. It’s a phrase he uses often when settling into camp or resting trailside. For all his obvious toughness, Sibu has a refreshingly casual climbing style, always content to chat with passing mountaineers or kick back guiltlessly when weather forces a delay.

From a distance, the bustling snow village of Fourteen Camp looks like an exotic casbah populated by neon-clad spacemen. This week, the fluctuating population of 150 or so includes Americans, Canadians, Russians, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, British, Italians, French, Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Czechs, Poles, Brazilians, Venezuelans, Chileans, Argentines, Ecuadorians, Spanish, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, an Indonesian, a Sikh, and an ethnic Tibetan Mongol (“not Sherpa,” he pointedly clarifies).

Even in this polyglot assemblage, Sibu stands out with his dreadlocks and coal-black skin. Most climbers are curious about him, and Sibu, a social butterfly, returns from a brief walkabout with a fistful of business cards and scribbled addresses. Personally, I’m developing a case of melanin envy. I can’t keep my pasty Irish skin from frying in the high-altitude sun, while Sibu wanders blithely through the microwaves unprotected, taking pictures and filming like a tourist.

He’s a hopeless tech geek, hauling two digital cameras, a camcorder, a voice recorder, a sat phone, a GPS, and an iPod filled with audio books and motivational tapes. He wears two watches, a Suunto on Alaska time and a blingy titanium Tag Heuer on South Africa time. Most evenings he makes a call to Nomsa, or to a Nelspruit radio station, doing DJ shout-outs to drum up donations for a local preschool.

Finally, we get around to chopping out a tent platform, leveling the shelf with shovels and axes. Overhead, the Headwall swims in our ditzy, unacclimatized vision, a massive toilet-bowl ice slope plunging down off the Buttress ridgeline. Above here, the real climbing starts.

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