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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...

In 1996, John Doble, a veteran of the British Foreign Service, was appointed High Commissioner to Swaziland. “I’d only been in the country three days, and I knew absolutely nobody,” says the 67-year-old Doble. “So I was wondering what the devil I’d do in tiny Swaziland.” Looking at a map, he noticed nearby Malolotja Reserve. “I hiked to the top of Malolotja Waterfall, and it was wonderful,” says Doble. “But Malolotja is a rugged mountain park, and it was a bit dodgy being alone.”

Back at the reserve office, Doble asked if the park had hiking tours. The answer was no, but Sibusiso was there, just getting off duty. “He hadn’t the foggiest idea who I was,” Doble says. “But he gave up his one day off to take me on a magnificent walk up 6,000-foot Ngwenya [Crocodile] Mountain.” The pair became friends and continued hiking together most weekends. Their first real scramble was Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg Range. “I was clumsy, but Sibu had this incredible confidence on the rock,” says Doble. “So I was wondering out loud why there weren’t more native climbers.”

Sibu replied that blacks in Africa didn’t see climbing as a sport they had the means to pursue. “It doesn’t fit our culture either,” he explains to me. “If you ask Swazi villagers how to climb a local mountain, they say you’ll never come back. The high peaks are where we bury our chiefs. There are spirits and animals there. We don’t spend nights outside a village.” But Doble challenged Sibu directly: In the more than 40 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed Everest, he told him, no black man had ever done it.

“We can’t afford it,” Sibu responded. To which Doble countered: “If you had the resources, would you go?”

“Absolutely!” Sibu remembers saying. But he had no idea how high Everest was, or what it involved. “Still,” he tells me, “I was driven by the belief that I should try to show the world, and Africans, that we were up to such a challenge.”

What started as an idle bet took on its own momentum. After retiring to England in 1999, Doble started working his connections to get Sibu on an expedition.

There was little support in South Africa, and not just because Sibu was an unheralded game ranger and climbing novice. The country was still smarting from a disastrous 1996 national Everest expedition whose leader’s exploits were chronicled in Into Thin Air. Among other things, the leader had failed to list the expedition’s two black members on the permit, meaning they couldn’t climb above basecamp. The fiasco left South Africans with little taste for climbing as a symbol of national pride and reconciliation.

Doble didn’t give up, and in 2001 he convinced British outfitter Jagged Globe to consider Sibu for an upcoming Everest climb. But first he’d have to summit three 20,000-foot trekking peaks and go on a winter shakedown in Wales. Doble sent Sibu to Nepal for part one. “I think they were expecting me to fail quickly [on the lower parts of the peaks], so I wouldn’t complicate any summit attempts,” Sibu says. “And given my lack of experience I can’t blame them.”

The Himalayas were a shock. “Suddenly you see these huge mountains covered in snow and ice,” Sibu recalls. “I wondered, ‘Am I even going to survive this?’” He developed a mysterious pounding headache on the approach hike up the Khumbu Valley; his companions had to tell him it was altitude. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is only in the towns. How much worse will it get?’ It was intimidating, but I also loved it. You’d climb this huge pass, and from the top there was range after range of giant peaks.”

Then he had to master the gear and techniques. “I found it really explosive on my legs, wobbling along over blue ice in plastic boots and crampons,” he says. Still, Sibu made it up Pokalde (19,048 feet) and Island Peak (20,285 feet); two of his more experienced teammates had to be evacuated for pulmonary edema. Jagged Globe called off the Lobuje climb (20,075 feet) after the second attempt because Sibu was the only client who wanted to give it another shot. “I suddenly realized I could be turned back on a mountain through no problem of my own,” he says. “It was frustrating, but the lesson helped.”

While in Wales for part two of the trial–the climbing school–Sibu and Doble met with the scion of a Scottish banking family (most famous member: Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels). The businessman–who wishes to remain anonymous–was so impressed by Sibu that he offered to underwrite the historic attempt. Mr. Vilane was going to Everest.

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