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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...

After a rest day to acclimatize at Fourteen, Sibu and I launch up the Headwall, ascending the fixed ropes in a full-body aerobic huff, making for the shattered granite spine high overhead. Atop the saddle, we unclip and crampon up the ridgeline, scrambling over rock bands and along a snowy whaleback to reach the squat pinnacle of Washburn’s Thumb at 16,500 feet. We cache our loads there and retreat. Tomorrow we’ll collect them as we climb through to High Camp. Sibu moves easily up the tangly ropes and awkward terrain, clearly a novice no more.
We finally stumble into High Camp at 8 p.m. the next day, our thighs and feet hammered from pumping up the steep grade beneath monster packs. Icy winds scour the exposed campsite as I fumble with the zippers of my puffy pants, fingers rapidly freezing. In the end, Sibu has to help me like a kid being dressed by mommy. I don’t even ask. He’s suddenly there, no rebuke, no good-natured flak, just a quick helping hand and another silent sermon.

The next morning, stiff with fatigue and nursing mild headaches, we stay in our bags and melt endless pots of snow. The day remains bitter and foreboding. Banners of spindrift scream through Denali Pass, swirling down across the traverse like alpine ghosts. Peering out the tent door, we watch a string of parties start up and turn back. Tense over the weather, we talk about everything but the climb at hand, and Sibu spills out an amazing list of current projects and hatching plans.

Back home, he sponsors a 20-person running club called Born to Win. He wants to start a children’s outdoor center at Malolotja. He and John Doble plan to climb the Matterhorn. He wants to summit Kilimanjaro with his teenage daughters (he and Nomsa have a son and three daughters, ages 2 to 15). His autobiography, To the Top from Nowhere, was just released in South Africa.

He has several expeditions in the works: climbing Ama Dablam, a solo kite-ski crossing of Antarctica; an oxygenless ascent of Everest; a trek across the Rub’ al Khali dune-lands of the Arabian Peninsula; and driving in the Paris-Dakar off-road race. His biggest dream, though, is a Pan-African Everest expedition–a multinational demonstration of African unity and pride.

These projects all require funding, of course, which means sponsors, and that’s tough when you come from Sibu’s zip code. He’s having trouble just drumming up a handful of sleeping bags and tents for his running club so they can travel cheaply to events. And he has to spend considerable energy on the preschool telethon just to raise a few hundred dollars in construction materials. All of which makes climbing Denali and completing the Seven Summits–with the exposure that should bring–such a critical piece of Sibu’s plan.

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