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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...

Sibu’s first Everest attempt started inauspiciously. Upon arriving at basecamp in the spring of 2003, he learned that someone (probably jealous neighbors) had tried to burn his house down. Nomsa and the kids went into hiding, but the couple talked by sat phone and decided Sibu should stay. “I was going to climb Everest if I had to crawl,” he says.

The Big E was a whole new league for the 33-year-old, surrounded as he was by giant peaks, grinding icefalls, and experienced, often well-heeled, mountaineers. Intimidated, Sibu dealt with the angst by working hard to learn the ropes and keeping a positive attitude. He told a Johannesburg correspondent, “I’m already the first South African from Swaziland to reach basecamp.”

The expedition encountered terrible weather. Twice, storms drove the team down from the South Col high camp. Then, using the last of the supplies, a third attempt headed for the summit at 9 p.m. on May 24. The climbers were “almost crawling” because of hurricane winds, according to leader Robert Anderson’s sat phone reports.

Those gales must have been strong indeed, because they turned around four of Sibu’s teammates, including renowned Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland, who had already traversed both poles unsupported. Two young Mexicans, Alejandro Garibay and Rodrigo Limon, pushed on to the top, followed an hour later by Sibu and two guides.

Sibu’s transition from unknown game ranger to national hero was instant. Newspapers lauded him. He met Nelson Mandela. His summit flag still hangs in South Africa’s national assembly hall. But not everyone celebrated. Articles in the Swazi press accused him of betraying his country by having dual citizenship and by not flying the Swazi flag at the summit. Sibu says he tried to buy one but couldn’t, and that Swazi government officials didn’t respond to his requests for a banner until he’d already left for Nepal.

As a life-changing experience, climbing Everest proved more profound than even Sibu could have predicted.

“Originally my goal was just to climb Everest, then go home and lead an ordinary life,” he explains. “But now I believe that mountains, big or small, have a transforming effect. After Everest, I realized that I could achieve almost anything I put my mind to. Confidence or courage or determination–whatever you call it–I didn’t learn that from a father or a class. Mountains taught me these things.”

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