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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 Everest in 2003, Sibu did not lead an ordinary life for long. He worked briefly as a ranger again–with paid leave for a second Everest trip in 2005, this one up the Northeast Ridge with British explorer Sir Ralph Fiennes. Sibu made the summit, but fell behind his teammates on the return and almost succumbed to the altitude. He barely survived an epic solo descent.

Upon Sibu’s return, South African President Thabo Mbeki knighted him, not least because the climb supported charities. It raised funds for the Swaziland-based SOS Children’s Orphanage, the Freeplay Foundation, which distributes hand-crank radios to remote villages, and the Africa Foundation, which works with Conservation Corporation Africa doing humanitarian projects around game parks. Since then, all of Sibu’s climbs have included a charity effort. His particular emphasis is children’s causes. “Africa’s future lies with its youth, but so many of them are living desperate lives,” he explains. “When I was small, I never had anyone I could look to and think, ‘I want to be like that.’ So I want to raise money to help, and perhaps be an example that even someone like me, who came from nothing, can change his life.”

With his celebrity status solidified, Sibu became, in effect, Swaziland’s first professional adventurer. Harmony Gold made him half of Team Extreme, along with white South African Alex Harris, providing a salary, training stipend, and expedition expenses. Harris was finishing up his own Seven Summits quest, and Sibu realized that, with support, he could become the first black African to achieve the iconic goal. Over the next two years, he plowed through five continental high points: Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Carstenz Pyramid, and Mt. Vinson (the last, with Harris, was his first unguided ascent). That left Denali, but in May 2007 the Great One handed Sibu his first real mountaineering defeat.

He didn’t spend the next year moping. Instead, he and Harris embarked on the last Team Extreme hurrah, skiing to the South Pole unsupported, dragging 280-pound sleds in a 65-day sufferfest. Just three days after leaving, they were pinned down by a six-day blizzard. Then their food supplies proved inadequate. For most of the trip, they were slowly starving, but on January 17, 2008, Sibusiso Vilane became the first black man to ski to the South Pole.
“It made Everest seem like a weekend hike,” says Harris. “And I have immense respect for Sibusiso, especially since he’s really a novice at much of this stuff. But that’s overcome and overshadowed by an unshakable belief in himself and Africa, and the toughness to follow through with his plans.”

Harris says he learned the depth of Sibu’s resolve during the fourth week of their sledging journey. “It was ten straight days of gray whiteout, a gloom like I’d never experienced,” he says. “The sledding was sticky, and we were battling a headwind snowstorm. We were constantly tense, obsessing about food. We’d just struggle on in misery, barely able to see our feet, then collapse on our sleds briefly and get moving again before frostbite set in.
“It was the deepest despair I’ve ever felt,” Harris recalls. “Right then, we got a sat-phone call that Sibu’s 1-year-old baby had become desperately ill. It looked like she’d die. Sibu was anxiety-ridden, and there was no chance of evacuation. So he decided to fast the whole day, to send all his spiritual energy out to his daughter. Not one step that day did I ever hear any complaint. At our lowest point, in the worst conditions, he displayed the most steadfast perseverance one could possibly imagine.” After weeks in the hospital, Siphosethu, now 2, survived.

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