I was atop Mount Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when the 11,385-foot volcano started launching geysers of red lava into the air. “Follow in my footsteps, Jessica,” said my teammate Sibusiso Vilane, who appeared out of nowhere. Being a novice climber, I sighed with relief. Vilane is the first black man to have summited Mount Everest, a mountain he’s topped twice, and one of 61 people in the world to have achieved the Explorers Grand Slam, which entails climbing the Seven Summits and trekking to the North and South Poles.
We were three days into a mountaineering expedition last winter to summit seven of Africa’s highest peaks. While the rest of our team—composed of African mountaineers, photographers, and guides—sped down Nyiragongo’s rocky slopes, Vilane, a 47-year-old South African, and I, a 35-year-old magazine editor from New York, set a steady pace together in back. He also stuck with me on peaks in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda.
It’s been four months since we parted ways. Now, as I write this, Vilane is somewhere on the south side of Everest, clad from head to toe in South Africa–based First Ascent gear (one of his sponsors), with his trademark buff wrapped around his wrist or neck, as he waits to attempt a third summit, his first without supplemental oxygen.
Vilane was born in 1970 in rural South Africa. When he was four years old, he moved with his family to Swaziland, a small landlocked monarchy that borders South Africa and Mozambique. He didn’t get his first pair of shoes until he was ten. He went to school for the first time at 11. While his stepfather helped to pay for his early schooling, Vilane needed to support himself by the time he reached high school. He began doing yard work for an expat Canadian couple, and they put him through high school, giving him the education he needed to qualify for game-ranger training. In 1993, Vilane was hired to work in Swaziland’s mountainous Malolotja Nature Reserve, a 44,500-acre wilderness area filled with leopard, zebra, and wildebeest. There, in 1996, his life changed.
That’s when John Doble, a British high commissioner to Swaziland, wandered into the park. Doble, an avid hiker, outdoorsperson, and philanthropist, had arrived in the country two days before and wanted to join a walking group, but there wasn’t one. Vilane had a day off the following Saturday and offered to take him. The weekend ramble turned into a regular meetup.
“Growing up, you’ve got your mother and your grandmother trying every day to put food on the table, and others are striving to send their children to school. Why would anyone part ways with money to climb a mountain?”
One day, they were hiking in a gorge, and Doble dropped his favorite Zulu walking stick. It clattered down a cliff and got caught in a bush above a 200-foot drop into the Komati River. He started to climb down, but Vilane stopped him. “Don’t move another inch!” Vilane said. “I’ll get it.” As he went to retrieve it, Doble noticed how agile Vilane was on the rock.
“You climb with such ease and agility, and you don’t show any fear,” Doble told Vilane. “You would have made a good mountaineer.” Doble pointed out that in the more than 40 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed Mount Everest in 1953, no black person had summited the famous peak. At the time, Vilane had never seen a picture of Everest or read a book or article about it.
“That conversation sparked the interest,” Vilane recalls, “because I thought, ‘There’s a chance you can represent your continent.’”
Vilane wondered why no one like him had attempted it. While Africa does have a mountaineering culture, with gifted guides and porters on such peaks as Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya’s Mount Kenya, and in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, alpinism in Africa is seen as manual labor, not as a hobby or career. But the main impediment, Vilane concluded, is that finances limit many Africans from adventuring. (The average Everest expedition costs tens of thousands of dollars.) “It tends to be the mental block that stops people from exploring,” he says. “Growing up, you’ve got your mother and your grandmother trying every day to put food on the table, and others are striving to send their children to school. Why would anyone part ways with money to climb a mountain?”
Doble asked Vilane if he would attempt Everest if he had the money. “Absolutely,” he said. Climbing to Earth’s highest point would be a way for him to show his fellow Africans that anybody can do anything if they commit to hard work.
Before Vilane could attempt Everest, he needed to train. The first mountain Vilane climbed was 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro, in 1999. The expedition, which Doble paid for, was muddy, wet, and slippery. “Primitive and tough,” Vilane says.
Doble retired from his position in Swaziland in 1999 and returned to England, where he discovered that the UK-based outfitter Jagged Globe was putting a team together to climb Everest in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of Hillary and Norgay’s achievement. After conversations with Doble, the company agreed to let Vilane join, provided that he first attempt a 2002 Jagged Globe Himalayan expedition to climb Pokalde, Island Peak, and Lobuje, all 19,000-foot-plus summits in Nepal. “I do remember thinking Sibusiso was woefully inexperienced,” says American Robert Mads Anderson, Jagged Globe’s Everest trip leader. “But John Doble said I should wait until I meet him.”
On May 23, three days before the 50th anniversary of the peak’s first known ascent, Vilane stepped into history as the first black person to reach the top of the world.
While still working as a ranger, Vilane trained for the 2002 trial Himalayan expedition by running and scrambling up hills near his home. He arrived in Nepal without mountaineering gear; it wasn’t widely for sale at the time. Waiting in his hotel was a duffel filled with equipment he’d never seen before. “My heart was pounding when I opened the bag,” Vilane says. “I thought, ‘What is all this stuff? Which one is a jumar? How does a locking carabiner lock?’”
The climbs were cold, windy, and icy. One person from another team fell off a cliff and disappeared, and two climbers in Vilane’s team got altitude sickness and had to be airlifted out. “The climb was a shock to my system,” Vilane says, “but it prepared me for the big one.”
Vilane proved to be a quick study. “As much as he had little crampon or high-mountain experience, he had a balance and an ability to move over the earth that is rare,” Anderson says. “He is a naturally talented and a superbly fit athlete and moved very quickly and easily into the new environment.” After Vilane summited all three Himalayan peaks, he got the green light for Jagged Globe’s 2003 Everest expedition. The only question was how he would pay for it. A friend of Doble’s who wishes to remain anonymous ended up funding Vilane’s trip.
Attempting to summit from the south side, the Jagged Globe team was pushed back twice by weather, but after 60 days on the mountain, they topped out on a third try. On May 23, six days before the 50th anniversary of the peak’s first known ascent, Vilane stepped into history as the first black person to reach the top of the world. “For me to be able to do that,” he says, “it was amazing.”
Anderson attributes Vilane’s success to the time he spent in the wildness of the African bush. “Running around with the lions did really stand him in good stead in the big peaks,” says Anderson, who also cites Vilane’s lightness of spirit. “We shared climbing, tents, and much time together,” he says. “And he bonded well with our Sherpa team.”
Vilane went back to Everest in 2005 with a team that included England’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the South African explorer Alex Harris. He was climbing to raise money for three African children’s foundations. This time, after 73 days, Vilane summited from the north side. “It was the longest and the toughest in the Himalayas, conditions-wise,” he says. “High winds on the mountain were prevalent and stopping people’s attempts. We summited on the third of June.”
In 2006, Vilane summited Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, Russia’s Mount Elbrus, and Papua New Guinea’s Carstensz Pyramid. The following year, he tackled Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, and then, from November 2007 to January 2008, Vilane and Harris trekked for 65 days across 745 miles to the South Pole to become the first South Africans to complete the journey without additional support. Vilane topped Alaska’s Mount Denali in 2008, and, in 2012, after 14 days and 70 miles, reached the North Pole, giving him exclusive membership to the Explorers Grand Slam club.
“How you climb your own personal Everest is the same as climbing a real mountain. You’ve got to identify with it, know how big is it and how much support you need, and you need to know that you’ll have enough to persevere.”
His current Everest attempt without supplemental oxygen is being led by the outfitter Asian Trekking and is sponsored by First Ascent and Sport for Social Change Network. Vilane, who lives outside of Johannesburg with his wife and four children, is climbing to raise money for African women’s education. He also has a thriving career now as a motivational speaker—primarily to corporations in South Africa, where interest in his story boomed after his second Everest summit—and he co-wrote a memoir in 2008 called To the Top from Nowhere. “I learned quite late in my life that it’s not about the money or the resources that you need,” Vilane says. “It’s about the desire and the interest. Money won’t buy you an accomplishment.”
I was walking alongside Vilane up the rolling foothills of Mount Kenya on our attempt to reach the 16,355-foot Point Lenana when Nelson Mandela’s name came up. As a young man, watching Mandela take on apartheid helped Vilane believe he could reach for his dreams.
“Most kids growing up in Africa are so focused on just one thing, like going to school or looking after their dad’s cattle or goat herd,” he says. “They never think that their world is bigger than the area where they were born,” pointing out that he’s almost always the only elite black climber on a mountain. Sophia Danenberg made history in 2006 as the first black woman to climb Everest, but beyond Sophia and Sibu, it’s hard to find other examples like them in the alpinism community. Journalist James Edward Mills chronicled this issue in his book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, which notes the accomplishments and efforts of climbers and explorers of color, but also acknowledges that a dearth of role models has kept the numbers low in mountaineering. “I was never interested in climbing or hiking, not necessarily because I didn’t like it,” Vilane says, “but because I wasn’t exposed to it.”
“My main motivation to keep doing what I’m doing is to inspire young people in Africa,” he continues. “I think there will be one young person out there who will look at me and feel encouraged and inspired and do things in their own way.”
It was only after I got back to the United States and talked to Doble that I learned Vilane has met Mandela, who asked to see him after his first Everest climb. “Mandela said to him, ‘It is so good of a famous young man like you, who has achieved so much and everyone wants to talk to, to find time to come and see an old has-been like me!’” Doble recalls. “For Sibusiso to meet Mandela, he said that meant more to him, by far, than climbing Everest.”
Then, in 2012, at a 250-person party at Buckingham Palace celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, Vilane was one of two people singled out to chat with the monarch. You’d never know it from his humble demeanor. “He shoulders the responsibility of being a generational icon with humility and gets on with the job,” Alex Harris says.
Whether or not he’s successful on Everest this month, Vilane will no doubt take the longer view. “Life is a mountain,” he says. “How you climb your own personal Everest is the same as climbing a real mountain. You’ve got to identify with it, know how big is it and how much support you need, and you need to know that you’ll have enough to persevere. There will be times it doesn’t work and times you don’t achieve what you want, but you can never give up.”