The first Black man to conquer Everest

Sibusiso Vilane was born in rural South Africa in 1970 and moved to Swaziland with his family when he was four years old. Vilane had to support himself through education by working, and in 1993 he began his official working career at a nature reserve as a training game ranger.

One could say that his life was changed in 1996 when he met John Doble. Doble was the one who found Vilane a sponsor for his 2003 Mount Everest expedition, an undertaking that would later transform his life.

Whilst still working as a ranger on the reserve, Vilane knew he had to train if he wanted to even attempt Everest. In 1999 he summited Kilimanjaro, which he described as “primitive and tough”. He then went on to climb multiple peaks in the Himalayas in 2002, all of which are over 6000 metres high; his training involved running up hills near his home. Vilane explains that “the climb was a shock to my system, but it prepared me for the big one.”

The “big one” is, of course, Mount Everest. In 2003, Vilane and his team were given the go-ahead for the Jagged Globe’s 2003 Everest expedition. His team was attempting to summit the mountain from the south side route. After 60 intense days and multiple push backs, 26 May 2003 marks the day Sibusiso Vilane became the first black person in the world to successfully summit Mount Everest.

Vilane told journalists in South Africa: “I dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord for taking to the top of the mountain. Then I wept. Then I stood up and smiled … I was grateful there was an African standing on top of the world.”

“For me to be able to do that,” Vilane continues, “it was amazing”.

Vilane returned to Everest in 2005 to attempt to summit the mountain again, this time from the north side route which is argued to be the statistically more difficult side. He says: “It was the longest and the toughest in the Himalayas, conditions-wise … high winds on the mountain were prevalent and stopping people’s attempts.” He successfully summited again and this meant that he was now also the first black person to climb the world’s highest peak twice and by two different routes.

He has since gone on to complete all Seven Summits – the seven highest peaks on each of the seven continents – making him the first black person and one of a handful of South African’s to do so. Vilane has also trekked both the North and South Poles, as well as running marathons every year to keep fit and healthy.

Vilane is currently climbing Everest for the third time, this time without supplemental oxygen, to help raise money for African women’s education. In his co-written 2008 memoir, To the Top from Nowhere, Vilane says: “they [kids growing up in Africa] never think that their world is bigger than the area where they were born”.

Vilane is now a motivational speaker and always emphasises: “I was never interested in climbing or hiking, not necessarily because I didn’t like it, but because it wasn’t exposed to it”.

“My main motivation to keep doing what I’m doing is to inspire young people in Africa,” he explains. “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.”


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Lauren Bramwell

May 2021
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