Sunday, 18 July 2010

Interview: S'bu Vilane

Sibusiso Vilane is a South African icon: the first black African to make it to the top of Everest and the Seven Summits (one of six South Africans, and one of less than 200 people in history to do so). He chatted to us about all things mountain, travel and sharing a tent:

However did you get into climbing at the beginning?
I must tell you now, beforehand, I had no business climbing mountains from when I was young. Hiking was not my idea, but aged 26-years I met somebody called John Doble* who then asked me to go walking in a nature reserve with him. While walking I helped him scramble on rocks as we crossed stream after stream. Then John said to me "Sibusiso you seem to have a talent. I think you could make a good climber." Those were the words that changed my life and beliefs and that is how I got in to it.

What was the first mountain you climbed, was that the big spurt that got you climbing big mountains?
I grew up chasing cattle on mountains in the highveld of Swaziland (1200m) and those were big enough to referred to as mountains, but maybe I should say the Drakensberg because it is a bit higher. But those hikes never ignited the spark to want to climb big ones. What really made me want to climb Everest was when my friend John told me that Everest had never been climbed by Africans. That was the spark then! "To try and climb it for Africa".

South Africans number 6 of the 198 people to scale the seven summits. How do you plan on topping this achievement?
I do not really have anything to prove by climbing mountains, it is just taking an opportunity and making it count for me, so I do not have any record-breaking ambitions on mountain climbing. I am very happy and proud with what I have achieved up to now.

In 2006 you climbed Elbrus, Aconcagua and Carstensz Pyramid. Three massive expeditions in one year must mean rigorous training, tell us about it.
I did well actually that year to climb that many, yet without any sponsorship. You forgot to mention Mount Vinson [in Antarctica] in the same year. I have never followed a specific training program for climbing - I cannot afford to go to places to train anyway because to train for the kind of climbing that I do (and so enjoy) I would have to travel to overseas countries. So I don't waste my time planning for that, but I do my regular exercise regime which is to jog, run a few marathons and that's it. It sounds very strange but that is how I keep fit and I do not worry a lot about technical training!

How expensive is it to climb one of the seven summits?
Very expensive indeed. Look at Kilimanjaro, it would cost you between R12 000 to R15 000. Of course the most expensive will be Everest and Vinson. Everest costs between $60 000 to $70 000 (around R450 000 to R530 000), it has proven to be a very expensive sport for me. With corporate companies in RSA not keen to sponsor, it is not easy for one to decide on the next climb. I can never really afford to pay for a climbing expedition. Thanks to a great friend John Doble who has always come in and helped me. Without his generous support I wouldn't have done so much.

After Kilimanjaro, Everest was your second summit of the Seven Summits. Surely that's the wrong order?
Yes it was from Kilimanjaro to Everest for me! That is the way we non-climbers do it because we don't even know that there are other mountains to try and climb before the Big E. In fact I did not have time to climb anything else before the opportunity in 2003. I could not hide behind the inexperience, I believed I could do it and so I went and I came back victorious. It is quite remarkable indeed, but let me warn you, "Never try and do it my way!" ha ha ha.

Have you summated K2 (the second highest mountain in the world and one of the most dangerous)? And if not, will you try it someday?
K2 is not child's play, hey! That is a mountain you do not want to try and climb if you still want to live! No I have not climbed nor attempted that killer yet. But I have love for K2 and it would be an absolute satisfaction for me to have an attempt to climb it one day. I have been looking for sponsorship for two years but no such luck. All I want now (because I cannot afford to climb) it, is to go and see it with my naked eyes.

Is it as awesome as I think it is when the president phones to congratulate you? Did you think someone was joking?
Well I think it is awesome to get such a call from the head of state as it is a rare occasion. Yes I thought it was an April fool's joke or something but I noticed that it was the month of June so I became hysterical.

Which has been the best mountain to climb in terms of the entire experience?
Everest will forever stand as the best for me, I have enjoyed climbing the other ones, but Everest I loved so much in spite of the hardships that I faced.

Where is the best place you have travelled? And the worst?
That is a difficult one because all the trips have been different, yes, but not to say the one was best or the other was worse. Actually I am still yet to travel to a place and come back and say it was my worst travel. But I think it comes from what you make of your trip, you can either make it miserable or very exciting.

Have you got any tips on sharing a tent with someone?
I have shared tents with both sexes and I can tell you that it is a challenge with either. But the tips which I can give are to adapt to the tent mate, pick your own space and own it. Never pass one of those really bad farts! Because if you do then you have compromised the relationship.

Have you ever lost any vital equipment en route?Any travel crises?
I have been very lucky that I have never lost a kit bag that has all my gear, but during one of my domestic travels I lost my camera and in that camera was a film with photographs of myself and Mr Mandela. I still cannot believe it even today!

Do you have souvenirs from each of the peaks you have summited?
My souvenirs are photographs from the summits as I do not collect rocks, but I do buy some nice things like post cards which I keep after the expeditions.

*John Doble was the British High Commissioner to Swaziland, who first noticed Sibusiso's climbing skills during a guided tour in 1996.

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