In July 2002 I received a letter from John who had now returned to England asking me if I was still interested in climbing Mount Everest as I had indicated as such nearly eight years back. This was a good question because by the time I received the letter I had somehow decided to forget about the idea because I never thought it would come to materialise in my lifetime. where could I get the kind of money it takes to climb the highest mountain in the world? But when I read in John’s letter that he had found a company that was putting together a team to climb the mountain the following year, 2003, I changed my mind and said to him yes I still wanted to try it. There began my journey to the Top of the world. “it is the moment of your decision that your destiny is shaped” Anthony Robbins.
Jagged Globe, a logistics and Expedition company based in Sheffield in England were going to be running a trip to Everest during Mount Everest’s 50th Anniversary in 2003, this proved to be perfect timing for me to go because of the history surrounding the climb in 2003. But there were challenges on my side if I was really going commit to climbing the mountain the very same year. I had no climbing experience, which did not bother me much, I had courage and desire, and those were the only important traits I needed I thought. The second was that the costs were almost impossible, that was my biggest concern about the whole thing. Who in their right minds would invest their huge finances and help a total novice? John However thought we could secure corporate funding; so, he tried his best and unfortunately nobody was too interested, just as I had thought in the beginning of the idea. Who would put so much money to support an unknown bush-veld boy who had not even climbed a tree in his neighbourhood nor had climbed any other mountain, regardless of height? They had a point, but we had a big dream and we would make it happen whatever it would take.
In October 2002 I took my annual leave days and went to the Himalayas to climb a couple of Mountains with Jagged Globe so that they could assess and assist me where possible. The assessment took place on three attempted peaks and the man they had given the task to give them feedback reported to them after the climbs and said that I was not, according to his opinion and assessment anywhere near ready to climb Mount Everest. I on the other hand thought and felt that I had acquired all the necessary experience and skills from the three Peaks which we attempted, two of which we summited, to take on Mount Everest. I felt that I was ready to take on the mother of all Mountains. I returned home and waited to see if John would win the war in getting me to a Jagged Globe 2003 team to climb Mount Everest during its 50th anniversary.
I never heard from John for a couple of weeks after my return home until when he shared the great news with me, Jagged Globe had succumbed to John’s Argument and convincing ability. I was in the team at last. Then began the hunt for funding. John was going to try everything possible to get me to go and attempt this thing even if it had to cost him the money. That is how much faith and belief he had in me. After many attempts to secure a big corporate sponsorship, John shared with me the news that I should not worry much, I was going to Everest because he would rather sacrifice a racehorse, he had been saving for to have me attempt Mount Everest. This gesture would give him more satisfaction he said than a horse which might one day go lame and bring much agony and feelings of loss. John had already sacrificed a lot financially in trying to get me to do this. So, I was not feeling great about the fact that he was about to lose even more money for my sake. I was even thinking about saying let us not commit to this expedition.
I was delighted when someone else came to support the idea after he was let down by a corporate which he trusted and hoped they would jump into the opportunity and sponsor the climb. He signed the cheque and my bags were packed immediately. I said goodbye to my family, and I would be gone for nearly two and a half months without talking to them!
I arrived in Kathmandu and met up with my team of nine climbers and expedition co-leader, David Hamilton. We would be twelve with Robert Anderson the other leader who would join us later coming from the USA. In my room I found my kit bag, it was full of stuff I had never seen nor used before, all did not matter though, I was here now and I was not going back.
After a couple of days in Kathmandu of sorting out all the necessary paper logistics we were on the way to Everest base camp. I was looking forward to this climb so much. The ten days of trekking to base camp were a reawakening, reality was kicking in. I was going to attempt to reach the very top of the highest mountain in the world. We arrived and settled in at our tent site just below the Khumbu icefall. This was the beginning of the climb, from here it’s no child’s play.
For four weeks in April 2003 we were trying to get fully acclimatised for the final stage of the climb to the top of the world. My body seemed to take it all in without any difficulty except the cold. I could not stand it and as such never got acclimatised to the cold. I doubt if anybody does. I was at the same time learning as much as I could while doing the rotations to higher camps and withdrawing back to base camp to rest. Three of these rotations would be needed before one could even begin to think about the final stage of the climb. I was so happy when I work up at 7300m above seas level on the notorious Lhotse face of the South East Ridge. This marked the end of our acclimatisation and build up to a summit attempt.
We withdrew back to base camp where we rested and waited for a seven day weather window that might give us a chance. But it was not to be for a while, we endured an unpleasant period called the waiting game, a period on the mountain where all you do is sit and just monitor the weather conditions. We waited.
Then on the first week of May, good news came from the weatherman. We would have almost perfect conditions to go for a summit attempt, so we wasted no time. We packed everything that we would need from Camp two onwards and back after summit and then left base camp hoping that the only time we come back it would be on our way home. We were not that lucky because when we got to camp two, we got hit by a snowstorm that made surface conditions towards the lower Lhotse face near impossible and dangerous to tread on. The summit attempt was forcefully called off and down to base camp we withdrew when the update was such that the conditions won’t get any better in more than a week. Stuck at base camp, we waited for another good weather report at base camp for almost a week, the days we endured were nothing but torment. When nature dictates you wait, be adaptable and very flexible, because you have no power and control over nature. It is that simple.
The seventeenth of May came as another good news day as a near perfect weather focus was shared with us. The preparation for a return to the higher camps began and we set of back to camps two, three and this time to camp four, the death zone. It was about midday when we got to camp four. The weather was still holding on and it gave us some hope that we would set off for the summit the same evening. However; the weather changed and proved to be unsafe to start the summit attempt, we stayed at camp four for a whole night. The wind hauled throughout the night and through the better part of the next day until late afternoon. We were cocooned in tiny tents at an altitude with far less oxygen compared to sea level. Then suddenly; the wind died down before the sun went down, this was perfect timing because we could start the climb up the very same evening and go for the top. We got organised and made sure that we were set for the start. The leaders called us to make ready and within a couple of hours after sunset we were on the final slopes of the big mountain. We were progressing well; and I was very excited when we reached our first target goal called the Balcony. From the balcony the route would lead us to the South summit. We pushed on for that and all members were going very well and strong. It was a very cold night still.
As we neared the South Summit high winds picked up. The situation got worse within a short time such that it turned into a deadly storm. Teams started turning around and going back down. We tried to go on higher hoping that the wind might subside but it got worse. Mount Everest had thrown another one of those unpleasant high altitude storms that would force us down to camp four. We were at almost 8600m above sea level. It was a devastating set back. I could hardly accept it. Having to be forced back down while as close as almost 248m before the summit was heart breaking. I hated the storms because I realised that I would never have another chance on this mountain again. The top is never a certainty!
We withdrew to camp four and then down past camp three all the way to camp two. That is when I thought we were indeed going home. However after weighing all possible options, our leaders gave us a glimmer of hope when they said that we could still go for another attempt if we wanted to. There was no way we would give up an opportunity like that, so we accepted the challenge and went up again after a couple of days rest at camp 2. Our arrival at camp four for the second time now was full of emotions because the weather was not looking great either. We rested for the better part of the afternoon in the death zone, then began the summit attempt at about 21:00hrs. The progress was killingly slow, but one could not climb any faster, here any progress is progress, however slow. The wind got worse, temperatures dropped to unbearable levels. My feet froze. My heart sank because I could sense that the leaders would call it off anytime, but they didn’t, I was very pleased. The next I looked around I noticed that it was at sunrise. The views were amazing. I felt the urge to keep on going. Then I saw two of my teammates coming down from above a very steep rocky ridge. Thinking that they had been turned back I decided to stop dead, right there, I saw it written in their faces that the summit was not possible again, but to my surprise when they got to me they said, “well done man, you have just this ridge to climb then you will be at the top. That ridge was the famous Hillary step. The is where most dream die. This is where most people do not make it, but here I was facing the very technical part of the climb after the Lhotse face. I regrouped and called upon all my energy reserves to propel me up along this section. I gave it a might push on the fixed line with my jumar clamp, there was some progress. Then on to the summit ridge proper, I looked up to get some sense of how far this highest point in the world was.
And there it stood a couple of hundred metres away! I could not contain myself. The thought of where I was about to stand overwhelmed me so much that I could not take another step. I had to compose myself. For a moment I thought I was in dreamland, but then I realised that this wasn’t a dream, it was reality about to manifest. I whispered a short prayer before taking on those few paces after which I became taller than any African. I had summited Mount Everest. A very strong will, determination, Perseverance, fighting through the storms and not giving up, had all played a big role in our historic success!
We had conquered yet the feeling was that this was just the beginning! I walked down from the summit of Mount Everest a very changed man!
©Sibusiso Vilane, 2019