Sibusiso Vilane was the first black person to complete the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the 7 summits and reaching both the North and South Pole. He is an inspirational speaker, expedition leader, and marathon runner. Previously he served as Chief Scout of Scouts South Africa. He is married and has 4 children.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
Definitely the COVID-19 pandemic. I had never thought that I would find myself in a state of uncertainty about whether I would see another day. Even though it gave me pleasure in knowing that for a change, fingers were not pointing at my continent, I felt very terrified that we, in poor communities were going to be wiped out because of the lack of the treatment equipment needed. We have held on well since all the restrictions.
What ingredients go into making a good adventure?
A challenge: physical, spiritual and emotional. Discomfort, great company, and availability of necessary resources like food and water. If I have all the above then I have a great adventure.
Why do you think they’re often a great source of life changing moments?
It is often when we are stretched to the limits that we self-discover a lot about ourselves; our strength and limitation. That discovery changes the way we look at life and do things. Our behaviours change, our approach to life changes, which would not have happened had one not undertaken an adventure.
What drives you to climb up mountains?
It started as a causal chat with a friend and then before I knew it I was committing to climbing Mount Everest to prove that anybody with enough will and determination could do it. That was enough drive for me as an ordinary Black African who grew up with no interest in climbing mountains. Climbing mountains is never a hobby in Africa.
How did you go from that chat with a friend to getting the skills and equipment to do it?
I met John in 1996 and we spoke about Everest. He then asked me the question, “If you had a chance to climb Everest would you do it?” Without hesitation, I said, absolutely. When I said that, I had not seen a picture nor read anything about Mount Everest. I was clueless. The reason I said yes was because I had then thought, well you might as well do it for Africa.
My friend did not know where to start, so there was a long time between our little chat until mid-2002, when he wrote to me saying that he had found a company which lead big expeditions and wanted to check if I was still interested in pursuing the Everest story. I said of course, but then we wanted to do in 2003 [The 50th anniversary of the first successful summit of Mount Everest]. So there was not enough time to go train anywhere, and I could not afford it either. I just kept up my routine form of exercise, running. I only spent 3 weeks in Nepal while on leave and climbed two small peaks near Everest. That was the only training. As for climbing gear, I opted for hiring, because I thought I would not even go back to any mountain after Everest. I had no technical climbing skills, no climbing experience, but a strong will and sheer determination. The result of which was the summit.
How did achieving your first climb of Everest change you?
I saw the world with a different eye, I realised that there was so much to do and there were many mountains to climb. I believed in myself more. I respected nature more. Summiting Mount Everest instilled a never give up mentality and approach to life. Then to apply that to everything I did.
Can you tell me about the Explorers Grand Slam?
The Explorers Grand Slam is an adventurer goal to reach the North Pole and South Pole, as well as climb the Seven Summits (Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Vinson, Elbrus and one of either Carstensz pyramid or Kosciusko ” the highest mountain of each continent”. The original concept involved the polar trips starting from accepted coastal points, involving long sledging journeys. Over time the significantly shorter, easier, and less serious “Last Degree” polar trips – from 89 degrees to the pole (at 90 degrees) – have been claimed as the Explorers Grand Slam, this has become every aspiring adventurers dream or goal.
Which was the hardest challenge for you?
By far the South Pole. We had made it a full one, so we did 10 degrees instead of the last degree which most opt for these days. We were two people of varying fitness and competence abilities. I had to endure 80 days fearing that my youngest daughter, 2 years old at the time was going to die in my absence. But I fought through everything to achieve the goal, and thank goodness my daughter did not die, but I was stretched to the limits both physical and emotionally.
What did it mean to complete the challenge?
Africans have started looking up to me as a pioneer in these unknown territories, I was their inspirational leader. So it was a big thing for me to complete the challenge because it meant that many would be encouraged to dream and adventure. So it meant everything!
Can you share a story or two about your most memorable moments on an adventure?
When I was trying to climb all the 7 summits, my 4th mountain was Carstensz pyramid in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. I met Nigel Vardy who had no fingers and no toes, we came to a very technical climbing pitch, rock section, I watched him struggle and battle up the section without complaining even though he was in pain. We celebrated together on the summit and have since climbed many more mountains and undertaken very tough physical adventurers together. I will never forget that day where he showed me that there is no such thing as a physical limitation or handicap.
What do you know now that you wished you knew at the start?
There is no such thing as a professional adventurer (in Africa). Adventure is definitely not a financial wealth accumulating agenda. It is sacrifice all the way. You may go on all these expeditions, but at the end of it all you have got to pay your bills, so you have got to earn money to make it.
There are some big stereotypes linked to explorers (posh rich white man for a start) and that must create some huge barriers for many people to forge their own adventures. If you’re comfortable sharing, was this something that impacted your own exploring?
If it was not because of the support from a generous friend, I wouldn’t have gone far in this adventure journey because from the onset, the feeling was that this is only for the elite few, wealthy individuals. The question was what are you doing here then? It had since become a show of financial muscle rather than just adventure or exploration. There was no ordinary Black person who could afford big expeditions when I started and it is still the same today. Who affords to sign up for an Everest Expedition today? It is the guy with the big bucks to sign a cheque. It is not in big explorations only, in mountain biking too. I have seen that it is all about showing off your very expensive bike even if you can’t ride it properly. You have got to think twice before you sign up for an event because you might just feel uncomfortable and embarrassed that you are riding a cheap bike. You lose interest and the motivation goes.
What can we do to smash these barriers?
There is nothing we can do because of commercialisation of expeditions. The game will always favour the rich. I cannot even help a kid in Africa who wants to follow in my footsteps.
What’s your next big adventure?
Not an easy question to answer at the moment of my life, I have for nearly two years failed to secure sponsorship for executing my next big climbing project. So my biggest adventure is meeting that one willing person to support my big ambition.
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