Sibusiso Vilane is an inspirational man with an inspirational story to tell. In 2003 he became the first black African to summit Everest, a huge deal for someone from impoverished roots, with no background in mountaineering, and one that earned him the attention and praise of Nelson Mandela and the wider world. He has since climbed all the continental Seven Summits, and many other peaks besides.
you're overcome by emotion and you don't believe what is happening
But his story runs far deeper than that. Sibusiso's childhood was one of extreme poverty in apartheid Johannesburg, and later in Swaziland (now Eswatini). Hard work, dedication and the privilege of being able to attend school from age 10 eventually brought him a job as a tourist officer in a nature reserve, a position which made possible a chance meeting that would change the path of his life forever.
Consumed by a passion for mountains and physical challenges, his life story is one that involves continental summits, ultra running, humility, the responsibilities of being a role model, laughter, charity work, motivational speaking, multiple summits of Everest and historical partnerships with Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
00:00 – Introduction
02:16 – Welcome, responding to the pandemic by running ("I ran a full marathon last weekend… it was just dreadful!")
08:30 – The rarest of all mountaineering backgrounds: growing up poor and black in apartheid Johannesburg, then Swaziland ("we never had clothes or three square meals a day")
12:50 – Life as a "Headboy" in rural Swaziland ("I was 10 years old when I started school"), a multilingual upbringing
19:05 – First steps into the world of work: manual labour, writing letters, a nature reserve, natural knowledge, life as a tourist officer, and a fateful meeting
23:00 – Discovering the Drakensberg ("a vast mountain range, and a beautiful mountain grassland"), John Doble, waterfall scrambling, the start of mountaineering plans, why can't black Africans do the same?
30:40 - "It will not make sense to my grandmother or my mother who are trying to fend through hardship to bring food on the table… why would I want to go overseas to climb a mountain?"
32:20 – Kilimanjaro: "I got as sick as a dog on day two, all the high altitude symptoms that you can get, I got all of them! But I summited on the most beautiful day, and I looked at that and thought that one day I would want to see the sunrise from the summit of Mt Everest".
36:50 – "I want to do it for Africa. I want to show the world and Africans themselves that they can do these things."
40:54 – Climbing Everest ("I can never deceive people that it was easy. It was physically tough. Mentally tough… it can never be explained in words how physically tough it is.")
50:34 – Reaching the summit ("You are about to be proof that it can be done… you become overcome by your emotions and you don't believe what is happening.")
56:30 - "It took me a long time to realise how relevant it was going to be to any other young kid who grows up in Africa without a home", meeting Nelson Mandela
58:50 – The first black African to climb the Seven Summits ("when you set a standard, how do you keep it as consistent? There's no way I could be consistent as a role model by climbing just one mountain. I will keep on climbing as long as I live to be looked upon as an example.")
68:50 – Being changed by mountain experiences ("I still regard mountains as the best 'university' I've ever attended."), summiting Everest for a second time, with Ranulph Fiennes.
75:20 – Sitting in a tent with Ranulph Fiennes: "Well if there's anything else you want to do it's one of the polar walks" ("When I looked at his hands, which were frostbitten, I thought 'well, not a good idea…'")
76:38 - Greatest Mountain Memory: "I looked at this mountain and I just fell in love with it. I was disappointed to learn that it wasn't Everest, it was Ama Dablam. This is the mountain that calls me to go back to mountains.", similar experiences with the Matterhorn.
79:32 - *HONK HONK*
80:20 - All the time, money, freedom, where do you go?: "It depends on the season… on the slopes of an 8,000m mountain waiting to summit… sweating profusely running a desert marathon… on a safari in the bush with the family…"
The Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). Dan has teamed up with UKHillwalking to produce a new series, his second, and we'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months. You can listen to the ten episodes of his first series here: