South Africans who made history on Everest
Controversy and camaraderie, as well as tragedy and triumph, coloured the two very different summits by South African teams on the world’s greatest mountain
The wind was howling and it was -30°C when Sibusiso Vilane, 32, stepped on to the top of Everest at 8.30am on May 26 2003, making history as the first black man to stand on top of the world.
On the summit, Vilane fell to his knees and wept. “I felt as though I was stepping on to a very sacred place and could not contain myself,” he said
“It is a wonderful place, with the light shining on the big mountains and glowing in the clouds.
“I had fun up there, stretching out the flags with Robert [Anderson, the team leader]. I had a South African flag tied to a banner with symbols of Swaziland on it,” he told Keeton the next day back in camp.
Everest is a difficult mountain to climb and the bodies of many who have tried to conquer it still lie on its frozen, wind-scoured slopes.
The death toll rose last week, when South African-born mountaineer Marisa Strydom died while descending after an unsuccessful summit attempt.
On May 25 1996, seven years before Vilane’s triumph, Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall were the first South Africans to plant the country’s flag on the summit during a climbing season marked by death and tragedy.
That expedition, which was sponsored by the Sunday Times, was marred by controversy.
Andy de Klerk, Ed February and Andy Hackland, the three senior climbers, and team doctor Charlotte Noble quit after a dispute with Woodall over his leadership style and made their own way back to Kathmandu.
There, they crossed paths with then-Sunday Times editor Ken Owen who was on his way to base camp to see if he could, as Chris Barron wrote in Owen’s obituary in 2015, “sort things out”.
Owen and Woodall met at Pheriche, a village some hours on foot below base camp where a bitter encounter ensued. The Sunday Times withdrew its sponsorship and Woodall vowed to continue without the paper.
The South African team was due to make a summit bid on May 10 and were at Camp 4, the last camp before the summit, when a storm battered the mountain, killing eight climbers, including highly experienced mountain guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer who had been leading paying clients to the top.
After the storm, the South African team retreated to base camp to await a good “weather window” which came two weeks later. Woodall, O’Dowd and their sherpas summited well before noon.
Expedition photographer Bruce Herrod, who reached the summit alone and in late afternoon, died on the descent.
De Klerk, an accomplished mountaineer who has done hard first ascents around the world, said getting to the summit was only half of it — you also had to get down safely.
“The tragedy is that Herrod had fixed his sights on the summit,” De Klerk said. “There is no way he should have been up there so late on his own, or that anybody should be up there on their own unless they are [famous Swiss mountaineer] Ueli Steck.”
Woodall and O’Dowd were lambasted for not forcing Herrod to turn back when they passed him on the way down.
Deshun Deysel, one of the young women selected to take part in the expedition, offered another perspective on the controversy.
“Unless people have been in the ‘death zone’, with less than 30% of oxygen to their brains and very little energy to look after themselves, they have no right to comment,” she said.
Deysel did not climb Everest on the 1996 expedition but reached 8300m on a later attempt to climb the mountain.
Now a motivational speaker who uses the lessons she learnt on Everest in her work, Deysel said those who criticised the decisions made on the mountain that day were likely doing so “from the comfort of enough oxygen, probably a couch somewhere and brilliant sunshine. I respect Bruce’s decision to keep going because he knew himself as a mountaineer”.
As the Sunday Times reporter in 2003, Keeton waited in suspense for 14 hours to hear if Vilane was safe.
The radio was silent — we could not reach anybody in the death zone above 8000m — until 10pm when Pema Tenzing’s sherpa’s radio came to life with the news that the team was back in Camp 4.
On May 28, Vilane, a game ranger nicknamed the “Lion of Africa” by his team, walked back into camp and never stopped smiling. Nobody was happier than his wife and three children back home in Swaziland.
In May 2005, he climbed the mountain from the more difficult north side for charity, before going on to climb the remaining highest peaks on all seven continents, a quest known as the Seven Summits.
Of all his adventures, which include dangerous and physically punishing unsupported treks to the North and South poles, Everest has a profound place in his heart.
“When I stood on the slopes, I think I fell in love with that mountain,” he said. “Everest has an image of greatness, towering above the clouds and other mountains.
“I left the country with a humungous dream for my country and my continent. I wanted to show the world that nothing could stop black people from standing on the top of the world.”
sub_head_start Tragedy and triumph on Everest sub_head_end
1852: Mount Everest — known as Sagarmatha in Nepal and Chomolungma in Tibet — is mapped during the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India as the world’s highest mountain;
1921-1924: British climber George Mallory leads the first three documented expeditions to attempt to climb Everest;
June 8 1924: Mallory and climbing partner Andrew Irvine depart Camp VI on the Northeast Ridge route on their summit bid. They are never seen alive again;
May 29 1953: New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay make the first confirmed ascent of Everest, climbing via the South Col Route — now the standard route for summit attempts;
March 27 1996: The Sunday Times Everest Expedition arrives at Base Camp;
May 10-11 1996: A violent storm batters Everest, killing eight climbers in one night;
May 25 1996: Cathy O’Dowd becomes the first South African to stand on the top of the world. Expedition photographer Bruce Herrod, climbing alone, summits much later in the afternoon, and dies on the descent;
May 23 1997: Herrod’s body is discovered by the first of the season’s climbers, entangled in ropes at the Hillary Step, a rock obstacle near the summit. Climber Pete Athans retrieves Herrod’s camera and ice axe and cuts his body loose. The film in the camera contains just two pictures, both self-portraits of Herrod on the summit;
May 1998: Cathy O’Dowd and Ian Woodall attempt to climb Everest via the Northeast Ridge route;
May 24 1998: Woodall and O’Dowd turn back short of the summit after trying to help dying American climber Francys Arsentiev, who had collapsed and spent two days exposed on the ridge at 8600m;
May 1 1999: Mallory’s body is discovered on the north face of the mountain by Conrad Anker of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. The expedition had set out to determine whether Mallory and Irvine had summited in 1924, a matter that remains the subject of much speculation;
May 29 1999: O’Dowd summits Everest via the Northeast Ridge, becoming the first woman to summit the mountain from both sides;
May 26 2003: In the face of 80km/h winds and temperatures of -30ºC, Sibusiso Vilane, a game ranger-turned-adventurer from Swaziland, becomes the first black African to summit Everest. Four days later, South African climber Sean Wisedale also plants the South African flag on the summit;
June 3 2005: Vilane, climbing with Alex Harris and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, reaches the summit of Everest via the tricky Northeast Ridge;
April 18 2014: An ice avalanche kills 17 Sherpa guides on the lower slopes of the mountain. Two days later climbers Saray Khumalo and Vilane return to Base Camp after abandoning their summit bid due to fears of further avalanches;
May 20 2016: South African-born mountaineer Marisa Strydom turns back 400m from the summit and is helped down to Camp 4 on the South Col. The following day she collapses and dies while her husband and other climbers attempt to get her off the mountain.