How SA Everest hero climbed 8,000m with no oxygen before turning back
It was a choice of descend or die, says Sibusiso Vilane
SA’s Everest hero, Sibusiso Vilane, succeeded in reaching the “death zone” at 8,000m on the world’s highest mountain without oxygen last week before being forced to descend, or die.
“The only reason I decided not to start climbing up at Camp 4 was that it was clear I would remain on the mountain forever or be brought down in rescue bag,” Vilane, an intrepid adventurer, said on Monday from Nepal.
During his ascent to the summit he developed a severe cough, which is life-threatening high on the mountain, where oxygen levels are roughly half of that at sea level.
Vilane made history as the world’s first black man to reach the top of Mount Everest in 2003 from the south side, in Nepal, repeating this feat from the north side in Tibet.
Only a handful of people have ever summited Everest without oxygen and this month Vilane attempted this death-defying feat, knowing the risk of pushing his body too far.He had the extraordinary experience of being totally alone high on Everest one night, while trying to get his body to adapt to the shortage of oxygen in the air (a process known as acclimatisation).
“I spent one lonely, cold, windy and miserable night at 7,000m, alone. The reason I was alone up there was simply that the other climbers who are with me are climbing Everest with oxygen and therefore didn’t feel the need to go camping at 3 …
“The next morning, I climbed, on my own, 200 metres to 7,200m, for some mind training and some altitude gain. Everest was raging with Jetstream winds.
“I could hear the roar of terror up there. The sound is like that of a raging river or waterfall. Others prefer to compare it to a big jumbo jet taking off. Whichever way you put it, it is a very scary sound!” he posted on his website, sibusisovilane.co.za.
Most people on Everest start breathing and sleeping on oxygen to prevent themselves from getting altitude sickness, which strikes fast and can be fatal. About 300 people have died on Mount Everest.
Vilane arrived in Nepal last month and started the process of acclimatisation, which involves cycles of going up the mountain and back to base camp over several weeks.
On May 17 he set out with his group from base camp to do the final push to the top of Everest.
On the first day he got safely to the top of the Khumbu Ice Fall, an obstacle course of towering ice blocks like buildings and deep crevasses, some with rope bridges over them.
“You have no idea when or why an ice serac might come down on you,” he posted, in his updates.
That night was spent at Camp 1 and the next day they made it to Camp 2, at 6,400m, where they had a rest day.
“But then disaster struck. I started coughing badly,” he said.Despite this Vilane kept ascending “the mighty Lhotse face” and joined his group at Camp 3 at 7,300m on May 19.
“Most of them were already using oxygen but I climbed strongly and even did better than some of them,” he posted.
“On May 20 we started at 5am towards the death zone. My group on oxygen was gone within minutes … I got to the death zone just after 5pm but this was too late. It had taken me more than 12 hours.
“My group had been there before midday. They had rested well and were ready to start (the summit bid) at 7pm.
“When I got to 8,000m, the south col or death zone, I had already made the right decision that I would only stay up at Camp 4 and climb down on the morning of May 21.
“I endured another sleepless night in the death zone. No oxygen supplement! At 3am, my Sherpa said let’s go. Sixteen hours later, I was a zombie and walked wounded at base camp.”
On May 23 he posted on Twitter: “Everest finished, (well, not the summit people …)”Vilane, whose nickname in Nepal was the “Lion of Africa”, ends his post: “The Lion is Yet to Conquer!”
But Vilane, who has a wife and four children, told Times Select from Lukla, in Nepal, that he is satisfied he made the right decision or he would have died – and that he has set a new personal record.
His climb raised funds for the girls’ learning charity Caring4Girlsn.
Vilane has summited the highest peaks on each continent (The Seven Summits) and walked unsupported to the North and South poles.
He is on his way back to Johannesburg from Nepal this week.