In May 2003, Sibusiso Vilane, a South African game ranger
made history when he became the first black 
African to reach the top of Mount Everest,  almost 50 years after the world’s highest
peak was first conquered.

In October 1986, Kenyan climber and politician Kenneth
Matiba took the first African team to the Himalayas, but did not attempt to
reach the Everest summit. Matiba led the five-man team up the 20,500 ft Island


Although a team of 15 – 20 Kenyan climbers was scheduled to
attempt Everest in the fall of 1990, the expedition was never realized.

More from the book AIMING HIGH: The story of my life

It was while
I was in this Ministry that I took time off for a climbing expedition in the
Himalayas in December 1986. This was an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong
ambition and also to get a breath of fresh air before facing the startling
conditions of the Ministry of Health. This was the first Kenyan mission to the
Himalayas and we climbed Island Peak, which is 20,500 feet.

when I decided to attempt a peak in the Himalayas, I had no clue as to what was
involved or how I was to approach such a venture. But through the Mountain Club
of Kenya I found the name of a company which specialises in organising treks on
the Himalayas in the Nepalese region. I wrote to Mr. Stan Armington of
Himalayan Journeys asking how I should go about the trip. October was the best
time to climb, he advised me, and gave me the cost per head. It included board
at first class hotels. Porters and a guide would be provided and also food but
we had to bring our own basic climbing equipment. Only tents and cooking
equipment were provided by the company.

With that
basic information, I set about choosing my companions, not an easy task. Many I
approached had done no mountain climbing even locally and therefore were
unwilling to contemplate going to the Himalayas with me. Eventually, though, I
was able to convince four others to join me. They were Dr. Elijah Nyanjui, a
private medical practitioner, Wallace Gichere, a photo-journalist, Solomon
Kimani, who was the Chief Instructor of the Outward Bound Mountain School and
Stephen Wahome of Naro Moru River Lodge. During our preparations we did a
preliminary climb on Mount Kenya.  Later we met one evening at Nairobi
Airport to catch a Kenya Airways flight to Dubai.

This was
some adventure.  We were going to an unknown country and had not met
anybody who had been to Nepal, let alone on a trek such as the one we were
undertaking.  Our only contact was the letters we had received.  We
spent one day in Dubai, mostly sightseeing, and next day caught a Royal Nepal
Airways flight to Kathmandu via Karachi.  Near the end of this flight, the
Himalayas – the mightiest mountains on earth – came into view.  There they
were, beautiful and serene in bright sunshine, without any cloud covering
them.  For some time we flew parallel to the range and came closer and
closer to the Himalayas and the aircraft started the descent to

It appeared
as if we were going into a mountain gorge.  One could see steep hills as
we  gradually came down.  There was no flat land anywhere, only hills
and mountains, and for a moment we did not know where we were heading.  At
last we soared over a ridge and touched down at Kathmandu Airport.  Our
only question was who would meet us and how would they know us?  But when
the aircraft came to a stop and the doors opened, a protocol official from the
Foreign Office came up the stairs asking for me.  At that time I was the Minister
for Works, Housing and Physical Planning.  At the VIP lounge, I realised
we were not altogether lost.  We met the company officials who had come to
meet us and were taken to the Sheraton Everest Hotel. 

Next day
after a briefing, we were invited to take a ride up the mountain early the
following morning to watch the Himalayan dawn.  We left at 4.00 a.m. on a
hair-raising ride to the top of a ridge on a narrow, winding road.  One
obstacle was the number of cows and pigs almost everywhere.  We reached
the top just before 5.00 a.m. to be met by a breathtaking sight unlike anything
I had ever seen.  The multicoloured dawn on the snows of the Himalayas was
spectacular.  Later, that morning the officials came to the hotel to give
us our final briefing.  Our equipment was checked and we learnt that we
could buy most of the items we did not have in Kathmandu. 

We were due
to start our trek the following morning at 8.00 a.m. by taking a flight from
Kathmandu to Lukla.  In Nepal, you need a government licence for trekking
and there are also climbing fees to be paid.  Ours had already been sorted
out.  At the airport we could not take off because of fog and had to wait
an hour or so for it to lift.  Eventually, with our guide, Nima Tamang, we
took off and headed towards Mount Everest.  The flight from Kathmandu
takes 35 minutes in a Twin Otter. The mountain range was clearly visible soon
after take-off as it was a fine day above the Kathmandu Valley fog.  The
Twin Otter carried 19 passengers and it was full.  We flew on in silence,
as if all afraid of something.  We were all newcomers to the adventure and
obviously all of us were anxious about the trip.  As we flew over Lukla, I
saw our destination  thousands of feet below and jokingly told Wallace
Gichere that I had seen it and didn’t think we would make it. 

Lukla, a
small village from which the climb to the Mount Everest region starts, stands
at 10,000 feet in the Milk River Valley and it takes eight days to make the
journey on foot.  The village has a small airstrip on top of a thousand
foot cliff ending at the base of 17,000 foot mountain.  Of course, we had
no previous idea of this frightening reality and only learnt of it as we
landed, a really scary experience. Suddenly, the aircraft made a sharp
turn.  From that moment on I was not quite sure in which direction we were
going.  All I knew was that we were circling in the air and
descending.  At one time we were heading towards one mountain cliff and
then, just before impact, we turned and aimed at the opposite cliff.  After
several such manoeuvres we took a level position aiming at a most scaring
cliff.  At that point we all thought the end had come.  Then suddenly
we touched down as huge pebbles battered the aircraft.  There was sudden
braking and an abrupt complete stop.  We were at Lukla. 
Spontaneously, there was clapping of hands and the door opened.  Someone
from the company was there to meet us.

Kathmandu, we had been something of a novelty.  The inhabitants had seen
few black people.  At Lukla, the Sherpas who live there had seen none at
all and we immediately became the centre of attraction.  We were also the
only Himalayan party going up that day and we were scheduled to have an early
lunch and start the journey immediately. The five of us were assigned two porters
each, with six extra porters and six yaks.  These cow-like animals are the
same size as our ordinary cows, powerful pack beasts which can go up to 18,000
feet easily.  They eat mountain vegetation and do not thrive at altitudes
below 10,000 feet.  Incredible creatures, they walk on rocks and boulders
with ease and climb steep gradients fully loaded.  After lunch we headed
north following a deep valley surrounded by high snow-capped mountains. 
Although the sun was shining at Lukla, the temperature was low.  We were
shivering and it was obvious that we were in for a very cold trip.  The
winds from the mountains were not expected to be warm.

From the
word go, the terrain was difficult, the path narrow and deep due to heavy
usage.  It was the main route to Mount Everest and a host of other nearby
mountains all of which attract climbers from all over the world.  Island
Peak itself is most attractive.  It stands out as a small island
surrounded by many higher peaks.

At any time
during the trekking months there are between 8,000 and 10,000 trekkers and
climbers in this region and we met them coming down in large numbers while
others – younger and stronger – overtook us as we climbed at our own
pace.  All these would squeeze on the narrow path with their yaks and porters. 
Giving way or finding a spot to step aside was in itself an effort almost all
the time.

The other
awkward feature of the terrain was its steepness which is not paralleled
anywhere else in the world.  The traveller is either going up a steep
slope or going down a steep slope the whole time. It was not till a long time
afterwards, when I was convalescing after my stroke and had a lot of time for
just sitting still and thinking, that I got my ideas about human development
clear in my mind. Each person, as he or she grows and matures, develops either
positive or negative gifts and sensibilities in each situation. It is very rare
for anyone to be completely neutral and register no growth.

We may
compare this double development to the terrain of the Himalayas where we went
mountaineering. Hardly as much as 20 yards of it is flat. For every climb you
make, there is also a descent, and so you may fear that you are not actually
getting higher at all. But in fact each day’s descents are shorter than the ascents,
so that you are gradually gaining height. This is in contrast to, for instance,
Mount Kenya where, even if the going is rough, you are quite clear about the
direction you are taking.

We must have
started the trek towards Island Peak at about noon.  By three o’clock in
the afternoon our front runner porters broke away and went ahead to pitch up
the tents and start preparing dinner.  We got to the camp at about 4.30
p.m.  By then it was beginning to get dark as the sun sets pretty early in
those valleys, and it was getting very cold indeed.  By about six any
water left outside in a container was beginning to freeze.  We found tents
already pitched and a cup of tea ready. At dinner time we congregated in the
main tent where the warming fire was a paraffin lamp.  Each one of us
tried to put his hands ahead of the others near the lamp until our hosts
learned to make more lamps available to avoid a scramble.  Before long,
dinner was served and then soon it was time to go to our tents for the night.

As can be expected,
the tents were cold.  We had our “warm” sleeping bags.  But even then
it was still very cold.  And yet that was the first night.  What was
it going to be like higher up?  Needless to say, it was not easy to
sleep.  Although the ground had some type of grass on it, it was still
hard and uneven.  But cold is what proved to be a real problem. 
However hard we tried it was impossible to sleep.

The long
night came to an end and dawn eventually showed its face.  It was time to
wake up, have breakfast, pack up and then start our second day of
trekking.  As we related to one another our experiences of the first night
we all took courage, realising that it was not that we were individually weak,
but that circumstances were hard.  Of course we eventually got used to
this as days went by.  Our bodies became slowly acclimatised and we got
used to the strains and stresses of both the altitude and the difficult
geographical terrain.

We set out
on the second day at about 7.30 in the morning.  We were practically the
last group to leave the camp.  We were going to walk for seven hours that
day, spend one and a half hours having lunch and resting, continue in the
afternoon and then camp.  The trek was very much the same as the day
before.  It was difficult.  Hundreds of trekkers with their porters
and yaks were coming down and others going up.  But the scenery was
beautiful.  This region is largely inhabited by the Sherpas.  They
live in villages in this valley and they do a lot of good cultivation on the
available land.  There were villages strung along the route, and of course
we enjoyed the reactions of people when they saw us.  Some were simply
fascinated and more or less downed their tools if they were working just to
look at us.  At other times, some just ran away when they saw us while on
a few occasions they followed us just to get a closer look.

The trek on
the third day was full of anticipation.  During the second day we had seen
a lot of beautiful scenery, villages, people and the lay of the land.  We
had now got used to the route.  We knew how to give way to the yaks and we
had got familiar with our porters.  They knew how far to push us and they
had begun to know our likes and dislikes. This third day was going to take us
to the world famous town of Namche Bazaar which is really a large village high
up the Himalayas.  It is an important business centre for the Sherpas who
live in that area.  We took six hours to get there and we spent one night
before we proceeded to the next camp.

Our next
camp was at a village which was also able to offer us space for camping and the
use of a long-drop.  It was a long walk and by the time we got there we
were pretty tired.  It should be remembered that the more we trekked up
the valley, crossing more and more ridges, the more difficult it became. 
Breathing was always a problem and a lot of stamina was called for to sustain
the pace.  Because we had to camp at certain predetermined points, we were
required to push ourselves pretty hard to get there in daylight.  The
nights were becoming colder and colder as we went up and that made it difficult
for us to sleep well.  The consequence was more and more fatigue, both
mental and physical, the higher we climbed.

Our next
target after that night was Thyangboche, which is  a village higher up en
route to Mount Everest and most of the other famous peaks.  Again the walk
was steep, long and tedious.  In terms of distance, the camps were not far
apart, perhaps as little as four or five miles.  But it took a long time
to cover those distances.  Thyangboche was very much on the upper reaches
of the habitable zone. The following morning we again set out, spent another
night in a camp and then another night even further up.  Now on our eighth
day we came to the “bottom” camp of the Island Peak.  The camping ground
is extensively used by mountaineers attempting to climb the other higher peaks
around there.

When we
arrived at the camp we found several other climbing teams from other countries.
One team had had a tragedy early that morning and it had just arrived back. The
first sign of trouble was a lady crying and being supported by several men. On
enquiring, we were told that the team was Spanish and the climbers had been
around for several days. They wanted to attempt a higher peak and they had been
doing practice runs before they could make the final assault. Unfortunately,
that morning as they went up on a practice run, this lady’s husband slipped. He
fell off a cliff 1,000 feet high and died. The team had just returned with the
sad news. For us, that was not particularly good news on arrival but there was
nothing much we could do. We had to press on.

We knew
there were risks involved. After a night we started the climb pretty early so
as to reach the final base camp at 18,500 feet. We got there rather late in the
evening and as usual we had our early evening meal mostly of canned stuff. We
had left most of our porters and our yaks at the main camp. We set out at 2.00
a.m. to make the final climb. We were of course on solid ice and snow and the
going was very tough and rough. By dawn we were at 19,600 feet altitude. The
going was becoming tougher and tougher and we could hardly make 20 paces
without stopping. At 20,100 feet with only 400 feet left to get to the top, we
decided what we had done was enough. As someone put it, the fun had ceased to
be funny. It was then about 9.00 a.m. I planted the Kenyan flag at that point,
the first person to do so, then we started our descent.

Going down a
mountain is always easier. What you cover in say three hours going up you could
easily cover in half an hour or less. Every step you make downwards you feel
better, stronger, and lighter. In fact that is the time you start to enjoy
mountain climbing. It is still tough but at least you are not carrying your
heavy body uphill. Soon we were back at our base camp. We were feeling great
and it was smiles all the way. The trek down was a little faster than the trip
up. We took nine days going up and eight days coming down. That was because I
pushed the team a bit hard. In fact our guide and porters were not happy about
that. But we felt sixteen days up in that mountain region was just about
enough. The first day coming down, for example, we walked for over 24 hours. We
had walked half the night going up and when we started the trek down we walked
all day and a half of the following night. We were actually going to bed at
about two in the morning.

And so finally we left Kathmandu and flew to India. After a few days
there we returned to Nairobi at the end of what we thought was a thoroughly
exciting and successful trip to the Himalayas. For me it was heartening that I
had been able to climb and reach a point higher than Mount Kilimanjaro, the
highest mountain in Africa. After the Himalayan visit, I continued to climb
mountains as I felt it was a worthwhile hobby. In fact, I had planned to
organise a Kenyan national attempt on Mount Everest and had a date fixed for
1990 but I was arrested and detained before I could organise it.

Next article100 students climb Mt Kenya
Extreme Outdoors Africa was born out of a love for the spectacular African outdoors coupled with the founders’ appreciation for sport and the myriad of benefits associated with living an active life. It is a lifestyle brand that is credible, professional, reliable, and accurate that aims to comprehensively cover the realm of outdoor activity in Africa.


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