Such Great Heights: Interviews with climbing legends Sibusiso Vilane and Nigel Vardy

Friday, 27 September, 2019

Such Great Heights

Two adventurous individuals from opposite sides of the world met on the highest mountain peak in far off New Guinea and became fast friends and regular climbing partners. Together they strive to bring awareness on conservational and social issues and inspire people through their extraordinary achievements.

Interviews by Shupi Ngkadima


Sibusiso Vilane was the first African man of colour to summit Everest and has completed a vast number of treacherous climbs and challenges throughout his career. His adventures have led to guiding expeditions and giving motivational talks, keeping a strong focus on giving back to community through his work. Sibusiso’s irrepressible spirit and infectious enthusiasm for life inspires and uplifts people of all backgrounds and circumstances, and especially children. As a professional speaker, his message is simple: every person has their own “Everest” to climb. Whether you’re prepared for it or not, it’s there - challenging you to reach the top. And if he can do that in the most dangerous and inhospitable of conditions and against all the odds so, he suggests, can you.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I was born in Shongwe mission in Mpumalanga province, grew up in Swaziland, and I worked for 12 years in conservation before going on to climbing big Mountains including Mount Everest. In 1996 I met John Doble who became a great friend and benefactor, and who was instrumental in finding the necessary sponsorship for my Everest summit expedition. In March 2003, I set off for the Himalayas in my quest to be the first black African to summit earth's largest and most fearsome mountain, Everest, the Queen of the Himalayas. I summited successfully on 26 May 2003, after seven years of preparation.

When you’re not on an expedition, how do you relax? 

I prefer to sit at home and read a book. I prefer it quiet

Tell us a bit about Trek4Mandela​, what is it all about and how did you get involved?​ 

Trek4Mandela is a fundraising initiative which strives to assist under privileged girls with sanitary facilities. The efforts are to  make sure that no girl misses precious learning hours during their periods. The vision is to help over 2 million Girls by the year 2020 and we use climbing mount Kilimanjaro as the medium to raise the funds and the awareness.

How do you prepare for summits and expeditions? 

I run, that is my only preparation for big and small trips, nothing too serious. Well that is me! Simplicity works well for me.

How do you celebrate after a summit? If yes, what does that entail?

Lots of beer and whisky, you earn it to have it…..  always worth the celebration.

When you are on you expeditions, how do you keep warm? 

I dress as warm as possible, I don’t want to get anywhere near feeling cold. So I invest in the best.

Which was your most difficult climb and why? 

Mount Kenya, too technical and long, I am glad I pushed myself on the day I climbed it.

Which has been your most memorable summit and with who? 

All of them have had a profound influence on me and that is why I have ventured to climbing them, otherwise it would be pointless. I cannot single out one.

Who has been a co-climber that you would like to go on an expedition with again?

Nigel Vardy, such a great man! We laugh from day one, sometimes even when we are about to drown in the Ocean’s currents, we just laugh. I can go with him anywhere, at any time.

Any climb that required more coffee than usual? 

The tough ones for sure, even just to reduce the stress levels. Coffee lifts the spirits.

Which projects are you currently working on and how would you like to be remembered? 

I am working on three big projects currently: running Two Oceans, going to Climb Mount Everest again, and then finishing off the trio by running the Comrades Marathon, all within two months! It’s insane but I am insane enough to do it this year. I would like to be known as Sibusiso Vilane, Africa’s greatest adventurer of the Millennium!

What are your future plans? 

More running, more mountain climbing, there is no stopping.

What is your motto and message would you share with anyone that would like to follow in your footsteps.

You have got to earn it to have it. If you work hard for it then you value it. Never limit yourself. You are limitless!


In May 1999, Nigel ‘Mr Frostbite’ Vardy almost froze to death in a severe storm, high on the slopes of Mt. McKinley in Alaska.  He was lucky to escape.  Temperatures of -60°C turned his fingers, toes and nose black with severe frostbite, and all were lost to surgery.  What remained would have to serve him in the best way that they could, for the rest of his life. He learned to walk without toes, work with battered hands and come to terms with his facial scarring.  Physically, that was hard enough, but the mental scars were much deeper cut, and he knew of only one way to heal them.  He had to climb again…

So began a life of unbelievable expeditions across the globe’s peaks.

Tell us about yourself (occupation and background)  

I am an electrical engineer and mountaineer.  I live in the UK and have always enjoyed the outdoors, adventure and travel. People assume that I’m rich or some kind of adventure playboy that has everything sponsored.  I got a job as soon as I left school and have been hard at it for almost 33 years.

When you are not on an expedition, how do you relax? 

I still have to work when not on an expedition, but I do enjoy time with my family, collecting old mountaineering books, and travelling in my 1977 VW Camper. The outdoors to me is everything we need.  It shows the best of what we are, what we can learn and what we can achieve.

How do you prepare for summits/ expeditions? 

I’m always in physical training, but mentally I need quiet time to reflect on the trip to come.  I spend time with my family and then leave with peace in my heart.

How do you celebrate after a summit? If yes, what does that entail?

There must be celebrations! Usually with a dram of whisky, smiles and handshakes.  I then go quiet and reflect on the achievement.

When you are on you expeditions, how do you keep warm? 

Hot coffee, good equipment and preparation.  It’s hard to warm up when you've caught a chill, so stay warm and you'll keep warm.

How do you prepare coffee when you are on an expedition and what is your preferred brewing method?

Freeze dried ground works the best for me.  I have an insulated cup with a plunger which is great for fresh coffee on the hill when the climb allows for it.

How do you keep your coffee fresh on the long trails?

Sealed into bags and kept as cold and dry as possible.

Which has been your most memorable climb and summit and with who? 

Mt McKinley defined my life as I suffered severe frostbite and my life was changed in less than 24 hours. All my fingers and toes had to be amputated, and I suffered major facial scarring.  At 30 I felt lost, but drew on my previous experiences to not only survive, but to thrive. Another memorable climb was Carstenz Pyramid, the highest peak in New Guinea, which was wonderful, because its where I met Mr. Sibusiso Vilane.

W​ho has been a co-climber that you would like to go on an expedition with again?

Sibusiso every time.

Which projects are you currently working on and how would you like to be remembered? 

I am presently working on a return to Alaska, climbing in Nepal again and bike racing with Sibusiso.  As for being remembered - just as me.

What are your future plans? 

To continue travelling and to inspire others to get into the outdoors and to enjoy and conserve them.

What is your motto and what message would you share with anyone that would like to follow in your footsteps..

God helps those, who help themselves.

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