12 April 2007
Evelina Tshabalala, Zukiswa Matamo and Nomawethu Nika from Mandela Park informal settlement in Hout Bay, Cape Town are used to making their way through hardship.
That’s why they’re not daunted by their latest project: to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and, in the process, become the first black women to conquer Everest.
The journey begins
Matamo and Nika summited Russia’s Mount Elbrus on 9 September 2006. Tshabalala summited Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro on 8 July 2006, followed by Matamo on Women’s Day, 9 August and Nika on 9 November.
Next up was Aconcagua in Argentina, South America’s tallest peak, summited by Matamo and Nika on 7 January, followed by Tshabalala on 26 February. Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko is next in line for the trio, with Tshabalala planning to catch up on Elbrus before or after the Australasia trip.
They’ve called their project “Isicongo”, after the isiZulu word for the top of a mountain.
“Every summit has its own character,” says Tshabalala. “They differ in heights and levels of difficulty. Kilimanjaro is not the most difficult or dangerous, but when I reached the top, at that very moment I was the highest person in Africa.
“There is no feeling like it. I can’t wait to get started on Elbrus.”
The Seven Summits
Less than two hundred people have climbed all of the so-called Seven Summits, the highest mountain top on each of the seven continents.
Subject to debate, the seven are: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa; Elbrus in Russia, Europe; Vinson Massif in Antarctica; McKinley (also known as Denali) in Alaska, North America; Kosciuszko in Australia, Australasia/Oceania; Aconcagua in Argentina, South America; and Everest in Nepal, Asia.
[*Note: there is some controversy over which seven summits count as the seven – and accordingly over how many have climbed all seven. See more on this below.]
Although the seven are “non-technical” mountains – meaning that advanced rock climbing skills and equipment are not needed to climb them – they involve gruelling routes, hostile weather conditions, and extreme altitude.
John Reader, in his book Kilimanjaro, describes climbing Africa’s highest peak as follows:
- “The climb is not difficult in mountaineering terms, you could say it is equivalent to scrambling up a staircase more than three kilometres long. Or you could say that it is equivalent to clambering up the side of nine Empire State Buildings laid end to end at about sixteen degrees.
“But then at 4 710m, where the final ascent of Kilimanjaro begins, there is little more than half the density of oxygen which occurs on Manhattan or at the foot of most staircases. So, in effect, the aspiring climber attempts the equivalent of those feats with the equivalent of only one lung.
“The result is agonising, there is no other word for it.”
Tshabalala, no stranger to endurance sport, describes her own experience on the mountain as follows: “When I was near the top of Kili, I began to get very tired. My water was frozen, my feet were frozen and my legs felt heavy.
“I had to talk to myself and focus my thoughts. I thought about all my family, living and dead, and willed them to help me. I imagined the pride I would feel when I reached the top. Eventually I got there.”
Beating the odds
Tshabalala, 41, is a single mother, the sole bread-winner in her family, and lives in a one-bedroom shack next to a rubbish dump. She’s survived a car accident, the death of her second son – and the news that she’s HIV-positive.
She’s also an accomplished marathon runner: in 1994 she realised her life-long dream of taking part in the London Marathon, where she placed 25th.
It was running that first brought Tshabalala and Matamo, a domestic worker and mother of three, together in 2003.
Matamo had spent the previous two years struggling to lose the weight she had put on after the birth of her third child. Tshabalala’s solution began with a 20-kilometre run.
“After that run I decided I never wanted to see Evelina again,” says Matamo. “I kept looking at her and thinking, I’m never running with you again.”
Eighteen months later, the two were running marathons together, Matamo had shed 42 kilograms, and the friendship was unbreakable. They remember each others’ times for every race they have run together. And Matamo doesn’t mind finishing behind Tshabalalo – because she always runs back to keep her company until the finish line.
Then there were three
In 2005, Tshabalala and Matamo climbed Table Mountain, and were hooked at once on this lofty new expression of their sporting abilities.
In the same year, Matamo met Nika, also a mother and domestic worker, who had also starting running in order to lose weight.
Matamo encouraged Nika to start running competitively, and within the space of a few months Nika had completed the Winelands Marathon, Two Oceans Half Marathon and Knysna Marathon.
Achieving their new goal will require intense physical and psychological effort – and a fair dose of good luck, especially when it comes to the highest of them all: Mount Everest.
“Denali [or Mount McKinley, in Alaska] is the best preparation for Everest,” says Matamo. “You are dropped off on a glacier where you have to drag your supplies on a sled as you start climbing. We will need to dig a hole in the ice and pitch our tent inside the hole.
“After that, we will need to hack enormous bricks out of the ice to place around the perimeter of the hole to protect our tent from the violent winds. All this must happen in the wind, snow and freezing cold. This mountain is going to test our strength, mentally and physically.”
The logistics involved in the project are daunting in themselves. Take the Vinson Massif, part of the Sentinal Range of Antarctica, located at 78°S and a mere 1 200km from the South Pole.
In order to get to the Vinson Massif base camp, mountaineers must take a plane from Punta Arenas in Chile to the Patriot Hills blue-ice runway on the Antarctic surface. From there, they must take a one hour’s helicopter ride to the base camp – and hope that the weather is kind.
People often have to wait up to three weeks before the weather will allow helicopters to land there – to drop them off or to pick them up afterwards – often resulting in supplies being exhausted.
And that’s just one leg of the Seven Summits journey. There are six more trips to be organised, timed and carried out.
Mountains of the mind
“What we are doing may be newsworthy because it is a ‘first’, and no other black women have done this,” says Tshabalala.
“But just because it makes the papers, it doesn’t make it more important than someone overcoming their own challenges – whether it’s getting an education, a promotion, or surviving an ordeal.
“Isicongo is a project that we hope will move others to move their own mountains.”
Which seven summits?
To climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents is a challenge that mountaineers have aspired to since American Dick Bass first publicised the idea in his book “Seven Summits” in 1985 – although he climbed the Australian summit Kosciuszko instead of the higher, more difficult Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia.
Canadian Pat Morrow was the first to complete all seven summits with Carstensz in 1986. Four months later, the great Reinhold Messner followed suit.
Since then, there has been controversy over which seven count as the seven – some arguing that Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia, should be included; others arguing that Australia is really not a continent, but that Australasia/Oceania is, and that Carstensz should therefore be included.
Two overlapping lists of climbers who have climbed the seven summits – the seven with Carstensz list, and the seven with Kosciuszko list – have thus developed.
According to 7summits.com, there are currently 100 names on the former list, and 139 on the latter. Taking overlaps into account, a total of 180 climbers have climbed the seven summits … 59 of them having climbed all eight!
The eight summits (including both Carstens and Kosciuszko) are:
- Mt Everest, Nepal – 8 850m
- Aconcagua, Argentina – 6 962m
- Mt McKinley (or Denali), Alaska – 6 194m
- Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania – 5 895m
- Mt Elbrus, Russia – 5 642m
- Vinson Massif, Antarctica – 4 897m
- Carstensz Pyramid (or Puncak Jaya), Indonesia – 4 884m
- Mt Kosciuszko, Australia – 2 228m
The 8 000 metre peaks
Of course, the seven summits – excepting Everest – are nowhere near being the tallest seven in the world.
For these one has to consult another of mountaineering’s favourite lists: the list of the world’s 14 highest mountains, all of whose summits top 8 000 metres (above which one enters mountaineering’s “death zone”) – and all of which are found in the Himalayas (eight in Nepal, five in Pakistan, one in Tibet).