Next spring, a 39-year-old climber from Nairobi hopes to become the first Kenyan man to summit Mount Everest – a feat requiring tremendous endurance, strength and determination.
Steve Obbayi, a tech entrepreneur who taught himself how to write software and was a former high-school rugby star, plans to push himself to the limit when he travels to Nepal as the first Kenyan representative to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
Obbayi is part of Expedition Everest, a team that hopes to break a new record while also shedding a positive light on the people of Kenya. The organization was founded by 38-year-old Toby Storie-Pugh, an England native who spent years traveling, volunteering, and working in Kenya, and had long dreamed of climbing Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. Standing at 29,029 feet, Mount Everest is located in the Himalayas and overlooks both Nepal and China.
“The idea of seeing whether we could actually get the first Kenyan climber up the mountain worked its way into my consciousness,” Storie-Pugh said. “So many of the stories coming out of Kenya and out of Africa focus on the negative aspects of the continent – I found that frustrating.”
In May 2003, Sibusiso Vilane became the first black African to summit Mount Everest – a record-breaking journey that he considers the highlight of his life. News of Vilane’s success made headlines across the world, earning the South African native praise and congratulations from President Thabo Mbeki, while Nelson Mandela called him “a real hero”.
About 4,000 people have reached Mount Everest’s summit, but there are plenty more records to break. By summiting Everest’s peak in early 2014, Obbayi will be the first Kenyan to do so.
“Mentally I’m already more than ready to push myself to the limit,” Obbayi said in a news release. “This will be a testament to the resolve my mother instilled in me. She taught me to get up and fight for what I know I’m capable of and what I want to achieve.”
To prepare for his journey, Obbayi has been climbing mountains in Africa and training his muscles to be able to endure what is sure to be his most difficult climb to date.
“I’ve been doing a bit of jogging, a bit of swimming, sit-ups, working on the essential muscles and keeping fit without over-stretching myself,” he said. But his biggest fear – and one that’s difficult to prepare for – is the cold. Monthly averages at Mount Everest’s summit range from about -26 degrees Fahrenheit to -13 degrees in the spring. In the winter, a constant wind chill whips through the air at about -148 degrees.
Obbayi has been reading books and watching videos given to him by Storie-Pugh in order to overcome any fears and get in the right state of mind before their trip.
“I’ve seen the wind and snow in videos, but the reality hits you when you’re there,” he said. “When you understand the challenge, you’re able to alleviate most of the fears that you have.”
More than 250 Kenyans applied to join Expedition Everest, and Obbayi was one of five finalists chosen, as part of the selection process, to summit the 17,057-foot-high Mount Kenya, the second-largest mountain in Africa. Initially, Storie-Pugh chose a Kenyan woman to partake in the Everest expedition, which would have made her both the first African female and the first Kenyan to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
“There was nothing to choose between her and Steve on the climb itself, just the fact that we would be able to showcase a woman’s adventure was [great],” Storie-Pugh later explained. “She dropped out about four or five months ago for personal reasons. And Steve kindly decided on short notice to step up and be the Kenyan representative.”
Earlier this month, Storie-Pugh and Obbayi summited Mount Kilimanjaro, which at 19,341 feet is the continent’s tallest mountain.
To bring awareness to an international high-profile expedition, the duo will summit Mount Everest in the name of global sanitation. They will lead a campaign for a New York City-based nonprofit group called “Toilet Hackers,” which aims to provide sanitation to the 2.5 billion people who currently live without it, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
More than 2.7 million people die each year because of bacteria and diseases that arise due to a lack of sanitation. According to the World Bank, African countries also suffer about $5.5 billion in economic losses each year because of this shortage.
The Expedition Everest team hopes to plant a “Toilet Hackers” flag at Mount Everest’s summit to bring further awareness to the need for a commodity that is considered a basic necessity in the western world.
John Kluge, founder of the nonprofit group, predicts Storie-Pugh and Obbayi “will bring courage, daring and perseverance to Everest” that will translate to his organization’s mission.
“To have two guys go up the mountain and back, on behalf of the issue that we care so deeply about is exciting, it’s humbling, and I hope that works – I hope that people care to listen,” Kluge said. “I hope what they see is inspiring and that they’ll take on their own epic challenges.”
The mountaineers will travel to eastern Nepal for training in October, and make the trek to Everest’s base camp in March 2014.
“Dream big with us,” Kluge said. “Dream big with Toby and Steve.”