the challenge

What is ISICONGO?

The Zulu word 'isicongo' is used to suggest the summit of the mountain. It is also the name of a groundbreaking project, fusing three women's passions for mountaineering and their tenacious drive to ascend the highest peaks on each of the seven continents of the world. The poetry of this project is undeniable. The mechanics are unthinkable. From a life of struggle and hardship, Zuki Matamo, Nomawethu Nika and Evelina Tshabalala will move their own mountains. From the Mandela Park informal settlement in Hout Bay, these three brave women will travel the world, experiencing the ultimate exhilaration of summiting some of the highest mountains in the world. Ultimately, Zuki, Noma and Evelina intend be the first black African women to summit Everest.

The Seven Summits is a series of mountains consisting of the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Subject to minor debate, the summits include Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Vinson in Antarctica, Denali in Alaska, Kosciuszko in Australia, Aconcagua in Argentina and finally Everest in the Himalayas. With only a few hundred people able to claim the achievement of summiting all of these peaks, these women are already on their way. Evelina summited Kilimanjaro on 8 July 2006, and Aconcagua on the 25 February 2007, and Zuki summited Kilimanjaro on Women's Day. Zuki and Noma travelled to Russia where they climbed the highest mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus, summiting on 9 September 2006. Noma summitted Kilimanjaro, highest peak in Africa on 9 November, 2006. Zuki and Noma travelled to South America where they both summited the challenging Aconcagua on 7 January 2007. This summit is 6 962 metres high, with an average temperature of -25 degrees Celsius at high altitudes. On 17 February 2008 Noma summited Kosciuszko. On 25 February 2009 Zuki also summited Kosciuszko.

The journey, both geographical and spiritual, that the Seven Summits offers is unmatched by any other worldly experience. The mountaineer travels across seven continents, faces extreme and life-threatening weather conditions, hostile terrain and gruelling physical exertion, not to mention the most intense psychological strain. Although these summits are termed non-technical mountains, which means that advanced rock climbing skills and equipment are not necessary, these mountains involve high altitudes and difficult routes. Zuki demonstrates this as she comments on the skills necessary to climb Denali in the Arctic circle: "Denali is the best preparation for Everest. 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 a project like this are equally daunting. Take the Vinson Massif for example. It is part of the Sentinal Range of Antarctica, 78S, and a mere 1 200 km from the South Pole. In order to get to the base camp, mountaineers take a plane from the Punta Arenas in Chile, to the Patriot Hills blue-ice runway (keeping in mind it is impossible to use brakes on ice) on the Antarctic surface. From there, they take a one hour helicopter ride to the base camp. Unfortunately, the base camp is often shrouded in mist, making a landing impossible. It is quite plausible that people can wait two to three weeks before being able to land there (or be picked up) often resulting in supplies being exhausted, the ramifications of which are suitably terrifying. This is just one leg of the journey.

Over the next few years, South Africa and the world will watch as these women climb their way to the ranks of South Africa's most inspirational cultural icons. Having already conquered their own personal Everests, Zuki, Norma and Evelina have made the brave decision to attempt a difficult task, and there is a strong possibility that they may fail. Irrespective of this, they are risking everything in front of a nation, to act out the ultimate metaphor of human endeavour. They wish to pave a strong and reliable path which others can follow while striving to achieve their own personal dreams. "What we are doing may be newsworthy because it is a first, and no other black women have done this. 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," they agree.


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