In South Africa, An Odd Couple Shoots for Fame - Wall Street Journal front page

An Entrepreneur Enlists A Zulu Runner to Climb The 'Seven Summits'

March 12, 2007; Page A1

They were an unlikely duo when they joined forces in late 2005. Gilad Stern is a South African entrepreneur and former aide to Israeli peace negotiators. Evelina Tshabalala, a fellow South African, runs marathons, lives in a squatters camp and is infected with the AIDS virus. Their goal: to make Ms. Tshabalala a national hero and celebrity pitchwoman.

Noticing the dearth of black women in mountaineering, Mr. Stern handpicked 42-year-old Ms. Tshabalala and persuaded her to attempt to climb the highest mountain on each continent. In late February, Ms. Tshabalala got one step closer by knocking off Argentina's Mount Aconcagua, which at 22,841 feet is the highest peak outside Asia. That week, deep snow, treacherous ice, and heavy winds had forced many climbing teams to turn around. An English climber died on the mountain while Ms. Tshabalala was preparing for her final push to the top. Ms. Tshabalala, not realizing she had already reached the summit, kept going until a guide told her she was already at the peak.

With Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro under her belt, Ms. Tshabalala's team is planning to complete the fabled "seven summits," culminating in Mount Everest. If she and her two climbing partners, who also hail from the same squatters camp, reach the top of Everest, they will be the first black African women to do so.

In the U.S. and Europe, tales of extreme mountain climbing have grown almost commonplace. The top of Mount Everest has already been claimed by numerous others, including the first blind person and the first one-armed person. Nowadays it's "nearly impossible" to land a sponsorship to summit Everest, says Gordon Janow, a director of the Seattle-based mountain guiding company Alpine Ascents International Inc.

But that's not the case in South Africa. "Everest still has a lot of mileage," says John Black, senior merchandise buyer at South African outdoor-gear purveyor Cape Union Mart, which now employs Ms. Tshabalala in one of its warehouses and is backing her team's quest. The first South African ascended Everest only a decade or so ago, so people "know enough to be interested but not enough to be bored," he said.

Cape Union Mart's commitment covers less than 10% of the approximately $615,000 that Mr. Stern estimates will be needed over the next two years. He's trying to raise the balance from a wide range of South African corporations. Mr. Stern says he's sunk about $102,000 of his own money into the venture so far. After he's paid back on his investment, and sponsors have picked up the rest of the team's costs, the climbers would split just over 50% of profits, with that percentage rising over time.

Courtesy of the Isicongo Project - Evelina Tshabalala at Argentina's Mt. Aconcagua, left, the highest mountain outside the Himalayas at 22,841 feet.

Mr. Stern left South Africa in 1977 after being arrested for distributing antiapartheid literature. In Israel until 1986, he says he worked as an aide to Interior Minister Josef Burg, where he participated in peace negotiations and met Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In 1986, with his widowed mother ailing in South Africa, Mr. Stern returned to his home country. Despite heavy violence, apartheid was wobbling, and Mr. Stern founded a company, Eden Africa CC, which helps South African corporations diversify their work forces.

Today, Mr. Stern lives comfortably in a spacious house at the foot of Table Mountain. He makes his own wine, and keeps what he claims is the largest collection of single-malt whiskey in South Africa.

A few years ago, Mr. Stern saw another opportunity to merge his commitment to racial equality with business. A lifelong mountaineer, he realized that a black African woman had never conquered a major peak. In 2005, Mr. Stern began asking about in running circles and heard of a woman named Evelina.

Lithe, with a huge smile, Ms. Tshabalala grew up in a rural community, where she ran about 12 miles to school. The first time she competed in a race was in 1986, when she was 22. It was 10 kilometers, or about 6.2 miles. She ran barefoot, and won. That afternoon she ran a second, 5-kilometer race and won that one, too. In 1990, she became the first black woman to break into the top three in South Africa's national marathon.

Evelina Tshabalala, at the top of Mount Aconcagua

"She's very stubborn," says her running coach of 20 years, Dave Spence. "I would give her a lecture, and her eyes would flicker and she wouldn't talk to me for a week. But most things she sets out to achieve, she does." With apartheid in place, he said, Ms. Tshabalala had almost no chance to compete at the collegiate or professional level.

In 1997 a car crash cut a gash in Ms. Tshabalala's leg, causing her to run for years with a limp. About that same time, she tested HIV-positive. At first, the virus didn't seem to affect her health. But in 2003, her 13-year-old son drowned, and the grief, she says, sent her immune system plummeting. Ms. Tshabalala now is on antiretroviral drugs, paid for by the medical insurance she gets through her job with Cape Union Mart. Her total pay package is the equivalent of $355 a month.

Ms. Tshabalala lives in a squalid shantytown just outside Hout Bay, one of the Cape's most picturesque seaside towns. The communal toilets cost about 14 cents for adults, so many people use a bucket instead. When it rains, the human waste flows under Ms. Tshabalala's dwelling. To mitigate the stench -- and improve hygiene -- she dug a drainage trench beneath her shack and covered the cracks in her floor with sheets of particle board.

Although Ms. Tshabalala's stomach muscles were initially weak for a climber, Mr. Stern admired her mental toughness. He began buying groceries to supplement her diet and hired a trainer for her. Three weeks before climbing Aconcagua, Ms. Tshabalala ran a marathon one day, and the very next went on a six-hour training hike and climbed Table Mountain, elevation 3,566 feet, twice.

Now, back from Aconcagua, she's planning to run Cape Town's 35-mile Two Oceans "ultramarathon" on April 7. "OK, I finish Aconcagua," she says with a laugh. "Now I focus on Two Oceans."

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