Steve Obbayi-First Kenyan to attempt summiting Mt Everest
“If I die, I will have died doing what I love doing.” These are Steve Obbayi’s words, and the ultimate reality that one facing a daunting and risky task has to contend with. It is as solemn as it is exciting for him to be the first Kenyan to attempt summiting Mt Everest.
If his dream of setting foot atop the highest surface on earth comes true, then he will be among very few human beings to have left their footprints at the zenith of our planet. Official numbers indicate that just more than 2,000 have been successful in this endeavour.
The sense of accomplishment and exultation on achieving this feat is unimaginable. Between him and the summit of Mt Everest, however, lie temperatures in negative degrees, disease vectors, frigid weather and the ‘death zone’ — which not everyone is lucky enough to cross back alive. Just prospects of being the first Kenyan to climb Mt Everest is dizzying enough,says Obbayi.
“I can’t guarantee success, but if I make it, I will have succeeded in proving to Kenyans that no difficulty is beyond us if we set our sights and train our conviction.”
On March 24, Obbayi and his co-climber Toby Storie-Pugh from Britain began the Mt Everest odyssey with a flight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Mumbai in India. They took a connecting flight to Kathmandu. On March 28, they took the final flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to the start of the trail up the mountain.
For two months, Obbayi, in a contingent of about 600 people, will be scaling the altitude, a day at a time, towards the peak of Everest. “It is a rigorous exercise of climbing and returning to camp before climbing even higher. The final stretch to the top will take us 18 hours of continuous climbing. We won’t spend more than 15 minutes at the peak since the conditions there are deathly,” Obbayi says of what he has been told.
For the past one month, Obbayi has been preparing for this demanding climb; watching video clips and getting ready to slog away on the ice and snow. For the 39-year-old, “it will be an epic achievement, especially because the chance was not handed to me on a silver platter.” Through Brighter Monday, the sponsors of the climb, more than 300 Kenyan applicants expressed their interest but only five made it to the actual ‘interview’ that involved climbing Mt Kenya.
Obbayi was one of the five. Ironically, he did not impress the most, emerging second after the ultimate choice — a female climber. But fate had his name on the horizon; perhaps above the canopy of clouds shrouding the peak of Mt Everest.
When the top choice turned down her selection, the officials, among them Toby, had no option but to issue a summons for Obbayi to assume duty; rising to the highest point on planet Earth with both the national flag and the Kenyan spirit. Above all this, Obbayi’s inner spirit is one to emulate.
He says that he looks at himself as a “regular guy who grew up in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area.” But beneath his lanky frame, easy-going smile and calm demeanour is the story of a cook who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a software developer. “When I completed my secondary education at Nairobi School, my first job was at a hotel: I cooked and served food.
At that time, the computer revolution was starting, and I developed an interest in understanding what computers were all about,” Obbayi recalls. After his initial forays into the digital world, he knew his professional path was linked to Silicon Valley, and he immersed himself in the study of information technology. Contrary to what conventional systems dictate, Obbayi studied from home, buying the books he needed, poring over them, and practising his new skills on a computer that was archaic by today’s standards.
In 1994, he began sitting for software development accreditation examinations, and before long, he was a computer guru. His approach to work was also off the beaten path; he chose to work as an independent software developer. This allowed him more time to do the other thing he loves; visiting new places and climbing mountains, hills and any other thing with an ascendable pile of earth. He has reached the summits of Longonot, Kilimambogo, Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. And now he is heading towards the mountain climbers’ Mecca.
Rising to 8,850 metres above sea level, Mt Everest is a marvel in a class of its own. As the world’s highest focal point, thousands of people have attempted to scale its heights. The history of climbing Mt Everest, however, is rather grim. British nationals George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine were among the first to make an attempt on this pinnacle of the Himalayan ranges.
Their 1924 expedition is said to have been Mallory’s third trip to the mountain. DEATH ZONE
On the morning of June 8, 1924, Mallory and Irvine were seen leaving the final camp towards the top of the mountain. That was the last time they were seen, until 1999, almost a century later, when a team of investigators located Mallory’s body on the north face of the mountain. It is not all doom and gloom though.
There have been glorious triumphs on the summit as well. Nepalese Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary are credited with making the first official ascent of Everest, on May 29, 1953. When they came down from the mountain, they received honours from all over the world, including a knighthood for Hillary.
Obbayi will attempt to join the list of triumphant mountaineers, while avoiding elimination at the top of Mt Everest — christened the ‘death zone’, as it has claimed close to 250 lives.
Toby is convinced that Obbayi is made of the right material to beat the odds and enter Kenyan history books. EXPEDITION “Steve has a chance to change lives and perceptions if he succeeds in this challenge. And I am ready to go the full hog with Steve on this expedition. It’s my first one, too, and as much as there’s a lot that can go wrong, we are upbeat about reaching the top of the world,” Toby says. Depending on weather conditions and the day’s outlook, Obbayi, Toby and the rest of the team are likely to spend 18 hours of their final day on a final push to the top. “We know and understand the risks but whatever happens I will be satisfied that at least I didn’t back out: which is the point exactly,” Obbayi says. But isn’t he worried about the pain his family will suffer if the worst happens?