From slums to Everest

03:08, Feb 07 2014
trevor johnston
DREAM COME TRUE: Trevor Johnston aspired to scale Mt Everest from a young age.

South African-born Trevor Johnston lives by the mantra "only as far as you seek can you go and only as much as you dream can you be", a belief that helped him almost complete a dream of a lifetime - conquering Mt Everest.

Mr Johnson, who told the inspirational story of his life in Oamaru at Adventure Books on Thursday, grew up in the slums of Capetown in an area known as Cape Flats, where crime was rife and the future bleak.

"It was the centre of all slum, crime and drugs. It was the worst thing you could imagine," he says.

"My earliest memory growing up in South Africa was sleeping in a garage. It was just a little room ... we all slept on a mattress on the floor, us three kids. Mum and dad had a bed and we had no running water.

"There was always gunshots and knife fights outside. I remember someone getting killed outside my front door. I saw this pool of blood there and I developed a fear of everything. I had a morbid fear of dying."

While his childhood was a real struggle, he took great pleasure in doing the one thing he enjoyed.


"I spent many a childhood day up and down the mountain (Table Mountain) and again into my early teens. Even after Everest I loved going for a climb."

However, by his mid-teens, he fell in with the wrong crowd and was often getting into fights or shoplifting.

He attributes his troubled youth to barely seeing his father, who worked 16 hours a day as a labourer.

However, his father intervened when he sent Mr Johnston to a leadership course at the age of 16, which Mr Johnston believes gave him a "whole new sense of life."

After finding an old scrapbook at his family home, featuring newspaper clippings of his father rock climbing, Mr Johnston started to get to know his father better.

"I'd never known he did rock climbing," he says.

"It was the start of the relationship with my father that's been amazing. We are very close now."

Mr Johnston dreamed of climbing the world's highest peak during his teenage years, which he said at the time, during the 1980s, was something of an "impossible dream" for a black South African during the brutal apartheid era.

"I remember someone asking me during my last year at high school what I was going to do ... I didn't have a clue other than saying I want to climb Everest and everyone in the room just laughed at me."

He continued climbing around his home town while earning a teaching degree, which he completed in 1988.

As time went by, he was convinced he would never get the chance to climb Mt Everest.

In 1996, South Africa put it's first Everest expedition team together. However, it was made up of only women.

"I watched this whole thing unfold in the newspapers and on the television and I just wanted to be there and be part of it," Mr Johnston says.

Just two years later, he had his chance.

"There was another expedition in 1998 on the North Face. You had to write in and tell them why you want to be part of it. They were only picking two people to go.

After an interview process which he describes as being something "a little like the X-Factor talent show", his name was among the two announced for the historic expedition.

"I heard my name drop and it was like winning the lottery. Nothing could take away that moment, I cried."

Only weeks later the expedition left for Mt Everest and along the way Mr Johnston and the 12-strong expedition team, made up of six climbers, five sherpas and a cameraman, spent time in Kathmandu and several other towns.

The team worked for eight hours a day for a week to plan their climb, which was scheduled to take around three months.

Looking up at the towering peak from Everest base camp made Mr Johnston appreciate where he had come from and how close he'd been to never making it at all.

I looked up and realised I could die. I thought ‘do I really want to do this?"'

"I remembered a moment when I got held up with a gun in Capetown, a group of guys robbed me. A guy put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger and the gun didn't go off ... held it to my chest and again it didn't go off.

"At that point I turned and walked away. I felt in that moment it wasn't my time to go. On Everest I made the choice, it was different to being confronted, whereas this time I was willing."

While excited to be starting the brutal climb, Mr Johnston was also anxious to get the initial period of acclimatisation behind him.

"You climb from base camp to advanced base camp, spend one night there and come all the way back down to base camp.

"Lower altitude, less pressure, more oxygen, better recovery. That's the logic behind it," he says.

"Then you go base camp, advanced base camp, camp one, then you go all the way back to base camp and rest for a couple of days. Then you go base camp, advanced base camp, camp one, camp 2 (more than 7000m) rest for a couple of days then go base camp advanced base camp, camp one, camp 2, camp 3, high summit and then all the way back down ... it's very frustrating."

After finally getting back to base camp in late March, the climb proper began.

With no trouble getting to camp one, Mr Johnson says he started to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness, coughing up a pink fluid, at camp two.

Not only that, but he was also having to deal with the sight of dead bodies on the mountain, with many left where they died, while others would get thrown into a crevasse.

At an altitude of around 7800m, around 1050m from the top of the mountain, Mr Johnston knew his dream was over.

"I was coughing up pink fluid and I thought to myself I have to make a decision now. I didn't want to die on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I had given it all I could. I was bitterly, bitterly disappointed.

"I turned back at that point. I climbed all the way down to base camp. I was tired, but happy to be alive."

Upon reflection, Mr Johnston has no regrets and while he considered going back to complete the climb, he set his sights on peaks he wanted to climb in countries such as France, Germany, Bulgaria and the United States.

In 2005 he decided to change direction and established International Youth Expedition, an organisation for people affected by HIV to enjoy climbing.

Mr Johnston and a group of 17 others attempted Mt Kilimanjaro, with 14 of the group reaching the summit.

After being involved with charitable group EDuco in South Africa, Mr Johnston and his wife Michelle decided to move to New Zealand. They now live in Timaru, in a house which has views of Aoraki, Mt Cook.

"I wanted life to be a bit quieter. We got permanent residency here in New Zealand ... it felt like we were arriving home."

South Canterbury