July 21, 2016
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — In the early hours of May 21, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala became the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest. The 37-year-old was part of a two-person expedition from Sri Lanka, but her partner, Johann Peries, was unable to reach the summit due to overcrowding on the summit route.
Sri Lanka is the fourth country in the world from which a woman was the first to summit the famed peak, according to Richard Salisbury of The Himalayan Database, which maintains an archive of information on those who reach the top. Poland, South Africa and Croatia were the other countries.
Kuru-Utumpala ─ who, before summiting Everest, worked for a women’s rights organization and completed a master’s degree in gender studies ─ has long been an advocate of women’s equality and ending domestic violence in Sri Lanka.
Nirasha Piyawadani of GPJ’s Sri Lanka News Desk interviewed Kuru-Utumpala after her return to Sri Lanka. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Photo courtesy of Ang Karma Sherpa
How and when did you first venture into mountain climbing?
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that I was born crazy about climbing! I liked to climb on to wardrobes and up trees even from a young age. I have climbed many mountains.
My mother and father often took me to trek in mountain areas and to swim in the sea.
Later, whenever I visited a country for any job-related work, I climbed a mountain in that country. I climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2014, the Pyrenees in Spain, Andes in Argentina and mountains in South Africa and Thailand.
Everest is famous as the world’s highest mountain peak. When adults asked me about my ambitions, from around the age of 14 years, I wanted to say I would climb Everest one day.
But I kept that dream to myself because I thought others would think I am crazy.
As soon as I finished my Advanced Level [exams], I entered the Miranda House of the University of Delhi for higher education. I was reading for a degree in English literature. One day, when I went to meet a lecturer for a tutorial, I saw a photo of her husband standing on a snow-covered mountain. When I asked about it, I got to know about the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Darjeeling. I was elated to know about a school that teaches mountaineering. My Everest dream revived with that news.
How long did you plan and train for the Everest climb?
Not for Everest, but because I was crazy about mountaineering, I decided to participate in the climbing course at [Himalayan Mountaineering Institute].
I started it in 2002 as soon as I completed my degree. It was a 28-day military training course. Four other nature lovers and I were the only nonmilitary participants of the training. It was a girls-only course. There were mixed-gender courses also, but I selected the girls’ course because it was my first such training. It was a very hard training. I had to carry everything when I climbed.
There, I learned how I can be sick when climbing. The oxygen levels in the atmosphere decline when we climb upwards. The mountaineer must understand very well about the physical difficulties that a person undergoes at that level.
The best cure for altitude sickness is climbing down. If someone suffers from altitude sickness at 17,000 feet, it is necessary to come down to 14,000 feet to recover and to restart the climb. I learned ice climbing and rock climbing there. In 2003, I followed an advanced course also and passed it.
After August 2003, I worked for a rock climbing company called Borderlands in Sri Lanka. I learned other adventure sports like white-water rafting and worked there as a trainer.
I completed a master’s degree in gender studies in 2008 in England. I joined the rock climbing association of the university and went climbing three days a week. I gave more time for my sport when I was there.
Photo courtesy of Ang Karma Sherpa
What are some of the challenges you faced in preparing for and even during the climb?
Getting ready to climb Everest is itself a challenge. It was also like Everest!
Johann was also ready to climb Everest, and we browsed the Internet and found facts about climbing it.
One of my friends introduced an Australian young man who had climbed Everest. When I spoke to him via Skype, I felt like I was speaking to a great man. He gave us lots of important facts. When we were browsing Internet day and night, we found a five-page list of necessary items that could be used to plan the budget. They included boots and clothing. It was difficult to find a sponsor.
Actually, there is a team behind this victory. While we were climbing Everest, they worked hard to tell the world and our families that we were safe.
Mountaineering is an expensive sport. How did you cover the costs of this expedition?
We started the hunt for sponsors in August and September last year. By then, many companies had already planned their annual budgets, so many said we were too late. Others had no understanding about this endeavor. They said this is not cricket, football or rugby to sponsor. Some said many other Sri Lankans had already climbed Everest!
Some asked why we needed 2 million rupees ($13,840) to climb a mountain.
We can’t blame any of them. Only those who study it would know about the expenses for climbing Everest. We were frustrated by going after sponsors. It was very difficult to find time for this work because we were employed then.
One climber has to spend around 44,000 U.S. dollars to summit Everest. The climbing fee alone is 11,000 U.S. dollars. The cost is for oxygen and helicopters, etc. The cost for clothing and other needs are also very high. I must say that we would not have achieved this goal if we did not have the massive support of our sponsors.
Our friends opened a [Facebook] page. Our fans responded to us enthusiastically with donations of $10 and $100.
What made you select Johann Peries as a climbing partner? How did the two of you become a climbing team?
I was introduced to Johann four years ago, in 2012, by one of my friends. Johann and two others in his team were planning to climb Island Peak in Nepal. When I heard about it, I asked to be introduced to them because I wanted to join them.
I met them and described my mountaineering background and training. Then, within three weeks, we summited that mountain, which is 6,200 meters (20,340 feet) high. It is a height that can cause symptoms of altitude sickness. I had climbed about 19,000 feet when I was doing the mountaineering course. Therefore, I was confident that the height was no problem to me. But some do not endure such heights.
When you summit that mountain, you can see Everest. After we finished that climb, I told Johann I wanted to summit Everest. He was the only other climbing-crazy man I had met. He loved nature and liked my idea.
He had climbed up to the base camp of Everest the previous year. We worked together to make our dream of climbing Everest come true.
This can never be done if we have no team mentality. Physical strength as well as mental strength are important in mountaineering. There are times mental strength is more important than physical strength. We cracked jokes at each other and motivated each other during our journey.
You started out as a two-person team from Sri Lanka, but only you were able to summit the mountain, becoming the first Sri Lankan to achieve this. How do you feel about this achievement?
In fact, Johann could not summit Everest because of bad luck, since there was a traffic jam of people on the road. It was not his weakness. When I found that my partner who was with me throughout the journey was not there, I was shocked. But I thought finishing my mission was more important.
We went on this expedition as a team. When one person of the team had to turn back, the other’s duty was not to be discouraged but to complete the mission.
I am happy that I could do it. Even today, I cannot describe the feeling I have when I recall that I was on the peak of the world. I feel like it is a dream. I look at the photos then. My mind fills with an unbearable happiness.
What are some memories and unforgettable moments from this expedition?
It is not wrong to say that the entire Everest journey was an unforgettable memory.
After passing Camp 4, there is only one safety row. If you keep a single foot out of it, you are at risk of sliding on snow. If there are a lot of people who take that row, then there is traffic jam like the one Johann had to face.
He had to stop then and wait until the queue proceeded. It is very difficult and dangerous to overtake. Some don’t like being overtaken. To overtake someone, you have to embrace that person and get the support from him or her.
When you stay in the queue, your oxygen tank is spent for breathing. The oxygen tank has to be used in a certain number of hours. Johann’s Sherpa checked the oxygen level of his tank and said it was dangerous to go ahead, because the oxygen was not sufficient. There is a death zone beyond that. It is believed that the mountaineer will have no chance to return if there is any danger in that zone.
Johann gave up his journey and waited at a base camp until I came back. I knew it was possible that one of us could miss the summit after coming so far together. But both of us could not bear it. We embraced each other and cried. We were sad. But Johann encouraged me to go and hoist the flag of our country on the summit.
When I was at the top, I saw clouds below me. I could not imagine that I was above clouds! It was Vesak full moon day. The moon had risen from one side. It was 5 a.m. when I completed my summit. The sun was rising on the other side in a golden hue. The moment I spent between the sun and moon was a beautiful dream.
When we were climbing Everest, both people we knew and didn’t know held religious ceremonies wishing us a safe journey. Both Sri Lankans as well as foreigners funded us through our Facebook page.
Mountain climbing is not a popular sport in Sri Lanka. Do you think that your achievement will draw other Sri Lankan women to this sport?
Mountaineering is not as popular as cricket, football and rugby in Sri Lanka. But there are many who are interested and keen. The number of women among them may be only a handful. But I may be wrong. There may be some hidden girls who have kept their ambitions to themselves.
Although there is fear about safety, I think this victory is a very good motivation for women.
I think I was able to prove that a woman can win any challenge if she has self-confidence.
What are the challenges of mountaineering that are specific to women?
Since my school days, I have noticed that there are many girls and women who are keen about mountaineering, but their parents and other adults prevent them. Sometimes they may be afraid for their safety. Sometimes they think that mountaineering is not a sport suitable for girls.
When I was a schoolgirl and we discussed climbing a mountain, many were eager to join, but only a couple of them actually joined the climb.
The others did not join because they were not given permission. But this is never an unsuitable sport for girls. When you summit the mountain, enduring all difficulties, you grow in self-confidence. This is a good way to strengthen your mind.
How did your family react to your desire to climb Everest?
My parents engage in this type of adventure trips, so they took us to swim in the sea and to climb mountains from the time we were young.
My father always advised me to learn these activities with a view on safety ─ meaning that we must learn the proper techniques if we are going to do them.
I had the support of my family for these things since a young age. But when I followed the course in India, my mother was afraid.
My father passed away last year. He could not see me summit Everest. My mother blessed me when I started the journey, but she was afraid until I returned. She said she was happy about the victory but happier about the safe return.
The first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest is a woman. Does this mean Sri Lanka is closer to equality of the sexes?
I think the message is that women can win any challenge if they are given due equality.
Women in countries like Sri Lanka, within the Asian culture, are shy to move in sectors like this. My victory as a woman is more meaningful if I can build up the courage of other women of our society.
I think my feat proved that women can win any challenge if they are given a due place in society.
Moreover, I call on women to understand their hidden strength. Don’t hesitate to display your strength to the world.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I hope to promote rock climbing as a sport in our country.
I am a woman. Therefore, I have hopes to encourage girls to engage in mountaineering.
My ambition is to share my knowledge as much as possible and to work to encourage them and to urge them not to shy away.
Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe translated this article from Sinhala.