Everyone including those who sponsored a Sri Lankan duo who wanted to plant the Sri Lankan flag at the top of the world wondered whether the two who dared Everest could actually make it and return. Restless nights, high heart rates and low oxygen were only a few of the challenges faced by Everest climbers. But, despite those challenges Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, a former journalist at mid-week Mirror and a women’s rights activist along with Johann Peris, a professional hair dresser and fashion designer, two people engaged in two different fields but sharing the same life-long passion of climbing Mount Everest accomplished it covering themselves in glory.
Climbing Everest, the world’s highest mountain is an experience full of thrills and risks. Several climbers from various countries have attempted to reach the ‘roof of the world’ but while some had succeeded, many had failed. It was not for the faint hearted.
However, mountaineering was not something new to the two, who had successfully attempted many of the world’s most heights, including Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Imja Tse, Mt. Kinabalu, and the Andes. Jayanthi and Johann said they had received enormous support from friends and others, some of whom were even unknown to them, in taking their giant step, that was to take
Sri Lanka into the international arena.
In an interview with the DAILY MIRROR, Jayanthi, invited all the Sri Lankan women to empower themselves and come forward to take up challenges.
Johann, said they took up this challenge to not only fulfil a shared dream, but to also to make Sri Lanka known throughout the world.
Q What impressed both of you- ‘superstars’ to take up this challenge of climbing
Jayanthi For me, it goes back to childhood; it has been a life-long dream. When people asked me ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ I have said ‘ I want to climb Mount Everest’. When I was very young, I underwent a mountaineering course in the Himalayas that was one month long. I did another course of mountaineering. After that, I just kept climbing. Whenever travelling, I looked for a rock or a mountain to climb. However, climbing Everest was in my mind for many years and I was happy to meet Johann in 2011 and we did a peak at Everest together. We have been discussing it and chatting about it. Not only that, we worked on our dream.
Q We all have dreams. Climbing to the top of the world is not that simple because it is full of risks. You could not have worked this out alone. So who helped you?
JohannActually, a lot of preparations went into this climb. It is not something you decide to do when you wake up one morning. Like Jayanthi said she had been doing a lot of climbing; so have I. It was my father who got me interested from my school days in climbing and I have been climbing ever since. This dream is something we worked on individually; not the government or the Sports Ministry. We took the decision, launched a campaign, found sponsors and all that. But, we are happy that the government backed us because it was the first time a couple of Sri Lanakans were attempting to reach the highest point of the world. Our slogan was ‘Taking Sri Lanka to the Top of the World’ and that was what we did.
Q Has not a Sri Lankan climber ever attempted to climb Mount Everest before?
Jayanthi This was the first time Sri Lankans attempted to climb Everest. There had been other Sri Lankans before us but they had stopped at Everest base camp. There are four base camps in all. A few Sri Lankans had made it to the second camp, but no-one has gone beyond that. .
Q When you told your family members, friends, relatives and others about the Everest climb, what responses did you get?
Jayanthi My family I was always supportive and they knew I was always doing daring things. I cannot be doing all of these without their support.
Johann Families will always be concerned when you do something as daring as this. At the beginning my mom disapproved it completely and tried to get my father’s disapproval as well. But, my father said ‘no, he needs to do what he wants to do’. However, they gave us their whole-hearted support. I think their support was great.
"Well, yeah the whole country being behind us was an inspiration. That backing gave us huge strength"
Q What was the main purpose of climbing Mount Everest?
Jayanthi We wanted to climb Everest as we had a deep passion to plant the Sri Lankan flag at the top of the world on behalf of all Sri Lankans. We were honoured to do that. As a woman I like to encourage women and girls to take this sport of climbing. I hope more Sri Lankan parents would encourage their daughters to explore. We have got a beautiful country and there are so many mountains to climb.
Johann Well, yeah the whole country being behind us was an inspiration. That backing gave us huge strength.
Q It is a man and a woman who took Sri Lanka to Mount Everest. Johann, how did you like working with Jayanthi?
Johann I was happy to have Jayanthi with me. At the beginning, everybody said how come another guy is not climbing with you? I said I was glad to have Jayanthi as my climbing partner and that I could not have done it with anyone else.
Q Two Indian climbers who were with your team, died and three other climbers went missing during the trek. In previous situations also, there have been many deaths of climbers. So, there is a high risk in doing this. How were you prepared to prevention accidents?
Jayanthi We thought of the risks; a reason why we took such a long time in research and finding good expedition company that we could go with. We spoke to a number of other climbers from other countries and got their advice as well. We read blogs about climbing and noted their recommendations. After that, we spoke to a lot of companies and chose international climbers who had more than 30-years of experience in taking climbers to the summit and back safely. Actually, we were on their hands as in a sense because they decided when to climb, when not to, what to do and all that. They made sure that our accommodation, food and other necessary facilities and logistics also. We trusted them.
"We wanted to climb Everest as we had a deep passion to plant the Sri Lankan flag at the top of the world on behalf of all Sri Lankans"
Q How long did it take to reach the summit?
Jayanthi It took almost two months. It took two weeks to reach the base camp. We started climbing on early April and when we reached the base camp, you guys were celebrating Awurudu. From the base camp, we did a rotation which means we went to camp one from base camp, backed down to base camp, went to camp two, came back to the base camp, went to camp three and came back to base camp.
That entire thing took two months because body had to be given time to adjust as there was less oxygen at that elevation. Above base camp, it was less than 15% oxygen in the air. I reached the summit on Vesak Full Moon Poya Day.
Q What are the scariest moments you had during the trek?
Johann Once when I was climbing the mountain, I heard a haunting noise of a Khumbu Ice fall. My Sherpa grabbed me and said ‘jump off and don’t move’. My heart pounded as we hid behind a block of ice block and waited until the vibrations stopped.
Q How was the support you got from each other?
Jayanthi Honestly, we were down sometimes. Despite the training, we felt tired and lonely sometimes. But, we motivated each other.
Q What were the challenges you two faced?
Jayanthi The entire journey was full of risks and challenges. The mountain presented an intense challenge of icy temperatures and altitude where oxygen was limited. It was not a hospitable place for any living thing.
Eating and performing all other daily human activities were done on the ice. We brought dehydrated food and snacks to eat up to two months. It was difficult for us to drink and sleep also. We had to sleep with all the jackets and face covers on. And there have many problems on bathroom habits a lot of people were concerned about. However, we managed everything well.
Johann Lack of oxygen is one of the major challenges posed by Everest which is why I had to stop from just 300 metres below the summit. I had to undergo an operation at Camp two on my leg but recovered after that. I saw a climber falling to his death while trekking. First, I thought it was a bag falling down. Later, I realised it was a human being.
Q Johann, what kind of feeling did you have when you had to decide to turn back without going to the summit?
Johann Unfortunately, the reason was beyond my control. At the time I left from camp four to the summit, it was crowded and there was a lack of oxygen. My Sherpa told me I had no option because I had oxygen to run up to the summit but not enough to return. It was a hard decision, but I am glad that it was the right choice. I am happy that Jayanthi did it because we started this as a team.
Q How did you plan to share the details of the memorable climb with the social media?
Jayanthi We had an entire team who did more for us when coordinating with people, sponsors and well-wishers. A social media campaign was launched and it gave resulted in much financial and mental support. Just after, I came to the summit, I zipped off my jackets and grabbed a picture of the memorable moment.
Q Sri Lanka is a country where rights of women have always been argued and discussed, but not put to practice. As a gender activist, you must have planned to promote ideals on women’s rights and equality through your expedition. What is your message?
Jayanthi I was very proud to have made this achievement as a Sri Lankan and as a woman of course. I strongly believe that women can do anything if they can access opportunities. We live in a society where there are barriers for women. Women can win any challenge while they have got married, pregnant, having children or working in the kitchen. If they have equal rights as men, women can achieve their ambitions. After climbing Mount Everest, I still couldn’t believe I am back here in Sri Lanka on my bed with my rubber slippers on!