Lanka to the Top of the World
Soon after becoming the first humans to climb Mount Everest on 29 May
1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay turned on their transistor radio
– and heard an overseas broadcast of Radio Ceylon, originating from the
island nation more than 3,000 kilometres away.
That story has been a broadcasting legend for decades, but no Sri
Lankan has tried the daunting climb – until now.
An experienced mountaineering duo, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann
Peries, will be the first Sri Lankans to attempt the summit of Mt.
Everest in the forthcoming Spring mountaineering season. They have both
individually and as a team successfully completed some of the world’s
most challenging treks in Asia, Africa and Latin America – not to
mention all key peaks in Sri Lanka. Mount Everest is located in the
Mahalangur mountain range in Nepal and Tibet, and its peak is 8,848
metres (29,029 ft) above sea level. It has so far been reached by over
4,000 people from many countries.
Jayanthi is a women’s rights and gender expert while Johann is a hair
and make-up designer and performing artiste. They are dedicating this
climb to their families, to the causes they advocate (conservation,
gender equality and healthy living), and to every child, woman and man
of Sri Lanka.
They plan to be part of a larger team led by International Mountain
Guides (IMG), a globally renowned mountaineering company, which has led
several successful Mt. Everest expeditions over the past 30 years.
Jayanthi and Johann who are busy practising and fund-raising for
their biggest challenge to date respond to some probing questions from
Q: First, why do you want to climb Everest - besides
mountaineer George Mallory’s classic answer to a New York Times
reporter: “Because it’s there!”?
Jayanthi: Short answer is: Why not? Life is too short; follow your
dreams. Long answer: It’s simply because I’m passionate about climbing.
I love to climb mountains, rocks, trees - basically anything that’s high
off the ground. And Everest has just been a dream for as long as I can
remember. As a child, when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew
up, my immediate answer that I never vocalized was ‘Climb Everest’.
Johann: Everest was something that inspired me from the first time I
saw it in 2009 when I did the trek to Everest Base Camp. It has also
been something that has been prophesised over my life, and I feel I have
been spiritually guided to do this by the God that I believe in.
Q: Mountaineering on this scale is a highly skilled task and a
major logistical challenge. How would your past experiences help with
Jayanthi: In 2003 and 2004
I successfully completed the 28-day Basic and 28-day Advanced courses
in Mountaineering from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI),
located in Darjeeling, India. This mountaineering school is one of the
leading schools in Asia to offer intensive (boot-camp!) training for
mountaineers. Most of the skills I learned during these two courses –
including rock climbing, ice climbing, crevasse rescue systems, rope
work, rope knots, snow craft (i.e. how to walk with crampons and how to
safely arrest a fall along a snowy slope with an ice axe), altitude
sickness (symptoms, treatment and how to avoid it), mountain first aid,
expedition planning, and many other related topics – have been extremely
useful to me during the preparation to Summit Mount Everest.
expeditions with Johann and friends to Mount Imja Tse [Island Peak] in
Nepal (20,305 feet/6,189m) and Mount Kilimanjaro (19, 340 feet/5,895m)
in Tanzania have also been useful to assess and learn more about
altitude and how to prevent it. Logistics can definitely be a nightmare,
which is why we have signed up with International Mountain Guides (IMG),
to assist us with all logistics and guide support during the 2.5 month
expedition to the Summit of Mt. Everest.
Johann: By being aware of the challenges that's facing us. Having
been part of previous high altitude expeditions has physically and
mentally helped me be more aware of the challenge at hand.
Q: We know that Sri Lanka’s mountains cannot compare with
great mountain ranges like the Himalayas and Andes. But is this where
you started climbing? How many local peaks have you guys conquered?
Jayanthi: No, they definitely cannot compare – but Sri Lanka has got
some amazing treks on offer to anyone willing to giving them a try; and
this is also where I began trekking and hiking. Some of the treks I’ve
done locally include, Adam’s Peak , Alagalla, Bible Rock ,
Kirigalpoththa , Kabbale Mountain (Kanneliya Rainforest), Maanigala (Knuckels),
Pidurangala, Sinhagala (Sinharajah Rainforest), Thotupola Kanda , and
Uthuwankanda among many others.
Johann: Except for the Seven Virgins in Maskeliya and the Namunukula
Range, I have climbed all other Sri Lankan peaks, ranging from dry zone
to wet zone to cloud forest.
Q: What has been the most exhilarating or challenging moment
in your mountaineering career so far?
Jayanthi & Johann: Definitely the Summit of Mt. Imja Tse,
particularly the final section of the climb which involved ice climbing
along a 70% ice wall and a ridge walk along a razor edge ridge to the
What kind of synergy do you two achieve when working together?
Jayanthi & Johann: Since 2011, when we summited Mt. Imja Tse
together, we have been working as a team, with the summit of Everest in
mind. As a team we believe we have skills that complement each other -
technical climbing skills from my (Jayanthi’s) end, and endurance and
stamina from Johann’s end.
We feel that this combination has been strong as we have been able to
teach, encourage and push each other to complete the expedition
successfully, particularly when the going gets tough and the air gets
thinner. In our past expeditions together, we have also been caring for
each other and looking out for one another when one gets a cold.cough or
any other ailment which could easily occur during any expedition.
Q: Have you both been to Everest Base camp during a past
season? What climatic, terrain-related or endurance challenges do you
Jayanthi & Johann: Yes. The biggest challenge is high altitude – as a
result of lower levels of oxygen, the air gets thinner, making it
difficult to breathe and move quickly. Proper acclimatisation is key to
overcome the challenges that come with high altitude. This can be done
by following a few basic principles such as drinking at least 4 litres
of water per day, following the ‘climb high, sleep low’ policy, and
eating 3 meals per day (even though you have absolutely no appetite!).
Q: When you set out on the Everest Challenge for the climbing
season of April – May 2016, you had to raise around USD 135,000 or
approximately LKR 19 million. Have you raised all or part of this? How
much are you short of?
Jayanthi & Johann: We have secured some funds and have had a high
degree of interest from a number of companies. However, we are still
short of funds and are doing our best to secure the balance. We are also
open to discussions with new sponsors coming on board with us as we
undertake this expedition.
Q: In the national scheme of things, this is not a great deal
of money – roughly equal to about 20 first class air tickets between
Colombo and New York. Have you tried crowdfunding? If so, with what
level of success?
Jayanthi & Johann: True – in the scheme of things, it’s not a massive
budget but sponsorship has been our biggest challenge so far. Although
we had thought about crowdfunding last year, we only recently opened a
site, as we understood the limitations of such a big budget and wanted
to first secure some bigger sponsors. As soon as we got some big
sponsors on board with us as well as government endorsement, we decided
to go ahead and crowdfund a small portion of the budget. The costs
raised through this will be used to pay our largest chunk of the budget
which is the Expedition Fee to IMG. Thanks to the Facebook page there
has been a lot of interest and so we have already managed to raise 32%
of our target in 7 days. You can check out our crowdfunding campaign
here - https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/everest-expedition-sri-lanka-2016/x/13395730#/story
Q: By when do you need to make the decision on climbing this
Season? Are you going ahead already?
& Johann: Since this has been endorsed by the President and Prime
Minister, we have already sourced out a loan facility to go ahead,
particularly as we have had to make a payment to IMG in order to reserve
our spots on their Everest Expedition for Spring 2016. IMG will take
care of all our logistics and accommodation, including the climbing
Q: What level of sharing online and social media do you plan
along the memorable climb?
Jayanthi & Johann: We have been informed that Everest Base Camp has
3G wifi and so we are hoping to provide daily updates as we go along. We
are currently working out the logistics in this regard. We also have a
Facebook page (Everest Expedition – Sri Lanka 2016) which can be
accessed here - https://www.facebook.com/Everest-Expedition-Sri-Lanka-2016-841768315935549/?pnref=story
– and which will be updated with trip reports/updates/tweets, etc.
Q: From advocating women’s rights to scaling high mountain
peaks – is that a leap too far? What message to girls and women do you
want to send out?
Jayanthi: Definitely not a leap too far. Rock Climbing and
Mountaineering generally fall under the category of Adventure/Extreme
Sports. As most of us know, women and girls are seldom encouraged to
take up basic sports, such as swimming or cycling, leave alone adventure
sports. This gendered division in sport prevents girls and women from
reaching their full potential.
As an avid rock climber, I believe that adventure sports such as rock
climbing and mountaineering help build self-confidence by pushing you
out of your comfort zones; it forces you to take risks, to face your
fears and take a leap, and sometimes even to fall; at the same time it
also teaches you to get back up again and to keep trying until you
eventually succeed. So my message to girls and women would be: don’t let
anything or anyone tell you that you can’t do something, until you try
it first and decide for yourself. Follow your dreams and believe in
yourself – you can do it!
You advocate nature conservation, gender equality, fitness and healthy
living, and mountaineering as a form of fitness. Do you plan to promote
these ideals through your expedition?
Jayanthi & Johann: We would really like advocate these ideals
particularly once we return from the summit. Right now, since we are
just a month away from the start of the Expedition, we need to focus all
our energy on the expedition itself, particularly on training and
securing sponsorships. Wherever possible, however, during the
Expedition, we will tweet or update Facebook posts advocating the issues
we believe in.
Follow Jayanthi on Twitter: @jayfemrock
(Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer, journalist
and development communication specialist with over 25 years of
professional experience in Sri Lanka and across Asia. He has made a
career out of asking questions, connecting dots and straddling different