Colombo, November 18 (The New Indian Express): When Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala became the first Sri Lankan and also the first Sri Lankan woman to have climbed the 8848 meter Mount Everest in May this year, the Sri Lankan media went to town on it and accolades were showered on her by the elite of the island.
Only three women before her had had the distinction of being the first in their respective countries to have climbed the Everest. The 37 year old Jayanthi had also replicated the achievement of another world record-holding compatriot – Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike – who had made history in 1960 by becoming the world’s first woman Prime Minister.
Jayanthi and her mountaineering partner Johann Peries (who was with her up to 8400 meters and had to give up for lack of sufficient oxygen), are still besieged by schools and other organizations to give lectures on the thrills and challenges of mountaineering.
“The extent of interest is truly amazing. But people think that they can become mountaineers overnight. This is stupid. I tell them that it needs rigorous training, great mental strength and finances to buy the safest equipment,” she said.
And mountaineering in Sri Lanka cannot be the sport it is in the West, unless the government puts in money to create the right kind of facilities, and the people at large give the sport due recognition, she adds.
“In Sri Lanka, cricketers walk away with all the adulation, and encouragement in the form of awards and gifts like cars. The claims of others who also win laurels for the country are ignored. This has to change,” Jayanthi said.
She notes with a tinge of sadness that, till date, she has not got any national award or any reward for that matter.
“Edmund Hillary, who was the first to climb the Everest (along with the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay) in 1953 was knighted,” she recalled.
But Jayanthi is quick to add that lack of formal recognition does not discourage her.
“We are in mountaineering because of a passion for it. We are also pleased that the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) called us on the phone to congratulate us soon after the achievement,” Jayanthi said.
“The PM had also given us a banquet prior to our departure, and had earlier written to companies recommending sponsorship for the expedition,” added Johann.
Mountaineering for Gender Justice
But Jayanthi is not just a mountaineer. She is a “gender specialist”, as her calling card says. She is trying to link mountaineering to her campaign for bringing about gender justice and women’s rights in Sri Lanka. She believes that conquering the highest mountain on earth has demonstrated that gender is irrelevant even in a physically demanding sport like mountaineering.
“In Sri Lanka, as in many other parts of the world, women and girls are discouraged from doing things which are traditionally set apart for men. This ranges from climbing trees to doing a doctorate in the advanced sciences. Such discrimination must be ended. I am thankful to my father for letting me do risky things (of course on the condition that I take the right precautions). But I wonder how many families would allow their girls to cross cultural boundaries,” Jayanthi remarked.
Gender discrimination has affected the presence of women among those who attempt to climb the Everest.
“Out of the 5,000-odd who have climbed it, only 10 percent are women,” Johann pointed out.
Asked if women have the physical strength to take to mountaineering seriously, Jayanthi said: “Attitude is the basis of strength. Strength and endurance are attributes of the mind rather than the body, though physical fitness gained through training is a must.”
She is not taken in by men who put themselves on a high protein diet and work out in gyms to develop rippling muscles.
“For all that, they may not be able to lift a man!” she said dismissively.
Jayanthi herself is petite – hardly the picture of a tough mountaineer of one’s imagination. But she is fit.
“I play all games, run and swim,” she says. Johann is regular with his workouts at the gym.
Risks To Life
Endurance and fearlessness are essential for rock and mountain climbing as these pose risks to life, especially in the Himalayas with their steep inclinations, deep gorges, avalanches and blizzards.
“One out of eight people who had tried to climb the Everest have died in the process. So we were prepared to die when we set out,” Johann said.
“We had written out our respective wills before we left so that we didn’t leave a mess behind,” Jayanthi recalled in a matter of fact way.
Were they tormented by the fear of death?
“ I had no fear of death,” Jayanthi replied emphatically.
But Johann said that he did fear death at the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.
“ It’s is a dangerous place. There were ice blocks, crevices and an avalanche too. With the ladder moving and a terrific roar in the background, I felt I my end was near. But my inner spiritual strength saw me through,” he said.
The mountains have their secrets and at times only prayers can see one through the dangers ahead.
“The Nepali Sherpas who go up and done the Everest do a puja at the start, seeking permission from the Gods to begin the ascent and they go by their Gods’ command. Western climbers are disdainful about this. But the Sherpas’ innate sense cannot be discounted. Their predictions about the weather are often more accurate than those of modern instruments,” Jayanthi said.
Adequate training facilities, sponsorship and state encouragement for mountaineering are badly needed in Sri Lanka, Jayanthi and Johann said.
Jayanthi herself had the good fortune of doing a basic and an advanced course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) at Darjeeling in India when she was just 23. At HMI, she met Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first to climb the Everest in 1953. She also attended a very tough course conducted by the Indian army at 19,000 ft.
“ We need something like the HMI here,” she said.
Asked about their future plans, the duo said that they will continue climbing peaks all over the world.
“Each mountain is unique, posing its own challenges,” Johann said.
(The featured image at the top shows Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala unfurling the Sri Lankan flag on top of Mt.Everest at 5.03 AM on May 21, 2016)