Meeting the first Sri Lankan who ever climbed Everest!
On February 13th 2017, we gathered for a rather unusual assembly with a very special guest: Jay Kuru-Utumpala. She is the first and only Sri Lankan mountaineer who has ever summited Mount Everest. And at 1m56 and weighing 45kgs she is smaller than most of us! For the hour, she spoke to us about her experience and how her resilience and perseverance guided her through this tough expedition.
Jay met Johann Peries, her mountaineering partner, in the run-up to their Island Peak Expedition (6189m) in 2012. They spent three successful weeks on the mountain together and she invited him to join her in climbing Mount Everest (8848m). After some thought, he agreed and they started training together. This took a lot of self-motivation from both since they had their own full-time work commitments… and no high mountains to train on in Sri Lanka! They climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014, the highest mountain in Africa (5895m).
Financing the Mount Everest Expedition was difficult; the duo faced a lot of rejection from corporations and the Sri Lankan government, as some thought a woman shouldn’t even be doing this expedition in the first place. Thankfully they eventually received enough funding. They chose to join an International Mountain Guides expedition for their experience and track record. Michael Hamill, Jay’s team leader and guide, is one of only 5 people to have climbed the 7 summits more than 5 times. Jay’s Sherpa Ang Karma had himself also summited Everest several times.
By March 28th, the team of climbers had departed Katmandu. They reached the Everest base camp by foot, which is the easiest part of the journey, lying at 5,400m. They were going to climb Everest from the more popular South Side (Nepal) rather than the North Side (Tibet). This involved going through the deadly Khumbu Icefall several times, its challenge well illustrated in the film Everest.
This was indeed when the real challenge begun. As is necessary at such high altitude Jay, Johann and the team of guides and sherpas climbed the mountain in rotations – they would have to reach Camp 1 (at 6000m), go back down to base camp, reach Camp 2 (at 6,400m), back down to base camp, a few active rest days, etc. For each climb, the mountaineers had to reach the particular camp under a period of time as a test to see if they could continue the actual expedition, mostly because on summit day they would be dependent on the time their oxygen bottles would last. It was a lot of pressure added to the physical exertion, and both Jay and Johann found it mentally challenging.
Jay noted for us the quality of the food and accommodation at base camp, which unfortunately became more and more basic as they went up. She was so disgusted by the army ration food in Camp 2 that she lost her appetite, but was then forced to eat by her Sherpa for energy the next day. The toilets were the same as the food: what was a typical outdoors toilet at base camp became an ice wall surrounding a bucket at camp 1… and only just a bucket higher up…
On her climb to Camp 3, Jay did not make it in the 9 hours deadline and was obliged to go back down to Camp 2. Although she was begging her Sherpa to keep going, he refused as this would risk both her life and his. She was given another chance to go up the following day, but if she had failed again, she would have been told to return home. This was when her resilience came into play and she just kept going, determined to make it in time.
As she said to us: “If you believe in yourself, your mind can actually be stronger than your body.”
At Camp 4 at 8000m, also known as the Death Zone, no mountaineer is allowed to stay the night because of the harsh conditions, as the body starts to deteriorate in such extreme temperatures. Over 200 dead bodies lie there between camp 4 and the summit, an eternal reminder of the difficulty of summiting and making it back alive, as illustrated in the film Everest, which focuses on the blizzard-stricken 1996 expedition.
The team had a few hours rest, lying three in a small tent for warmth. Jay was allowed to leave for the summit push at 8pm as she had been slower than the rest of the team beforehand. Johann and the rest of the team left at 9pm, the same time as most of the mountaineers at camp 4, and got stuck in a long queue of hopeful mountaineers.
Due to the “mountain traffic” which slowed his ascent, Johann unfortunately ran out of oxygen with only 450m to go. His Sherpa ordered him to turn round as he would not have enough oxygen to both summit and climb down alive. Johann later told Jay he was torn between turning around so close to the summit and going for it regardless but his Sherpa had told him: “yes if you go on you will be a hero… but you will be a dead hero”.
Jay still insists, however, that the expedition was teamwork even though she reached the peak alone. Without Johann’s moral support, she says she wouldn’t have been able to conquer her long-standing dream. She brought the Sri Lankan flag to the top of the world and made history. She insisted though that she had not conquered Mount Everest but that the mountain had allowed her to climb it. She concluded her visit with the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to have ever climbed the mountain; “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.
Her visit has certainly inspired us all to work harder for our own goals.
Jay Kuru-Utumpala is a United Nations advocate for Women’s Rights and has published a book about her expedition which is available in our school library.
Following her ascent she was appointed ambassador for Women’s Rights and Violence Against Women (VAW) by Women’s and Child Affairs Minister Chandrani Bandara.
‘What Jayanthi has achieved for our country and for women can’t be described in words,” Minister Chandrani Bandara said, making the appointment.
I hope my journey has proven that women can do anything if given the opportunity, Kuru-Utumpala said.