On Top of the World: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala’s journey to the Highest point on Earth
Interviewed By Sharanya Sekaram and Bhagya Wickramage, Written By Sheshadri Kottearachchi
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive —Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
If given a choice to speak in front of a crowded room or scale a treacherous mountain full of unexpected twists and turns, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala would much rather be 8,000 meters above sea level, at the very peak of a frosty summit. And she has done just that.
At 5.03 am on 21st May 2016, Jayanthi became the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest, placing her among four other women who were the first in their respective countries. She describes the journey as a test of both physical and mental endurance until the very end, “You can’t sit still or sleep for too long; you have to keep on moving.” ‘Moving’ is a habit that comes naturally to Jayanthi ever since she was a young girl. “I don’t like to be in one place,” she says, explaining how she’d often find herself hurrying about with a hockey stick after being coaxed into playing a match she had previously known nothing about. Jayanthi’s inclination to keep moving followed her through her late teens when she applied to study English in India.
Jayanthi would spend the next three years immersed in a feminist worldview. “I was at Miranda House, a college that is a part of Delhi University, well-known for its feminist English Department,” she explains, “During my first year there -and I can’t believe I felt this way initially- I thought to myself ‘Whoa, this is way too much feminism!’.” Her academic exposure was not unlike her childhood upbringing, where she recalls how her parents never raised her to be a ‘stereotypical Sri Lankan girl.’ Incidentally, her father was the first person who taught her how to climb. “He was briefly in the Air Force, and his method of doing anything was to ‘do it properly or not do it at all’,” she fondly recalls, “The same logic was applied when he taught us how to climb trees.”
Jayanthi appreciates the support she has had, growing up, “I am very privileged to have parents and friends who motivate me to do what I love and also do what scares me — like addressing large crowds at corporate events!” This encouragement and support eventually led her to the highest point on earth five years ago. “Ever since I was a young girl, I always dreamed of climbing Everest,” she recalls, “I first admitted this to my partner at the time.” What seemed to be casual admission of a childhood aspiration would soon begin a great adventure that would span three years. “The moment I told my partner that I wished to scale Everest, she jumped on it,” Jayanthi recollects, “she had a close friend who knew an Australian who had climbed Everest. It wasn’t long before she got his Skype ID for me. I spoke to him for a while, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I am actually talking to someone who has climbed Everest!’ No one in Sri Lanka had climbed it before.”
The realities of the process were far from glamorous. “The first conversation about climbing Everest began in 2013,” Jayanthi says, “After that, it was a tedious process of searching for funding, assembling all the required gear; not to mention physically and mentally preparing myself for a journey that, in reality, most people never return from.” A grueling period of preparation was made more accessible through the unwavering support and enthusiasm of her partner at the time. “She would help me fill forms requesting for funding, write letters, get in touch with people who could help and support, all while constantly reminding and reassuring me that this was possible, that I could do this,” Jayanthi recollects. But it wasn’t always easy. “At one point, I had to sit down and write my last will,” Jayanthi says, sounding somber, “It was a strange feeling, knowing that there was a clear possibility that I may not return.” Despite the dangers that would most likely await her, Jayanthi is grateful that her partner had complete faith in her potential to succeed. “She supported me throughout my journey to the summit, also giving me much-needed emotional support from miles away, sharing encouraging messages, and cheering me on. I really couldn’t have done it without her.”
Climbing up Chomolungma, or ‘Mother of the Earth’ as the Sherpa people devotedly refer to Mount Everest, was a difficulty Jayanthi had hardly expected. “I knew it was going to be tedious,” she admits, “But nothing prepared me for the extent of what I had to endure.” She explains how each climber is given a maximum number of days to reach each camp, and Jayanthi found herself repeatedly nearing the limit of her allotted time. The frustration of falling behind would test Jayanthi’s faith in herself more than anything she had ever experienced. “Everest taught me how important it is to believe in yourself. I had failed my first attempt to reach a camp in the allotted time, and I was given one last chance. If I failed once again, I would be sent back home. My biggest motivation that day was the fear that if I failed, it would only reiterate the patriarchal notion that ‘women are weak’ and this was something I could not bear, and so I pushed myself like never before.”
When she finally reached the top of the mountain, overcome with fatigue, relief, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, Jayanthi posed with a flag of Sri Lanka in front of her and the love and support of an entire nation, her friends, partner, and family behind her. Following a 9-hour ascent and halfway through the 14-hour descent from the summit, Jayanthi recalls desperately wanting to stop for a night, a request that was wisely refused by her high-altitude climbing guide Sherpa Ang Karma because it would have put her at the risk of hypothermia. “At one point, our Expedition Leader back at Base Camp got on the walkie-talkie to give me a reality check,” she says, with a grin. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just climbed Everest, so now you can also walk back.’ I cried even harder after that, although I later realized that it was for my safety.”
Now, when Jayanthi isn’t climbing mountains, she inspires others to do the same — metaphorically. “I give talks at schools and universities,” she says, “I tell them about conquering their fears and minds, as I did. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you are a boy or girl… There are these rules made by society, which restrict us, so it is our responsibility to break these rules because they’re not valid anymore.”
Her incredible journey to Everest has not only allowed her to achieve her childhood dream but challenge stereotypes assigned to women and girls. “ If people tell me I shouldn’t do something simply because I am a woman, I’m going to try my best to do it. It’s an ongoing journey. Challenging gender stereotypes is a bigger mountain to climb.”
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)
(Bhagya Wickramage currently a Creative And Strategic Consultant for Everystory Sri Lanka and has been a part of their Core Team since 2020. She holds a Bachelors’s Degree in Psychology and is currently reading for her Master’s in Clinical and Health Psychology from the University of West London. Bhagya also manages a popular concert series called Naadhagama that focuses on creating a platform for young and upcoming local musicians in Sri Lanka.)
(Sheshadri Kottearachchi is a communications consultant working in the development sector, a gender advocate and former UN Youth Delegate)
Reference Links and Further Reading
- #She Takes on the World — Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka, 6 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbzcf_ben5E
- Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, Women Talk SL, https://womentalksl.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/jayanthi-kuru-utumpala/
- She’s the First Sri Lankan (Woman) to Climb Mt. Everest, RobbReport, 10th July 2019, https://robbreport.com/muse/thought-leaders/jayanthi-kuru-utumpala-first-sri-lankan-woman-to-climb-everest-2857624/
- After Everest: can mountaineering tackle gender myths in Sri Lanka, openDemocracy, 29th June 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/everest-gender-stereotypes-sri-lanka/
- Down the Mountain: the year that followed Everest, for Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Pieris, Adda, Commonwealth Writers, 19 May 2017.
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