The first time I heard Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala speak about climbing Mount Everest (Sagarmatha or Chomolungma), it was to a small room crowded with colleagues and friends, at the Women and Media Collective, where Jayanthi started her working life.
A fortnight after her return to Sri Lanka from Nepal, newly anointed the first Sri Lankan to summit Everest, Jayanthi was going to tell us about her climb. I had received an informal invitation to attend the small gathering and immediately asked if I could bring my husband, my mother and a friend. The reply was generous – of course that would be fine.
Jayanthi hugged and greeted everyone before she began her talk. She stood before us: her slight figure now wasted by the efforts of the climb, she seemed barely to be there at all. Full of smiles she said she would do her best to speak both in English and Sinhala (the two Sri Lankan languages she speaks, with differing levels of fluency) to address a mixed crowd.
We were also a crowd still more captivated by Jayanthi’s symbolic achievement than the rigour of her mountaineering — reading it first as a feather in the cap of our feminisms. For this unseasoned group, Jayanthi charted the stages of the climb. She spoke with an enthusiasm of discovery, as though she was herself standing with her novice audience, looking up at the challenges of Everest. It was the first time I had heard of the Khumbu Icefall or the Death Zone above 26,000 feet. Even as Jayanthi described the technicalities of the ascent, she took time to illustrate amusing details, like the ever-more rudimentary toilets at every level.
Several times, Jayanthi, animated, proceeded for minutes in one language before remembering to come back and translate herself as she led us to the final summit. By the end of the talk, we were still more awed by the feat Jayanthi had performed and also thrilled by her humility and charm in the way she shared the experience. The evening ended with a pot-luck meal of dishes brought by colleagues; Jayanthi moved among friends, ready to talk more or take a photograph with everyone who asked.
The next time I heard Jayanthi speak about the climb, with her climbing partner Johann, was six months later, at the Galle Literary Festival on Sri Lanka’s south coast. This time we waited for the Prime Minister to take his seat before the talk could begin. When Jayanthi and Johann appeared on stage in matching blazers, I remembered the spontaneous charm of the earlier event. We were seeing them now as they appeared in the media, meeting the President or their sponsors, or addressing conferences on leadership. The pair presented the Prime Minister and his wife with an illustrated book that detailed their climb and official photographs were taken. After formal introductions, the event began. Johann spoke first — that feminist feather wavered briefly — but throughout the talk he and Jayanthi passed the baton seamlessly between themselves, now a practised and polished double-act, accompanied by slides.
I ask Johann Peries where the story starts and he says it starts with his father’s adventurous spirit. Johann’s childhood holidays were all outdoors; camping, fishing, hunting. Later his father began climbing, alongside work that took him out of Colombo. Towards the end of Johann’s schooldays, he started to join his father on these expeditions, climbing whatever there was to climb in Sri Lanka.
With his father, and later other friends, Johann explored new routes of the Knuckles range, made his way from Belihul Oya to Horton Plains, ventured up hills in Hakgala and Nuwara Eliya. He rattles off the names of Sri Lanka’s higher peaks and ranges: Great Western, Piduruthalagala, Kirigalpoththa, Ritigala. Johann progressed to mountains on the Thai-Burmese border, to Borneo, to Kilimanjaro. In 2010, he joined a group trekking to Everest Base Camp. He remembers looking up at the scale of the mountain and wondering how people did it.
Two years later, Johann went back to the Everest region to climb Island Peak (or Imja Tse), this time with a group that included Jayanthi. Meeting for the first time, they became friends and Johann tells me Jayanthi was the first to raise the question: would he consider climbing Everest? Unlike Johann, Jayanthi had never been on the mountain before at all.
From the moment they decided to do it, there was work to be done. They had to start by working out how to prepare their sea-level bodies to survive a high altitude. Jayanthi was put in charge of research, Johann in charge of fundraising and the uphill challenge of convincing people that they weren’t crazy. At weekends, they would run up and down Piduruthalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, only a quarter the height of Everest. One day, on Horton Plains, Johann says he passed the same tour party several times as he ran back and forth. Finally the party’s guide stopped him and asked koheda mechchara duwanne?; ‘such a lot of running, to where?’ Johann told the man he was in training, but didn’t say for what.