Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala is the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest. She is also a gender specialist and a feminist activist with years of experience working on women’s rights. In this interview, Jayanthi shares her inspirational journey to Mount Everest, her interests in advocating for gender equality, how she developed a friendship and team spirit with her mountaineering partner Johann Peiris, and how conquering the tallest mountain in the world has also given her a political platform today to talk about conquering gender stereotypes.
Let’s start from before Everest. You have years of experience working with women’s rights and gender in Sri Lanka. You are a gender specialist by profession and a feminist activist. You have worked for organisations like the Women and Media Collective (WMC). You have an MA in gender studies from the University of Sussex. What got you interested in working with gender and women’s rights?
That will go back to when I was doing my first degree in India in Delhi University. I did English Literature at Miranda House, back in 2000. That was a women’s college and also one of the best colleges for English Literature. But what I didn’t know at the time was that it is also one of the best colleges to have a feminist department. In terms of the Faculty of English Literature, most of them were feminists. In the first year, I remember, when you study literature you also learn about multiple subjects; different aspects of history, sociology, and among them feminism. By third year I was a complete convert in terms of realising how important it was to analyse and look at things from a feminist perspective. Then I came back to Sri Lanka, looking for work. One of my friends put me in touch with the Women and Media Collective. I started work there, editing their feminist magazine that I had read during school. That was the beginning, meeting Dr Sepali Kottegoda, Kumudini Samuel, and Sunila Abeysekera, learning through the work they were doing and the organisation was doing. I am grateful that my formative years was spent there. I was 23 when I joined that organisation and pretty much for about 9-10 years I was with them. That was where I learnt everything I know about gender, sexuality, feminism, and the importance of that. As a woman, just having faced sexual harassment in the bus, every single day, going to work, it was a personal thing to me. I questioned why is this always happening? – really not understanding why and not knowing what to do. This was a space that I could learn more and figure out why it is happening and how we can all work towards ending that violence.
What was it like to work with Sunila, Sepali, and Kumudini, three inspiring figures that have had a prominent place with regards to the women’s rights discourse in Sri Lanka?
It was very inspiring. People ask me who inspired me and I think the three of them. Because at that age when you are in your early twenties a lot of things can sway you. There is so much information out there. For me, just to see these three women doing the kind of work they were doing over the years was truly inspiring. They had also founded the organisation. For many years, they have been part of this struggle of trying to get rights for women. When I joined what was interesting was it was just before the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was passed. It was still a bill and there were all these arguments in the parliament. It was interesting listening to why the MPs were refusing to pass this law. The kind of arguments they were giving. They would use these proverbs that stated a woman, a drum, and a slave ought to be beaten. How ridiculous is that? You learn how to strategise against comments like that. And a year later, the act was passed. It was a huge victory in that sense. Domestic violence is now recognised as an offense. People can’t just be saying she is my wife and I can do whatever I want. No, absolutely not. So, these three women were hugely inspiring to me in that sense.
While working at the Women and Media Collective, you take a year off to do your Master’s in gender studies at the University of Sussex.
I worked at WMC from 2003 till about 2008 when Sepali said ‘you have to go and do your Master’s’. I was like ‘I don’t study’, ‘I am not the studious type’. I am not an excellent student. I am average. But I started off with the postgraduate diploma here at the University of Colombo. Thankfully, I got a scholarship to do my Master’s in gender studies at Sussex. When I came back I joined the Women and Media Collective again on a part-time basis. After about being in one place for nine years, I thought I needed a change and then I joined Care International in 2013. The work was the same, working on gender equality but working with men and boys. It was a completely different thing and that seemed interesting, something I wanted to take on and try. That was my last job before heading off to Everest.
Although you are usually referred to as the first Sri Lankan woman to summit Mount Everest you are actually the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest. What inspired you to take up the challenge?
It had been a childhood dream really. I don’t know whether people believe me when I say this. People ask you when you are a child, ‘What do you want to do?’ This was my dream, but I never told anyone the answer. I was really scared they would think I was crazy. Throughout my life, I’ve looked for things to climb. When I was really young, at home, I would climb the cupboards and jump down. I’ve climbed all the trees in the garden, including coconut trees. Everest was a dream, but it was not something I thought I would ever do. But it was a dream to the level of if I die and I haven’t climbed this mountain I want my ashes scattered on the top. That kind of thing. I had to do it one day. My inspiration, I don’t know where it came from but it was just a desire I had since I was really young.
How did you meet Johann Peiris and develop a partnership with him to summit Everest?
I met Johann in 2011. Before that, when I was in India I did two mountaineering courses. One of my teachers from the University mentioned that her husband had been to this course. For me, that was one way to go to the Himalayas. I signed up for the course. I got to know more about rock climbing, mountaineering, and altitude sickness. It was an army training. It was really difficult. It was a proper boot-camp, which I didn’t realise until I rocked up there. So, I first did the basic course and then, the following year, the advanced course. When I came back to Sri Lanka, I didn’t know other people to climb with. It’s quite expensive also. Then a mutual friend put me in touch with Johann. My friend said, ‘You should meet Johann. He also loves mountains like you do. You will get on like a house on fire.’ Johann was also planning on an expedition the next year to a mountain called Island Peak, which is in Nepal. I was introduced to him, saying I might like to join the team. That’s how we met.
We started training together for that journey. That was a three-week expedition. During that three-week process and the run up to it, I also got to know him. The way to Island Peak is the same route to Everest base camp up to a point and you can see Everest. There is one place that you can see the mountain. I told Johann that one day I have to climb this. What do you think? Would you ever want to do it? He also thought about it and said, ‘Yeah, one day I wouldn’t actually mind climbing it.’ But nothing was set in stone at that point. After we came back from Island Peak, he would say ‘come and get your hair cut from me, come to the salon’. I couldn’t afford these fancy hairdressers because I wasn’t earning a salary that could sustain that. I would go to a cheap place, for 300 rupees, every month I cut my hair. He was adamant that I come and he was really nice. He would give me a huge discount. He would cut my hair. And everyone said that ‘now your hair looks really nice’. That’s also how our friendship grew. Because once a month, we sit and chat. I am talking about a mountain and we would do research on it. I think that’s where it began. Then two years later, he and his friends were planning to climb Kilimanjaro and I joined them as well. Even at Island Peak, there were three others. Kilimanjaro was also four of us. We were all successful. We came back and thought let’s try Everest for 2016. This was in 2014. Then we started training, preparing, writing a proposal, and digging for funding. That was a huge process.
What was the training process like in the lead up to Everest?
Part of the training in a sense was also climbing those previous mountains because there you double check your body at high altitude. I had done it many years ago in 2003 and 2004 and had been up 19,000 feet. I didn’t have any major issues. Basic symptoms of altitude sickness were there but everyone has that. Then, Johann and I did Island Peak together. It was also training together as a team, to see if we could survive on the mountain, as a team, together. I think the trust that was built was very important. I always thought of climbing Everest but not on my own. I didn’t know where to find a partner but I loved to meet someone, as passionate. Johann also wasn’t climbing Everest to become the first Sri Lankan or to make a record. We were both climbing it just to climb this mountain. That’s where we gelled.
So, the training regime, he does his gym anyway and I play sports anyway. Not majorly, but I do tennis or Ultimate Frisbee. But we had to start a proper regime. Everyday in the morning we wake up, go to Independence Square, do a one to one-and-a-half hour routine, then go to work, and sometimes we mix it up with swimming, cycling, running, jogging etc. In the weekend, we do interval training, running up and down Pidurutalagala and Kirigalpotta, the mountains we have here, for endurance. We had to really be at it and that was quite a process. We had to carry rice bags on our backs, like haal goni, to improve our shoulder muscles; basically, just get as fit as you can. Do everything and anything possible. It was about a year and a half of just doing that, in between our work commitments.
Was it very challenging?
Yes, it was. You have to constantly remind yourself why you are doing this. I hate mornings but I had to kick myself out of bed. It wasn’t a group class. It was just Johann and I. If I didn’t turn up, he is on his own. We were there for each other. We were working as a team. And you just constantly remind yourself that it is for Everest. I have to do this properly. I can’t have any short cuts. There is no space for any mistakes because your life depended on it as well as the success of it. It all depended on how fit you were, mentally and physically. It was just constantly reminding yourself I am doing this for Everest.
How difficult was it to find funding for that project?
The funding was really a huge challenge. Even with all the contacts Johann had, sometimes they wouldn’t give us appointments. Those who did thought that we looked dubious. They were skeptical of us. They were like ‘the two of them?’. Do we look like we could do this? For some people, it was almost like a joke. Who are these two people, they want to climb the tallest mountain in the world? No one in Sri Lanka has even done it, who do they think they are? It’s not like we are athletes in the mainstream media. There was a lot of skepticism and doubt that people had. Someone had even asked Johann why are you going with another woman. He has said ‘of course, that’s my climbing partner’. Someone even asked me ‘you are so tiny how can you climb Everest?’ There were all these stereotypes and boxes that people put you into. Eventually, not giving up was the thing. I remember at one point, maybe even in January, we hadn’t still got the funding we needed. We had to pay an advance to this mountaineering company we were going with. We still didn’t have money to pay them. We were leaving in March. Maybe by January we had sponsors for one person to go. I told Johann at that point that I would never be able to take a loan for this amount – it was 9 million rupees per person. It was hard to get that collected. But he was like ‘we are going to go, we are going to go together, and we will somehow find the money’. By mid-March, we had our final sponsor confirming. That was a huge relief. We also had crowdfunding. There were so many friends and family who supported us. There were sponsors who came together, who actually believed in our dream, who wanted to give us a chance, who were willing to take that risk of us not coming back and of us not making it.
In a recent article, you said that because mountaineering is an extremely male-dominated sport you had to wear XS attire that were designed for men. Why do you think it is that less women attempt to engage with a sport like mountaineering?
I think it boils down to stereotypes in society that are placed on women and men. I believe we live in a patriarchal society, a male-dominated society, where there are all these rules about what women should be doing, what boys should be doing, and what girls should be doing, what kind of sports should they be playing, what kind of subjects should they be studying, what kind of work, jobs, or roles should they be doing from a young age. It’s that whole gendered process. Very few girls are even encouraged to climb trees, to do cycling. Even for boys, those rules are there. How many boys are allowed to do dancing, ballet, or tap dancing? For girls, it is more. I don’t know how many of them get a chance to even go to university. Because at a certain time, you need to get married, then have children, and your life is pretty much not your own. It’s global, this issue. It’s not just in Sri Lanka. As a result of that, women have also less access. Biases are there; not to have dreams, maybe to go to the moon, become a pilot, to become a neurosurgeon or a scientist, discovering new things. That’s what prevents women from accessing these kinds of male-dominated sports.
Do you remember what you felt like, reaching the top and standing there on the top of the world?
What I felt when I was there and what I felt in retrospect is sometimes different because what you have to also understand is that your body is dying. When you are walking those last couple of hours in that process of dying it’s also like in a crazy stage. When we got to the summit, my Sherpa, my guide, told me ‘ok, we are here’. I was like in a daze. I couldn’t believe it. I was completely exhausted. But I went to the summit. It’s a small summit, like a pinnacle. I could see people on the other side. With mountains sometimes you never see the top. I was thinking why are these people there. I thought maybe we should keep walking because there are people there. Only after I got back, 3-4 days later, I realised those were people climbing from Tibet, the North side. We were climbing from Nepal, the South side. My brain wasn’t functioning rationally also at that time to understand that. So, everything in your body is slowing and shutting down. You are in a different state of mind. But I do remember it was so beautiful. The view was just amazing. It’s just clouds below you and there is nothing above you, like being in a plane because a cruising plane goes at about 30-34,000 feet. This is 29,000 feet. I had many fears also of not making it to the top, of being too slow. That was my biggest fear that I will be too slow and that I won’t make it on time. But having made it back to base camp two days later, my expedition leader came up to me and said ‘congratulations – you’ve just made history!’ – it was only then I realized that this was a big deal.
Referring to summiting Everest, you have said that ‘this was for girls … I did it for girls’. What sort of public platform or symbolic value has summiting Everest given you today, as a woman and a women’s rights advocate?
‘I did it for the girls’ comment came, just to explain a little bit more … One day at a certain camp I almost failed my timing and I had to make a second attempt to get from camp 2 to camp 3. If I failed again, the second time I will be out of the whole expedition. That’s where my biggest fear was. One of my biggest fears was if I don’t make this people are really going to think that girls can’t climb mountains or that girls are just bad at sports. I knew if I don’t make it people are not going to say Everest is a difficult mountain. They will just say ‘oh, she is a girl, why did she try?’ ‘why did she even bother’ – that stereotype. So, that was my biggest fear. And I think that thought really pushed me more because of all my ideals of feminism.
Yes, many public platforms to talk about this journey and link it to talking about challenging stereotypes, especially in schools, have emerged. In one school, after we did a motivational speech the boys all ran to Johann and some of the girls came up to me, just to get autographs and ask us extra questions. They were about 11-13 years old and some of them were just telling me ‘it is a huge thing that you climbed and you showed that girls can also be first’. And I said, ‘Yes, girls can be first and boys can be first. If you train anyone can do anything.’ Then they said, ‘No, our sports teacher says that boys are first and girls are second.’ I felt so bad and I felt so horrible for them. But at least I felt happy that they could understand that this man was saying nonsense. If my experience of climbing a mountain has helped them, then for me, that is a huge victory. That is far bigger than climbing Everest. Because it is also linked up to my work in such an amazing way to talk about challenging gender stereotypes, for me, that’s why Everest means so much more now than just a mountain. For me, it’s also a very political act. There have been many platforms that have opened up for me from schools to the corporate sector, the government, STF, police force, the army, just to do motivational speeches, talking about our journey but at the same time in that story I also talk about how we can conquer gender stereotypes, not just conquering ourselves.
How important was team work to summit Everest?
Deep down, I never wanted to climb Everest on my own. I wasn’t actually looking for a partner, but thinking one day it’ll be great if I could do it with someone else. Because it is also a journey that you have to trust someone with your life. People get selfish on the mountains. There was no way I wanted anyone who was ambitious and I’ve heard of other people in other countries who wanted to climb to become the first in their country. For me, that defeats the purpose of the whole journey and what you learn about yourself, life, and that experience. Then, I met Johann. On the mountain, every single day it was so tough, especially after base camp. Even up to base camp it was hard enough. There we had log cabins to be in. After base camp we just had tents. It was freezing cold and we hardly had room inside the tents. Finding a pair of gloves required taking out everything. We also had to do rotations up and down the mountain. Each time we get back to base camp, it’s like I don’t know how I am going to go back. I remember that’s when Johann and I would just keep talking to each other and keep telling each other ‘we are going to do this’. We kept cracking jokes just to keep our spirits up. Because it’s so easy to get low. You could get upset about anything there because you also feel so cut off and far away from friends and family.
We also had a fantastic team of six friends who were our support team. Teamwork wise it was a huge strength because it was two months on the mountain itself – 60 days. Everyone I met on the mountain were all new people. I didn’t know any of them. At least, Johann I’ve known for the past five years. We were talking about Everest in a sense and had been mountaineering together. So, that was a huge strength. And something that I really learnt from him was his positive attitude. He would always say, in those rotations, ‘It’s all in your mind’. I didn’t understand it until that day when I had to put it into practice. That’s why I am greatly grateful to him. Because he said it, it got stuck in my head for some reason and when I needed it I drew from it. And as women also we have less confidence because we are always told we are not good at this, we are not good at that, we are not supposed to be doing this. I had many doubts that I won’t make it. So, team work played a huge role. That was very important.
At one point, Johann stops and you were compelled to continue on your own the last leg of the journey.
I’ll explain that part. One of the safest ways to climb Everest is to go with Sherpa support, which means after base camp each climber has a guide. You leave base camp almost at the same time but because your pace is all different people end up walking at different speeds. At the end of the day, at the journey it’s just you and your Sherpa. You rarely go in a group. Because everyone’s speeds are different. Occasionally, there will be someone who is as the same pace as you. But Johann and I had two different speeds. He was faster than I was. Even on the last day, because I was slower, we asked our guides how we can get to the top at the same time. We wanted to be at the top together and take a picture with the flag. Because I was slower, our guide suggested that I go one hour early. So I left camp at 8PM, which was the time that most of the slower people were leaving. Everyone else, most people left at 9PM. I didn’t even know that Johann had turned back.
I continued and started going up. At the summit, I was hoping that at any moment now he should come up. It gets very cold if you are in one place, hyperthermia can set in and it starts freezing. Even with the big puffy suit, it keeps heated up only when you are moving. If you stop moving your body temperature just drops when it’s minus 60 Celsius outside. Then my Sherpa said after about 20 minutes that we should walk back down. I only met Johann when I got back to camp 4. I didn’t know until then that he didn’t make it. I was really upset. We were both crying. But there was no chance at that point to try again, for him. For everyone, that last journey is one last try. You make it or your don’t. If you don’t, you train and go back again another year. That’s what happens. Many people don’t make it on their first time. Some people have tried 3-5 times. But I know that it’s all because of teamwork that this worked. Teamwork in the sense that Johann and I are a team. Our Sherpas and guides are a team. The mountaineering company we went with – there is a whole team of people there who cooked us our food and who put up the tents. The team back here at home – the six friends. The sponsors who gave us the money to go. That was also a bigger team. Even all the comments that came on our Facebook page from people we didn’t even know. That all helped us and pushed us.
Any final inspirational words for young girls and boys wanting to accomplish their dreams?
I think my single message is don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you are a girl or a boy. If you have a passion for something, and you should have a passion for something, like a deep love for something, then go after it. Whether it’s a sport or a subject, whatever it is doesn’t matter. What I have also learnt is that if you really enjoy something and if you are deeply passionate about something you can always be good at it. Each of us have a skill. I discovered that mine is rock climbing and that is now my sport. Don’t let these gender stereotypes get in the way because that only prevents us from being the best we can be. Just go out there and follow your dreams.
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Date of Interview: 14 August 2017
Interviewer and main photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage