Ajith Jayasekera, the first Sri Lankan to have taken schoolboy teams to the base camp of Mount Everest, has been showing the way to many for over two decades
He did stand tall
By Randima Attygalle
Lord Baden Powell chose a citadel in Kandy to found the first scout troop in Sri Lanka little knowing that local boys would secure the Commonwealth Flag for the best scout troop for three consecutive years. Many years later, a young scout from this very citadel of Dharmaraja College, Kandy with a thirst for adventure and love for nature, studied every shrub, made friends with porcupines, squirrels on the mountain ranges of Knuckles, Hunnasgiriya, Hantana, Alagalla, Badulla and Nuwara Eliya along the banks of the Mahaweli.

By the age of 20, young Ajith Jayasekera knew Kirigalpotta, Thotupala, Namunukala and Pidurutalagala like the back of his hand. In 1983 at the age of 22, he explored the Himalayas climbing the Tiger mountain and in 1985, he led the first Sri Lankan school team of mountaineers - a group of 12 scouts from Dharmaraja to the Annapur mountain of the Himalayas.

"It gave me immense pride to wear the scout's uniform for the first time in 1969 as a schoolboy of Dharmaraja College which is considered the birthplace of scouting in Sri Lanka," said Mr. Jayasekera, who believes he is the first Sri Lankan to have reached the base camp of Mount Everest.

Mr. Jayasekera is presently Warden of Lake View Park International Scouting Centre housed in the premises of Dharmaraja College, Kandy. Having won the President's Scout Award in 1975- the most prestigious award for a scout, he was appointed an assistant scout leader of his alma mater. "Mountaineering is an important component in scouting and I excelled in this, proving that it's not the person's height which matters in reaching heights but the inner strength to endure the worst," laughed Mr. Jayasekera- a man of small build himself.

Smiling at the memory of his maiden Himalayan expedition in 1983, Mr. Jayasekera said that the foundation was laid when he represented Sri Lanka at the Ninth All India National Jamboree in Gaya as a scout leader. " I was one of the 37 participants from Sri Lanka at this summit and this is where I met the leader from Bangaladsh- Hari Prasad," he said.

When he returned to Sri Lanka, he was bombarded with questions about the Himalayas from fellow scouts and friends. So in 1983, with Rs. 2000 in hand he set off for the land of gods and the Yeti!

"At that time under the Sirima-Shastri Pact, ferry services were operating from Talaimannar to Rameshwaran, South India and the ticket cost Rs. 400. I arrived in Madras and then boarded the train to Calcutta," explained Mr. Jayasekera.

Having arrived at the India- Bangladesh border, he then proceeded to Peshore in search of Hari Prasad's home, only to find he was away. But as luck would have it, Hari Prasad's uncle was the Director of the Himalayan Mountain Institute. " I was ecstatic when he offered me training free of charge as it cost a fortune even at that time and today would be around US $ 1000," said Mr. Jayasekera.

During this two-week training programme, the team was led to the south side of Mount Everest where he got the opportunity of exploring Tiger Mount and Pandian. "Despite obstacles like dense forest, glaciers and the cold which creeps through the fingernails like needles, it was a dream come true to see snow-capped Everest with my own eyes."

Mr. Jayasekera returned to Sri Lanka determined to share his wealth of experience with fellow scouts. In 1985, he selected 12 scouts for the maiden school expedition to Himalayas from Sri Lanka. Ability to endure both mentally and physically, optimism, planning and strategic skills, ability to overcome both nature's and man-made obstacles and team spirit were vital ingredients in the selection process according to Mr. Jayasekera.

The team went through a vigorous training period of six months climbing Thotapola, Kirigalpotta, Knuckles, Namunukula, Alagalla (for rock climbing) Dolosbage etc. Creating headlines at that time, Mr. Jayasekera and his team reached Annapur mountain.

"In 1987 the second expedition team from Dharmaraja College explored Lantang Luring glacier and in 1989 I took the third team up the Everest Base Camp which was another victory," said Mr. Jayasekera.

" I am very thankful to Mr. A.P. Gooneratne, former Principal of Dharmaraja College and later at Ananda College during whose time, I led several expedition teams. He placed utmost faith in me, well aware of the risks involved yet remained a pillar of strength throughout," said Mr. Jayasekera who also expressed his gratitude to the Old Rajans Scout Association and present Principal of Dharmaraja College, S.M. Keertiratne.

Mr. Jayasekera led the first team of Anandians in 1991 to Lantang Luring glacier and in 1993 to the Everest base camp. Since then he had taken many teams at district level, national level and in 1997, a team representing 12 schools.

The height each team can reach depends on its ability and resources. Although there are students who possess the physical and mental strength to reach the summit of Everest the obstacle lies in financing such an expensive expedition. "To reach the summit of Everest from the base camp, it requires many years of planning, extra climbers (apart from the main expedition team) and a large number of porters to carry about 24 tons of gear and equipment. All of this requires a lot of money which is difficult for a school team to obtain. We have to be proud of our boys who reached the base camp of Everest raising funds on their own and carrying equipment all by themselves which is otherwise done by porters," said Mr. Jayasekera.

Mr. Jayasekera recalled the avalanche which engulfed his team of Anandians in 1991. "We stopped on a 'moraine' (a layer of stones on top of an ice layer) for refreshments and while walking across it after the break, suddenly we saw an explosion of ice and chunks of ice falling down. Had we been right below, we would have all died on the spot," said Mr. Jayasekera.

Emphasising the need to promote adventure activities among school children, Mr. Jayasekera pointed out the need for a national body to monitor them. "With the development of information technology, youngsters are exposed to adventure and naturally crave to achieve something exceptional. It is important to encourage them," said Mr. Jayasekera who strongly believes that the challenges and risks involved in this gruelling journey, have shaped the personalities of the 'youngsters' whom he once took under his wing. "I am proud of all the students whom I guided who are now well established in their chosen professions. The secret behind their sense of independence, responsibility and unshakable determination lies in every cent they raised, every meal they cooked and every night they spent in a sleeping bag with the belief that nothing is impossible," said Mr. Jayasekera with a smile of humble pride.

This happy and contented man who has dedicated his entire life to moulding youngsters not only into competent mountaineers, but men of integrity, is a strong advocate of nature. "A true explorer and a lover of nature adapts to its circumstances. One should eat what the locals eat, one should be part of their customs. Most people believe that travelling means spending weeks and months in luxurious hotels. Parents should encourage children to live close to nature and make them young 'researchers'. A child who sees the beauty of a wild flower and enjoys the humming of a bee, will be a happy and a balanced child who will see beauty in the simple things life offers," he says.

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