Exactly a full moon ago on the night of Vesak just before the break of dawn, a lone Sri Lankan woman was on the verge of realising the Everest of her lifelong elusive dream. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, aged 36, was staring death in the face at 27,000 feet above ground zero, her eyes determinedly fixed and [...]


One small Everest step for Jayanthi, a giant leap for Lanka’s womankind


Exactly a full moon ago on the night of Vesak just before the break of dawn, a lone Sri Lankan woman was on the verge of realising the Everest of her lifelong elusive dream.

THAT TOP OF THE WORLD FEELING: Jayanthi plants the first Lankan flag on Mount Everest after being the first Lankan and the first Lankan woman to peak the highest peak and achieve the singular honour of a double record

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, aged 36, was staring death in the face at 27,000 feet above ground zero, her eyes determinedly fixed and gazing at that almost unassailable crag of mountain top ominously known as the Death Zone, from whose treacherous bourn few bore hopes of returning. For many it was the last imposing stumbling block to overcome. For some, the last vista they would ever behold before falling prey to its many beguilements.

The peak of peaks didn’t yield entry to her celestial citadel easily. Only the toughest, the strongest and the bravest could dare trespass upon her icy perch, could dare violate her virginal snow-capped territory and live to tell the tale.

In the pelting snow, the howling winds were lashing the rugged terrain. Visibility was near zero as was the temperature which was now way below minus 31F. The shadowy, silhouetted, snow wrapped peak loomed before her, menacing yet inviting, forbidding yet enchanting; calling her, beckoning her, enticing her to take the last few steps to its moon kissed turret and bask in the glow of its pinnacled glory, in the manner the spider once invited the wary fly to its cosy parlour. But Jayanthi was no timid, trembling little fly. Though many who had dared to ascend that narrow winding jagged stairway had never come down again, Jayanthi was made of stronger stuff and knew that fortune favoured the bold.

In fact she had heard that call – the soulful call of the mountain – long before in her childhood days when she was climbing the sole coconut tree that grew in the back garden grove of her parent’s home in Dehiwela. She had heard it so oft since then; and, like the children of Hamelin had heard the mystic notes of the pied piper summoning them and had followed him to wherever he led them, so had Jayanthi followed enthralled the poignant call which came from the snow laced uplands. She had heard that call again and again which inspired her to climb every mountain, peak every peak and brave every challenge that appeared before her ken in Lanka.

She had heard it piping its svelte soft seductive tones again in New Delhi at the university where she was studying for her general degree. It had whistled past the long corridors of learning, rustled through the cluttered shelves of musty books in the damp uni library, stolen through the sleepy dormitories and piped its way through the key hole of her bolted door to wake her from her slumber to greet the sunshine that waited to kiss her future.

The year was 2003 and she, at that raw age of 23, had followed its irresistible call once more without question, without skipping a heartbeat, without blinking an eye when the piper of the mountains had laid his winsome pipe to his lithe lips and taken her far beyond her then known world, through a long and winding cavern to root her in an alien land betwixt earth and sky, inhabited by its earthly guardian mortals – the Sherpas of the Himalayas, a sturdy Tibetan tribe of yore who still live on the southern slopes of the Himalayan range in Nepal and eke out an exacting living from its barren landscape by being its ordained guides.

There, in a special commando training programmw conducted by the Indian military for students, she had undergone a six months survival course, learning not only how to physically survive the ordeal but also, and more importantly, how to mentally endure the harsh rigors the land of the Rishis ruthlessly and sans remorse demand of the impudent upstart who dare to strive with the Gods in majestic flight and hold in his or her presumptuous sights nothing more audacious than the conquest of its supreme peak.

After returning to Lanka and, after participating in many more mountain climbing expeditions spanning a period of thirteen years, including a test run on the Himalayan range, she heard the pied piper pump breath to his flute again and make the magic that slept in it come alive; and hold her swaying to its rapturous air in serpent trance that bade her dance on the Everest blade of death.

This time the call was more strident. The tempo more urgent. The piper did not let the piping drop and neither did Jayanthi who had lived her life preparing for this quintessential moment, call him to stop but to play on unto the end, no matter what Fate’s endgame held. ‘Action, without attachment to the fruit of the action, be it sour, be it sweet’ as told by Krishna to Arjuna in the midst of war as contained in India’s Song of Songs, the Bhagavad Gita, would have rung true on this glacial battlefield when the fruit of Jayanthi’s singular battle to conquer Everest was either life or death – even as it was to the Pandava brothers, when they, heavily outnumbered and against all odds, met the Kaurava forces as related in the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata.

JAYANTHI AND JOHANN: Commiserations to Johann who didn’t make it to the top and hearty congratulations to Jayanthi who did by going that extra mile

For she was ill equipped. And pathetically so. The odds were heavily stacked against her. But she was willing to fight all odds, even fight the Fates if they opposed her. Except for her six months crash course in survival on the Himalayan heights made possible by the Indian government during her student years 13 years ago, she lacked any formal training, was denied the necessary preparation vital to ensure optimum fitness and technique, was bereft of any Lankan government sponsorship and had to make do with her own personal financial mite and had to depend on the support of the corporate sector to provide her with the expensive but indispensable wherewithal for the conquest of Everest, the first attempt by a Lankan citizen to plant the flag of Lanka on the world’s summit.

All she had was her own indomitable will, fortified by her childhood dream, with the call of the mountain spurring her on to pursue her destined goal. Fortunately for her she had one blessing. In the course of her wanderings, a mutual friend introduced her to a hair dresser working in a city beauty salon who shared the same passion for mountaineering. His name was Johann Peries. Together they would attempt to scale Everest. And he, while following his own star up the mount, would provide the morale she so desperately needed. Arriving in Katmandu, all she had in her backpack to declare was her sterling determination, the morale crutch in the form of Johann and, for what it was worth, the good sentiments of the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who wished her godspeed and the best of luck at a brief meeting before her departure.

But the stern summons had come from the top of the world’s tallest peak. Despite her handicaps, the Himalayan gauntlet had to be run. The Fates had picked her and had put their imprimatur impishly on the shifting snows of an avalanche prone zone with her name writ on it. She was to be the chosen Lankan lotus to bloom on the topmost frozen garden lake in the world: Mankind’s secular substitute to Mount Kailāśa, the mystical, meditational heavenly Himalayan abode of Lord Siva, the destroyer of ignorance and illusion in the Hindu triumvirate.

In fact Jayanthi had answered that heady call two months before in March when she had arrived at the foothills of the Himalayas, home to Everest, from whence every ambitious ascent begins. It was in answer to that call first heard as a child while climbing a coconut tree in her parent’s home, she had begun the more than 50 mile vertical journey with her first step snow deep in courage; and every step thereafter dogged by the shadow of death.

It was that call that had taken her to Camp One called the Valley of Silence and then to Camp Two. It had prodded her on to scale the Khumbu ice fall, considered one of the most dangerous stages on the route. If that was not enough to tax to the utmost the resilience of the toughest, she and Johann also had to cross the Bergshrund, a large crevasse that forms where moving glacier ice separates from the stagnate ice above. This had to be scaled for more than five hours which at some places were at an angle of 90 degrees. The call now beating faster and with greater roar had urged them on to Camp Three which sits at an elevation of 23,625 feet. Then it had led her and Johann to Camp Four to rest briefly on the ‘balcony’ and there to gasp stupefied at the first amazing glimpse of the roof of the world.

At 8pm sharp, she had left the balcony. It had been heart rending to part from Johann but the disciplines of the mountain so demanded it. Both had come a long way together, both had shared the same penance the mountain extorts from all climbers, both had supped together the same stale crust of suffering’s moldy bread.

But the separation had to be effected for Johann’s time slot to begin his climb was an hour later at 9pm. That was the mountain code where everyone had to wait their turn to make the final assault, even as in life one must perforce await the allotted hour to rendezvous with death. No force could advance it. Nothing could delay it. Neither of them knew nor could anyone foretell whether the morbid spectre that loomed in their troubled minds now would materialize unannounced en route to the summit in the zone of death. At that moment life’s many illusions were fast melting like the snow that lay all around them would have thawed and melted if placed before the scorching heat of reality’s sun.

Neither of them knew either whether they would ever meet again. Each had their chartered course, their own line of destiny to inexorably follow. That was the only certainty that remained. If tears had swelled in Jayanthi’s eyes at that traumatic moment of parting, they would have turned to ice the moment they fell upon her cheek, benumbed by cold in spite of the protective clothing worn. With one last hug of farewell, knowing full well it may be the last, she turned away and walked towards the rocky face of death to realise the stark truth of what her fate line held in store for her. This was the last lap in the long climb; and, like a solitary monk on a lonely road, this final journey to keep one’s tryst with fate, had to be embarked alone. This was the reality of all life so strikingly brought home on a cold and desolate patch of snow nearly six miles above sea level.

Now, having left Camp Four at 8 pm on Friday, the time was half past four. It had taken her more than eight hours to reach this point and she was staring at the rocky face that had spelt doom for many. On Thursday an experienced Sherpa had fallen to his death just 125 metres away from the summit. On Friday Eric Arnold, 36, of the Netherlands, had died at night of a suspected heart attack while heading back after making it to the summit. It was clear that the mountain did not wish to let intruders leave after experiencing the mind blowing secret spiritual orgasm at the world’s zenith but pursued them relentlessly down the trail home as well. An Australian woman, 35 year old Maria Strydom, who had made it to Camp Four that same day was fighting for her life after suffering altitude sickness. She would not survive to see another sunrise.

As Jayanthi drank in the scene that unfolded before her, she could see the summit, so near and yet so far away. Over 280 had died in scaling the mount since the first attempt was unsuccessfully made in 1922; many have gone missing, feared dead and their bodies may perhaps lie buried beneath the drifting snow and may never be found. Would she become another casualty, end up as another statistical number to add to the already rising death toll? There were well over 200 corpses buried in the mount and some of them even serve as landmarks, the macabre signposts to what lies ahead.

Now with the air thinning further and with breathing difficulties increasing, it seemed that the wisps of cloud that wafted past her were the ghosts of those who didn’t make the grade, who had now come clothed in transparent white, to warn her of the perils the last lap held, with the lashing gusts of wailing winds giving mournful voice to their ethereal forms. But this was no place for the faint of heart or the time for the shakes to strike the hesitant knee and wobble Jayanthi’s upward mobility; and she felt her Sherpa nudging her shoulder and pressing her to make a move without dilly-dallying, flirting death.

The Sherpa’s urgings bring her back to the cold and she realises the importance of getting a brisk move on. The last section is very rocky and very narrow. Its only one person at a time and jumping the queue as Lankans are sometimes accustomed to do is practically not possible. There is only one line and she is clipped in and overtaking the one above is out of the question as it would demand a gymnastic act of leap-frogging. And it’s no cake walk when there’s sheer drop on both sides. It’s also quite rocky making it harder to use the crampons, with the ice causing the spikes on her shoes to slip.

As she moves step by careful step towards the summit she can feel the fatigue creeping up on her to move the goal post further and further away from her reach. It’s true what they say; the last steps are the hardest. But then she feels a sudden spurt of adrenalin pumping through her veins and lifting her spirits sky high when she sees the euphoric sight of the sun, moon and stars arriving forth in the night skyline, adorned in heaven’s glorious light, to welcome her ascent to the top most point of the world.

Under the canopy of a thousand twinkling stars, she watches in wonderment as the Vesak moon appears on one side of the mount, well rounded and elegantly graceful, mellow and tenderly beautiful, to bathe the white landscape in a soft yellow hue with one sweeping glance of eye; while on the other, she sees the sun make its magnificent entrance, rising from its eastern portal, to send its robust greetings – as the piper’s flute had once promised her thirteen years before – to awaken the Lankan lotus in Jayanthi and to make her rise exalted from the slush below to spread her thousand petals on the Everest peak, in the pristine air and lambent light of the breaking dawn.

Honour those worthy of honour
On May 21st 2016 when Jayanthi planted the Sri Lankan flag on Everest, she not only became the first Sri Lankan citizen to do so but also the first Sri Lankan woman to set foot on the Everest peak. Only four other women in the world have achieved this double record.

But did Jayanthi’s lotus bloom to blush unseen on the Everest peak and waste its fragrance in the Himalayan air? Did not even a whiff of her magnificent achievement which spoke volumes on what the human spirit could do properly motivated and dedicated, drift down the Himalayan climes and blow Lanka’s way?

When New Zealander Edward Hillary became the first to conquer Everest on May 29th 1953, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on June 2nd. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese, who was Hillary’s guide and the second to conquer Everest, was awarded the (King) George Medal of Honour, given to those meriting recognition by the United Kingdom. For being the first American to conquer Mount Everest in 1963, Jim Whittaker was awarded the Hubbard Medal by US President John F. Kennedy.

But what has Lanka done to honour Jayanthi for her incomparable feat? As far as those cocooned in their ivory towers are concerned, it seems that all she has done is no more than to have strolled up Lanka’s highest mount Piduruthalagala for a lark and reached its peak at an altitude of 2425 metres in fancy dress. Nothing to crow about, is there?

The only medals Jayanthi received came from the corporate sector which had creditably come forward to sponsor her expedition. The Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his wife Maithree who were flying to Singapore that same night and time the Everest heroine Jayanthi returned home, met her at the Bandaranaike International Airport and managed to congratulate her on her achievement. Apart from that, no other national recognition, not even an official congratulation has been bestowed upon her so far.

Prophets, it is said, are not recognized in their own countries. Is cricket the only game in town which prompts a stream of official tweets in Lanka? Is the triumph of the human spirit not worthy of national honour? Is the triumph of human endeavour which serves to inspire the countless millions in the Lankan gutter to see their star of hope and know it can be realised with perseverance, sacrifice and dedication, not the stuff of national celebrations? Or do the leaders of this nation prefer to keep the national spirit for ever deluged and drowned in a flood of excuses or submerged in a stagnant pond of apathy?

But no matter. Take a bow, Jayanthi. You’ve done all Lanka proud. That one small step you took 29,030 feet above ground zero one full moon ago has not only resulted in becoming a giant leap for all of Lanka’s womankind but also demonstrated to all of Lanka’s men too, the boundless power of the human spirit to dream the impossible dream and reach the unreachable star.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.