Ms. Jayanthi Kuru Uthumpala is the first Sri Lankan to summit Everest peak. She was born in Dehiwala in 1979. After her school education at Bishop’s College, Colombo, she graduated from Delhi University and holds a Master’s degree of Sussex University on gender studies. This well-known gender activist was recently appointed by Ministry of Women and Child Affairs as the brand ambassador regarding women’s rights protection.
Q: Why have you opted for a career as a gender specialist?
A: Gender is one of my passions. That is why I selected it for my higher studies. Gender studies relate to our life. Our status in the society as women is decided by the gender perceptions among people. Therefore, I like to work forcreating gender equality.
Q: How does mountaineering relate to your life?
A: Mountaineering and rock climbing are my passionate hobbies. Climbing Everest was a dream I cherished since my childhood. I worked hard to achieve it.
Q: What background paved way for you to have such determination?
A: My parents encouraged me to follow my interests. When I was a child, I engaged in activities like climbing trees. My parents did not discourage me. Instead, they taught me the correct techniques. They encouraged me to engage in sports. When I was studying in India, I followed the basic and advanced mountaineering courses at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in 2013. They were conducted in the Himalayan mountain peaks in Darjeeling, India. Indian Army conducted the courses and Tenzing Norgay’s son taught in it. Tenzing Norgay was the Sherpa tribesman who guided Sir Edmund Hillary to summit Everest for the first time in the history. We had to use even oxygen tanks in this high altitude climbing exercise and it was a massive challenge for a woman. After that, I climbed many mountains in various countries.
Q: What kind of challenge was climbing Everest?
A: Meeting my teammate Yohan Peiris was very important in this endeavour. Together we climbed Island Peak of Nepal in 2012. On our way we saw Everest peak and we made a determination to summit it. We studied and planned the operation together. Because it was a struggle between life and death, we wanted to do it with a reputed mountaineering service provider. Raising funds for this endeavour was a massive challenge. It was not easy for both of us. A physically small woman like me being a partner of the team could be one reason for the difficulty of finding sponsors.
Q: How much was the cost for the entire exertion?
A: Rs. 10 million per person. The company that provided us services gave a Sherpa guide each to both of us to be with us throughout the entire climb. My Sherpa was a person who had climbed Everest four times. Several companies sponsored us. The climbing exertion extended for two months. It takes two weeks to reach the Base Camp. Many Sri Lankans have been there. Several Sri Lankans have climbed upto Camp 2 but no Sri Lankan had summited the peak before me.
Q: As a woman, how did you achieve this target?
A: Controlling body and mind was very important. We had to drink about four litres of water every day. We lack appetite for food when we are on high altitudes because of the low level of Oxygen in the atmosphere. High altitude sickness is a serious condition. There were many instances we were demoralized. In such times, Yohan and I encouraged each other. We worked as a team. You cannot summit Everest in a single climb. First you have to go to the Camp 1 from the Base Camp, spend a night there and come back. Then you must rest for two days. That helps strengthening the level of red cells in your blood. Next time, you pass the Camp 1 and go to Camp 2.There you stay for one night, climb down, spend another night and return to the Base Camp to rest again. Likewise, you have to endure the climb to the Camp 4 before you summit the peak. Once, I failed to return to the camp during the given time and I could have been rejected to proceed. I was given and extra chance to proceed to the next level but with an additional time restrictions. With determination, I achieved the target. Everything was challenging both mentally and physically.
But I thought that if I had failed one might have told that I could not do it because I was a woman. That encouraged me to continue without giving up.
Q: What is the message you give to women by summiting Everest?
A: Being a woman is not an obstacle for achieving challenging goals. Society has taboos and stereotypes which hinder women from utilizing their potentials fully. Since childhood, girls are discouraged of engaging in activities like climbing trees, riding bicycles and sports. As women, we must challenge the stereotypes and the orthodox attitudes. We must struggle for equal status and opportunity. Although my partner Yohan Peiris could not summit the peak because of unavoidable technical issues, we worked as a team and I was able to make the history. Only seven countries in the world have seen the first person to summit Everest is a woman. Sri Lanka is the only such country in Asia.
Q: What is your opinion on the biased gender view that man is physically stronger than woman?
A: The idea that the woman is weaker than the man originated with the evolution of patriarchal society. In the maternal society, the woman was equal to the man. But after the ownership of the private property was taken over by men, male philosophers built the opinion that the woman was weaker. It is not the truth. I urge girls and women to be proactive and to try to overcome the barriers that hinder them. If women have determination and if they are given the opportunity they are able to take up any challenge.