Jayanthi Kuru Utumpala became the first Sri Lankan to climb Mount Everest. In an article, she recounts the difficulties that she had to overcome in order to make it. Only three other countries (Poland, South Africa, and Croatia) have had women as the first summiteers.
On 21 May 2016, I became the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest. It was a deeply personal journey and an overwhelming one. In fact, I almost didn’t make it. About a week earlier, I was sitting inside my tent at Camp 2 – at an altitude of 21,000 feet – discouraged and disappointed in myself. It was cold and windy. The temperature was minus 30 Celsius.
I had already failed to reach Camp 3, higher up the mountain, because of poor timing. I felt I had just one more chance, to prove myself. Failing again meant risking my journey to the top of the world and my childhood dream. As a feminist activist, I also didn’t want to prove right those who thought that, as a woman, I should never have attempted this challenge.
I climbed Everest wearing an XS (extra small) men’s down suit, which was still too big for me. As for mountaineering boots: my feet are a UK size 4, but size 5 is the smallest on the market.
But I had to manage, as many of us do in a male-dominated world, where the playing field is seldom equal. And so I stuffed foam into my boots and went on.
I have embraced my public platform as the ‘first Sri Lankan’ and the ‘first Sri Lankan woman’ to summit Everest. This has been a conscious choice and I am trying to complicate narratives and challenge gender stereotypes and myths about women and what they can and cannot do. In the end, climbing Mount Everest has become a political act as well.
In many ways, Sri Lanka has been a pioneer in women breaking through glass ceilings when it comes to politics, work, and education. But there is still a considerable way to go in changing attitudes towards acts that involve physicality. As Utumpala says, “After talking at a rural school in Sri Lanka’s north-western Kurunegala district, young school girls told me they were thrilled that I was the first Sri Lankan to summit Everest. They had been taught by their (male) sports teacher that “boys are always first, and girls are second.” I had proven him wrong.”