By Dimithri Wijesinghe
On Thursday, 31 January, Sri Lanka’s very own Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries, who famously conquered Mount Everest in 2016 and 2018 respectively, will set off to take on their next big challenge – Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua.
The duo will leave for South America to conquer what is referred to as the highest mountain outside the Himalayas as part of a long-term trial they’re taking on to complete the Seven Summit Challenge.
The seven summits are comprised of the highest mountains located on each of the seven continents: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Vinson (Antractica), Elbrus (Europe), and Puncak Jaya (Australia).
It is regarded as a significant mountaineering achievement and is undoubtedly no modest undertaking.
Here’s what Johann and Jayanthi had to say about their partnership forged in determination and a shared passion, and the challenges that lie ahead.
Q: As islanders, climbing isn’t something that is ingrained in us, and so it is a curious thing to see that you both have this overwhelming passion for mountaineering, how and when did your love for climbing take root?
Jayanthi: Climbing is something I have always been very passionate about, even from a very young age. Back then, when I studied in India, I did some mountaineering courses and since then whenever I travelled and if I find some downtime, I would always go and climb something, actually, not even time off, whenever I went for conferences and such things, I would just find time, save up to go and climb something.
Johann: For me, I used to go trekking and hiking with my father and that’s how the interest grew in taking on bigger challenges. Later on, in life I met this amazing group of friends and we started going out of the country trekking the borders of different countries and doing things that were slightly more adventurous.
Q: Mountaineering is far more physically demanding than hiking, and it is in fact a very technical undertaking, how did you come to learn the ropes when it comes to surviving on a mountain and did you ever think you would achieve something so massive?
Jayanthi: I was in Delhi doing my first degree and I pretty much saw a photograph of someone in the snowy mountains in the Himalayas and all I wanted was to go there. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t have any friends in India who wanted to come with me to do this, but then I was told that there was a course I could follow to learn all the basic skills and I did that for one month, and the following year I did the advanced course as well.
Johann: I went to an Everest base camp in 2010 and seeing it at that time, I never ever imagined that I would be climbing it, one day I looked at it and thought my gosh how do people go up there!? That was the only thought, not that I was ever going to do it, but then I met this mad lady in 2011 that looked at it and asked ‘you think we can climb this?’ And I of course promptly said, ‘why not? Let’s give it a shot’.
Q: The two of you have really forged a grand partnership, having conquered what very few humans around the world have managed, how important would you say is that partnership you’ve nurtured and how really did it come about?
Jayanthi: I met Johann in 2011, when a friend of mine suggested that I should meet him and that he was planning on an expedition to Nepal. I asked him if I could join him on his expedition and he said yeah sure.
That was the beginning of our friendship, when I realised he was someone as crazy as I was, and not just about any mountain, but also as crazy about Everest. And so naturally we said one day we shall do it, we spoke about it extensively.
Then we climbed some mountains together, we did Kilimanjaro in 2014, in a sense thinking this could be a great bonding experience for us to train as a team, to work together and that was very successful which was lovely and that’s when we decided Everest was next on the line.
Johann: That team that we built, the partnership really worked well, I think. We did Mount Kilimanjaro together as she pointed out, and we soon realised that our interests aligned and that we were quite similar. Our mindsets were in the same space where climbing and all that is concerned, and it just worked. I think that it is important to have a really strong partnership like this.
Especially on Everest, you have to really depend on each other and to be frank; your lives depend on each other. That partnership was very important and that’s why we’ve been motivated to do more things together.
Q: In 2016, the two of you were the first Sri Lankans to undertake the challenge of summiting Everest but Johann you had to return without making to the top and you made the gruelling climb once again in 2018, what was that like?
Johann: Yes, I took on the challenge a second time last year as in 2016 my oxygen tank failed 400 meters before the summit.
And having J support me from here, it was a great strength, she was right there with me through out and even when I came back from the mountain she was there in Kathmandu, when I was doing the climb, I was certain she was climbing with me in spirit.
Jayanthi: I was really on pins, waiting for him, my heart was hammering. I couldn’t be there with him physically, but I was very anxious for him, and was overjoyed that he came back after a successful ascension.
Q: So why the Seven Summit Challenge? Barely 300 people around the world have done it and that in itself speaks for how difficult of a task you are about to undertake.
Johann: It’s just achieving something you know, something greater than our mortal selves could fathom. We just don’t give up and we don’t want to sit back and grow old. We do it, because we have a passion for it, nothing more and that’s the main thing.
Jayanthi: This mountain that’s coming up, I have my fears, I am afraid of the weather which is really unpredictable near the ocean, so the rains are highly unpredictable. It’s known to have ripped tents apart, and so there is definite fear, but also being so close to death makes you feel so alive, and certainly more appreciative and grateful for being alive.
In a way, it sheds perspective on life, and really adds meaning to being grateful for being alive, and the wonderful feeling of doing it with someone else.
Q: Finally, what is the plan for the coming years? The seven summits are not something you simply get done, and considering you’ve opted for the more challenging Messner’s list, it’s going to take some time and considerable financial backing, how do you plan to finally complete what appears to be near impossible?
Jayanthi: We decided on the seven summits, because there’s a lot more research done into it, there’s readily available information and we’ve already done two, not to mention that it’s a great escape to do something absolutely enjoyable.
Johann: It’s never been about proving anything to anyone. It’s about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones.
And because it’s about pushing ourselves, we’ve chosen the more challenging technical route along the Polish Glacier to attempt the summit of Aconcagua as well.
Jayanthi: As for how we plan to do it, we’ve decided to take on a summit every other year, to have a year to recover from, which will no doubt be taxing on us mentally and physically.
Johann: As for the financial support, it is very tough particularly for Everest, but we were lucky that there were corporates who believed in us and joined hands with us to take it on.
Even this new challenge has been tough for us, we’re pretty much doing it on our own, but there might be a few companies who would come on board, and we are looking at companies to tie up with us now that they know what we are doing, maybe join with us on a long term basis, for the Seven Summits Challenge – to be partners with us to take us through the journey, that is our idea, and so we are hopeful our next journey would attract the interest of the corporate world.
Photos: Krishan Kariyawasam