- The sport and art of rock climbing, within and beyond
They say that each sunrise is a new beginning, a chance to start over, an opportunity to refresh. On 5 March 2022, the sun rose on a world that marked a new beginning for a group of women who decided that they wanted to have some fun, learn something new, and in their own unique ways, test their limits.
Gathered at the Kodigahakanda Sanctuary off Horana, they made their first foray into the world of rock climbing. They were facilitated by Climblanka; the pioneer rock climbing service, and guided by a team of volunteers, all of whom wanted to see these women do their own best, and nothing more.
The workshop, held in light of International Women’s Day 2022 under the theme #breakthebias, aimed to challenge stereotypes and biases resulting from outdated social constructs and associated gender roles. We sat down with two volunteers for the day, women’s rights activist with 18 years of experience in the field of women’s rights and gender equality and the first-ever Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest (2016) Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, and The Overseas School of Colombo Secondary Language Acquisition Teacher and avid climber Kamila Sahideen.
Set in stone
Speaking to us about how and where her love for rock climbing began, Jayanthi shared that she first started in 2003 when she started a one-month programme at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where she learned rock and ice climbing among many other climbing skills. She also shared that after travelling to Sussex University to do her Masters in Gender Studies, she rediscovered rock climbing, and realised that this sport was one that was meant for her. “I joined a women’s climbing club – they were called the Vertigirls, incorporating women from all walks of life and different body structures. The founder was a woman who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder who found that climbing helped her in both her manic and depressive moods.”
Jayanthi stated that she found the climbing space to be one that relieves her stress from the inordinate stress of academics, while being non-judgemental and accepting, not to mention empowering, which facilitated her mind-body connection and positively impacted all other areas of her life.
On the other hand, Kamila, a teacher by profession with 16 years of experience in English language acquisition, with a passion for climbing and hiking, shared that her school activities include teaching students how to rock climb (at the school’s indoor climbing wall) as an extracurricular activity after school.
Inspired by reading Jayanthi’s interview after her Mount Everest summit, Kamila says that she ‘tracked Jayanthi down’ and invited her to address the students at The Overseas School of Colombo. “I have a paralysing fear of heights, but I wanted to climb. I learnt from Jayanthi and was encouraged that we fought the same battles, and that we even had the same shoe size – a three. I have kept climbing ever since I first met Jay and this year, she invited me to volunteer and I was honoured to accept,” she shared.
A new sport
Rock climbing is a sport that is somewhat new to Sri Lanka. However, Jayanthi feels that the country holds the potential to become a world class rock climbing destination with our natural terrain and a dry zone with places like Kurunegala, where we can discover routes to climb. “At the moment we are somewhat stuck because the sport has not been sufficiently developed. However other climbers and I are open to setting rock climbing routes that will allow us to explore this further,” she shared.
Jayanthi also stressed that rock climbing was an Olympic sport which should not be confused with hiking or trekking. “Rock climbing is where you are ascending a predetermined route. The rock has first been examined for safety and has been bolted (using either 10mm or 12mm stainless steel bolts) so that climbers can safely take on the climb. There are also different grades of routes, so that we can direct climbers according to whether they are a beginner, or somebody with experience,” she shared, adding that she has a network of experienced professional climbers from overseas who are willing to come to Sri Lanka and help develop this sport further, so that it can be accessible to local and foreign tourists alike.
The renowned climber stated that Sri Lanka, as a country, has investors willing to come and determine routes for us to further the sport. “I think there is generally a lack of awareness about the sport and I believe that the media can help us create this awareness,” she shared, stating that they are willing to put in time and money to determine routes at different locations, and then hand it over to the community in that area (including the Grama Niladhari, for instance) so that the sport then becomes sustainable for communities.
While it can be a challenging and time-consuming process to get permissions from the different State authorities to bolt the rock, set the routes and develop this sport, she is also encouraged by the positive response she has recently received from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, which has offered to support this process in order to make Sri Lanka a world-class rock climbing destination.
Fighting the odds
While there is a challenge on a permission and route-setting level, we also wanted to understand whether there could be factors that contribute to the general public being intimidated by this sport. Sharing her thoughts on this, Kamila stated that there exists a large amount of bias with regards to women taking on the sport. “When I first told my family and friends that I was climbing, there were jokes like ‘oh she is climbing walls,’ or ‘could you help fix the roof?’ and I was asked what good would come out of climbing. I laughed, but I also knew that rock climbing was not taken as a serious sport, especially for women,” she shared.
Kamila went on to say however, that as she climbed she came to realise that this sport was not one that discriminates. “In rock climbing, we get to embrace and appreciate our bodies and overcome our fears. No matter who you are or what you look like, the challenge is tailor-made for you. You discover your own strength, resilience, problem-solving skills, and courage,” she added.
“Because rock climbing is a high risk sport, professional climbers ensure that it is done in a way where safety is guaranteed 200%. There is high quality gear and a rope that supports you. While it can be intimidating, I want to stress that rock climbing does not require one to have a certain type of body or build, and is a full body workout in itself. So the more you climb, the more fit you stay,” added Jayanthi, sharing her thoughts on not being intimidated by the extreme sport.
She also shared that the only piece of gear one would initially have to invest in, if they want to climb regularly, would be a pair of climbing shoes, and that apart from that, a well-balanced meal was more than adequate to keep a climber nourished and healthy.
The one at the bottom
We often speak of and see the climber, but in rock climbing, there is one more very important role – belaying. The belayer is the ‘one at the bottom’ who quite literally holds the life of the climber in their hands. The belayer uses a technique referred to as PBUS (pull, break, under, slide), to ensure that the rope is locked in place through the use of a belay device, while the climbers continue on their way up, encouraged by consistent and clear communication to and from the belayer.
“In many ways the belayer and the climber are two sides of the same coin. It is a joint effort with shared success. I was able to climb, because Jay was my belayer and because I trusted her. I have trust issues and social anxiety, but with Jay as my belayer, and with her encouragement, I have completed challenging routes that I didn’t think were possible for me,” shared Kamila, explaining the importance of the belayer and the synergy between the two.
A mental game
Pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone is transformational irrespective of an outcome. If we succeed we rejoice, if we fail, we learn and we learn well. A similar principle applies to the sport of rock climbing, which is an art that includes a mental game.
“As women we are told that we have to be a certain way and that we have very little upper body strength. Here’s the thing – rock climbing requires leg work and as women, we have strong leg muscles,” says Jayanthi, stressing that she encourages women to try the sport at least once, before deciding against it.
“I was encouraged to see so many women dressed in complete religious attire climb and achieve their climbing goals, and I have come to see rock climbing as a sport that is really tailor-made to who we are. No matter what size, shape, background, or attire we come in, nature embraces us as one,” Kamila added, while she expressed her gratitude for having come across rock climbing – a sport that contributed positively to her mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
As the sun set on 5 March 2022, a group of women, who said good morning as strangers, said goodbye as friends brought together by a common purpose – being themselves. Each woman had been cheered on by the rest of the group, just when she thought she was about to give up. For some of them, overcoming the critical voice at the back of their minds had gotten them to the top of the rock, accompanied by the reverberating applause of women who refused to see them give up. Below the rock, stood a team of belayers, holding strong, encouraging, trusting, and respecting each second of the climber’s experience, allowing them to even take a break on the climb, while never letting go of the rope that held their life.
Perhaps that is all what this is about. As Jayanthi says: “We are sometimes standing on our imagination while climbing the rock.” Maybe that is exactly what we need; learning to trust in ourselves and in others even if just for a moment. Learning that, when all is said and done, the only thing stopping us from reaching the summit is the weight of all the nos we have ever heard.
If you would like to try out rock climbing, or volunteer, contact Climblanka on
Mobile: 077 472 1937