Activists / Mountaineers / The Sunday Times

Aiming for Andes heights

High-altitude training at sea level is not for the easily embarrassed.

For the past few weeks, daybreak sees Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries rise and gather their gear before they head to the beach or to a park. Endurance training has them pitting their strength against the high waves or lifting 20-kg weights in each hand while wearing contraptions that stretch over most of their faces, leaving only their eyes peering out at you. No one can resist a double-take.  “You can hear us breathing so loudly, you turn around and it is like Darth Vader is running up to you,” says Johann, laughing.


Sri Lanka’s best-known mountaineers are realising their appetite for adventure hasn’t dwindled – the two are now taking on the Seven Summit Challenge. They’ve already made a start with Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, have stood on Everest, and now hope to pay a visit to the five remaining continents, starting next week with Aconcagua in Argentina’s  Mendoza Province. In the end, deciding what the next challenge would be was easy – “this was the only mountain we could climb in February, when we were both free.”

The mountain is located in the Andes range and at 22,841ft is said to be visible from the Pacific coast over one hundred miles away. An extinct volcano, Aconcagua is not without its challenges. “The weather can be extremely unpredictable,” says Jayanthi citing reports of winds that hit 120km per hour ripping tents off the mountainside. “That’s when you stay put and try to stay safe.”

They’re praying the weather will hold during their 20 days on the mountain. The two will be rotating between camps to help them acclimatize before making a bid for the summit. They have the option of a more leisurely climb, but have instead opted for the technically challenging Polish Glacier route which will take them off the beaten track. Only one mountaineering company offers guides for this option, but Jayanthi and Johann were convinced it was the one they wanted.

For the first time, the two will be using dual ice axes for a significant stretch of wall – even on Everest, they relied on Jumars which allowed them to ascend on ropes. Now, Aconcagua will force them to master new skills and test their readiness.

It’s an expensive undertaking, costing each of them roughly Rs. 2.5 million. There is more scrutiny this time around too – aside from all the media attention, they have thousands of followers online, and will be posting frequent updates on their Facebook page ‘Seven Summits Challenge – Johann & Jayanthi/Sri Lanka.’ Sponsors, including Adventure SEALs/Petzl and Wurth, are stepping in to help out, but the pressure to make it to the top can still feel immense.

Johann, who experienced technical difficulties and did not summit Everest on his first attempt, knows how bitterly disappointing it can be to fall short of his goal. Why not take the easier route, where a summit attempt is more likely to be successful? “If we were to say there is no fear in us, we would be lying,” he admits, describing how the first sight of a mountain can intimidate you in an almost visceral way. He adds: “But this isn’t about ticking off some boxes for us.” Instead, Johann is determined to learn from any mistake, and take every precaution he can.

Jayanthi agrees. For her, it’s only worth it if she stretches herself, and grows not just as a mountaineer but as a person. “Anything you do, you have to throw yourself into it. You prepare and you plan, and though the world may have a different plan, you just take it and work with it, and you try harder. That’s the point.”

Listening to them, it’s easy to forget the two spend most of their time in a city far away from the great mountains. For Jayanthi, this remains the purest kind of escape. With her day job in activism and research focused on women’s rights she says it can feel like every step forward is followed by ten steps back. “Whereas on the mountain, we are all equal. Nature doesn’t discriminate.”

Johann – a successful entrepreneur and hairstylist who runs his own chain of beauty salons – is also inspired by the beauty of the natural world, and says he dreams of the mountains year round. “I bring back images of what I see out there and use those colours and patterns in my salon. It’s amazing to capture that, and it’s a big part of who I am.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 27, 2019. By Smriti Daniel.