At first, I thought there are some clouds dipping below the summit. But then I realized that I was actually above the clouds.’ Jay
He was just two steps up a ladder on the Khumbu Icefall, when he heard an eerie sound accompanied by a vibration. His Sherpa grabbed him and asked him to jump off the ladder. They jumped. Then the Sherpa shouted “run!” But where to on the Khumbu Icefall would one run to? They ran behind a block of ice, and everyone fell on top of each other. The avalanche passed without casualties.
Sounds like a clip off a blockbuster? This is what Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries experienced firsthand on their climb up Mount Everest. The whole expedition took two months and Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala reached the summit in the wee hours of Vesak morning. Unfortunately, Johann had to call it quits short of a few hundred metres from the summit. A newspaper had erroneously reported that Johann was unable to summit due to health reasons. But in fact, he couldn’t reach the summit due to a stupid logistical reason. He ran out of oxygen. Believe it or not, he was stuck in traffic half way up the mountain.
“Jay (Jayanthi) left an hour earlier than me,” said Johann. “Lucky for her she missed the traffic.” Apparently, there is an ideal time to set off on the last leg of the ascent as too many climbers tend to create human traffic jams on the way up the mountain. And you can’t exactly overtake someone while hanging from a rope from the roof of the world. Consequently, Johann found himself hanging at a 90 degree angle for nearly 45 minutes before his Sherpa could find a way to bypass the human traffic jam.
When it finally cleared the Sherpa said that Johann didn’t have enough oxygen to reach the summit and come back down. Johann had to make a decision. And he decided to live. He stopped at 8400 m, only a few hundred metres from the summit (8,848 m). But he reached base camp unscathed, save for a finger he almost lost to frostbite. “I couldn’t tie my shoe laces with the gloves on and I had not kept my hand exposed for over a minute,” said Johann. But the damage was already done and it got worse while he was hanging from a rope for 45 minutes. Fingers crossed, no pun intended, it would have healed by the time the bandages come off. Although Johann didn’t reach the summit, he considers that ‘they’ reached the summit. “It was a team effort and it’s enough that Jay summitted.”
Johann confided that even two months ago when the whole thing started, J&J – as the duo is lovingly referred to now – were having second thought. “It was both physically and mentally challenging,” said the duo, already considered a proper couple now by social media general public. When asked about the ‘coupling’, Johann shrugs it off saying, “since we went mountain climbing together and stayed in the same tent they’ve decided that we couldn’t possibly be anything other than a couple.” But both J&J assure that it’s purely platonic. And the Everest expedition was anything but a star class honeymoon.
It was all western food alright, pasta and meat at Base Camp, according to Jay, but it’s easy for one to lose appetite when it’s western food for nearly two months. “You have to sleep wearing layers of clothes and when you don on your oxygen mask its claustrophobic.” Climbing with the eight kilo oxygen cylinder is no cake-walk either. “At that altitude it feels like 80 kilos.”
Their toilet was a bucket that read ‘Let’s do it’. “We had to pee into a bottle inside the tent,” recounted Jay. Apparently, peeing in the mountain was forbidden. “But it had to be disposed of ASAP, because it freezes over.” Despite temperature that dipped below minus 40 degrees, the humour of it all was not lost on J&J.
The base camp became their home for a few weeks. There is literally no life up in the mountain, save for a finch, a frequent visitor to base camp. “It’s just a bunch of tents in sub zero temperatures and we started to doubt we could actually do it.”
Both J&J admits that the Khumbu Icefall was one of the most difficult climbs. A bit of trivia for the layman, Everest cannot be conquered in one single leap. According to Jay it requires climbing from Base Camp to Camp 1 and back down, Camp 2 and back down again, so on and so forth, to acclimatize the body to produce enough red blood cells. “And every time we did a rotation we had to go through the Khumbu Icefall,” said Jay. “It’s a sheer drop and even the crampons in our shoes don’t securely dig into the ice.”
Johann had to undergo minor surgery when the pressure in his leg went up. “It was probably the highest level procedure ever performed on Everest,” boasts Johann.
In the movie Vertical Limit when gale force winds were blowing over the peak Elliot Vaugh says to Tom McLaren, “Did you really think she was gonna lift up her skirt and pull her panties down?” He was talking about the mountain of course. Well, she sure didn’t just lift up her skirt for J&J. A jet stream of 40 knots was blowing over the summit, not willing them to pass. But one fine morning it cleared that they were told that a cyclone that developed in the Bay of Bengal had blown the jet stream away. What the two Sri Lankans were not told was that these were the same winds that brought rains and wreaked havoc in Sri Lanka.
“We were happy to continue our climb, but were devastated when the first reports of the floods and landslides came in.”
Climbing Everest has its own horror stories and Johann experienced it first hand when he saw a Sherpa fall to his death right in front of his eyes. “We don’t face such horrors in our day-to-day lives. I was in shock. I went into my tent that night and cried. I didn’t talk to anyone for hours.” During the expedition Johann saw three men fall to their deaths. “Knowing that it could be you next is psychologically very disturbing.”
But according to Jay, the view from the top was worth the effort. “At first I thought there were some clouds dipping below the summit. But then I realized that I was actually above the clouds.” The climb back down is equally gruelling, if not more so. “In fact, the climb down is the most dangerous,” explained Jay. In high altitudes loss of appetite contributes to loss of muscle. Both J&J had lost 10 kilos each during the expedition. “Up there when you don’t eat enough, the body starts to eat itself,” said Jay. It’s said the body starts to die during the descent. This is when most accidents happen.
“Nothing prepared us for an expedition of this magnitude,” admits Jay. Their training ground for Everest was Sri Pada and Pidurutalagala. It’s said that they used to run up and down the two mountains just for the heck of it. In fact, J&J have been training for the expedition for over three years. But Everest was a daunting task and they were still dog tired despite their training.
The duo met back in 2011 and their first climb together was the Island Peak, India. Jay, a student of Bishop’s College, tried out many sports during her school years. “I have a brother and we used to build tree houses together. I would do everything he did and everything a girl should not, like climbing coconut trees.” She took a one month course on mountaineering in India. Aside from taking part in sports, rock climbing and mountaineering, Jay is a seasoned Women’s Rights activist with a Masters in Gender Studies under her belt.
Johann has diverse and perhaps conflicting interests. He runs The Cutting Station, a leading saloon located in Thimbirigasyaya. “In fact all the people of my trade – who find clubbing and the night life interesting – are surprised I’m into mountaineering,” says Johann. “I’m more of an outdoors person”.
But this is not the vertical limit for the duo. Both J&J concurred that each mountain is different and each climb offers a different challenge. But for now Jay is content to head for a sunny beach, just lie there and unwind.