Without traffic, it takes less than an hour to drive from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, to the 18-acre Kodigahakanda Sanctuary—a former coconut plantation that’s now home to the country’s only established rock climbing area, as well as numerous porcupines, mouse deer, purple-faced leaf monkeys, and at least 53 species of butterfly.
Last December, I went out to Kodigahakanda with Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, who in 2016 became the first Sri Lankan to summit Everest. A bright, energetic woman sporting a pixie cut greeted me in her lovely flat, decorated with houseplants and art prints. She was easy to talk to, like meeting an old friend. As she steered assuredly through the morning maze of tuk-tuks, past coconut and fruit vendors, she told me that she’d first been exposed to climbing during her university days in Brighton, in the UK. The experience, along with the community it drew her into (notably, the “Vertgirls” climbing group at Brighton), prompted her to enroll in a month-long military-style high-altitude boot camp with India’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in 2003. During the course, Jayanthi climbed Mount Frey (19,329 feet) and BC Roy Peak (17,979 feet), in India’s Sikkim region; she then went on to climb Imja Tse, a.k.a. Island Peak, (20,210 feet) in Nepal, in 2012, and Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) in 2014—unthinkable altitudes for most people hailing from an island country like Sri Lanka. She then turned her sights on Everest, succeeding via the South Col route in 2016. Shortly afterwards, she learned something remarkable: Only in three other countries—South Africa, Croatia, and Poland—have women stood on the summit of the world before men. Jayanthi had made Sri Lanka the fourth.
Everest was a childhood dream, she told me as we drove, and a personal one—she never intended to be the “first” at anything. “‘The mountain chooses you,’ as they say in Nepal.” What she hadn’t anticipated is how climbing Everest linked her 18-year career in gender advocacy with her love for all things adventurous. “I’ve never been a public person. But so many schools wanted me to speak to the kids, and I figured I might as well take the opportunity to share my experience, even if what I say helps just a few individuals.”
Although Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon until it achieved independence from the British in 1948, may sound quite far-flung, it’s long been a destination relished by backpackers for its jungle safaris and pristine beaches. Tourism constitutes as much as 12% of the national GDP. But unlike the rest of the world, this tropical island’s recent challenges have surpassed a mere global pandemic.
Sri Lanka is currently enduring its worst economic crisis in six decades. The end of a 26-year civil war in 2009, which pitted the majority Singhalese population against the Tamil minority, left the country reeling from deep wounds. Corruption, poor tax policies, and pandemic-stalled tourism have caused rampant inflation and repeated currency devaluations, leading to dire shortages in food, medicine, and fuel.
Though many Sri Lankans have been forced to emigrate in search of jobs, many more remain proud of just how much abundance their homeland offers. Hiking is a popular pastime for tourists and locals alike; surfing has been a major sport in Sri Lanka for at least half a century. And for those with a keen eye for good rock, there seems to be a significant amount of granite and gneiss on the island. And virtually no one has climbed it.
Indeed, the sport is so under-developed that climbing in Sri Lanka, a nation of 22 million people, owes its existence to one man: Sachith Samuditha, the 39-year-old founder of ClimbLanka, a guide service and school that’s the only Sri Lankan company dedicated to the sport.
That’s where Jayanthi was taking me—to meet and climb with Sachith.
We parked at the Kodigahakanda community nature center, then entered the forest on small thin paths. There are two crags here, a beginner’s crag and a more advanced one, but both are tucked away in Kodigahakanda’s plunging undergrowth, and I heard the climbers before I saw the rocks: that distinct clank and jangle of quickdraws.
Arriving at the small beginner crag—a cluster of five 5.7 sport climbs—we found Sachith and his wife, Piyumi, guiding three novice Sri Lankan climbers on top rope. Coincidentally, the novices—delighted by their first laps up the short cliff—were asking themselves the very question I’d been meaning to pose Sachith and Jayanthi: “Why is climbing not a thing in Sri Lanka?”
In other South Asian countries like India and Singapore, the sport has taken off in recent years, following a strong global trend—but in Sri Lanka, an otherwise outdoorsy country, climbing barely exists as a sport or a hobby.
“Most locals don’t like to go out of their comfort zones,” one of the climbers speculated. “I suppose hiking got popular in the early 2000s when people started posting photos of it on Facebook,” he continued. “You have to normalize it, get the right guys to make it popular.”
“Still, I’m surprised that no surfer dude has ever woken up on holiday and tried to go climbing here,” another said.
Turning to Sachith, I said I was surprised too.
Sachith’s own climbing provenance was a combination of fate and pluck. In 2010, while working as a tour guide, he learned about rock climbing from a visitor inquiring about rock climbing areas. This piqued his interest. Shortly afterward, as Sachith was recovering from a car accident, the chairman at the Kodigahakanda Nature Center hired him to manage Kodigahakanda’s high ropes course—part of an adventure program funded by a United Nations Development Program. That’s when he first saw the rocks here through fresh eyes.
“The stuff you can’t plan for, it changes your life,” Sachith said as he led Jayanthi and me to the more advanced crag after his clients left. The dozen or so bolted routes, which range from 5.9 to 5.12b, glittered in the sun; there were a couple more routes around a vine-tangled corner, but they’ve been difficult to keep clean. (Sri Lanka has been going through an unusually extended rainy period, encouraging a vengeful accumulation of scrubby moss.)
Shortly after taking his ropes course job, Sachith did some YouTube research and decided to try climbing himself. He used a hand drill to place expansion bolts as anchors and practiced tying knots and abseiling on 13mm static ropes from a hardware store. Still, he got psyched and founded ClimbLanka five years after his first encounter with the sport.
He got a boost from Callen Knox, an Australian who visited Sri Lanka in 2016 and helped Sachith and ClimbLanka get to the next level. Using a power drill, he established the first routes on the advanced crag and taught Sachith the finer points of route development and climbing technique. Sachith soaked up the intel, learning throughout Cal’s four-month stay what it takes to establish new routes. Cal also left some of his gear with Sachith upon departure, which further helped kick things off.
“If Cal hadn’t come, climbing in Sri Lanka wouldn’t be what it is,” Sachith says.
Neither would Sachith’s life. Thanks to the additional routes and logistical push, he was able to pivot ClimbLanka into a full-time job in June 2018.
With the ongoing economic crisis, times haven’t been easy, but the company persists. “The original goal wasn’t to build a business,” said Sachith, “but to learn for myself and teach others.” The sport has also made him far more fit, he said. He’s lost 45 lbs since starting climbing. It’s this healthy way of moving around and spending time outdoors that he wants to share with others.
“Rock climbing is an addictive thing,” he told me, as much about the winding, internal journey of managing fear and health as it is about grade progression. He wants his clients to see how obstacles like fear of heights and obesity are things within their control. “And one’s addiction to rock climbing can help you overcome these obstacles,” he tells them. “In the end, you find the way to conquer yourself and nature. That’s the magic of this game.”
One of the most challenging things about jump-starting the Sri Lankan climbing scene will be familiar to American readers: Access. Convincing Friends of the Earth to allow bolting wasn’t difficult, since Sachith is native to the community and a long-time board member. But expansion into other places—many of which are within national parks or known archaeological sites—will look very different.
The rock-bottom economy has exacerbated competition between stressed tour operators. As it is with most other countries, tour operators using public or national land still need to gain permission from relevant government authorities whose purview the land is under—a laborious process hampered by the lack of precedence that rock climbing enjoys as a Sri Lankan sport.
“Adventure companies conflate trekking or hiking with scrambly parts as ‘rock climbing,’ Jayanthi told me. “If you try to explain the difference, they don’t care—they’ll think you’re being competitive with your business.” She attributes this to narrow-mindedness: “Plus, if you have someone from Colombo charging tourists a lot of money to bring them this kind of place, it’s not benefiting locals.”
Cultural challenges persist as well—some of which have stymied would-be developers in the past. “Nearly every high point of a village is a temple,” lamented Vinura Perera, a friend of Sachith who helps with ClimbLanka’s web design. And local folklore holds that there are treasures inside the rock. “So if you go in with a drill, people might think you’re trying to steal from them,” Sachith added.
It’s also sometimes unclear who you have to ask to do some climbing development. During his trip, Cal had attempted to scope out other viable spots, wanting to design a motorbike route around the country coupled with good climbing stops. In the south, near Arugam Bay, he got permission from a local monk to check out some coastal boulders, but villagers who had not been cued in called the police on him, cutting the mission short.
“That’s why we’re going [through] the official channel, through the Ministry of Tourism,” said Jayanthi, who’s working with Sachith on a ClimbLanka expansion plan, hoping to use her celebrity status to help give the organization more credibility. In addition to corresponding with government officials, she plans to share bolting videos, bring in a drill, and explain that only climbers can be the ones to establish sport routes—not geologists working with extractive industries, not anyone else. The flustered departure and reinstatement of minister cabinets during this year’s disastrous political crisis haven’t helped.
Logistical headaches aside, the climbing potential exists. “Kodigahakanda is the model, the dream,” Jayanthi said. There’s exciting potential for sport and trad in Meemure and Kurunegala, bouldering in Arugam Bay and Monaragala in the south and east. And that’s just the start. “I want 20 places like this around the country. I want this for both locals and tourists.” And of course, this could be a channel for women and girls to test their strength in a whole new way.
When introducing me to Piyuma, Sachith’s wife, who often sets up top ropes for her husband’s guided groups while Sacith demonstrates the basics of belaying, Jayanthi said, “It’s so important to have her as part of ClimbLanka. So other females see that there’s a role model, someone like them.”
Although Sri Lanka may seem progressive on the surface, with women driving cars or opting to wear western clothing, Jayanthi believes there’s still a long way to go in terms of destabilizing the systems blocking gender parity.
“There are just so many stigmas,” she said. “Women don’t want to get dark skin in the sun because of these outdated beauty standards, or muscles from doing too many sports. There’s still the expectation that after leaving school at 18 you get married, have kids.”
Jayanthi has worked hard to translate her gender advocacy work into the climbing scene by hosting free climbing workshops in partnership with ClimbLanka, marketed through Whatsapp and Instagram, that welcome one and all. (I was amused to see they welcome everyone from ages five to 100 on their flyer.)
“Just go look at who’s playing in the park,” she continued. “Marital rape isn’t illegal, and workplace harassment is generally not taken seriously. I’ve had school girls, around eleven years old, come up to me and say that they have never realized that they could do certain things before hearing me speak. ‘Why would you think that,’ I asked them. And they’d pointed to their male sports teacher standing just off the side. ‘He said that we’ll always come second to the boys.’ I was horrified when I heard this.”
At the “advanced” crag, I led Giraya, a 5.10 named after the tool used to crack open betel nuts. The climb features a slight right traverse sneaking into a neat corner. The movement felt great, but despite the mild grade, sweat emptied from my pores in the 75% humidity. The rock felt positively slidey. Reaching the anchors, I took a moment to look through the deep green of the dense palms crowding the view. A myriad of birdsong sounded in the distance.
As I lowered down and mentioned the slipperiness of the rock, Jayanthi just shrugged, as if conditions were the least of the hurdles.
“Use extra chalk,” she suggested.