Top of the World

Ithaca prepared Sarinda Unamboowe ’88 for Mount Everest.
y Susan Wolf ’87                                                              

For someone who is terrified of heights, climbing even part of the way up the highest mountain in the world doesn’t seem like a logical choice of adventure. But for Sarinda Unamboowe, the challenge was irresistible. Last April, along with a group of 14 friends and family, he left his home in Sri Lanka and flew to Kathmandu in Nepal, then to the town of Lukla, to begin a trek to the base camp of Mount Everest.

Lukla is more than 9,000 feet above sea level. The Everest base camp — the group’s goal — is at 17,500 feet. This is the starting point for climbers attempting the 29,000-foot-high summit, an expedition that has claimed more than 200 lives.

“I doubt I’d be mad enough to try the summit,” Sarinda says, laughing. “It was incredible just to get to the base camp.”

Sarinda’s group, which included his wife and one of their two sons, spent a total of two weeks on the trek, nine of those days climbing. Having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in northeastern Tanzania twice, in 2004 and 2007, Sarinda knew the challenges they faced.

“The altitude affects everything — sleep, appetite, breathing,” he says. “It was a strain on everybody. We didn’t go below 12,000 feet after the second day. All but two of our group made it.”

On top of the physical difficulties, Sarinda says his motivation wavered early in the trek. “I questioned my sanity on several occasions and seriously considered calling it quits,” he says. “I admit that I had two occasions where, if my memory serves me correctly, I told my friend Suresh, ‘I came to see base camp. I can see base camp. I am not taking another step.’” But knowing this was the trip of a lifetime for his 18-year-old son helped keep him going. That, and Everest itself.

“If you had asked me if I was ever going to do another high altitude trek when I was up at 18,000 feet, you would have heard a barrage of profanity that would have made a sailor blush,” he says. “You ask me now, and I would say, ‘Yes. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would.’ To see this gigantic mountain up close and personal was a dream come true.”

Part of the allure, he admits, was pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. The trek is not a straight uphill climb but meanders up and over several mountains. This means crossing some 400-foot gorges on creaky suspension bridges. “I really had to work myself up to that,” Sarinda says. “But I saw the yaks walking calmly across and figured out that staying right behind them was the best way to go. Other than the smell, it worked out pretty well.”

On one overnight stop, Sarinda met Apa Sherpa, a Nepali guide who soon afterward broke his own world’s record by summiting Mount Everest for the 20th time.

“To imagine this diminutive man was doing his 20th summit of the highest peak in the world was staggering,” says Sarinda. “He had so much energy and seemed so comfortable at the high altitude.”

Despite the challenges, Sarinda says he made a conscious effort to take his time and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, even when the temperature dipped to -20 degrees Celcius. “I guess spending four winters in Ithaca helped prepare me for that,” he jokes.

Coming from his native Sri Lanka to Ithaca in 1984, Sarinda faced a complete change in climate. But he made the most of outdoor activities: hiking the gorges and riding his bike up and down the hills. He also rowed with the men’s crew and spent summers as a “sweat hog” for the College, moving furniture and performing other physical work on campus.

His bachelor of science degree in business also helped prepare him for professional heights. He is CEO of Linea Aqua, an international swimwear manufacturing company that employs 3,500 people.

“Trekking at high altitude puts things in a different light,” Sarinda reflects. “There is a deep feeling of accomplishment, of satisfaction, and a quiet pride at what you have achieved. This gives you an amazing platform of confidence for all you take on in life.

“I also learned that I don’t like to quit and am already working on our next trek: a 600-kilometer walk from the southern to the northern tip of my island home, Sri Lanka. Will it be the last? Probably not. It’s something I would like to keep doing for as long as I am able.”

Read Sarinda’s account of his trek, “A Walk Among Giants."