Eyes on Everest! | Daily News


Eyes on Everest!

Ornella Gunesekere. Picture by Tennyson Edirisinghe
Ornella Gunesekere. Picture by Tennyson Edirisinghe

She made her mark as a beauty pageant title holder by being crowned as Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2018 and representing Sri Lanka at the globally renowned beauty pageant in Thailand. She had also gained recognition for her role as an active social volunteer. But none of these come close to defining what Ornella Mariam Gunesekere stands for – greater heights.

The 28-year-old beauty was part of a Guinness World record as she walked a ramp set at an altitude of 5, 340 meters. The event titled ‘The Mount Everest Fashion Runway’ took place at the Kala Patthar base – a popular view point in Mount Everest region in Kathmandu, Nepal, on January 26, 2020. Eight models from Nepal, five from Italy and one each from Finland, and Sri Lanka donned winterwear on the catwalk at the event which featured the highest runway walk in the history of modelling.

The event was organized by the Tourism Board of Nepal together with the Visit Nepal Campaign 2020 and the brand KASA in partnership with RB Diamond to promote the Nepal tourism industry. The models donned fully biodegradable garments as an attempt to spreading awareness of how fashion industry could be carbon neutral and sustainable.

A simple and loveable being who oozes of beauty inside and out, Ornella has faced many hardships in life. She met with a sports injury during her teens which resulted in a displacement in her spine and had to endure years of pain, painkillers and two major spine surgeries in which she had Titanium metal rods and screws fused into her lower back. Though her doctor had advised her to lead a quiet life, the daredevil nature in Ornella had prompted her to defy the odds.

Representing Sri Lanka at the Miss Universe pageant in 2018 opened many avenues for Ornella. The latest was the opportunity to take part in The Mount Everest Fashion Runway.

“Miss Universe fosters sisterhood and goodwill between women, empowering them to celebrate being confidently beautiful in your skin, body and life. I was invited by a sister of the Miss Universe pageant, Manita Devkota, Miss Universe Top 10 (2018) Miss Universe Nepal. I owe this huge honour to her for opening the door to this opportunity,” Ornella said.

Climbing to the summit of the highest mountain in the world is no easy task. It was especially challenging for Ornella due to her spine problem.

“Ever since I had my spine surgery, I have to ensure that it is strong – to maintain the rods and screws inside - but I amped up my training just under two months before heading out. I work with Kinetic Fitness owned by Tanuja and Hasitha Raymond who prepared me specifically for the trek. I wore a weighted back pack during training and focused a lot on building muscle. Apart from this, every morning I walked 5 km with 7 kgs in a backpack,” Ornella explained on how she prepared herself to take on the Mount Everest mission.

She says that she also mentally prepared by transforming any fear she experienced into mental stamina.

“You have to believe that fear is adrenaline and you can use it to power you instead of holding you back. The trek happened in the winter (off-season time) which meant it was going to be most challenging and whilst there is no way to prepare for the actuality of it, I did everything I could,” she said.

She notes that the trek going up was easier than coming down. The team trekked for almost two weeks and the entire journey lasted 16 days. Walking, climbing and maneuvering through snow, sand, ice, rocks and wild terrain, was the easier part. Getting pelted with tiny balls of ice during a hail storm, walking across a swinging bridge through a full blown snow storm, taking baby steps to get off the steepest terrain trying not to fall over black ice and managing high altitude sickness were perhaps the most challenging parts.

“We also had to often drink water infused with garlic and garlic soup. We slept in sleeping bags in cabins/lodges that were not heated so the higher we climbed, the colder it got and we felt the full brunt of it.

The lowest temperature we experienced was -28°C. Heating was only available in the main hall when food was served: and this only if there was ample cattle dung to burn,” Ornella recalled.

One particular night had been the worst for her room mate, Paula. It was the coldest because their cabin window had been left open by the prior tenant and they did not know about it till 6 am the next morning.

“I shivered like a leaf that night and had to trek 20km the following morning. However I did not ever feel like turning back. The mornings were the worst. The tips of our fingers and toes were so numb you would want to chop them off just to stop the sensation of what it felt like. I had just dipped them in and out of a fire. It truly was that painful,” she reflected.

The tremendously beautiful landscapes that they feasted their eyes on every passing day boosted her energy so that tiredness became a thing that did not even faze her. “Probably a day or two before the show, I witnessed the most breath-taking view of my life. We all stood in awe. It was around golden-hour and the sun was gleaming through grey-ish streaked clouds and we realized we were standing above it all. We were actually above the clouds, looking down at the mountains and terrain. I would highly recommend anyone visit Nepal and do this trek. It is worth everything. I met some of the most fun, precious, talented, intelligent, beautiful, funny and unique individuals whom to this date, I miss terribly. I love you my Everest family!” she added with a smile.

Another highlight of the expedition for her was being adjudged as the “Toughest Model” who took part in the event by the organisers for her determination, perseverance and grit, in completing the trek despite numerous physical challenges. She was one among a very few who trekked the whole jorney to the top and back on foot.

Queried about it and she lets out a delighted squeal at the memory.

“Oh my gosh... I cannot even think of this word and my name in the same sentence. I am like a rabbit in real life... Honestly, I could not have done this at all without the support of my fellow-models. I have to thank them for this because it is their support that made the journey so enjoyable and not feel tough.

Thank you dearest Madalina, Ale, Natasha, Zahra, Paula, Manuel, Ronali and Arick for being there for me. Thank you for lending a hand, the snacks, the hot ginger tea and best of all; the wonderful memories and stories,” she noted with emotion.

She is gearing to up to be a part of Mount Everest Fashion Runway 2 which is scheduled to be happening at the end of the year in which the team hopes to scale 6, 400 meters.

Her message to other youth who are looking to take on the challenges in life is that no matter what circumstances you live with, you can find a way to overcome a barrier.

“It was very challenging for me but my love for adventure, celebrating life, having the right kind of people and mindset pushed me forward to succeed. I was afraid that I will slip and fall or hurt my spine with the extreme exertion of the trek and that was always lingering in the back of mind but I knew I could trust myself because I had invested two months of hard work training for this. I also encourage youth to come up with ideas on how you can challenge existing systems by developing ideas that sustain human desire while not destroying the animals, plants and earth we live in. You the young are full of energy, and if anyone changes this world; it’s the youth!”

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