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Poorna Malavath: Reach for the Top

About the Episode

Poorna Malavath went from sweeping the floors at her elementary school to climbing Mount Everest at 13 years old! Find out how Poorna has scaled the highest mountains and is helping girls from India reach their ultimate heights.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Frances Thomas and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Asma Khan. Joy Smith was our Executive Producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Get to Know Asma Khan

Get to know Asma Khan, who read us the story of Poorna Malavath! Asma is an Indian-born British chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. Hear how Asma is a disruptor in her industry, and what her mantra is when times get tough!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to climb to the top of the world. Her name was Poorna Malavath. 

It was pitch-black outside when 13-year-old Poorna crept out of her tent, the snow crunching under her feet and the wind making her whole body sting. This was it! She had just one mile to go to make it to the top of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world! Poorna flipped on her headlamp and looked up. She gasped at the vast, inky sky dotted with stars; the headlamps from fellow climbers zigzagging along the path; the mountain rising up in a giant shadow before her. It was spectacular.

As she started walking, every breath felt like a sharp jab in Poorna’s chest. That high up in the mountains, at over 29,000 feet, the air was thin and low on oxygen. And it didn’t help that the temperature was -20 °F. Even though Poorna was bundled in thick thermal gear, the cold air still seeped through, chilling her down to her bones. As she trudged through heavy snow sometimes as high as her knees, each step took so much energy and concentration. 

I will not turn back until I succeed.

I will not turn back until I succeed.

This was the mantra she’d learned in school and repeated every day. She needed it now more than ever, pushing through the wailing winds and slipping on dark patches of ice.

I will not turn back until… I… succeed!

Around 5 in the morning, after many hard hours of climbing, a shimmering haze of sun announced the dawn. Poorna wiped the sleet off the thick black lenses of her climbing goggles and stopped to take it all in — finally, she could see the peak! It was so close! She picked up her pace now, scrambling and lurching forward. The mighty mountain tops all around her were sparkling with hope, beckoning her forward! And within the hour, on May 25, 2014, Poorna became the youngest girl in the world to get to the top of Mount Everest. 

I’m Asma Khan. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. On this episode, Indian mountaineer, Poorna Malavath.

Of course, Poorna didn’t just decide one day that she was going to climb Mount Everest. It took a lot of physical and mental training to get to this incredible moment.

Poorna was born in Pakala, a small village in rural India. Her parents were farmers, and they lived in a sparsely furnished hut on the edge of rice fields, which are called paddies. 

Money was tight. Poorna’s parents could barely afford to send her to school, and when she got there, the teacher wouldn’t let any girls sit inside the classroom. In Poorna’s community, lots of parents married off their daughters before they were even teenagers. Poorna’s father didn’t want her to go through that. So, when Poorna was 11, her dad sent her to a residential school in a nearby district. The school was set up to give underprivileged children access to better education. It also offered a new afternoon program full of exciting activities. On a whim, Poorna put her name down for the rock climbing group.

Poorna’s first rock-climbing lesson was at Bhongir, a huge egg-shaped slope, rising thousands of feet in the air. As she put on her harness and gazed up at the steep incline, her knees went weak with shock.

Are they mad? she thought. Why did they bring us here?

But once Poorna’s hands and feet notched onto the craggy rock face, her fear slipped away. The soft wind nipped at her neck and the world went quiet as she focussed all her energy on the climb, pulling her weight up with a strength that surprised her. It also surprised her coach, a professional mountaineer named Shekhar Babu. He was stunned by her athletic talent, and when the school program ended, he asked for government funding to make a special training program just for Poorna. 

The goal? Mount Everest. 

Once the government said yes, Poorna threw herself into an intense training regimen with Coach Babu. For the next six months, Poorna trained for about 5-6 hours every day with only one day off a week for rest. She ran for hours, did volleyball and yoga. And of course, a lot of rock-climbing. She also had to eat a special diet with lots of milk to strengthen her bones, even though she hated milk. 

It was so exhausting, and there was barely time for school or friends. But to Poorna, it was totally worth it. 

“I wanted to prove girls could do anything,” she said. 

And finally, after months of training and a nearly two-month-long expedition, Poorna was here — taking her final steps up to the top of Mount Everest. She had braved subfreezing temperatures and dizzying heights; vertical cliffs sheathed in black ice; and wide, terrifying crevasses carved into glaciers. 

I will not turn back until I succeed.

When she got to the top, she took out her orange-, white-, and green-striped Indian flag and waved it at the world above and below. It felt like heaven up here, with the glittering blue sky expanding in every direction. It felt like anything was possible.

After scaling Mount Everest, Poorna had to keep going. She knew there were so many more mountains for her to climb and a whole world to explore! With the government’s help, she trained for the ultimate mountaineering feat: the Seven Summits Challenge. The Seven Summits are the highest peaks in each of the seven continents.

Over the next eight years, Poorna worked tirelessly, traveling to each of the seven continents, and tackling their highest peaks. And she did this while going to school at the same time! High school, college, and even graduate school. It was a huge commitment for both her body and her mind.

From Mt Everest in Asia, Poorna went to Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa, and from there to Mt Elbrus in Europe. Then she scaled Mt Aconcagua in South America, Mt Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania, Mt Vinson in Antarctica and finally, her last ascent would be Mt Denali in North America.

Poorna started her climb up Mt. Denali in May of 2022. In many ways, she felt like this was her hardest climb yet. Her body as a twenty-two-year-old was different than when she was thirteen and just beginning her mountaineering adventures. She had to work extra hard on her diet and exercise, plus training while going to school had been very challenging.

“Climbing Mt Denali was very tough but my passion took me on the top,” Poorna says. And that passion was more than enough to get her there. On June 5, 2022, Poorna planted both her feet on the top of Mount Denali; her red hat bright against the snowy landscape, her smile even brighter.

Poorna knew it took so many people supporting and believing in her to get to this summit, and for that she was so grateful. Most of all, she was proud to be a girl, and to prove that girls can do anything they put their minds to. It just takes strength, courage, and a fierce rebel spirit fueling every step of the way.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Asma Khan. It was produced and directed by Joy Smith, with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Frances Thomas and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers are Jes Wolfe and Joy Smith.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!

Until next time, staaaay rebel!