Top of the world: The story of 16-year-old Poorna Malavath and her determination to scale Mt Everest

Poorna Malavath, inspiration for the film, Poorna, on what powered her determination to scale the world’s tallest peak.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: April 1, 2017 4:47 pm
poorna, poorna malavath, mt everest, mount everest climbers, poorna movie 2017, indian express Poorna Malavath. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Ever since she started training for mountain climbing in 2013, Poorna Malavath has been afraid only twice. The first time, she says, was during her maiden rock climbing expedition, organised by her school, to the Bhongir rock. Poorna’s legs shook as she looked at the immense rock she was supposed to climb.

But when she finally got to the top, her fear vanished. She wasn’t afraid later, when she and her team scaled the 17,000 ft high Mt Renock, and not even when she fell ill at the Everest Advanced Base Camp due to insufficient acclimatisation.

It was only when she saw corpses on the final stretch of her climb up Mt Everest that she felt afraid again. “The bodies stay there because, at that height, nobody can take them home,” she says. Poorna, directed by Rahul Bose, released yesterday and dramatises Malavath’s record-breaking feat of climbing the Everest.

Other peaks such as K2 and Annapurna may be technically more difficult to climb, but Everest’s body count of over 200 remains daunting. It was a rare strength of mind that helped a 13-year-old summit the peak. Many external factors, too, came together to make the climb possible, not the least being the role of IPS officer, Dr RS Praveen Kumar, who was determined to overhaul the working of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions. Bose plays him in Poorna.

Malavath recalls how, thanks to Kumar’s efforts, conditions at her residential school — where most students came from poor socio-economic backgrounds — were completely transformed. “The food improved, the classes were better and Praveen sir even started sports and adventure training,” she says.

Malavath’s natural athletic ability, honed by years of kabaddi and volleyball, was spotted by her teachers who encouraged her to pursue rock climbing and mountaineering. Also instrumental was the role of Shekhar Babu Bachinepally, a mountaineer and Arjuna Awardee who had summited Everest in 2007 and trained Malavath and another student, S Anand Kumar, for the Everest expedition.

When she reached the top of the Everest on May 24, 2014, Malavath became the youngest girl to do so. She recalls that when she first saw the peak, she had remarked to her trainer, “This is not so tall. We can climb it in one day.”

Now 16, Malavath giggles as she remembers her overconfidence. “It took us 52 days to get to the top. But, I never had any doubts. Not even when we arrived at the base camp and heard of the death of 17 climbers. I wanted to prove that girls can do anything.”

Malavath comes from a small village called Pakala in Telangana, where even to buy a matchbox, one has to walk seven km. “As I was growing up, I would hear people around me talking about how girls can’t do this or that. I would always stay quiet on hearing this,” she says.

The film fictionalises a few episodes in Malavath’s life. The spectre of early marriage, for instance, looms large in the movie, in the form of a cousin called Priya. In truth, however, Malavath has no such cousin; she has an older brother who is studying engineering. Many of her childhood friends did get married early, she says, but her parents — father Devidas and mother Lakshmi — were supportive of her education and even her mountain-climbing adventures.

Malavath summited Mt Kilimanjaro last year, and hopes that a climb in Australia is in the near future. “Life has changed completely since I climbed Everest,” she says, “Earlier people didn’t know I existed. Now they come to meet me.” Her ultimate dream, however, is to become an IPS officer, just like her idol, Praveen sir. “I too will work for the welfare of poor people,” she says.

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