On May 25, Poorna entered the record books when she stood on top of the world’s tallest mountain to become the youngest girl to achieve the feat.
For Malavath Poorna, climbing Everest wasn’t the biggest challenge of the expedition. The trial for the sprightly but frail looking girl was to consume packed food, which is one of the main nutrition sources during the climb of the 8000er.
“I could not bear the smell of it. I lived on soups because they were not packaged,” she told The Outdoor Journal about her abhorrence for packed food.
Poorna, from a nondescript village called Pakala village in Telangana in Southern India, rewrote records books when she became the youngest woman in the world to climb atop Everest on 25 May 2014. She was accompanied to the peak by Sadhanapalli Anand Kumar, a 16-year old boy from the same village. They were part of the 52-day expedition sponsored by a government-run welfare society.
Together, they summited Everest via the North Ridge route. Since Nepal law does not allow people under 16 years to climb the mountain, they climbed from the Tibetan side, as opposed to the more popular Nepal side.
The two were amongst 20 selected to receive training in mountain climbing at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), one the the best mountaineering institutes in India. They received an ‘A’ grade license for successfully climbing Mt. Renock in Kanchenjunga range of Himalayas. After another round of training in Ladakh (north India), they were selected for the Everest expedition.
The expedition was part of an initiative called Operation Everest, co-sponsored by APSWREIS, a welfare society based in Andhra Pradesh in South India. The initiative was launched with a purpose of promoting rock climbing amongst underprivileged children. After several training sessions, Purna and Anand were considered skilled and tough enough to scale the world’s highest peak.
Born and brought up in a tribal community and with no antecedents to mountaineering, Purna showed tremendous courage and toughness throughout the expedition.
“Being a tribal girl, I wanted to prove that girls like me can do anything. We are no less than anyone and that was the aim of my expedition,” says Poorna.
She plans to join the administrative services of the Indian government and plans to climb more mountains.
Prior to their training in mountaineering, Purna’s climbing partner Sadhanapally Anand was more familiar with fixing the flat tyre of a bicycle than knowing anything about fixing a line on a mountain.
Despite barely making ends meet to survive, Anand’s parents did not let poverty get in the way of his upbringing. They completely supported him in his entire journey to Everest. Anand’s grandmother passed away during his expedition and his parents chose not to break the news to him, so that he could focus on his mission.
“There were many challenging moments during the climb. It is a death zone – the three toughest things were braving the cold, the climb itself and eating packaged food. I survived on muesli, milk and chocolate,” says Anand, not mincing words about his dislike for high-altitude menu.
After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.
Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.
GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.
Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.
Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.
I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.
The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.
I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.
I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.
The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.
Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.
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