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How a NASA scientist and a record-breaking mountaineer conquered an unknown mountain to raise money for girls’ education



CNN
 — 

Exploring the peaks of the world’s highest mountains or the secrets of space’s deepest labyrinths has become almost second nature for Poorna Malavath and Kavya Manyapu.

It has taken Manyapu to NASA where her research has included designing space suits, and Malavath to the top of Mount Everest when in 2014, she became the youngest ever woman to summit the world’s highest mountain at just 13 years old.

Now, these two women have channeled their exploring spirit into climbing some of the world’s most difficult mountains as part of their campaign, Project Shakthi, which raises money to fund girls’ education.

At the end of August, they climbed a 6,012m virgin peak in Ladakh, India – one previously unmapped and untouched by human expeditions – aiming to use the symbolism of blazing a trail both literally and metaphorically.

Never climbed before, the mountain presented difficult challenges for even an experienced mountaineer like Malavath, for there were neither trails to follow nor advice from previous climbers to cling to.

“We have to prepare ourselves mentally to accept everything,” Malavath explains to CNN Sport. “So it is completely different and it has given me so much more knowledge to guide others.”

Rainy weather conditions that turned to snow at high altitude added to the complexities of climbing a virgin peak.

“The night when we were planning to leave for our summit bit, it actually snowed at our high camp, which meant avalanche conditions on the mountain we wanted to climb that day,” Manyapu recalls to CNN.

“We had to rapidly Advance back as a team, make a safety call and then prepare for the next day. So it was very challenging.”

And for a relatively inexperienced climber like Manyapu, though she had trained extensively, the challenges were even greater.

“Poorna and I several times when we were in the tent, we would talk about: ‘What if, you know, we won’t be able to make it to the summit, you know, what if this? What if that?’” Manyapu says.

“But then we would always like go back and encourage each other and motivate each other that, you know, let’s just take it one step at a time.”

In the group’s darkest moments on the trek, they found motivation in Project Shakthi’s purpose and its tagline: ‘We climb so that girls can read,’ a deeply personal cause for both Malavath and Manyapu.

Reflecting during the Covid-19 pandemic on her own childhood during which her family moved from India to the United States “to help fulfill her dreams,” Manyapu realized that she could help girls without the same support system to also access opportunities.

“I have a three-year-old daughter, so when I look at her, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make the world at least one percent better for her and her generation,” she adds.

Manyapu comes from the same village in India as Malavath, but the two women met for the first time in 2019, when Manyapu was pregnant with her daughter.

“I’ve always been inspired by [Malavath’s] story since 2014,” Manyapu says. “I called her up and I said this is something I want to start an initiative where we could climb for a cause.

“We’ve done things for our passion so far, but how about taking our passion to serve a purpose of empowering, educating and elevating underprivileged school children?”

When Malavath embarked on her climb up Mount Everest as a 13-year-old, she was unaware about the problems of inequality which rack society.

“As I continued climbing the seven continents’ highest mountains, I came to know about that society,” she says. “And there are many girls who are struggling in rural areas and they aren’t getting any kind of opportunities.

“I always think about the students who are studying with me and the people who are in the villages… One of my friends got married at like 14 or 15 years, and now she has two kids and they are going to school. And I just finished my education.”

Malavath and Manyapu hold up their Project Shakthi logo at the summit.

On that climb up Everest, Malavath recalls vomiting from the exertion, remaining stuck on the expedition for “like 50 days because of weather” and being determined to summit the mountain.

“When I got an opportunity to climb Mount Everest, it was a different aim to prove that girls can do anything,” she says. “Then after that, I became a mountain lover maybe because mountains have taught me so much.”

As well as raising money for education, the project will aim to change the mindset about what women can accomplish and elevate stories that can serve as role models.

As part of this, Project Shakthi will partner with the US-based AVS Academy to pair student volunteers with girls sponsored by the organization so that they can receive one-on-one mentorship.

“I think we both together bring a story that really would help them see that what a person can do, what a girl can do,” Manyapu says. “Because I believe representation matters. And while we are at a generation where we do see women in various fields, we still have a lot of gender gap to close.”

Since August 2009, when the Indian parliament passed the landmark Right to Education Act that made education free and compulsory for all children under 14, the number of girls in school has increased, though the national averages obscure variations across the states, according to the country’s Annual Status of Education Report.

Around the world, while enrollment rates are almost equal between genders, the completion rates are still disparate – according to the World Bank, only 36% of girls complete lower secondary school compared to 44% of boys in what it calls low-income countries.

And to tackle this global issue, Project Shakthi has set its sights on broadening its goals.

Manyapu and Malavath were accompanied by a team on their expedition.

Manyapu and Malavath will climb Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6,961 meters, in December as part of the next phase of Project Shakthi, inviting people interested in climbing to join them.

In the meantime, the project has already begun selecting girls who will receive its sponsorship through the $12,000 it has raised so far.

“Poorna and I actually visited our village back in India right after we completed our expedition of the virgin peak,” Manyapu says. “And we are starting in our village because that’s where our roots are.”

Eventually, the project will aim to sponsor girls across the globe, empowering them and exposing them to opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden, as Malavath and Manyapu continue their mission so that girls can have an education.


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