A sunrise at 29,029 feet above sea level, with the stars twinkling down at you. That is the summit of Mount Everest as described by the duo who recently scaled the world’s highest peak. But before Malavath Purna, 13, the youngest female to accomplish the feat, and Sadhanapalli Anand Kumar, 17, the first Dalit to make it to the top, could live out this experience as reality, they had to survive equally imposing circumstances, if not more, in life.
“I am from Pakala village, Nizamabad district,” says Purna with a hint of nervousness in her voice, before quickly adding, “state Telangana.” And then a shy smile. “I studied till Class V in my village. I also used to help my mother in the fields and collect tobacco leaves with her,” says Purna. “Then I joined the Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (APSWREIS). That really changed my life. They helped us with everything, be it sports or education.”
Developed by the Andhra Pradesh state government, APSWREIS was started in 1984 to provide holistic education to children from SC, ST and OBC communities. Anand too credits the society for his achievement. Before joining the society, Anand, who hails from Kalliveru village in Telangana (“Now it’s a state,” he points out cheerily), did odd jobs from a carpenter to a watchman. His father, Sri Kondala Rao, was keen on his son getting a good education and got him admitted to the APSWREIS residential school.
The journey from nondescript villages to the majestic Himalayas was a very steep curve to negotiate for both Purna and Anand. Along with 110 other children, they underwent a five-day course at Bhongir Rock Climbing School in Nalgonda under the supervision of Shekhar Babu Bachinepally. An experienced mountaineer himself, Shekhar Babu scaled the Everest in 2007, a completely individual effort without institutional backing of any kind. He also reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2010.
“During the rock climbing course, I saw videos of Shekhar sir at the summit of Everest,” says Anand. “I think that’s when I first got inspired to climb the peak.” Purna and Anand subsequently became part of a 20-member group, which was sent to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. “Before the Darjeeling course I had no idea about Everest or any ambition as such to climb it,” says Purna. “It was only after finishing the course that I thought of giving it a shot.”
Next, the duo was selected to be part of a nine-member winter expedition group to Ladakh, where they were trained to live in extreme conditions. “We were trained to acclimatise to minus 30-35 degrees,” says Purna. Having successfully completed this course too, the two were sent to Bhongir for further intensive physical fitness training for two months.
“We started at 4:30 am,” says Anand, “and then we jogged for 26 km. After that we did yoga.” Besides pushing physical boundaries, Purna and Anand had to make time for their normal schoolwork as well. They only had a couple of day hours every day to do that, since by 4 pm it was back to the ground for another set of drills.
On a hot, sweltering June day in Delhi, Purna recollects how it was up there in the Himalayan peaks. “It was dangerous,” she says. “There were deep crevices and sometimes the mountain face would be extremely steep. After 8,000 metres, I saw corpses, six of them, with their equipment still on. I was scared but I remembered the 10 commandments taught in our school. I chanted them like a prayer to overcome all my fears.”
Did she ever feel like giving in? “Never. I was fully confident of making it. But I did miss good food. We had to only survive on packaged food. I couldn’t even bear the smell of that.”
Ask what kept them motivated and both youngsters reply in unison, “We wanted to do it for secretary sir. He has been like our father.” RS Praveen Kumar, a retired IPS officer, currently serves as the secretary of APSWREIS, and oversees the functioning of about 290 residential schools. For Anand, he is a role model, “He helped and encouraged us a lot in everything we did.” Purna quips, “He played a major role in helping organise mountaineering related activities… this is not my victory. It’s a victory for all our residential schools, and I want to dedicate it to RS Praveen Kumar.”
So what was Everest like? “It’s a nice place,” says Purna with a sparkle in her eyes. We will take her word for it.