Exploring the peaks of the world’s highest mountains or the secrets of the deepest labyrinths of space has become almost second nature to 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 she became the youngest woman to scale the world’s highest mountain in 2014, aged just 13.
Now these two women have used their spirit of discovery to scale some of the world’s toughest mountains as part of their Project Shakthi campaign, which raises money to fund girls’ education.
In late August, they scaled a 6,012m virgin peak in Ladakh, India – a previously uncharted and untouched by human expeditions – aiming to use the symbolism of trailblazing both literally and metaphorically.
The mountain, which had never been climbed before, presented difficult challenges for even a seasoned climber like Malavath, for there were no paths to follow, nor advice from previous climbers to turn to.
“We have to prepare ourselves mentally to accept everything,” Malavath told CNN Sport. “So it’s completely different and it’s given me so much more knowledge to guide others.”
Rainy weather turning to snow at high altitude made climbing a pristine peak even more complicated.
“The night we were about to leave for our summit, it was actually snowing at our high camp, leading to avalanche conditions on the mountain we were planning to climb that day,” Manyapu recalled to CNN.
“We had to come back quickly 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, despite extensive training, the challenges were even greater.
“Poorna and I talked about it several times while we were in the tent, ‘What if we don’t make it to the top, you know what if we do? What if that?’” says Manyapu.
“But then we’d always like to go back and encourage and motivate each other, 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 the purpose of Project Shakthi and its slogan, “We climb so girls can read,” a deeply personal concern for both Malavath and Manyapu.
Reflecting on her own childhood during the Covid-19 pandemic, during which her family moved from India to the United States “to help fulfill their dreams,” Manyapu realized she could help girls without the same support system to gain access to opportunities as well.
“I have a three-year-old daughter, and looking at her makes me feel like it’s my responsibility to make the world a better place for her and her generation by at least one percent,” she adds.
Manyapu hails from the same village in India as Malavath, but the two women first met in 2019 when Manyapu was pregnant with their daughter.
“I’ve always been inspired by [Malavath’s] History since 2014,” says Manyapu. “I called them and said I wanted to start an initiative where we can climb for a good cause.
“We’ve done things for our passion so far, but how about using our passion to help, educate and nurture underprivileged school children?”
When Malavath began her climb of Mount Everest at the age of 13, she was unaware of the issues of inequality that plague society.
“As I continued to climb the highest mountains on the seven continents, I got to know this society,” she says. “And there are many girls who have problems in rural areas and don’t get any opportunities.
“I always think about the students who study with me and the people in the villages… A friend of mine got married when she was 14 or 15 and now she has two children who go to school. And I just finished my education.”
On that climb of Everest, Malavath recalls vomiting from the effort, being stuck on the expedition “about 50 days because of the weather” and determined to climb the mountain.
“When I got the opportunity to climb Mount Everest, another goal was to prove that girls can do anything,” she says. “Then I became a mountain lover, maybe because the mountains taught me so much.”
As well as raising money for education, the project aims to change mindsets about what women can achieve and highlight stories that can serve as role models.
As part of this, Project Shakthi will work with the US-based AVS Academy to match student volunteers with girls sponsored by the organization for one-on-one mentoring.
“I think we both bring a story together that would really help them see what a person can do, what a girl can do,” says Manyapu. “Because I believe representation is important. And while we’re in a generation where we see women in different fields, we still have a lot of gender gaps to close.”
Since India’s Parliament passed the landmark Right to Education Act in August 2009, making education free and compulsory for all children under the age of 14, the number of girls in school has increased, although national averages vary between states obfuscate, according to the country’s Annual Educational Attainment Report.
While school enrollment rates are almost the same between genders around the world, completion rates still vary – according to the World Bank, only 36% of girls complete lower secondary education, compared to 44% of boys in low-income countries.
And to address this global issue, Project Shakthi has set out to expand its goals.
Manyapu and Malavath will climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6,961 meters, in December as part of the next phase of Project Shakthi and invite all those interested in climbing to join them.
In the meantime, the project has already started selecting girls who will receive its sponsorship with the $12,000 raised so far.
“Poorna and I visited our village in India right after completing our Virgin Peak expedition,” says Manyapu. “And we start in our village because that’s where we have our roots.”
Ultimately, the project will aim to sponsor girls around the world, empowering them and giving them opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden, while Malavath and Manyapu continue their mission to enable girls to receive an education.