Is the risk worth the glory? Child mountain climbers & child exploitation

Bahar Mirhosseini – WNN Featured Commentary

13-year-old Purna Malakath sits at the top of Mount Everest
13-year-old Purna Malakath sits at the top of Mount Everest holding a flag for APIIC, the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation that develops residential, business and entertainment properties. Image: Transcend Adventures

(WNN) New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: On the way up she passed six dead bodies. In the icy midst of a 52 day trek to the top of the tallest mountain in the world there is little space for looking back or giving up. Add to that the freezing temperatures, and at best steep and tricky steps.

On the other side of Mount Everest, in the aftermath of an avalanche 16 sherpas, all experienced mountain climbing guides, lay dead. Mix in with this the 250 people who have already perished trying to scale Everest and the prospect of acute mountain sickness that comes with headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting for a young female mountain climber who is only thirteen-years-old.

Born on October 6, 2000 following the Kosovo War; the advent of the Euro; the U.S. President Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; and the release of Eminem’s controversial Slim Shady LP, Purna Malavath is a ground breaker at a young age.

Not quite five years old when Tony Blair was elected to his third term and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became prime minister of Iran, she would still have to wait another 17 years to buy a beer in most towns in the U.S. Instead on May 25, 2014 Purna became the youngest girl to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

At 29,029 feet high Mount Everest is known as one of the most treacherous climbs in the world.

But how did it happen that this 13-year-old was taken on a dangerous trek up Mount Everest at an age that is currently legally not allowed in the region where she climbed?

In order to climb she was thrown into a culture of international climbing where tempting danger is just part of the process. The government of Nepal governing the mountain approach in the south watches the exhibitions carefully and does not allow anyone under the age of 16 to climb Everest. But the northern Chinese/Tibetan side of Everest is another story.

Four years before Purna’s ascent up Everest, U.S. 13-year-old American Jordan Romero broke the all-time record as the youngest person to ever climb Everest to the top. To date he continues to hold the record for the youngest person to reach the peak. But like Purna, Jordan went up on the Chinese controlled Tibetan side of Everest because someone his age could slip by.

After human rights advocates spoke out sharply against Jordan’s young age in his bid for Everest, the government of China prohibited all climbers who are younger than 18 or older than 60 in June 2010. By today’s law in China, although non-enforced, young climbers are now not permitted.

As questions rise, child advocates may ask: is it better for Purna to receive protective rights that deny her chances to climb the trophy mountain? Or should a girl from a small rural village in India be allowed to feel empowered with a chance to climb one of the world’s most dangerous mountains?

A majority of human rights activists say the dangers outweigh any benefit. Facing harsh Himalayan conditions that can include high altitude pulmonary and/or cerebral edema, snow blindness or even death in a climb is not worth any risk, chant child advocates. But most mountain climbers say the opposite. They say the ability to win over adversity is worth much, especially for those who live at the very bottom of society.

The northern Tibetan/Chinese side of Everest, considered by many to be the harder climb up the mountain, is described by National Geographic in harrowing terms such as “Ballroom of Death,” “area of extreme danger,” “hanging glaciers,” and “serac,” which describes the ascent as a massive block of ice.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), brought together through action at the UN in 1985, conveys that a child must be protected “from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

Both India and China ratified their membership in the CRC in 1992. But both countries continue today to largely ignore their responsibility to enforce protective laws for children who live within their region.

“States Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare,” quotes one of the articles in the CRC. This means that a child’s highest welfare must be protected at all times, especially under what can be interpreted as any form of exploitation.

So the questions continue: is Purna’s successful climb up Everest an exploitation of youth for big media attention? Or is it an act of empowerment? This issue tracks the controversy that surrounds her amazing feat and her genuineness in achieving it.

Map of climbing routes on North Face of Mount Everest
Climbing routes from 2006 can be seen in this North Face map on Mount Everest. Image: Luca Galuzzi

It’s true that training for the climb to the summit is something very different than the grueling daily work of children who lay bricks, or are forced to weave carpets with tiny fingers in abusive sub-human conditions as they supply the world with floral patterned mats used decoratively for guests to step on at dinner parties. But climbing Everest is more than labor intensive.

It literally sucks the oxygen out of you.

It taxes your muscles, especially the small still-developing muscles of a child whose body is still growing. Trekking past dead bodies and enduring howling winds, freezing temperatures and ice that can fall suddenly beneath your feet makes you wonder whether you can make it out alive.

“It was very difficult. Every step is a dangerous step,” outlined Purna describing her hard journey to the summit as she talked to the press in New Delhi, India. She did see death up close after she reached part-way on her journey at 10,827 feet.

“[I saw] six dead bodies. I was shocked. Oh my god I got some fear,” she continued.

Later Purna would say to BBC News: “The aim of my expedition was to inspire young people and students from my kind of background. For a tribal like me, opportunities are very rare and I was looking for one opportunity where I could prove my calibre.”

Sponsored by a child education advocacy agency working in the southeastern coastal region of India, the Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (APSWREI), Purna received eight months of specialized training on high altitude climbing with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, North Bengal.

“While there, I climbed Mount Renock which is 17,000 feet high. I got accustomed to sub-zero temperatures of [minus] 35 degrees Celsius (-31 degrees Fahrenheit) in Ladakh,” she outlined in an interview with The Times of India.

Once Purna reached the top of the world she unfurled not just India’s flag, but a picture of dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, drafter of the Indian constitution and an anti-caste civil rights advocate.

The fact that Purna is dalit in a country ablaze with caste and gender discrimination makes her journey more epic, her victory more sweet. On the day of her triumph she stood on the crest of ‘her mountain’ in triumph along with experienced climber Shekhar Babu, two local sherpas and 17-year-old co-climber dalit teen boy Anand Kumar. When she smiles for the camera in her slate grey blazer and gives the barrage of professional flash photos a thumbs up, it’s a positive message about challenge and achievement that will be wired across high speed international news feeds.

“I am going back to school. I can’t neglect my education, without education we are nothing – most of our community people are living in miserable conditions due to lack of education. These are life lessons from my parents,” said Purna to the Huffington Post.

In 2009 India passed legislation in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, mandating education for children up to the age of 14. But as recent as April 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a new and troubling look at the continuing mistreatment of dalits inside India.

In “They Say We’re Dirty” HRW documents the exclusion, marginalization, and deprivations of educational opportunities for dalit children where teachers commonly ask them to sit separately as they make insulting remarks. Dalit schoolgirls are often also expected to perform unpleasant jobs, such as cleaning dry toilets.

In a photo of a ceremony conducted after her climb, published on the UK news site Daily Mail, Purna is wearing distinctively polished black shoes as she stands next to her father. Her laces are clean, long and tied neatly. But her father is barefoot. Showing the degree of poverty in the family. He is a dalit farmer earning, according to the BBC News, only approximately 35,000 Indian rupees ($600 USD) per year for his family.

Today as the media celebration has died down, Purna Malavath returns to a normal life back home. There she will be able to eat some of the food she was unable to eat on her climb, her mother’s fried chicken.

Being an international media child hero she will continue to be lauded among those in her community. But it is certain that no one will talk about whether or not her climb to the top of Mount Everest could be considered child exploitation.


13-year-old Purna Malavath and 17-year-old Anand Kumar talk in detail in a June 2014 NDTV interview about their experience and feelings climbing the face of Everest.


For more information on this topic:

EVEREST: An education resource for teachers,” The Smithsonian Institute: Education report, June 2011;

Success and Death on Mount Everest,” Himalayan Database, January 2012;

A Stage Model of Why Climbers Climb And How It Frames the Discussions of Recent Climbing Controversies,” Santa Clara University, March 2012.


As a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, WNN – Women News Network’s Iranian-American reporter Bahar Mirhosseini has worked as a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society criminal and immigration practice in New York since 2007. There she has represented indigent clients on misdemeanor and felony charges in numerous criminal pretrial, trial, and post-conviction proceedings, especially for those who have been detained by immigration and customs enforcement. While a student at Cape Town University, she worked with South African Commission on the Status of Women and studied the effects of discrimination.  She is a Haywood Burned Fellow in Civil and Human rights and Millspaugh Catlin International Human Rights Fellow at the Center of Constitutional Rights.  Through her work on the Advisory Board of Equal Justice Works in Washington D.C., and other action-based campaigns,  Mirhosseini has come to know deeply what it takes to improve the world.

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