KATHMANDU: A 13-year-old impoverished Indian schoolgirl, thought to be the youngest female to climb Mount Everest, said Monday she had never scaled a mountain before setting her sights on the world's highest peak.
Malavath Poorna, daughter of a tribal farm labourer, said she reached the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) peak on May 25 following a difficult and dangerous climb from the Tibetan side of the mountain in China.
Poorna said she and her 16-year-old friend, a member of India's lowest Dalit caste previously known as "untouchables", climbed the mountain with ten Nepalese guides before hoisting the Indian flag.
"I started to train for Everest last September, my parents and my instructors were very encouraging," Poorna told AFP in Kathmandu before heading home to India.
She spent around seven months training on rocky hills and later on icy terrain in India's Himalayan Ladakh region, learning to cope with altitudes and bitter cold -- a world away from her home in the tropical southern state of Telangana.
The 52-day-long expedition to Everest was made possible after an Indian government-run welfare group sponsored the teenager, whose father belongs to an indigenous tribe and earns just 35,000 rupees ($600) a year.
The petite schoolgirl said she was a confident climber and only felt nervous the day she made her final push to the summit.
"That morning, I saw six dead bodies on my way to the summit. My instructors had told me about climbers dying and their corpses being left on the mountain, but I was still shocked to see it," she said.
Poorna's climb has since been recognised by the Himalayan Database, considered the most authoritative record of mountaineering in the region.
Kathmandu-based Jeevan Shrestha, who assists mountaineering expert Elizabeth Hawley, with the database, told AFP: "Poorna is the youngest female to summit Everest. It is a very rare achievement."
China and Nepal officials have not confirmed that she reached the summit.
Most climbers attempt the peak from the Nepalese side -- the easiest and most popular route -- but authorities in Kathmandu do not grant climbing licences for Everest to anyone under 16.
Nepal's Everest climbing season effectively shut down this year after an avalanche killed 16 sherpas and sparked a labour dispute that prompted climbers to abandon their expeditions.
In 2010 13-year-old American Jordan Romero claimed to have set the record for being the youngest climber to summit Everest, also making the ascent from Tibet.
His feat provoked criticism from the mountaineering community, who questioned whether he was mature enough to make the decision to climb.
The Indian teenager brushed off such concerns, saying "I am glad I got the chance to climb. If I am fit enough, why should anyone stop me from climbing?"
"I wanted to prove that people from my background, tribals, can do anything they want," she said.
She said she planned to join India's police force after finishing her education and climbing a few more peaks.
"Right now, I can't wait to go home. The most challenging aspect of Everest was eating all that packaged food, soup and muesli -- I can't wait to get home and eat my mother's fried chicken and rice."