16-year-old Chiara Picao has been fundraising for girls’ education since she was 11—by literally climbing mountains.
By Chinelo Onwualu
For some, climbing mountains is a metaphor for conquering impossible feats. For Chiara Picao, who summited her first peak when she was just 11, it’s not only a symbol, it’s an arduous path she’s chosen to raise money and awareness for girls’ access to education.
Chiara’s uphill climb began in October 2012, when a friend took her to the WE Day youth empowerment event in Toronto, where she lives. She was captivated by speakers who talked about social change and leaving a positive impact.
“I knew that I could change the world, and I felt so empowered,” she recalls. “I just didn’t know how—or for what cause.”
Later that month, Chiara saw a news report about 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an activist in Pakistan who had been shot in the head by members of the Taliban for defying the ban against women going to school.
“I had never been so upset before in my life,” Chiara says. “I’m allowed to go to school—in fact, I go to an all-girls school—so to me it was unimaginable that that wasn’t reality for everyone.”
Malala survived and went on to become an international advocate for girls’ education—something that had a profound impact on girls around the world, including Chiara. She had found her cause: raising awareness about the unequal access to education that girls like Malala faced. But how?
The next summer, Chiara and her family went to visit their relatives in Pico Island, a popular tourist destination off Portugal’s western coast. Looking at the lush landscape dominated by Mount Pico, the country’s highest peak, she was struck by a powerful metaphor.
“I realized that injustices are really mountains that people have to climb, and female access to education was an injustice that needed to be conquered—just like a mountain,” she says. “So, I thought that maybe if I climbed a physical mountain, I could get people to understand what was happening and start listening to these girls.”
There was just one problem. While her parents and older sister had climbed before, Chiara hadn’t. She’d had asthma as a small child and wasn’t particularly athletic—she barely even hiked. For a beginner like her, even a relatively small peak like Mount Pico would be challenging.
Undaunted, Chiara returned to Toronto and began training. She decided to raise money for two girls’ secondary schools in Kenya. She set a goal of $2,500 and told friends and family about her climb for charity. By the time she was back in Portugal and ready to climb, in July 2014, she’d raised $5,000.
She recalls the feeling of climbing that first mountain, and as she talks, her hands seem to paint a picture of the scene.
Everyone climbing with her had gone silent, concentrating on their movements. Even as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other, in the quiet, with the summit looming ahead of her, Chiara fell into a meditative state. She thought about why she was doing this and who she was. It became clear to her that helping to educate girls would be her life’s mission.
That first climb would eventually raise $10,000.
Buoyed by her success, Chiara and her father—with whom she always climbed—took on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, in Tanzania, in March 2017.
Near the summit, she woke up sick to her stomach and keeled over in pain from altitude sickness. She considered stopping, but she remembered why she had started all this in the first place. She realized that while she could turn back any time, many girls who were fighting for their right to an education couldn’t afford to give up. She pushed on to reach the summit. Her efforts raised just over $7,000.
Five months later, Chiara set her sights on Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. This climb proved very different from the others.
Delayed by visa issues, Chiara and her dad didn’t arrive until August, close to the end of the peak’s climbing season. The mountain was already covered in ice and snow. Their guides warned it would be rough but assured them the trails were still safe. Then, on the last day before they reached the peak, a storm rolled in.
“All you could really see was snow. We could see one another because we were wearing brightly coloured equipment, but if you looked up at the sky everything was white,” says Chiara.
When the storm didn’t pass, they decided to brave it. They’d come too far, too high. The weather only got worse. Then, just like on Kilimanjaro, Chiara’s altitude sickness returned—now accompanied by breathing problems.
Just 600 metres from the summit, in agony, Chiara understood she had to turn back. She urged her father to go on without her, while she returned to base camp with other members of the group.
In the end, no one reached the summit. The storm erupted into lightning and blinding snow—a dangerous combination for climbers carrying metal equipment. The trails became impassable, even to rescue vehicles. To avoid being stranded, Chiara’s father and the remaining party made a gruelling five-hour march down to base camp.
“I knew that I couldn’t just give up because it got a little difficult. But I also knew that I can only do physically what I can,” Chiara says. “I was just happy everyone was safe.”
Despite the setbacks, the mountain didn’t dissuade her from pursuing her goals. Chiara hopes to study international development and continue raising awareness and funds for girls’ education. And since that first climb, she’s gotten her family involved in her passion for activism.
For the last five years, they’ve gathered speakers and donors for an annual fundraiser in Toronto, called A Night of Inspiration, to raise money for WE Charity.
“Mountain climbing is one aspect of how I go about making change, but there [are] so many other ways to do it,” she says. “Whether I continue to climb mountains or not, I will always be fighting for female education.”