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An interview with Nungshi and Tashi Malik, women with big dreams, and the world’s first twins to climb the ‘big seven’ summits.
Nungshi and Tashi Malik are the world’s first twins to climb the ‘big seven’ summits—Mt McKinley, Mt Aconcagua, Mt. Vinson, Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Elbrus, Mt Everest and Mt Carstensz Pyramid— all in the name of thir mission—#mission2for7, aimed at the empowerment of the Indian girl child.
Journalism graduates and avid hockey enthusiasts, their love for mountaineering began with a beginners course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi and culminated in summiting the tallest mountain of each continent, furthering the cause of women empowerment, skiing to the North and South poles – in the process conquering numerous Guinness world records.
Just today, the twins reached the north pole, completing their most recent mission—Mission Unchaiyon se Aage—that involved reaching the North and South pole on skis.
Before they left on their mission, I had the opportunity to interview them via email on their love for mountaineering and adventure, and deep interest in the girl child’s status in India. Here are the most interesting excerpts from the interview!
Out of all the mountains you have summited, which one was the most difficult to climb? Could you recount the experience?
Nungshi Malik: Each of the seven peaks that we have scaled posed unique risks and challenges. However, we would still rate Everest the most difficult, with Mt McKinley in Alaska (USA) coming a very close second. Everest is the only ‘above 8000 meters’ peak of the ‘seven summits’. Mountaineers refer to the altitudes above 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) as the “death zone”, where no human body can acclimatize as the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life. At such extreme altitudes, sleeping becomes very difficult, digesting food is near-impossible, and the risk of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema increases greatly.
The experience of living for 8 weeks in the company of the shifting Khumbu glacier (the fastest moving glacier in the world), of crossing hundreds of feet wide crevasses on shaking ladders and finally negotiating the dreaded ‘death zone’ cannot be adequately described in words!
Tashi Malik: Even though we usually rate climbing Everest as our biggest feat, I would also mention successfully climbing Mt McKinley through week-long extreme weather conditions that prevailed over the entire Alaskan range during our climb in May-Jun 2014.
Denali (as McKinley is known in the native language) is respected by both amateur and serious climbers around the world. Known for its violent weather and extreme cold because of its location just outside the Arctic, climbing Denali is a serious undertaking and sometimes even experienced climbers find themselves in serious trouble. While the mountain is not technically difficult, the lower half is packed with crevasses while above 14,000 feet are steep slopes of ice and many dangerous and exposed sections.
Nungshi & Tashi Malik at McKinley (Denali)
How would you compare Everest and McKinley (Denali)?
Nungshi Malik: On Everest, most climbers take Sherpa guides, who arrange most of their logistics, including carrying rations, tents, fuel and extra oxygen cylinders. On Denali you are on your own. No wonder then, unlike Everest, which has much higher success rates, Denali has only about 35% successes.
Tashi Malik: It was under these circumstances, that when we had reached 14,000 ft high camp, the mountain was caught up in the longest and severest snow storm in recent memory. Imagine getting stuck up at that altitude, in a tent the size of your bed with absolutely no way to move about, and temperatures dipping to minus 35-40 degrees! Our rations and fuel were meant to last only a week extra, and were almost over. Aborting this attempt would have huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Our parents had with extreme hardship raised the fee for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them.
Aborting this attempt would have huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Our parents had with extreme hardship raised the fee for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them.
Nungshi Malik: By the week’s end, we had reached the point where we had to make a decision, either to descend or ascend. Most of the climbers from fellow teams had already descended. Hoping for an improvement in the weather, we took a huge gamble and started the ascent. As if by magic (invisible hand of God?) as we kept pushing upwards, the weather started opening up. By the time we reached the summit, it became crystal clear!
I cannot describe the feeling when we finally stood on the top of North America. Only one Indian woman had earlier climbed this peak, and even she succeeded only in her second attempt. We had done it in the first attempt and under conditions that had scared most climbers into aborting their attempts.
Mountaineering is such an extreme sport. How do you deal with the emotional and mental pressures of mountaineering?
Tashi Malik: We too fear death. For example, on Everest, we knew that we would encounter the bodies of earlier climbers along the way. The worst thing was that we also had to cross the body of a fellow climber from our own season. It is a strange feeling – a few nights before, you are together, talking, sharing your dreams and sipping tea, and a few days later, you see that person lying lifeless on your path.
It is a strange feeling – a few nights before, you are together, talking, sharing your dreams and sipping tea, and a few days later, you see that person lying lifeless on your path.
During our climbing season, 16 climbers lost their lives, most of whom we had either met or seen occasionally at the Everest base camp. But it is these very challenges and sense of overcoming our fears and physical dangers that instil a high degree of self awareness and self confidence to face the ups and downs of day to day life. Yes, sometimes if what you want is a real deep calling, then that desire dominates the risk and fear that may lie along the way! For us, the desire to reach the summit of the chosen mountains is such a calling.
Nungshi Malik: Fortunately, passion wise, I think both of us share the same likes and dreams. As soon as we completed the basic mountaineering course, we both said, “Wow! This is where we belong!” There wasn’t a doubt in our minds that our happiest moments were spent in the mountains. Mt Everest too was a common dream, though Tashi felt more spiritually connected to Sagarmatha (as Everest is locally known in Nepali). There is another factor at play. For some strange reason, what one of us accomplishes, the other ‘has’ to do, and if possible do it even better. There is a healthy but invisible competition in doing better than the other, a kind of ‘first among equals’.
During their training days
Tashi Malik: Being twins and attempting each climb together has been a real asset. All of these 23 years, we have never been separated and there isn’t a third person who has been closer to either of us. Now with mountaineering achievements and some of the most dangerous moments shared together, we have become even more conscious of our identity as twins, as unique achievers being twins.
Being twins and attempting each climb together has been a real asset. All of these 23 years, we have never been separated and there isn’t a third person who has been closer to either of us.
Then there are role models whose accomplishments are so inspiring that compared to what they endured, ours are far lesser! When we started out for Everest, we had only the legendary pair of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as role models. By the time we embarked on #mission2for7, we were deeply inspired by Reinhold Messner, a man who is the first person to climb all fourteen ‘above 8000m’ peaks without supplementary oxygen!
Is there any tradition or ritual you undertake before setting off to scale a mountain?
Tashi Malik: Every time climbers go into the mountains, they put themselves at risk. To get a sense of positive energy and nurturing cosmic protection, we certainly do our own prayers before setting out on each climb. This is also to thank God and all those who made it possible for us to reach this far and whose support has enabled us to realise our dreams.
Nungshi Malik: On some mountains such as the Everest, there is a formal prayer (Puja) ritual that is mandatory for every climber to attend, to seek blessing for the expedition. It is carried out by a Lama and few monks in front of an altar. God’s blessings are invoked for good fortune for all climbers and the critical climbing equipment. We have realized that prayers, acknowledgement of support from our environment and gratitude give lot of strength.
You have been focused on creating awareness of the need to empower the girl child. Where does this focus on the girl child stem from?
Tashi/Nungshi Malik: This idea was a product of our background and our being twin girls. Interestingly, we have roots in one of the most conservative rural areas of Northern India (Haryana) with one of the worst sex ratios and heinous gender violence. This is due to the overwhelming desire to have at least one son at all cost and consequent widespread phenomenon of female foeticide.
Our father was born after four daughters! He often recalls how he was treated like a ‘special gift from the heavens’ and was given preferential treatment in food, work, leisure and education. Dad also grew up with same desire for a son, but he says our birth slowly transformed him, despite initial disappointment and determination to go in for more children until he had a son. Finally to avoid giving into the temptation, full credit to him for taking a very courageous step to undergo vasectomy within two years of our birth! Due to these credentials, we felt that our story will inspire many and will make a huge difference to the cause of the girl child in India.
Finally to avoid giving into the temptation, full credit to him for taking a very courageous step to undergo vasectomy within two years of our birth!
Listening to him and later researching about this social evil, we feel the pain of the blatant and epidemic violation of our girls’ human rights. Many parents, especially in rural India still consider boys as the only offspring. The girl child is caught in a vicious cycle of foeticide and infanticide, denial-exclusion-malnutrition-lack of education-domestic work and eventual economic dependence on the male. Right from her birth (that is, if at all she’s fortunate to be born!), our girl child has numerous ‘Mountains to climb’ to merely survive!
#Mission2for7 as well as Mission #UnchaiyonSeAage were dedicated to the cause of the Indian girl child. We will use all forms of media to spread awareness and to lobby with governments and corporates to effectively implement policies and projects on girl empowerment.
Economic empowerment is a key element of protecting and promoting rights of the girl child. We have just started our charitable society ‘Nungshi Tashi Foundation’ with the twin vision of developing mountaineering as a sport and girl empowerment through mountaineering and outdoor sports. We will focus on creating self sustaining systems and structures that directly result in employment generation for girls through outdoor adventure activities.
Could you share your views on Indian women in mountaineering? What, in your opinion, would encourage more women to take up adventure sports?
Tashi Malik: Mountaineering is still largely a men’s sport. Globally, women represent only a small percentage of all climbers, perhaps in the range of 20 percent. Also, if you look closely, nearly all the world’s ‘first ascents, fastest and most-number of times’ belong to men. In the case of Indian women, this ratio was even worse especially up until the last 5-6 years. There seem to be several reasons for this. And gender issues operate even in western societies, even if far lesser than in India!
Nungshi Malik: The gender ratio and age structure on Everest has been shifting since the first ascent in 1953. Men still outnumber women, but women are increasing in proportion. In our case, given our socio-cultural and economic context, girls are certainly not encouraged in sports, especially outdoor sports which are very dangerous and expensive, such as mountaineering.
…given our socio-cultural and economic context, girls are certainly not encouraged in sports, especially outdoor sports which are very dangerous and expensive, such as mountaineering.
Nungshi Malik: India itself is not an outdoor nation and I think until the eighties, Indian women were mostly absent from the outdoor world! With a few mountaineering firsts (such as Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Everest in 1985) change started happening and today we see as if the ‘floodgates’ have opened. Dozens of women have climbed Everest, several women have made their mark in other outdoor sports as well.
In just last 2 years, some of the great world’s firsts have been achieved by young Indian girls. In 2010, Krushna Patil, 19 years, became the youngest Indian woman to climb Everest. Last year, we set a world record as the first twins to scale Everest, and two days later Arunima Sinha became the first female amputee to reach Everest.
Such feats are surely going to inspire many more girls and women to aim for some fine mountaineering feats in coming years.
Normally, proximity to danger makes people contemplate life— have your life-threatening experiences ever altered your priorities or the way you look at life?
Tashi Malik: Extreme mountaineering has been more of a spiritual awakening for us. It is, for us, a total revelation, a deep inner change. The ascent to the ‘Roof of the world’ or Chomolungma, as it is called in the Tibetan language, has been a spiritual one. We have always viewed our relationship with the mountains with a deep sense of humility and in our eyes walking our way up to the summit is synonymous with an inner journey. Mountain climbing has helped us see the bigger picture of life because we realize how fragile and precious life can be.
We have always viewed our relationship with the mountains with a deep sense of humility and in our eyes walking our way up to the summit is synonymous with an inner journey.
Nungshi Malik: For encouraging reflection and deeper self awareness and to get the best of our potential, we all need a guru, or a wise person. In our case the mountains have kind of acted as a guru where we are in our element, where we do lot of such reflection and are able to discover our untapped resources for realising our full potential.
Nungshi and Tashi Malik’s journeys are inspirational certainly – but what further inspires is their vision for using their resources to support the girl child in India. Their enthusiasm and commitment is infectious – at the end of the interview, they mention many other plans such as taking up their other deep interest in dancing, acting in a movie, and writing a book basd on their #mission2for7 adventure as well.
Here’s wishing you many more days filled with adventure and passion, Nungshi and Tashi!
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