Their passion for mountaineering, their ever encouraging parents and the change they have wrought has taken them to the top of their game. They are creating records with every summit they accomplish. Meet Tashi and Nungshi Malik, World’s first twins to scale seven summits(highest peak in each continent), to complete Explorers Grand Slam(around 44 people have achieved that and these girls are the only Indians in that list) and ski to North pole and South pole.
Despite the fact that we have a rich and diverse culture, the partiality and bias towards women is still a shame on our society. These 23-year-old twins have showed India that if women are given an equal opportunity they can even move the mountains. They have been named as the Brand Ambassadors of the “Beti Bachao” Campaign in Uttarakhand.
In an exclusive interview with Readoo.in, they talk about their childhood, their inspiration, accomplishments, candid advice to newbies, support from the media and much more. Little lengthy interview, as I did not want to edit much of this conversation because it is natural and inspiring. So, take a mug of coffee/tea sit back and read the excerpts of the interview.
Tell us about yourself to our readers, birthplace, schooling and where you are living currently
Although dad is from a village in Sonipat district of Haryana, we were born in military hospital Meerut as villages those days did not have proper medical facilities. Meaning introductions
Meaning of names
Nungshi and Tashi were given as pet names at birth. That time our formal names were Akita & Nikita. However, since these latter names were never used except in early school records, parents decided to convert the pet names into formal names and thus Nungshi & Tashi were entered in school and all public records from our 10th board exams onwards.
Tashi – Tibetan word, means ‘good luck’
Nungshi – Manipuri word which means ‘love’. Manipur is a state in North East India bordering Myanmar.
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Early education: Studied in over nine schools, notably in states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Manipur, including the prestigious Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty
10+2: Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary School, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India -Scored 88% marks in All India board exams (94% in Commerce). Stood first in girls’ section
Under-Graduate level: 3 year ‘Bachelor in Journalism & Mass Communication’: Jul 2009-Jan 2013: Sikkim Manipal University, Sikkim with first division
Graduate level: 1 year ‘Certificate course in Peace building’: School of International Training, Vermont, USA (17 credit points for Masters Degree) 2011-12
1-year ‘Diploma in Computer Application’: Completed with first division 2011-12 Graduate Diploma in Sport & Exercise: Currently studying at Southern Institute of Technology, Invercargill, New Zealand from Feb to Nov 2015
Dancing: Learnt south Indian classical dances, Punjabi dances, Salsa. Attended dance training by famous Shiamak Davar Dance School. Performed in dance show at the prestigious Doon School, Dehradun Music: Participated in school Bagpipe band team for the session 2007-08 Travelling: Visited/studied in over 16 states and union territories of India and over a dozen countries. Participated in school ‘education tours’ and numerous youth events in India and abroad. Visited over two dozen countries in all seven continents.
Hockey: Represented Lawrence School, Lovedale in the national and regional sub junior girls hockey, earning top Honors, and led Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary School hockey team in inter-school hockey competition in Mussoorie
Athletics: Won numerous medals in 100, 200, 400 m races, relay-races, shot put, high jump, hurdles and discuss throw
Table Tennis, Basketball, and Badminton: Represented House/School teams in the School/Inter-school championships [/toggle]
Post early retirement from the army, dad decided to settle in Dehradun due to our love for mountains and reasonable proximity to his home in Haryana. Currently, we are studying graduate diploma in sport and exercise in New Zealand.
Why mountaineering? Is it something you were dreaming while young?
Tashi: Interestingly, mountaineering was not even in our distant dreams, even if we loved outdoors and sports in general. Our first exposure was purely for educational purposes, to enhance self awareness and imbibe some leadership qualities through physically challenging activity.
Nungshi: Sometimes our latent potential and hidden interests are only realized by default. This is exactly what happened in this case. As soon as we started the first day of training in the Basic Mountaineering Course at Nehru Institute of mountaineering in Uttarkashi, we felt our ‘aha!’ moments. By the end of the course, we were pretty sure that we had found our deepest passion, our strongest calling. And there has not been a looking back ever since. The rest, as we say is ‘history’!
Who/what inspires you?
Tashi: In terms of mountaineering accomplishments, there are several climbers who inspire us, but in terms of life and living, it’s definitely our father, for initiating us into mountaineering, following through and regular mentoring to help us realize our full potential. While most parents talk ‘goals’ with their children dad discussed ‘vision of life’ with us! Over the years, we have become friends than ‘parent-child’ and with communication at that level we have abundantly benefited from him.
Here we recollect how after our 12th (in which we both excelled), when most parents are busy hunting best colleges for their children’s admissions, dad called us and said, ‘with all the knowledge of the world now available on your lap (top), why don’t you do you Bachelors’ degree by correspondence, and in the time thus saved from a typical college life, do as many extra things as you like….these three years and the numerous activities you undertake, will give you good opportunity to discover where you heart is, what you’d like to become and develop a deeper vision of life. We couldn’t agree more. The idea of staying in the salubrious climate of Dehradun and the possibility of exploring ever newer horizons was incredibly exciting! So we enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree through distance education at Sikkim Manipal University. And it is this decision, which also led to us getting the time to do so many mountaineering courses!
This despite the fact that father hails from a very conservative rural part of the state of Haryana (it has one of the worst sex ratios in Asia and perhaps in the world); he himself was born after his three sisters, with numerous prayers by his parents at many religious places. (In fact, according to the local tradition, the family announces the birth of male child by hitting a ‘thali’ with steel spoon making sounds like a ringing bell at the door, indicating joy and celebration. But there is ‘silence’ at the birth of a girl child!). He recollects how he was always given preferential treatment over his sisters and how he grew up with the wish that he too should have a son. But as he grew up and with education realized that one of India’s future challenges will be rapid population growth and rampant gender discrimination, he had already resolved to have not more than one child. And he would definitely prefer a daughter. After marriage, having discussed with our mother, they decided that if first child is boy, they would adopt a girl. If first child is a daughter, that is perfect.
Nungshi: Dad thinks that God listened to his genuine desire and blessed him with two daughters! But the matter did not end there, despite her earlier decision, our mother, even more so our father’s parents, our mother’s parents and the society in general started putting pressure to ‘try for a son’. Enraged and fed up, one fine day, without even our mother’s knowledge or concurrence, our father went to the local military hospital and got himself a ‘vasectomy’ done. He then announced ‘I can no longer produce a child’. All in the family were deeply hurt, his mother cried for several days and would often remark ‘is that what we get for educating our children’! Much later, of course, every one admired and praised him for his courage and wisdom. In our family, therefore, we have never felt disadvantaged at being girls. In fact, issues of dreams, careers and life’s pursuits are never discussed in terms of boys and girls but simply in terms of humans and persons. Again in all this, our father has been a person of immense courage and vision. This has had lasting impact on us. We always told him, ‘we salute you dad. As tribute to your courage, we too will do something extraordinary one day’.
Have you had any discouragements? How did you deal with them?
Nungshi: Oh yes, in the beginning most people were aghast. Many would express sarcasm and their language of ‘sound advice’ was meant to create fear rather than confidence in our dream, ‘Do you realize you are a girl? What if you lose a limb? Oh, this is an activity of jawans, police and village people’, you won’t get good, educated groom with such background, how will earn your living from such stupid passion, your parents are really imprudent in letting you on this path’! When the first time declared our intention to scale Everest, mom was shocked! She had tears in eyes and only said ‘you climb Everest over my dead body’!
Tashi: Then there’s the attendant high risk to life and limb, which in case of girls is a much greater concern for parents. Then, mountaineering is dominated by men, and to travel alone to remote mountains, spending days and weeks together in the company of men, often sharing limited spaces in tents has its own risks and dangers. Several medical issues such as ‘periods’ are a particular challenge. We recollect while attempting Everest, our worst fears came true as periods started just the evening before we were to leave for the summit bid! With mounting cramps and absolutely no way to change sanitary pads, we labored on for 21 hours to reach the summit and return to the safety of Camp 2 at some 23,000 ft.
Give us some insights about your achievements to the people who are reading about the mountaineers for the first time!
Mt Kilimanjaro (Tanzania): Scaled the highest peak in Africa, in Feb 2012.World’s First twin sisters.
Mt Everest: Scaled on 19 May 2013 at 07.30 am. World’s First twin sisters
Climbathon 2013: Successfully participated (20 Jul-10 Aug 2013) and conquered unclimbed, named ‘virgin’ peak at 6300 m (21000 ft) ‘Alpine Style’ in Indian Himalayas (First twin sisters on top)
Mt Elbrus (Russia): Scaled the highest peak of Europe on 22 Aug 2013.World’s first twin sisters. Mt Aconcagua (Argentina): Scaled the highest peak of Western Hemisphere on 29 Jan 2014.World’s first twin sisters. Mt Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia)): Scaled the highest peak of Australasia region on 19 Mar 2014.World’s first twin sisters. Mt McKinley (Alaska/USA): Scaled the highest peak of North America on 04 Jun 2014.World’s youngest & overall 2nd pair of twins on top.
Mt Vinson (Antarctica): Scaled the highest peak of Antarcticaon 16 Dec 2014 to complete the Seven Summits as the World’s First siblings and twins to achieve this feat.
Ski to South Pole: World’s first twins to complete last degree ski to South Pole on 28 Dec 2014
Ski to North Pole: World’s first twins to complete last degree ski to North Pole on 21 Apr 2015
Those are incredible achievements! In general, are there more male climbers than females?
Tashi: Oh yes, roughly in the ratio of 7:3. This is where we see gender stereotypes at play! The fact that more men pursue this sport and most of the ‘first ascents’ are in their name, we see this as a product of classical gender discrimination against women though the ages. Outdoors and physically dangerous sports are considered ‘men’s forte’ and with such social conditioning, girls are rarely encouraged in this sport.
Nungshi: The truth is that serious mountaineering is as much about mental robustness as about physical strength. And it is not about pitching a woman against a man in a physical contest. It is about perseverance under extreme odds. In extreme mountaineering, there’s a thin line between life and death. Every time climbers go into the mountains, they put themselves at risk. Both men and women climbers face the same challenge. In this sense we certainly do not see it as male forte. Yes, few biological peculiarities such as ‘menses’ may make it more challenging at times.
What do you like about being a twin?
Tashi: Everything! Especially ‘twinship’ is huge synergy in mountaineering. We both always shared the same passion of climbing the mountains. Luckily being twins it was easy for us to accept challenges and opportunities to ‘tread less frequented trails in life’. Being twins it’s hard to see ourselves as totally separate from our “other half” because we enjoy being twins and having a continual companion and mentor. ‘Twinship’ is something not many people understand. We both are best buddies and on a mountain it’s very important to have someone you can count on. The trust we have and the bond we share has got us this far. At times when I am giving up my twin acts like my left hand and helps me cope. For example, between our final climb from Camp 4 (height 26000 ft) and the summit lies something called balcony, here my sister’s (nungshi) regulator of the mask was not functioning and the moment she knew of this, she had given up. And since her sherpa went berserk, and was shouting at her she almost turned back. But at that point of time I made sure she doesn’t give up so easily because we had dreamt of scaling Everest together. I motivated her to carry on, and together we set our foot on top of the world.
Do you like to do the same things?
Tashi: Interestingly, we don’t recollect a single thing we have done separately till date! Our CV is a carbon copy of each other. The only difference we have is our first names and marks. In our ICSE exam percentage (I secured 2% more) and Bachelors’ degree (where Nungshi equaled the score by securing 2% more!).
Recently you completed the Explorers Grand Slam, how did you train for it? Did you tackle smaller peaks first to build up endurance?
Nungshi: Apart from the soundness of attempting some lower and easier peaks before toughness (we had climbed two peaks of altitude 19000ft before Everest), the basic motto we follow before attempting any of these high peaks is ‘preserve energy’. You know we lose energy at rapid rate when climbing in high altitude. For example during Everest attempt, we lost 12 kgs each in two months! In each of the other climbs to we have lost 4-5 kgs. The intervening gap between two climbs has been just about two months, with very little time to recoup and regain some weight. So we have to overcome the twin dilemma of fully preparing physically as well as preserving maximum possible weight. Our father is our manager and coach. He draws out a ‘training and nutrition program’ for us. It includes strength training, aerobic and endurance. All these exercises become progressively strenuous and challenging as the climb gets closer.
Tashi: In addition to solid alpine snow and ice climbing skills, we need strength endurance, high-altitude tolerance, and strong cardiovascular conditioning. Just because we exercise regularly (four to six times per week) does not mean we have the conditioning needed to reach the summit of the coldest continent. Plenty of people who have the endurance to run a marathon fail to summit high-altitude peaks. Pure cardiovascular fitness is simply not enough. We should focus on building physical conditioning necessary to ascend 3,000 feet of elevation on successive days carrying up to 30 pounds. We had usually prioritized our training efforts in the following way:
- Climbing conditioning – pack-loaded uphill hiking, walking, and stair climbing
- Strength training for the lower body and core
- Cardiovascular training, including both aerobic and anaerobic workouts without pack
- Weight and flexibility training
Have you ever been in a dangerous situation while on a hike or climb where you feared for your life?
Tashi: oh several times! In general, the dangers for a mountaineer operate at two levels. First is the environment and second is the climber himself or herself. Nature is unforgiving sometimes, especially so in high altitudes. There is always a constant threat of avalanches and snow storms and strong winds. These in most cases can occur suddenly and without any indication. In Mt Aconcagua (South America’s highest peak) for example, the temperature can change from plus 20 degree to minus 20 degrees in a matter of few hours. Likewise many mountaineers have lost lives due to avalanches. Strong winds to Everest summit allow ‘window of opportunity’ only for a week to two weeks in a whole year! All of the peaks we climbed fall under extreme altitudes.
Nungshi: A technical snag in my oxygen cylinder from Camp 3 onwards during our final push for the summit was causing me to feel nauseated, dizzy and weak, as the oxygen supply was blocked. We didn’t know the reason; until we reached camp 4 (at the edge of the death zone) and Tashi in fact asked our Sherpa guide to check out the cylinder in detail. It is then we detected the potentially fatal consequences of carrying on with this ignorance!
Tashi: In the dangerous Mt McKinley climb(where success rate is 35% compared to Mt Everest) when we had reached 14000 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! One week was like hell, yet our biggest worry was the increasing possibility that we would have to abort our attempt. 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. Parents had with extreme hardships raised fee for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them. By the week’s end, we had reached the point where we had to make a decision, either to descend or ascend. Ascending meant taking serious risks, descent meant grim reality that we might not so easily get funding again! Most of the climbers from fellow teams had already descended. And hoping for an improvement in the weather, we took a huge gamble. We started the ascent. As if by magic (invisible hand of God?) as we kept pushing upwards, the weather started opening up. This perseverance in the face of extreme odds gave us immense self-confidence. If Everest had showcased us as good climbers, McKinley success firmly established us as professional and tough climbers. 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 first attempt and under conditions that had scared most climbers to abort their attempts.
Nungshi: Having said this, we must caution that in extreme mountaineering, there’s a thin line between life and death.
Do you have any advice for the newbies?
Nungshi: Serious climbing poses extreme physical and mental challenges. Thus competing with none other than himself, the mountaineer has to overcome the inexorable law of gravity that drags us down when we try to rise—a law physical, mental and, above all, spiritual. The sport lacks the glamour of cricket, tennis and football. Where other athletes and sportsmen compete against each other, the mountaineer in striving to rise higher has to fight the inertia within himself and to grapple with the mysterious and even unpredictable forces of nature—the configuration of a mountain, its impregnable barriers which finally yield a route, still more storms and stresses of every kind, within and without. To cope with them, to steel oneself not for the final spurt of a sprinter cheered by the plaudits of the crowd but in lonely solitude for hour after hour, perhaps day after day—this demands the rare blend of an introvert who can assess himself and then calmly weigh the chances of success, and the single-minded enthusiast ready to face trials and tribulations, even death. On the education side of life, I strongly believe that conquering mountains helps us conquer ourselves and become more humble and self aware. These are essential qualities for great leaders! There is lot to cheer about being a climber!
Tashi: Many aspiring climbers in India have asked us about career options in mountaineering. And we have been very candid, ‘at present, very limited scope of professional growth and of descent earning, unless if you start your own entrepreneurship and make it a success’. There are only a few professional climbers in India, and none world famous or financially well to do. Corporate or public at large does not see it as something rewarding unlike cricket or few other sports. Till now, most serious climbing has been done by security force personnel and those already in another profession doing it more for passion. Even we may not pursue mountaineering as main career but as a major past time. Or will build entrepreneurship around mountaineering. This is compounded by Government’s lack of policy for development of mountaineering as a sport. Some states even have it under tourism ministry!
Nungshi: We hope that by our global level achievements and world records, the sport will get due attention and respect. Plus we are trying to also glamorize it to draw corporate sponsorships!
Tell us something about your #BetiBachao campaign
Nungshi: See we are passionate about mountaineering. We are on a different kind of high whenever we are up in the mountains and bigger the challenge, higher is the adrenaline rush! Despite this, we are conscious that doing things just for thrill are short lived and less fulfilling. To make our passion self nurturing and long lasting, we have combined it with a social cause we are very passionate about: the cause of the Indian girl child. Our mission motto is ‘gender equality NOW, STOP female feticide’. Having aligned mountaineering with this cause has given it a whole new meaning and fulfillment. And it inspires us more than anything else.
Tashi: With roots in a most conservative rural region of North India (Haryana state) having a worst sex ratio due to strong preference for sons and consequent alarming rate of female feticide, our quest for the Seven Summits was inspired by the cause of the Indian girl child which we named #mission2for7 and later mission#UnchaiyonSeAage (hindi words meaning ‘beyond heights’) to become world’s first siblings to complete Adventurers Grand Slam and the Three Pole Challenge. We had often heard from dad, how he was born after 3 girls and was treated as ‘special gift’ from God and was given preferential treatment over his sisters. So our being twin girls and only children of our parents gives us the right credentials to espouse the cause of the Indian Girl Child.
Nungshi: As you may know, we have been made the brand ambassadors of Uttarakhand state (India) for its ‘beti-bachao’ (protect the girl child) campaign. We wish to take the cause beyond slogans to action.
How supportive is Main Stream Media to you?
Tashi: Well, we would say, fairly supportive, but not as much as our global gender iconic achievements deserved. We all know that the Indian media sole obsession is to win the battle of the TRPs, so either it is sensational news or coverage of most popular sports like cricket (where they will cover every single record or ‘first/second/third going down to ten sometimes’!) however small or insignificant it may be. Interestingly after we reached North pole on 21 April and on way back to New Zealand via Delhi on 27th April, we contacted few noted TV channels for a possible live interview. Their stock reply was, ‘oh we are so sorry, on one side is Nepal earthquake, on the other is IPL!’.
Nungshi: We even spent money to organize a press briefing at the press club of India, where only a few journalists attended, and far less covered the news next day. It was quite disheartening, not for our own sake, but for sake of the cause we espouse- development of mountaineering as a sport and girl empowerment. It clearly shows the status of mountaineering in India!
Message to the people or anything you want to convey to the people through this conversation with Readoo India
Tashi: Believe you can and you’re halfway there. The other half is ‘unwavering commitment’ setting aside fears of failure. Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. Innovate. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Passion backed with commitment is a sure recipe for success.
Nungshi: We have always been encouraged to follow our passion and our dreams by our parents. And life has taught us is that if you follow your dream with all the commitment it takes, you will succeed. It may take its time and may test your limits many times over, but if you persevere you will eventually realize your dream. In this process, no matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.
We recollect Ratan Tata’s statement on his incredible entrepreneurial success in life, ‘in Indian people have thousands of ideas but do not act on them, I had just one idea and I implemented it’.
It is been a really nice conversation with you. Readoo India wishes you a huge success in all your future endeavors. Keep inspiring people.