Editor: I know I'll get this question from readers after we go to press, so let's ask it now. What do your lovely names mean?
Tashi – The Tibetan word, means ‘good luck’
Nungshi – A Manipuri word which means ‘love’. Manipur is a state in North East India, bordering Myanmar.
Editor: Great to have you both with us, Tashi and Nungshi.
Tashi: Absolutely delighted and equally excited to talk to you!
Nungshi: What a privilege to be here!
Editor: How old were you both when you developed an interest in mountaineering? Either of you can answer the questions.
Tashi: It was all absolutely by default! We were initiated into this sport soon after leaving school by end of 2009, when we were 18 years old. An ardent believer in all round development and holistic living, dad persuaded us that exposing ourselves to physically dangerous and challenging situations was a key step to self-awareness and developing certain leadership attributes.
Nungshi: What started out as a one off exposure for personality development was to emerge our deepest passion! Following the basic mountaineering course in 2010, we completed all the progressively higher courses: advance, search & rescue and instructor courses earning the ‘Qualified to be an Instructor’ grade. Very few women in India are ever able to earn this qualification. During the same period, we also completed a ski course in Kashmir.
Editor: That's fantastic. What was the very first mountain you both climbed and where was it?
Tashi: The first serious altitude we reached was at the end of our advance mountaineering course back in the summer of 2010. As the culmination of 3 weeks of intense climbing training we, a group of about 33 trainees, were divided into small teams each under an instructor and planned every aspect of the climb of Mt. Rudugaira, a peak in the Indian Himalayas at an altitude of over 19,000 ft.
Nungshi: Successful summit of this peak as to act as benchmark for qualifying on the course. We distinctly remember the gush of pride and joy when we reached the summit before all other participants, putting even our instructor to test to keep up with us. The speed and deftness with which we called this mountain earned us the grudging admiration of all male participants (and they were 80 percent of the lot) and the sweet title of ‘Rajdhani (a Hindi word for ‘capital’ & Shatabdi (a Hindi word for ‘century’) express’ - of the two of the fastest trains in India!
Editor: Such an apt comparison. Who are your climbing icons?
Tashi: From early childhood we had read about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. They are etched as iconic figures in our minds. In the more contemporary world, our mountaineering hero is Mr. Reinhold Messner who has climbed all 14 ‘above 8000m’ peaks and without oxygen! Those who have a mentor or a ‘guru’ are very fortunate, we have none. The person who comes very close to that role is our own father! For he keeps tab on all major issues from proper training, medical preparedness and logistics to monitoring our weight and nutrition planning for all our expeditions.
Nungshi: Strangely we haven’t really followed women mountaineers so far! The one lady we surely admire is Junko Tabei who seems to defy age and goes on moving mountains after mountains. Of course one of the greatest female alpinist of our time, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is certainly one mountaineer we are so eager to meet! “Gerlinde, are you listening?”
Editor: We'll see what we can do get you connected to her.
What drew you toward Everest?
Tashi: During each of our mountaineering training sessions, our instructors were very impressed with our grit and motivation, and would often comment ‘You two should climb Mt Everest’ and started jokingly calling us ‘The Twin Everesters’. This sowed the seed of ‘must scale Everest’ in our mind. Added to all this was the encouragement by then the principal of NIM, Uttarkashi further cemented this belief in us. We remember our father calling him frequently to confirm if he genuinely believed in our capabilities. Each time he received a stronger ‘Absolutely, Sir’! His endorsement was the tipping point for our parents.
Nungshi: Incidentally, he had tied up our Everest attempt in 2012 clubbing us for support from that year’s Indian army women expedition. He called our mother very excitedly ‘Maam, I have tied up the girls’ mission for Everest with the army women.' and our mother immediately replied with scorn ‘Sorry Colonel, we don’t want to lose our daughters!" He was taken aback and ended the conversation with polite retort ‘Maam, we have scores of road accidents every day, does it mean we stop going out?’ But mom would have none of that. We were sitting nearby and felt so sorry for our Principal. At that time our father was out working in Afghanistan. We are sure, if he was around at that moment, we would have made it to the Everest one year earlier! But mothers are mothers, and our mother’s world revolves so much around us!
Tashi: We had declared our intention to scale Everest as early as 2010, soon after our advance mountaineering course. While our father had only advised more training and preparation, mother was absolutely devastated by our decision and for next two years, even the talk of climbing Everest in front of her was a strict taboo always ending with a threat ‘I will commit suicide’! Within ourselves though we knew that eventually we would prevail, and at whatever cost.
Editor: How long did it take you both to reach the summit?
Tashi: If I am to answer in one sentence, ‘3 days plus from base camp!’. Well, after a solid acclimatization of over 6 weeks at the Everest Base Camp, we set off on the final push on 16th of May, 2013. And on the 4th morning at 7.30 am we were on top of the world.
Nungshi: From Camp 4 located just a couple hundred meters below the infamous death zone, we started out on the final leg (the summit push) at 8.30 pm on 18th night and after an almost nonstop laborious climb up treacherously narrow way for 11 hours in which we covered an altitude of just about 800 meters, we reached the summit. Spent about 20 mins at the top to absorb a most incredible view that shall forever remain etched in our memory, we took another 5 hours to make it back to camp 4 (remember most deaths occur on the way down!) and descended further to camp 3 in another 3 hours. By the next evening (20th May) we reached camp 1 and next morning back to the base camp.
Editor: What was it like emotionally when you reached the summit? So much must have been going through your hearts and minds
Tashi: On top of the world! For me it was a spiritual calling and I felt ‘Sagarmatha’ (as Everest is known in Nepali) has blessed me. I felt an amazing sense of fulfillment and pride on behalf of all girls who are denied equal opportunity to realize their full human potential.
Nungshi: Making it at our first attempt, having overcome a close call and a near death experience, I felt like a true champion! I had tears of joy and pride at achieving a historic milestone as the world’s first twins to summit together!
Editor: What was the first thing, and the first person or people that you both thought about seconds after you sumitted?
Tashi: I thought of millions of girls in India who have to climb their daily ‘invisible mountains’ just to survive, and raise a toast of victory for the Indian girl child. Then I thought of mom and dad and grand ma who had been religiously praying for months for our success.
Nungshi: It was my mom, who like most Indian ladies do, loves to wear gold ornaments. And after 20 years married life, dad was able to save enough to buy her decent set. Within months after that she had to pledge all that gold away as a loan to pay our climbing fees. And at one point when due to the malfunction of my oxygen cylinder just a few hundred meters from the top, I was passing out, it was the thoughts of mom’s gold loan and constant reminder that parents won’t be able to pay for a second attempt that kept me going. Now I felt so happy to not let her sacrifices go waste.
Editor: That is so incredibly touching, tell your Mom a big thank you from all the readers of this interview. What an amazing and sweet Mom to have!
Editor: Describe the treacherous Khumbu Icefall for us. What were weather conditions like when you were there?
Tashi: Oh it poses a terrifying view! And makes terrifying sounds through the night with avalances and falling ‘seracs’. Sometimes it gives the illusion of a jet plane flying past and we feel tremors in the ground below! We know of many aspirants who after spending couple weeks at the base camp simply couldn’t have the heart to make an attempt and abandoned their expedition. The icefall is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the ‘south col’ route to Everest's summit.
Nungshi: We crossed the Khumbu icefall several times as part of our move up the mountain for acclimatization that saw us reach up to camp 3 at over 23,000 ft. If weather turns bad, it can be very treacherous to cross this stretch. When we started out for our final push for the summit, the weather was not bright, there were high winds but we had a good weather forecast for following days. So we discussed with team members and took our call to move up despite the obvious dangers. Like most climbers, we too crossed it very early in the morning. Since the structures are continually changing, crossing the Khumbu Icefall is extremely dangerous. Even extensive rope and ladder crossings cannot prevent loss of life and of course many unfortunate climbers have lost lives on this stretch itself.
Editor: What was the Western Cwm like?
Tashi: Amazing place of contradictory environments this! Most won’t believe if we say that the Western Cwm is one of the hottest places on earth due to the surrounding snow covered walls acting as a solar oven heating the Cwm. One minute we are freezing; another stripping off clothes trying to cool down. The temperatures can go from 100F to below freezing in a matter of minutes! We used to climb to camp 1 at the top of the Icefall and then do a day hike to camp 2 to get the red blood cells working. This valley is surrounded by Everest’s West shoulder to the North, Lhotse to the East and Nuptse to the South. It is the gatekeeper for the traditional route to the South Col and is a 2.5 mile long valley carved out by the Khumbu Glacier which starts at the base of Lhotse Peak.
Nungshi: This extreme fluctuation is due to the fact that the sun reflects off the ice and snow laden west shoulder of Everest to the north and the flanks of Nuptse to the south. This is compounded by lack of wind there. But when a cloud layer masks the hyper bright sun light, the true nature of climbing at 20,000′ becomes apparent!
Editor: Any thoughts on the infamous ‘Death Zone’ and what is the best way to climb through that area?
Tashi: How do I describe it? The hazards are several and safety against them never guaranteed. These range from potential malfunction/freezing of bottled oxygen supply, running out of oxygen, fatal traffic jams at the infamous Hillary step, weather turning bad, strong winds setting in, any of the high altitude effects on body and the list is long. The wall towards the summit is steep and dark and you can´t help thinking that within the next 48 hours, there is a very real risk that you might not live. As we step out in the night, in the distance, we can see a worm of light from climbers head torches flickering in the dark slowly moving up against the wall. It’s completely silent and absolutely terrifying. It’s desperately cold. It's steep and at parts very icy. The ice axe and the crampons cut skin deep into the ice. You need to pee. Forget it. Climbing through this stretch has tunnel effect, every one’s focused on reaching the summit, on taking the next step, on staying alive. If we can’t go any further, ‘good luck’, if someone’s freezing to death, very little help if at all is possible from fellow climbers. There is plenty of advice available on the net, so my only advice is ‘your body may say ‘sit down’, train your mind to say ‘move on’. And yes, do not ignore the ‘warning signs’ if you must turn back then considerations such as ‘huge cost of climbing’ ‘history in the making’ etc should not cloud your sound judgement of your situation. Risk management is very crucial aspect of successful climbing. Also, prepare very thoroughly before you set out in the death zone, leaving nothing to chance, Everest sometimes permits relative novices to reach its summit, but if conditions turn bad, you won’t have time or opportunity to correct your mistakes.
Nungshi: Knowing that as young people, we might not go in great detail about the likely dangers of the climb through the death zone, dad had briefed us accordingly and I recollect his re-iteration of the most dangerous of all, ‘temptation to sit down and relax for a while’. He warned us never to make this mistake, as at decreased oxygen levels mind becomes irrational and extreme fatigue combines to set in this temptation and many of the climbers who succumb have been frozen to death. My own oxygen cylinder had malfunctioned and not getting enough oxygen I sat down and started hallucinating. It is sheer miracle that Tashi who was ahead noticed this, turned back and on my refusal to walk any further, shouted loud in my ears, ‘Nungshi remember, mom’s gold is in the bank for our dream’! That shook me up, and after getting Sherpa help with replacing the cylinder, I started climbing.
Editor: How long did it take you both to reach the Hillary Step? Give us a break down.
Tashi: Well, we were neither among the fastest nor the slowest. On average, climbers take between 9 to 18 hours for the round trip climb from the South Col. Ours took approximately 15 hours and under:
South Col - Balcony: 4.3 hours
Balcony - South Summit: 3:5 hours
South Summit- top of Hillary Step: 1:5 hour
Hillary Step - Summit: 40 minutes
Descent Summit - Balcony: 2.5 hours
Balcony - South Col: 2 hours
Nungshi: These timings do not indicate a climber’s proficiency or preparation alone, they also depend a lot on the traffic jam at the Hillary step, any climber(s) holding up the narrow stretches of the climb, proper functioning or otherwise of oxygen cylinder and other gear, wind conditions and of course the weather!
Editor: The actual summit of Everest is described as being approximately the size of a dining table. Can you share with us your thoughts on the size of the summit, as you perceived it, when you stood on it?
Tashi: You are quite right. Although we never quite looked into this aspect while at the summit even though we had our first pics right near the topmost point with only the prayer flags behind us. Contrary to what is usually seen of the summit pictures, many climbers taking pics around, prayer flags in the background, giving an impression of a much bigger area on the top. The summit is not big, maybe about 30 square feet. On the other side we see the route coming in from the north side, Tibet. And we observed couple of climbers climbing in form there.
Nungshi: Tashi is right, although I felt it was much bigger. May be this illusion was created by number of climbers walking about finding the best pose for taking pictures and to film or photograph the 360 degree panorama. The view though was breathtaking, especially as we were blessed with near perfect weather! Seemed like ‘Sagarmatha’ had blessed us.
Editor: She had indeed! What advice do you have for any climber hoping to try for Everest this year? What are the keys to reaching the summit safely?
Tashi: We had been offered many, from diverse corners! It ranged from ‘it’s all a mental game, ‘it’s all about going with the right guiding agency’ and ‘Sherpas will carry you to the top’ to ‘you just gotta be super lucky’! Some were well considered others a product of ‘hearsay’. There is of course no shortcut to successful attempt. Presuming that any aspiring climber would do good research on the training and preparation needed for best success, our advice is ‘make it a fun filled, yet serious adventure’, keeping in good humor fights off the high level of likely stress that results from the many dangers and imponderables we encounter out there!
Nungshi: I would say risk management, making the right decisions. Preparing for the worst, healthy respect for the uncertainties of nature, building strong team bonding with fellow climbers and not being too awed by the size and magnitude of challenges along the way to Everest top. Doesn’t it sound like a lot of advice already!!
Editor: Yes! It’s amazing to see that you both have an activist and humanitarian bent of mind, and that delivers an enormous sense of pride. What is the ‘Beti Bachao’ Campaign (The ‘Save the Girl’ Campaign)? And what made you focus on this?
Tashi: Gender discrimination and female feticide is a complex and deep rooted socio-cultural phenomena in our country that requires extra-ordinary efforts to eliminate. Plus, it needs cooperation and involvement of multi-stakeholders. This will remain our key agenda for future, which we intend to execute through our foundation. We will use all forms of media to spread awareness and to lobby with governments, corporate and civil society to effectively implement policies and projects on girl empowerment.
Despite a ‘shining India’ image being built in recent years, we are ranked extremely low on HDI. One very serious socio-economic phenomenon affecting many parts of India is the rampant practice of ‘female feticide’ as a result of parents’ overwhelming preference for a son over a daughter. The situation has alarming negative repercussions such as in dad’s native state of Haryana where there are only about 861 females for every 1000 males!
To address this malice, Govt. of India launched this campaign to focus attention and resources of all stakeholders on promoting and protecting rights of the girl child. Due to our excellent credentials our state govt. havimg nominated us as brand ambassadors for the campaign, we must say, we have been able to make a huge and positive impact with our achievements as well as with our talks at public appearances.
Nungshi: Our father was born after four daughters! He often recalls how he was treated like a ‘special gift from heavens’ and was given preferential treatment in food, work, leisure and education. Dad also grew up with same desire for 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. 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 off-spring. The girl child is caught in a vicious cycle of feticide & 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. And even more to realize her potential and full human rights. We stand solidly with her and pledge to use all our resources to help her earn her rightful and equal place in the society. Let the world realize that ‘Girl child is a human being first always and every time’!
Editor: Tell us little bit about your foundation.
Tashi: Oh yes! To further contribute to girl empowerment, in April 2015 we celebrated our successful completion of ‘Explorers Grand Slam’ by starting ‘NungshiTashi Foundation’, with twin goals of developing mountaineering as sport in India and girl empowerment through outdoor adventure. The vision of our foundation is ‘Making India an ‘outdoor nation’, with active and equal participation of girls and women.’
Nungshi: India is still predominantly agrarian nation where socio-culturally boys are preferred over girls, there is epidemic level of female feticide and infanticide, incalculable ‘obstacles in the path of the girl child and yet whenever any girl achieves something big, especially at global level, the whole nation celebrates. For Indian girls, climbing a big mountain is more about making a powerful gender statement, and it has immense social impact. It is really amazing, how we receive thousands of messages from parents, citizens and girls telling us how our achievements have made them proud as Indians! So many young girls have utterly surprised their parents by declaring ‘I want to climb Everest like NungshiTashi’. We are a nation of extreme contradictions! There is a popular saying ‘India is a nation where satellites are towed by bullock carts’!
Tashi: Our foundation has two program verticals, the ‘Outdoor leadership’ program and ‘girls outdoor livelihoods’ program. The former will tie in to national skills development and youth school programs, the latter in ‘Beti Bachao’ (Save The Girl Child Campaign). Dad has donated few acres of land at the Himalayan foothills in our current city of residence, Dehradun and we are in the process of establishing an outdoor leadership camp there. The staff of three is busy developing content for these programs.
Editor: What’s next for the fabulous Everest Twins?
Tashi: This is the most asked question! On 21st April, 2015, as we reached the North Pole, we became first South Asian women, world’s youngest persons and first twins and siblings to complete the Explorers Grand Slam which includes scaling the Seven Summits and skiing to South and North Poles. That seemed like ‘the end of it all’ as many advised. But no, adventure will continue to guide a large part of our lives, and we are already trying to raise funds for our #girls4icecapsChallenge wherein we aim to ski full length across the world’s four ice caps spanning over 5000 km of ice.
Nungshi: Actually, a lot is in the mind and a lot yet to crystallize! This year is about completing our bachelor degree in sport and exercise in New Zealand by mid July, then head to USA for 2-3 months to network with potential authors and publishers for our planned book on our journey. Apart from that, we will strengthen and grow our foundation activities, and few years down the line, we aim at starting our adventure company in India and to operationalise our long cherished 'Mountaineers for Peace’ project. Regarding our career path, whatever we do will involve travel, adventure and intercultural living. Overtime we certainly wish to take up our other deep interest, i.e. dancing! And hope to act as ourselves in a movie we plan, based on our book!
Editor: Thank you for speaking with us, Tashi and Nungshi. It has been such an honor to interview you. The way you encourage and empower girls and women around India, and around the world is truly inspiring.
Tashi: We feel extremely happy each time we have an opportunity to speak about projects for girl empowerment, and thank you so much for once again giving us such an amazing opportunity!
Nungshi: Yes, we are so delighted to share our dreams for girl empowerment. We hope that after reading our journey many more folks from around the world will follow and support our projects. And we are really looking at partnerships for skills and resource sharing to take our foundation activities to next level reaching more girls in more areas. Thank you for having us!
Interview conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Administrator of the Facebook Page 'An Interview With'.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
A special thanks to Tashi and Nungshi's wonderful parents, Mr. and Mrs. Malik for encouraging and supporting their daughters. I wish the girls a lot of good luck in also promoting their humanitarian cause. I hope it save many lives.
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On the Cover:
Tashi & Nungshi Malik -
The Daughters of Everest
Showcasing the Excellence of Indian Women as Mountaineers, as well as their mission to empower women & girls with their 'Save the Girl Child' Campaign.
Tashi & Nungshi Malik.
Guinness record holders as first female twins to climb Mount Everest, and the first siblings and twins to scale the Seven Summits. Inspiring adventurers but more powerfully, true humanitarians who have dedicated their lives to helping India's daughters.