What can mountaineers who scaled Everest at 21, have conquered the highest peaks on all seven continents and trekked to the two ends of the Earth – the North and South Poles – challenge themselves with next?
Well, plenty if you are Tashi and Nungshi Malik. For even as the world was huddled indoors during the pandemic, the outdoorsy siblings, 29, participated in the 100% Women Peak Challenge, as part of which more than 700 female mountaineers from 20 countries scaled all 48 of Switzerland’s 4,000-metre peaks in March.
Dubbed the Everest Twins, the sisters, who live in Dehradun, a city in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, have a resumé that might make Edmund Hillary envious. But as part of their success, the twins have faced life-threatening moments and financial hardship to fund their treks, as well as undertaken hours of rigorous training, cardiovascular conditioning, yoga and meditation, along with a strict diet plan to boost their strength and endurance.
“For climbing Antarctica’s highest peak, Mount Vinson, in addition to solid alpine snow and ice climbing skills, we needed considerable strength, endurance and high-altitude tolerance,” explains Nunghsi, who is elder by 21 minutes. "Just because we exercise regularly, it didn’t mean we could automatically scale the summit of the world’s coldest continent."
The sisters’ love for the mountains helps, of course. “We love the challenges mountains provide," says Tashi. "In fact, we thrive under pressure. In the mountains, we have last-minute decision-making and these are moments we always enjoy, even though they can often be death-defying experiences."
The twins recall how during their final climb from Camp 4 to the summit during their Everest ascent, Nungshi’s mask regulator stopped functioning. “The moment she came to know this, she gave up,” says Tashi. “And since her Sherpa was also going berserk, and was shouting at her, she almost turned back. But at that point, I made sure she didn’t, 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.”
“Being twins, it's hard to see ourselves as totally separate from our ‘other half’ because we enjoy having a continual companion and mentor,” says Nunghsi. “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 helps me cope.”
The sisters say they discovered their passion for the sport in 2010 when their father, Colonel Virendra Singh Malik, enrolled them at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Dehradun. Their experience of moving from one Indian state to another and reorienting themselves to new surroundings during their father’s various army postings further helped them conquer their fear of the unknown.
“We were exposed to adventure from early childhood due to our father’s love for the outdoors,” says Nungshi. “We tried parasailing at age 7, tied with a shawl to our father’s back. Rafting and skiing followed soon after,” she says, laughing.
During their mountaineering course, the twins revelled in the group energy, the physical and mental challenges, as well as the sense of greater self-discovery associated with successfully completing arduous tasks. “It was so different from the quintessential classroom-learning and less challenging physical activities that our schools and colleges offer," says Nungshi. "And being girls in predominantly male-dominated courses, it tremendously boosted our pride and sense of achievement."
Impressed with the twins’ grit and motivation, the instructors would often urge them to climb Mount Everest and started jokingly calling them “the twin Everesters”. This sowed the idea of conquering the mountain in the duo’s minds. “Climbing Everest symbolised our ability to dream big and to achieve it by combining passion with commitment. As Sir Edmund Hillary put it: ‘We do not conquer the mountain, but ourselves,’” says Tashi.
While the sisters rate climbing Everest as their “biggest feat”, they cite scaling Denali, Mount McKinley (6,190 metres) in Alaska, through week-long extreme weather conditions in the North American range in May and June 2014 as their toughest assignment. “While Denali is not technically difficult, the lower half is packed with crevasses, while above 14,000 feet are steep slopes of up to 50º on ice and many dangerous and exposed sections,” Tashi explains.
Also unlike Everest, where one can get help from Sherpas, on Denali you are on your own. No wonder then, unlike Everest, which has much higher success rates, only 35 per cent of climbers manage to scale Denali. “The total weight between the gear, food and other supplies can be up to 300 pounds [136 kilograms] between two climbers," says Nungshi. "At low altitudes of 7,000 feet where the climb first begins, some climbers find it too strenuous on their bodies to haul 150 pounds [68kg] between their backpack and sleds and drop out of the climb."
Apart from tackling real mountains, the duo say they have had to climb two other “invisible mountains”: finding funding for their extreme adventures (“a nightmare in India”) as well as the “gender mountain” in a country where considerable odds are stacked against women.
“Unlike many other sports, in India there is almost no funding for pursuits like mountaineering,” says Nungshi. "Very few people can believe that we scaled Mount Everest with 1970s vintage hired equipment."
Gender discrimination only made it tougher. “Indian society views mountaineering and outdoors as a boys' thing; girls taking it up is frowned upon," says Nungshi. "Then there’s the high risk to life and limb, which in the case of girls is a much greater concern for parents. Our parents were often cautioned by relatives: ‘What if the girls get injured or lose a limb, who will marry them?’”
However, apart from pushing the twins physically, their climbing experiences have also triggered deep inner change. “It has helped us see the bigger picture of life because we realise how fragile and precious life can be,” says Tashi. “The narcosis of the altitude, the adrenaline of the ascent and the fascination of high mountains drives us to forever keep pushing our limits. Walking our way up to the summit is synonymous with an inner journey."
If the twins weren’t mountaineers, what would they be? “Dancers,” they say in unison, laughing. “Strangely, while the former we discovered by default, we realised we’re quite passionate about dancing too. So, if for some reason we weren’t exposed to mountaineering, we’d most likely have become famous dancers by now."