• Padmja Sopori

Twin Peaks

After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Mount Everest in 1953, it opened a gateway for people to follow in their very difficult footsteps. Tashi and Nungshi Malik are the first siblings and twins to climb the Seven Summits and reach the North and South Poles and complete the Adventurers Grand Slam and Three Poles Challenge. They get candid with us, at Hobbyist World, and tell us about their greatest climbing achievements.

When and how did you start with mountain climbing?

Tashi: It was all absolutely by default! We were initiated into this sport soon after leaving school by the 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 ‘qualified to be 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.

Interest in scaling Everest

Tashi: During each of our mountaineering training, our instructors were very impressed with our grit and motivation, and would often comment ‘you two should climb Mt Everest’ and start 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 ‘ma'am, 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 ‘ma'am, we have scores of road accidents every day, does it mean we stop going out?’ But mom would have none of these. 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, our 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.

What has been your favourite climb?

We rate Mt Everest as our favourite climb both for its status as the highest mountain as well as because we scaled it together with Samina Baig, Pakistan’s first female to scale Everest. We were 21, and she was just a year older! Plus Everest is the only ‘above 8000 meters’ peak of the ‘seven summits’ that we have scaled. Any climb above this altitude has serious life-threatening consequences. Mountaineers refer to 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.

Many deaths in high-altitude mountaineering have been caused by the effects of the death zone, either directly (loss of vital functions) or indirectly (wrong decisions made under stress, physical weakening leading to accidents). An extended stay in the zone without supplementary oxygen will result in deterioration of bodily functions, loss of consciousness and, ultimately, death. At extreme altitudes, above 7,500 m (24,600 ft), sleeping becomes very difficult, digesting food is near-impossible, and the risk of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema or High Altitude CO edema increases greatly.

The experience of living for 8 weeks in the company of shifting Khumbu glacier (the fastest moving glacier in the world), daily thunder of snow avalanches, of crossing hundreds of feet wide crevasses on shaking ladders and finally negotiating the dreaded ‘death zone’ cannot be adequately described in words! In brief, it was a life-changing experience in every sense of the word!

What was your most difficult climb, besides Everest?

Each of the highest peaks in the seven continents (Seven Summits) that we have so far scaled posed different and unique risks and challenges as well as special memories.

Tashi: Even if we usually rate climbing Everest as our biggest feat, I would admit that it was successfully climbing Mt McKinley through week-long extreme weather conditions that prevailed over entire Alaskan range during our climb in May-Jun 2014 that remains our favourite climb to date.

Just to give you a brief on what it is like to scale McKinley:

Denali (McKinley is known in native language) is a mountain that is respected by both amateur and serious climbers around the world. Mostly 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 up to 50 degrees on ice and many dangerous and exposed sections. Knowledge of how to install pickets and webbing around rocks, roped glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and just general survival in sub-zero conditions is essential.

Nungshi: On Everest, most climbers take help of one or two Sherpa guides, who also 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. The reason for many failures is the physical fitness required to move your gear up and down the mountain. With perfect weather, Denali can be completed in as little as two weeks, but since the weather is impossible to predict groups have to bring as much as a month's food supply. The total weight between the gear, food, and other supplies can be up to 300lbs between two climbers. At low altitudes of 7,000 feet where the climb first begins, some climbers find it too strenuous on their bodies to haul 150lbs between their backpack and sledges and drop out of the climb.

Tashi: It was under these circumstances, that when we had reached 14000 ft high camp, the mountain was caught up in the longest and most severe snowstorm 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 a huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Parents had with extreme hardships raised the fee for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them.

Nungshi: 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. 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. By the time we reached the summit, it became crystal clear! This perseverance in the face of extreme odds gave us immense self-confidence. If Mt. Everest 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 the first attempt and under conditions that had scared most climbers to abort their attempts.

Tashi: Having said this, we must caution that in extreme mountaineering, there’s a thin line between life and death. Every time climbers go into the mountains, they put themselves at risk. An essential prerequisite of a successful mountaineer is about managing risk and making the right decision at the right time. To have patience, to avoid overestimating oneself and control the temptation to reach the summit at all costs when it’s in sight!

What is your favourite thing about climbing?

Tashi: So many people have asked us ‘why do you climb? For me, I love being in the mountains and the attempt to scale a peak is really a ’journey within, or it’s a spiritual experience’. I am so much at harmony within and outside. There’s so much inner conversation, so much higher consciousness. Plus extreme climbing gives a chance to push my boundaries and expand possibilities.

Nungshi: What Tashi just said, plus for me, the favourite thing about every climb is a sense of simplifying life, with the only focus to self-preserve against nature and to summit the mountain. Life’s complexities, egos, negativity and prejudices just melt away! It’s really detoxing and a chance to reboot life on balance and holistic approach. I feel so much better ‘centred’ after each climbing expedition.

What is the most rewarding part about climbing?

Nungshi: Some of the best leadership traits are discovered, harnessed and developed through adventure such as climbing. It helps discover some of our hidden potential and our vulnerabilities, things we don’t discover in the physically safe environment of home and office. It also develops a ‘can do’ attitude and ability to take life’s highs and lows in stride.

Tashi: As Edmund Hillary said, ‘we don’t climb the mountains but ourselves’. Climbing physical mountains helps me look life’s daily mountains confidently in the eye and say ‘I’ll get the better of you’! It has taught me that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. And it has made me highly self-aware. I know for sure, but for mountaineering, I would have never been the person I am today. It has lifted me to a whole new level of consciousness.

How would one start climbing?

Tashi: It really is whether one likes to climb, knows why he/she wants to climb and then it’s about taking the first steps, which are usually the hardest! Fun, part-time, small height and easy climbs need very basic training and as the degree of difficulty, technicality and altitude increase, one would need progressively higher training and preparation.

Nungshi: In climbing it’s always a good thing to proceed systematically and in a graduated manner, sharpening both knowledge, skills and experience. India has several mountaineering institutes and depending on what level one wants to take climbing to, there are several progressive courses such as adventure, basic, advanced, search and rescue and instructor course. Commitment and persistence are very important prerequisites just like any sport or field of activity.

What is something that people may not know about climbing?

Tashi: Most people think that mountaineering is a cheap sport and cannot believe when we tell them how much extreme climb costs. They do not realize how expensive the extreme weather gear, special nutrition, permit fees, travel and insurance costs! Our explorers Grand Slam cost over 1.3 crores each and when you see it against a lack of funding and sponsorships unlike cricket, football, tennis and others, you can guess how challenging it is to fund a climbing attempt. Add extreme danger to life and limb and huge uncertainty of failure to the financial hardships!

Nungshi: Interestingly, mountain climbing is still not recognized as a sport in India and adventure sports are grouped under Youth affairs. As a result, the status of adventure sports including mountaineering and climbing is that of an orphan whereas the latter is already included as an Olympic sport for the 2020 Olympics in Japan with three medals for grabs!

Advice to budding climbers

Tashi: The list can run long, with several traits common to success in any other profession such as staying focused on the goal, perseverance, meticulous planning, calculated risk-taking, self- belief backed by solid commitment. However, passionate and successful mountaineers have also to be mentally and physically robust. These two qualities are an absolute must. There is no way one can conquer extreme altitudes without the ability to look the danger in the face and move on towards the summit. Pushing the body and mind to the limit despite the unbearable pain and exhaustion amidst potentially dangerous circumstances is what separates great mountaineers from ordinary ones.

Nungshi: Extreme mountaineering often gives no ‘second chance’ for mistakes on the big mountain, and there is a very thin line between life and death, between successful summit and disaster. Risk management is a critical tool in a good climber'’ backpack. Our philosophy is ‘good climber is living climber’. This is not to underplay the obvious objective hazards but we do not endorse foolhardiness. You must prepare and train for the worst case scenario, not start an ascent bid based merely on ‘hopes for the best’!