William Blake said that great things are due when men and mountains meet. But what about when women meet mountains?
Tashi and Nungshi Malik are two women who have met not just one mountain, but seven. And not just any seven, but the seven tallest mountain peaks of the seven continents, all in less than two years. With their father as mentor and guide, the Dehradun-based sisters created #Mission2for7, a sweeping plan to bring attention to the plight of the Indian girl child while scaling the seven major summits: Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Everest in Asia, Mount Elbans in Europe, Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Carstenz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea, Mount McKinley in North America, and their final climb in December 2014, Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
They hadn’t set out to make a record, but the girls are now featured in the Guinness World Records for being the first twin sisters to conquer Mount Everest – incidentally, also their favourite climb, as it is the highest point on Earth. They are also the first siblings and the first twins to conquer the Seven Summits together.
For Tashi Malik, Everest became a spiritual quest: in her dreams, she often saw Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for Everest) calling to her. She shared, “Everest was special from several angles: the sheer altitude and the fact it was our first climb above 7,000m, as well as our first climb with oxygen cylinders. Plus, we reached the top with Samina Baig, who became Pakistan’s first woman to reach the top of Everest. Nothing can describe the joy of flying our national flags together!”
The twins had numerous challenges to complete the seven peaks, both financial and physical. In-between climbs, they were constantly fundraising, and when they felt like losing hope, they reminded one another of what their parents had sacrificed for them to reach their dreams. On Mount Everest, Tashi recalled that Nungshi almost gave up when her oxygen cylinder snagged, causing her to severely hallucinate. “She was on the verge of returning just short of the summit, when I spotted the problem, and I shouted into her ears, ‘Get up. Don’t forget, Mom has taken a gold loan for our climb.’” When Tashi lost so much weight crossing Antarctica that she felt too weak to pull her sled, it was Nungshi who kept them going, reminding her of how close they were to making history.
The idea of climbing the seven peaks wasn’t instant. After graduating from high school in 2009, they were encouraged by their father, retired Indian Army officer Col. Virender Singh Malik, to take up mountaineering as a hobby, as he thought that learning the sport would help them gain confidence and leadership skills. What began as a single class turned into several years of development, as they whirled through advanced courses, search and rescue, and mountain skiing. The sisters had found their calling.
But they had an additional deeper calling as well. Hailing from Haryana, they grew up in an area that had an extreme preference for sons over daughters, and some of the highest rates of female foeticide and infanticide in the world, as well as gender violence and widespread sexism. They wanted to use these climbs to increase awareness of the plight of the status of girls in India. For them, the mountains they were about to climb symbolised the mountains that girls in India surmount every day. Says Tashi Malik, “Many parents still consider boys the only ‘real’ offspring. So girls are caught in a vicious cycle of not only foeticide and infanticide, but denial, exclusion, malnutrition, lack of education, domestic work, and eventual economic dependence on men. Right from her birth – if she’s fortunate to be born and survive – girls in many parts of India have numerous ‘mountains to climb.’”
Tashi and Nungshi Malik believe that by having completed these climbs, they have not only brought awareness to their cause, but have changed stereotypes of how women can participate in outdoor sports in India. “India itself is not an outdoor nation, and until the 1980s, women were mostly absent from the outdoor world,” Nungshi Malik explained. “With a few mountaineering firsts – such as the first Indian woman to climb Everest in 1985 – things began to change. Now the floodgates are open and dozens of Indian women have climbed Everest and many have made significant contributions to other outdoor sports, such as parajumping, boxing, and wrestling. Having said that, mountaineering is still seen in India as a men’s sport.”
Tashi and Nungshi Malik have just helped change the face of the game. Although women mountaineers such as Junko Tabei and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner have gone before them and paved the way, the twins have added something special to the mix: sisterhood. “I think we are truly blessed to be twins, and we would not have realised the depth of this [connection] if we had not put ourselves in the life-threatening situations of our climbs,” explained Tashi Malik. “With our mission for the Indian girl child accomplished, I feel like a true champion,” said Nungshi Malik. “On reaching the top of Mount Vinson, the first thing we did was to strike a steel plate with a spoon to celebrate that we were girls, much like families do in many rural parts of India when they announce the birth of a boy.”
Their seven peak mission for the Indian girl child accomplished, the twins’ next feat is to continue to empower girls through outdoor sports. Their new organisation, NungshiTashi Foundation, is aimed at lifting the status of girls though mountaineering and outdoor activities, targeting the populations of India’s mountainous areas. “We have made history and a powerful statement for the cause of the Indian girl child though our climbs,” said Tashi Malik. “Change is already happening but it is too slow. Presently it is like ripples, but we will make it a strong current.”
Amy Gigi Alexander writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. She has been published in BBC Travel, World Hum, and Lonely Planet. Her work focuses on being an empowered woman, a solo traveller, and finding the good in the world. She tweets as @amyggalexander.