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Nungshi and Tashi Malik on conquering the summits, the two poles and cheating death

Tashi and Nungshi Malik completed the Grand Slam Explorers, covering the seven highest peaks on the planet and the two poles. But what is it like to undertake an expedition where a wrong move can mean death?

brunch Updated: Aug 22, 2015 19:55 IST
Atisha Jain
Atisha Jain
Hindustan Times
Mount Everest,Tashi Malik,Nungshi Malik

May 19, 2013:
On their way from Camp 3 to Camp 4 on Mount Everest, Tashi and Nungshi Malik passed their first body. The dead climber was on Tashi's side, as if napping in the snow, his head half covered in the hood of his parka. They had heard that bodies of those who could not descend in time, who made a crucial mistake or simply suffered bad luck, remain littered across Everest's treacherous path.

But seeing a dead body up-close was completely different for the 23-year-old twins. They tried to rationalize it but couldn't. It could have been one of them! Was this a grim warning, both wondered. They trod on, one step at a time, but the image of the dead man kept flashing in their minds throughout the journey to the peak of Mount Everest.

April 21, 2015:
The Dehradun-based girls completed the Explorers Grand Slam, by skiing to the North Pole. The Slam is a challenge to reach the North and South Pole, and to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in each continent – a feat completed by fewer than 50 people in the world.

The beginning
At 16, after finishing high school in 2009, Nungshi and Tashi weren’t sure what they wanted from life. They are trained classical dancers, enjoy singing and love sports. So when their father suggested they take a basic course in mountaineering, they thought, 'Why not!' and signed up for the Basic Mountaineering Course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. Much to their amazement, they aced all the tests, outdoing the others.

"Mountaineering was not even in our distant dreams. But by the end of the course, we were pretty sure that we had found our deepest passion, our strongest calling," says Nungshi, the elder of the twins by 25 minutes.. "But by the end of the course, we had found our strongest calling," says Nungshi, who is older by 25 minutes.

In 2010 they climbed their first mountain, the 19,100-feet high Mt Rudragaira in Uttarakhand. Since then, every mountain has left them yearning for more. "Climbing can be very addictive; there is never a full stop after you do a peak," explains Tashi.

Count on me: "If either of us falls into a crevasse, the other would put in her 100 per cent to get her out. It would be hard for the other to let go easily."(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal)

Chasing seven

When they climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in 2012, the sisters hadn’t even heard about the Seven Summits. It began as a hobby – planning came later. "We were attending a seminar in Rwanda, which shares its border with Tanzania (where Mt Kilimanjaro is located). We called dad and asked if we could climb Kilimanjaro. We’d seen it in The Lion King – that was our inspiration," laughs Nungshi.

Their father was taken aback. His suggestion – "experience the challenge of climbing a mountain" – had backfired. After they climbed Kilimanjaro, their mother, who had refused to let them even think of Everest, relented "just one more time."

It was at Everest that they learnt about the other five peaks from fellow climbers, and Mission2for7 was born. Mission2for7 was a pledge taken by Tashi and Nungshi to conquer the tallest peak in each of the seven continents with the aim to promote mountaineering as a sport and to support the rights of the Indian girl child. After scaling Mt Vinson in Antarctica last December, they’d climbed the highest peak of every continent.

And so they set their eyes on the Explorers (or Adventurers) Grand Slam - to reach the North and South Pole - and started honing their skills, practicing, pondering, and carefully planning.

For climbing mountains, they had put on weight (because you tend to lose calories while climbing) and improved their endurance level. But for the Poles, they did tyre-pulling exercises (because pulling sleds is different from carrying sacks on your back; they trained walking uphill for two hours every day dragging tyres tied to their chests with ropes).

(Photo: Tashi and Nungshi Malik)

Lean on me
As I see the 23-year-old twins fighting over what to wear for the photo shoot, I wonder how easy or difficult it is to have one's sister as a partner on an expedition.

What if they were both hanging off a cliff on a rope, which could only save one? Nungshi and Tashi smile and exchange knowing looks. They have talked about this before.

"Atop a mountain, you are not always in a position to help somebody else," explains Nungshi. "If I was dying, my sister probably wouldn't even think about addressing me, because she would be worried about her life too. Tashi and I are always debating, "Tashi would you let go off me, or would you let go off the two of us?"" says Nungshi , breaking into a throaty laugh.

They don’t know what they would do when faced with their mortality. But say that it's very common for mountaineers to cut the rope, especially in the French community.

And that's the reason it's very important to undertake expeditions with somebody who you can trust your life with. "If either of us falls into a crevasse, the other would put in her 100 per cent to get her out. It would be hard for the other to let go easily," she says.

She cites instances when people have tried to demotivate them from going on when they already had a thousand reasons to give up. It is at times like these that the twins have supported each other.

Does that mean they never disagreed high up on the mountain? Or when deciding which route to take? Their mother answers my question. "I think that is the only place and time they don't fight!"

North and South

The twins completed the ‘last degree’ ski to the North Pole in April. They had to ski from 89 degrees North to 90 degrees North (the northern most point on the planet from where you can only head south, because in a way, you’re on top of the world). They carried 100-kg loads on sleds anchored to their waists, all in temperatures of an average of -30 degree Celsius!

The twins completed what is called the 'last degree' ski to the North Pole on April 21 this year after a gruelling seven-day ski. (Photo: Tashi and Nungshi Malik)

The biggest challenge for the twins in the North Pole was negotiating the open water patches or 'leads', some hidden: suddenly, the ice under their feet would crack open.

And sometimes, ocean currents displaced ice. The girls would camp in one spot, only to wake up to realise that it had started moving – in the wrong direction. But the South Pole had been even colder – with "vast swathes of ice and nothing else to look at," says Nungshi.

(Photo: Tashi and Nungshi Malik)

Body and mind

"All around me was white," recounts Nungshi. "I felt like my arms were pinned to my side and I couldn't move. I thought I was dead. There was nothing around me except my thoughts."

This was at Mount Everest's notorious Death Zone, above 26,000ft, in the highest altitudes of the mountain. The temperatures here are very low, oxygen level inadequate to support human life and climbing hazards high.

In such conditions, Nungshi's oxygen regulator malfunctioned, she was starved of oxygen and her pulse dropped. She couldn't move and she couldn't see her sister. "Is she dead? Or am I dead?" she remembers wondering. Her thoughts were turning cold. Suddenly, she heard a voice telling her not to give up. ‘Nungshi take a step. You will reach somewhere,’ instructed the voice. She complied and slowly tuned back to reality. Tashi was walking towards her.

Death is not a mere possibility though. It is a harsh reality: 12 of their friends have died in the last year. Some were caught in an avalanche while some could not be rescued from a crevasse.

“After Everest, we wanted to celebrate. But then you lose your friends to the mountain and it is heartbreaking. One moment you are talking, wishing them luck for the summit. And the next moment you see them lifeless in front of you.” Nungshi and Tashi have been lucky to have finished the Explorers Grand Slam in their first attempt, unscathed.

What's next?
All the highest mountains on each continent - check. The North and South Poles - check. Numerous records to make their parents proud - check.

So what's next on Tashi and Nungshi's agenda? "We want to write a series of story books for children about each of our expeditions," says Nungshi. "But we shall spare them the gory details."
"Don't be too surprised to see us acting on the silver screen, adds Tashi with a wink.

Follow @JainAtisha on Twitter

From HT Brunch, August 23
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First Published: Aug 22, 2015 18:59 IST