In May 2013, a truly extraordinary and unprecedented event occurred on one of the world's most spectacular settings – three young women barely out of their teens, one from Pakistan, the other two from India, scaled Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft., the highest peak on earth, together. Their joint climb to the summit coincided with the 60th anniversary of the historic moment when New Zealander explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay first made the same ascension.
However, the symbolism went even further that – the Pakistani girl, Samina Baig, and the two Indians, 21-year-old twin sisters, Tashi Malik and Nungshi Malik, planted the flags of their respective (and long hostile) nations upon the summit. The Maliks were the first twin sisters ever to scale the Mountain, while Baig was the first Muslim female to do so.
Since that Everest expedition, Samina Baig has moved on towards an ambitious multi-year plan to conquer seven peaks in seven continents (starting with Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, at 22,842 ft., the tallest mountain in South America).
Meanwhile, the Malik Sisters have since reached the top of Mount Elbrus (18,541ft) in the Caucasus, the highest peak in Europe and they also have some impressive tasks on their agenda – they next plan to clamber up Mount Aconcagua, having gained funding support from the Birla Trust in India.
Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, is regarded as comparable to climbing an 8000-meter (26,240 ft.) peak due to its “extremely low humidity, intense solar radiation, high winds, surprise electric storms and extremely sharp variations in temperature, plummeting to minus 35 degrees at the summit.” Indeed, the global climbing community have tagged Aconcagua as “Death Mountain.”
The sisters, who have also conquered Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19640 ft., in May 2012, have dedicated their mountain-climbing projects as a living tribute to Indian girls and young females, who suffer from a multitude of ills, including rape, murder, infanticide and, before they are even born, gender-selective abortions (or feticides). “We are [now] 22 years old and want to continue representing the Indian ‘Girl Child’ who is built of steel from the inside” said the girls in a statement.
The Twins will embark on their battle against Aconcagua on January 17, followed by an expected 18 days of “extreme mountaineering” under arduous conditions. Once they reach the summit, the Maliks hope to unfurl the Indian tri-color flag and plant it there. “We shall raise a toast of smiles on behalf of every ‘Girl Child’ in India, who share a million dreams,” the twins said. “We hope we can positively impact, inspire and motivate every one of them to reach out for the stars and build their ships to take them there.”
The twins are now seeking corporate or private sponsors to mount three other peaks – Mount Carstensz Pyramid (16,024 ft.) in Indonesia (the highest mountain on Oceania); Mount McKinley in Alaska, U.S. (at 20,237 ft., the highest peak in North America); and Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica (16,050 ft., the highest peak on that icy continent) Samina Baig has already received financial support in Pakistan to undertake her mountain-climbing expeditions around the globe, while the Maliks await additional financing.
But who exactly are these two intrepid young Indian ladies?
Nungshi and Tashi Malik, in their brief lives, have already accomplished more than most people could achieve in a hundred lifetimes. Not only have they climbed the world's most foreboding mountains, but they also excel in various other sports as well as in academia. Based in Dehradun, in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, Nungshi and Tashi are the daughters of retired army officer, Colonel Virender Singh Malik, who encouraged the girls to be athletic and self-reliant by sending them to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, in Uttarakhand state.
“We resisted at first," Nungshi told the Times News Network news agency of India. "Once there though, the mountains cast a spell on us," Tashi added. "We ended up doing all the four courses there." When the girls fell in love with mountaineering and decided to climb Everest, their parents, especially their mother, Anju Thapa Malik, were opposed – but eventually relented. In fact, Col. Malik emptied his bank account to finance his daughters’ historic Everest climb.
But perhaps the Malik sisters were born with a love of mountaineering in their very DNA – indeed, their mother is a Nepalese Gurkha, a hardy people very familiar with high elevations (the girls also speak fluent Nepali).
The Malik girls kindly agreed to speak with International Business Times to discuss their lives and careers as youthful mountaineers:
IB TIMES: How did the two of you get into the very difficult and strenuous sport of mountain-climbing? Is it a tradition in your family?
MALIKS: No one in our family has been a mountaineer, although [our] dad being in [the] infantry led a spartan life, including service in all of India’s mountain ranges along its borders with [its] neighbors. But this has/had nothing to do with our journey as mountaineers – for us it all happened by a combination of coincidences.
IB TIMES: Were you planning to climb the seven mountains that Samina Baig of Pakistan has in her designs? Or were you seeking to accomplish this independently of her?
MALIKS: We had [determined that climbing the] seven summits [was] a good accomplishment to attempt, from fellow mountaineers we met during our earlier climbs and while staying at Everest Base Camp.
Samina did not have any idea or such dream when we [first] met. She was so attached to us that on almost all nights, she would leave her tent and sleep with us in our tent. It [was] during these late night chats and ‘dream sharing’ that we wished we could do the seven summits together to symbolize our deep desire and will to contribute to regional peace by hoisting our flags together. We designed three conjoint stars which we would draw on the back of our palms between thumb and index finger to mark our shared dreams and sisterhood.
Yes, it was also understood by both parties, that such a dream would need sufficient funding for all of us to realize [it]. Samina’s brother, Mirza, has been an adventure/mountain guide for several years and has [a] good sense of how to market their achievement and develop ideas for obtaining sponsorships for [the] seven summit project.
Plus, Everest-related achievements in India are less unique, since around 400 Indian climbers have [reached the summit of] Everest, versus [only three] from Pakistan.
IB TIMES: How have you coped with your fame in India? Whom have you met?
MALIKS: [It has been an] amazing experience dealing with the flood of media persons, studio interviews and press conferences! I think being young and having achieved a world record milestone really helped fight fear and, we must admit, we have thoroughly enjoyed it.
Among the eminent public figures who [met and congratulated] us were the President of India [Pranab Kumar Mukherjee], Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand [Vijay Bahuguna], Haryana [Bhupinder Singh Hooda] and Delhi [Sheila Dikshit] and India’s sports and youth affairs minister [Jitendra Singh]. We have also been invited as motivational speakers and chief guests or special guests to various schools, institutions and social events.
IB TIMES: Is mountain-climbing in India completely dominated by men? Can you estimate how many women participate in this activity?
MALIKS: Yes and no. As per our estimates around 400 Indians have successfully climbed Everest – of course, most of these [were] in past six or seven 7 years, mostly through organizational expeditions such as the armed forces, paramilitaries and NCC [ National Cadet Corps].
Of these 400 climbers, around 40 have been women. So if about 10 percent climbers being women is too small a percentage, then, yes, it is a sport dominated by men!
IB TIMES: Are you seeing more Indian girls getting into mountain-climbing?
MALIKS: Definitely -- particularly after our feat and one by Arunima Sinha, [the] first female amputee to scale Everest this year, there is a great sense of pride and excitement among girls to explore this field. For most women in India, climbing Everest is intended to make a statement of gender equality and earning their rightful place in society. Its symbolism is powerful.
IB TIMES: Does your family not worry about you two girls being up in the mountains?
MALIKS: Mom and dad are at the two extremes on this issue. We recollect one incident -- riding high on our great performance in the advance mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, when we declared our intention to attempt [to climb] Mount Everest, mom nearly fainted but dad took a deep breath as if to reflect on what he had just heard, and then commanded with a stern voice “put on your rucksacks and [go] back to the mountains”!
Mom had threatened to commit suicide if we ever spoke of attempting Everest. It took us three years to get her concurrence! Even now, for mom, ‘ignorance is bliss’! We do not share any details of [the] difficulties of our planned climbs. It’s dad who is our solid support. But he too admits, ‘the fear is always lurking in the shadows’. He wants to accompany us [on] our climbs, but finances are too huge for us to afford.
IB TIMES: Surely, the two of you don’t go up mountains alone? Do you take guides?
MALIKS: Yes we do, more for ensuring safety and quick response in case of emergencies, especially [since] dad’s not with us in these far-off lands. The guides are assigned in a ratio (usually anything between one guide-per-three climbers to 1:6). That, of course, increases our climbing fees and expenses. If and when we can find some good trusted fellow climbers, we wish to do away with guides.
IB TIMES: What does one eat and drink at such high altitudes?
MALIKS: Well, base camp being at the lowest elevation (18,500 ft.) does not [create] much of an eating issue. People make choices based on their eating habits. For example, the Spanish [people] prefer pasta, macaroni, sausages, etc. We’d eat ‘desi’ meals like dal [lentils], rice, paratha [flatbread], green vegetables and so on. However, beyond base camp our choices are limited to Maggi [instant soup] and [other] soups.
We avoid solid food items at higher altitudes (19,000 ft. and beyond) because more energy is consumed to break down food and we feel nauseated. Climbers also carry some energy/protein bars and high altitude food packets to energize themselves although this may not be suitable for some others. The mantra for high altitude is to save energy and hydrate as much as possible. Soup [is] recommended at all times.
IB TIMES: How does one cope with the thin air at such high elevations?
MALIKS: Most of us know how different human bodies are from each other. The process of acclimatization is very important in determining how well the bodies perform at high altitude and adapt to thin air. Some people run short of breath in the base itself (18,000 ft.) and others struggle for oxygen in higher camps (23,000 ft.). Ideally we have two options; one is to take Diamox [Acetazolamide] daily to compensate for low oxygen levels, and two, use supplementary oxygen bars.
IB TIMES: Why do you think Indian corporations and other organizations have been slow to finance your expeditions, whereas Samina Baig has already gotten the money she needs?
MALIKS: Business investments are about ‘return on investments’. While all the folks at the corporations that we or dad have contacted express their admiration for our achievements, when it comes to sponsorships they do not find it a good area to invest in. Mountaineering is pretty much a ‘back stage’ sport; there isn’t much public awareness or interest in it. Plus in India, as we all know, cricket and Bollywood has consumed the nation, at least up until now.
In the case of Samina, due to the nature of her achievement (the first Pakistani female and third overall to scale Everest) and coming under the current circumstances where the nation is struggling to cope with challenges from armed extremists, a general image where there are rampant gender violations (although India has more in sheer numbers), such a feat by a Muslim girl provided a great anchor on which to build campaigns and movements for equality, empowerment and so on. (India is far ahead in terms of its womens' achievements in international sports).
Perhaps it is also for this reason, that a U.S.-based philanthropist of Pakistani origin has generously supported [Samina's] seven summits’ mission.
IB TIMES: How do you hope to promote awareness of the tragedy of female infanticide in India through your mountain-climbing?
MALIKS: [Our] dad hails from a very conservative Jat ethnic group in rural Haryana [which has] one of the worst sex ratios and [incidence of] gender violations [in India]. He was himself born after three sisters. However, after we were born, despite family pressures for a son, dad unilaterally underwent a vasectomy. He also defied social norms and married outside the community as our mother is a ‘Gorkha’ of Nepali origin.
‘My life is my message’ they say. By accomplishments such as dad’s and ours, we hope to use the media interest, our celebrity status and social networks to spread awareness about this deep-rooted social curse, and campaign against gender inequality and female feticide [in India and elsewhere].
IB TIMES: What did you think of Samina Baig? How did you first meet her? Do you stay in contact with her?
MALIKS: Mountain-climbing people anywhere in the world are generally very magnanimous, peace-loving, egalitarian, more spiritual and spontaneous. We found the same qualities in Samina, who hails from the very mountainous Hunza region of Gilgit Baltistan [in northern Pakistan]. Plus, she is like any other modern young girl, full of dreams and aspirations. We joked, pulled each other’s legs, and shared our life’s experiences and challenges in society as women. We weaved together many dreams, including climbing at least one peak together in each other’s country, attending each other’s weddings (if those ever happen!), and take up any projects that could help restore peace and friendship between the two neighbors [India and Pakistan].
Due to linguistic similarities (Samina speaks perfect Urdu), we actually never felt like people from different countries. We are in regular touch [with Samina] through Facebook -- of course that limits the length and content of our conversation! We are hoping to climb at least two more peaks together: Carstenz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea and McKinley in US, provided we manage sponsors by then.
Samina and we love to call ourselves “three sisters”, and we are very hopeful that taking a cue from our historic efforts, someday, spirited overseas Pakistani and Indian philanthropists will jointly fund our Indo-Pak gender equality and peace expeditions to other challenging mountains, including several peaks in the Himalayas.
IB TIMES: Have you ever been to the United States?
MALIKS: Oh yes, we have completed a year-long Certificate in Peacebuilding from the School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont in 2011-12. It included month-long classroom sessions, online semesters and a week-long field seminar, which we attended in Rwanda to study the genocide and emerging peace and reconciliation processes there. The next trip to the U.S., of course, will be in mid-May 2014 when we hope to scale Mount McKinley and thereafter may spend some days in California with the family of a well-wisher, and also to climb some peaks around there for fun.
IB TIMES: Do you hope to make mountain-climbing a career?
MALIKS: No, having weighed its pros and cons, for the moment we see it as a great hobby to pursue for a lifetime. We recognize the extreme physical stress serious mountaineering, especially at heights above 26,000 ft., inflicts on climbers.
We wish to pursue higher studies in sports and exercise science, adventure management etc., which will hopefully give us adequate career options with the outdoor sports industry, in government sports departments and as consultants and coaches etc. We have been offered a ‘full scholarship’ for graduate diploma in sports and exercise science by a premier institute in New Zealand starting early 2015. That should be a good start!
Tashi and Nungshi Malik may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com