“Imagine being inside a freezer at 30 below zero for a whole week!” says Tashi Malik. That’s how she and her twin sister, Nungshi, felt while skiing to the North Pole in 2015. The young women pushed through winds that reached 55 miles per hour. They stayed on constant alert, because polar bears roamed the region. They skied through a land of ice and sky and not much else. And at times, they wondered why they had spent so many years in pursuit of such a singular goal, to become the first Indian women, and the first siblings, to complete the most challenging exploration feat in the world, the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which includes climbing all of the Seven Summits and skiing to both the North and South Poles.
All along, they had thought they were training and enduring and succeeding to show the world that Indian women could be as good or better than Indian men. But by the time they finally pulled their 130-pound sleds to the northernmost point on Earth, their objective had changed.
Instead of pushing harder and achieving more, they wanted to use their power to show other young Indian women that they can do the same, in whatever field or life path they might choose. In truth, they had already given their quest a name: “GirlChild” in honor of the countless girls who face gender discrimination, denial and exclusion in their country. It was a state of being they knew well, although their father, Virender, had tried to gird them against it. He’d done so their entire lives, despite the fact that when they were born, for a few brief moments, he had mourned. He’d wished, like many Indian men do, that his wife, Anju, had given birth to boys.
But he quickly collected himself, and from very early on, gave himself to the task of initiating his daughters to the power of the outdoors. “It was never a conscious decision to take them into nature, since that is just what I loved to do,” he says. “But if I’d had a son or two in addition to the girls, it’s quite possible that I would have focused only on the boys.”
Skinny Little Mountaineering Prodigies
As children, Nungshi-Tashi (as their family calls them) didn’t look like outdoor types. They were small for their age, and, Virender thought, seemingly weaker than their peers. But he knew that nature enhanced “mindful living, sensitivity to environment, creative problem solving, and self-awareness,” and he wanted to instill these qualities in his daughters. So he took them hiking, camping, horseback riding, and parasailing when they were very young.
Another of his beliefs: Children should be exposed to “situations key to developing their leadership,” so in 2009, when the girls were 18, he enrolled them in a basic course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, in the northern Indian Himalayan region of Uttarkashi.
They were among 10 girls in a field of 60 boys, and for a month, they trained in rock climbing, ice climbing, general mountain travel, and backcountry first aid. Culminating their course, they climbed 9,000-foot Rudugaira peak in the Himalayas. “We were certainly strange among our peer group,” says Tashi, “The large majority of girls enter college to study law, engineering, or medicine, something their parents—not they—want.” Nungshi-Tashi became excited about climbing. And having each other, they were able to fight feelings of inferiority. They took another course, expanding on their foundation. When it ended, an instructor suggested they climb Mount Everest, which Tashi calls, “logical for any serious mountaineer.” So, they decided to attempt it.
In May of 2013, at the age of 21, they summited the world’s tallest mountain, becoming the first female twins to do so, and setting a Guinness World Record. As they stood on the top, they also began to identify their larger mission.
Another female mountaineer, a Pakistani named Samina Baig, had climbed the 29,029-foot-high massif on their same schedule. The three women had spoken of wanting to work for peace between their two nations, and all saw gender challenges as their common enemy. On the summit of Everest, they planted their respective flags, in solidarity not only to Indian and Pakistani women but to the goal of bring their countries together.
For the twins, from that point on, their mission grew stronger. They kept climbing, ticking off each of the hallowed Seven Summits. Three months after summiting Everest, they topped out on Mount Elbrus. Five months after that, they hit Aconcagua (South America). Carstensz Pyramid (Australasia), came next, followed by Denali (summit shot at top of this story), and Vinson Massif (Antarctica).
Then they went for the South and North Poles. Their quest culminated in July of 2016, when they stood atop Kilimanjaro. When they reached their final destination, they knew they had set multiple records. They’d become the first twins, the first siblings, the first South Asians, and the youngest explorers ever to complete the mission. But more important, they now had a story to share with other Indian women and girls—one that started with the simple premise that gender has nothing to do with climbing mountains.
In 2015, they had been selected to participate in a U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), which matches female executives in the U.S. with young, emerging international leaders in sports. With guidance from Susan Cohig, a senior vice president at the National Hockey League, the twins zeroed in on helping Indian girls and women obtain employment in the mountaineering industry through the NungshiTashi Foundation.
Conquering for a Cause
Today, Nungshi-Tashi strive to help young Indian women learn about the outdoor industry and how they (women!) can work within it. They do it because they see an alarming ‘economic migration’ from the greater Himalayan regions to cities on the plains. When solo girls move to cities for work, they become vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. (According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, nearly 20,000 women and children were trafficked in India in 2016). And because they know how empowering climbing, mountaineering, and other outdoor adventures are, they want to make India an outdoor nation with equal and active participation of men and women.
“Boys are still preferred over girls in India,” says Nungshi, referring to Virender’s initial reaction to his twin daughters. “And yet whenever an Indian girl achieves something big, especially at a global level, the whole nation celebrates. When you see young women climbing, it makes a powerful gender statement. We want to use our fame, as well as our experience, to help young Indian women transcend their circumstances.”
Nungshi-Tashi have seen first-hand the extreme heights of what women are capable of gaining. Now they—along with Virender—are tackling a more complex problem. “Unfortunately, in India, adventure sports, and particularly mountaineering, are still in a nascent stage with little support for development,” says Virender. So they are lobbying for funding to make it more mainstream. while at the same time going into villages and towns to inspire young women with their life story. And they’re building a program that will teach young women the skills they need to work in the outdoor industry.
It’s a whole new realm of work—vastly different than climbing mountains—and it requires a vastly different kind of endurance. But they’re moving along, with help from Mountain Hardwear and their number one supporter. Recently, Virender purchased five acres of land in the lower Himalayas, on which the twins will run their outdoor leadership courses. The classes will cover all land and water outdoor-related activities, says Virender. He has also purchased several pieces of land on trekking routes he and the twins are developing through the same region.
These are two additional steps in the twins’ long journey to empower young women in India—this one without the polar bears and hurricane force winds.