In an interview with The Bridge, when the twins Tashi and Nungshi Malik were asked about the cause as to why they took up this unusual path of Sport Climbing, which is still not a conventional area of interest for most people, Tashi said, “It resulted from the love for it we discovered after a ‘by default’ exposure to a basic mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi.”
Nungshi added, “Dad always encouraged us to follow our passion so we weren’t afraid to dream big and achieve it. Although dad confessed later that even he never imagined we’d dream so big and so bold. And that despite his deep fears for our safety and wanting to persuade us away from such a dangerous pursuit, he ‘walked the talk’ and stoically supported us.”
In spite of having achieved so much in their professional field at such a young age, they managed to continue their academic pursuit and graduated with flying colours. When asked as to what is the key to juggling the two very different worlds and how important is it to maintain a balance, Tashi said, “We believe that a combination of experiential learning and academic knowledge helps achieve excellence in varied aspects of life. We also believe that we gain higher credibility in what we say or do when we have sound knowledge and experience.”
According to Nungshi, “A deep belief that academic knowledge and practical experience complement each other is key to excel in both. With this belief also comes the necessary discipline and motivation to switch focus and effort from one to another and to push the body and mind beyond a comfort zone.”
The twins are a well-bonded team, isn’t it?
Nungshi said that being twins and together through all these extremely dangerous adventures has helped them immensely. She told The Bridge, “It is a totally male-dominated sport, entailing long periods away from home with little or no communication, parents certainly felt relieved that we had each other by our side. But it also meant we both children being in harm’s way always at same place and time.”
But she was also quick to mention that she didn’t doubt that their success would have no come as it did if they pursued it individually, as long as they loved the sport. Tashi added that the fun quotient was definitely improved by the beloved sisters doing it together.
The twins plan to be campaigning to support and empower the girl child. Tashi said that since it is associated with traits typically attributed to men such as courage, physical stamina, and risk-taking, we find outdoor sports, especially mountaineering as one of the most empowering medium for girls. She said, ‘It shatters many gender stereotypes.’
Nungshi, on the other hand, said, ‘But most girls aren’t able to pursue such activity due to financial reasons or simply because there is a very limited scope of career in it, we aim to include girls from underprivileged backgrounds and to assist in creating economic livelihoods around adventure sports.’
The conversation would be incomplete without a second-hand experience of the toughest climbs that the sisters have had. Tashi told The Bridge, ‘Even if we usually rate climbing Everest as our biggest feat, I would admit that it was successfully climbing Mt McKinley through for a week-long in extreme weather conditions that prevailed over entire Alaskan range during our climb in May-Jun 2014.’ She also briefed in about the mountain. She said that Denali (as 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 the 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 claims that on the Everest, most climbers take help of one or two Sherpa guides, who also arrange most for their logistics, including carrying rations, tents, fuel and extra oxygen cylinders. She said, ‘For 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.’ She continued, ‘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 of 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 sleds and drop out of the climb.’
Tashi continued to narrate the success climb story. She said, ‘It was under these circumstances, that when we had reached 14000 ft high camp, the mountain was caught up in the longest and severest 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!’ Tashi continued, ‘Aborting this attempt would have a huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Our parents had, with extreme hardships, raised the fee for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them.’ Nungshi continued, ‘By the week’s end, we had reached the point where we had to make a decision, either to descend or ascend.’ By then, most of the climbers from fellow teams had already descended. She said, ‘We took a huge gamble and 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!’
She continued to say, ‘This perseverance in the face of extreme odds gave us immense self-confidence. If Everest had showcased us as good climbers, McKinley success firmly established us as professional and tough climbers.’ With a lot of pride, Nungshi said, ‘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 our first attempt and under conditions that had scared most climbers to abort their attempts.’
In spite of India being an ideal country for climbers, adequate infrastructure seems to be lacking in India for the all-round development of the sport. Tashi commented that India has such exciting potential for being a top climbing destination. She said, ‘Adventure sports does not come under sports in India, it comes under Youth Affairs and figures as just a small line ‘spirit of adventure’ along with other youth activities. So, there is neither a policy for adventure sport unlike the national sports policy nor any clear and worthwhile funding and promotion of adventure sports.
Weak strategy and concept only lead to weak funding, coordination, and implementation. As a result, adventure sports fall variously under state departments (as in our own state Uttarakhand it comes under tourism!) This despite Wall climbing already been included for Tokyo Olympics!’ Nungshi added to Tashi’s statements ‘Adventure sports suffer from pretty much similar lacunae as most other sports lack of proper infrastructure, qualified staff, safety and security standards, poor accessibility, non-availability of quality equipment (We had to buy most of our climbing gear from Kathmandu!) and bureaucratic delays in permissions and permits. Then there is hardly any incentive and job opportunity in an Outdoor industry in India. I can frankly say we’re several decades behind western countries in all these aspects.’
When asked what kind of action the academies or the government should be taking to encourage more young people to take climbing up seriously, Tashi said, ‘Our government owned and managed adventure and climbing institutions are not progressive nor ambitious. None of the training imparted at these institutions is recognized abroad. There is very little in terms of innovation, incorporating latest techniques and technology, having partnerships and MOUs with similar international organisations. The staff and selections are decided or influenced by concerned bureaucrats and these are headed by defence officers with limited international exposure.’ Nungshi said that it’s high time that the management and running of these are passed on to the best qualified new generation of ‘civilian’ Indians, the working model ought to be changed to ‘public-private’ partnership and every state must have at least one such institution specializing more on the nature of adventure sports that the state is best suited for. She added, ‘For example, Meghalaya has some of the world’s best and longest caves, so it should have a caving adventures institute!’
Aanchal Thakur had recently turned heads with her astounding performance in skiing and extreme sports seem to be a growing an interest among Indians in general. When the twins were asked as to how far they think India is from being recognised as a real contender on the world map in climbing again, both of them voiced their opinions on the concern. Nungshi said, ‘Anchal’s achievement is one more boost to adventure sports in India. With rising economy, increasing corporate support and lesser fears for financial security for many Indians (unlike our parents’ era with so limited career avenues) a new generation of Indians are taking the route less trod. Sports in India will, therefore, continue to benefit from this trend.’ And Tashi said, ‘Climbing achievements by Indians in the past half-decade or so have turned heads around the globe for sure. For instance, we have already featured for 6 world records in the Guinness World Records and also won Global Young Explorers Award from the President of Iceland, first such global recognition for any Indian adventurer. As a nation though, we are far away from claiming ‘outdoor culture’ in the country and are not viewed as such abroad. We are also far away from real astonishing adventure accomplishments that draw world attention.’
The sisters were asked if their sport is to be included in the Olympic Games, will it change the future of climbing in India and would getting home an Olympic medal become a priority for them as well. Tashi replied, ‘Inclusion of wall climbing in Tokyo Olympics has given an immense boost to adventure sports in general and sport climbing in particular.’ And Nungshi said, ‘Having said this and having seen for how long climbing has been popular in western countries with huge infrastructure and mentoring by accomplished climbers like most other sports India has lost initial advantage and it will take some years before we can catch up with them. We’re certainly past the age for serious competing at the global stage, but through our foundation, we will identify potential talent early and mentor them for global competition with best facilities. We hope one day not too far in the future, we’ll have world-class climbers.’
There is a lot of untapped talent in India when it comes to these sports. The twin climbers were asked if they have any plans of playing a part in helping more girls from less privileged backgrounds to take an interest in climbing in the future and what kind of message they would lie to spread across for aspiring young girls who look up to them as role models. Nungshi said, ‘As we said earlier, we started our Nungshi Tashi Foundation with the main objective of girl empowerment through outdoors. We aim to touch the lives of girls from less privileged background positively through exposure to outdoor leadership and education. And we aim to reach every single school in India.’ She continued, ‘My message to aspiring girls is ‘Never underestimate yourself. We are all human beings first, each uniquely gifted with unlimited potential in need of enabling environment. Gender is a human reconstruct that prevents us women from realizing our full potential. Let’s be watchful against gender discrimination: know it and fight it! Strive to be the best version of yourself’.’ And Tashi said, ‘I will advise girls that ‘certain things catch your eye, but pursue only those that capture the heart. And this joy you will begin to experience only when you have learned to celebrate life as a most precious gift to be fully enjoyed, without fear without self-doubt. Those who take massive determined action with unwavering commitment are the ones who turn their dreams into reality’!’
Tashi and Nungshi Malik are among the most dedicated and hard-working pair of sportswomen in contemporary times. The young girls are already much ahead on their way to success in making climbing sport enriched as well as their own individual achievements in their arena.