Whilst most of us at the age of 21 were negotiating early adulthood, Indian twins Tashi and Nungshi Malik were summiting Everest. Just two years later, at the age of 23, they became the youngest people in the world to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam – summiting the highest peak on each of the 7 continents and skiing to both the North and South Pole– a bucket list of achievements that many mountaineers spend decades attempting to achieve. All while doing it to encourage more women and girls to get outside.
This year, the 28-year-olds swapped mountaineering for adventure racing as they took part in the famous Eco Challenge expedition adventure race in Fiji; a non-stop, multi-day race billed as ‘the toughest in the world’, where the siblings competed in a team of four to race hundreds of miles across the jungle, mountains and ocean via various means. All teams are under strict confidentiality agreements until the TV series of the event with Bear Grylls airs in 2020, however Tashi describes it as ‘brutal’.
I caught up with the twins via email while they were in Fiji to revisit their race experience ahead of writing a book about it, and quizzed them on their extraordinary mountaineering achievements.
Tell me about your childhood in the Himalayas – were the mountains a big focus growing up?
Tashi: Actually, Dad (Col. Virender Malik) is from plains and Mom’s from the Himalayas. But taking on Dad’s love for the mountains, they have always enchanted us from our earliest recollections.
Indian cities have been increasingly turning very crowded and polluted. Often at the cost of good schooling, Dad ensured that we mostly studied in hill stations so we developed a consciousness of the need for a healthy and clean environment that is so much a feature of all mountains.
You’ve already completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam – a massive undertaking. Which expedition was the most challenging?
Tashi: Even if we usually rate climbing Everest as our biggest feat, I would admit that it was successfully climbing Mt McKinley (also known as Denali) in May/June 2014 through week-long extreme weather conditions over the entire Alaskan range during our climb. While the mountain is not technically difficult, the lower half is packed with crevasses while, above 14,000 feet there are steep slopes of up to 50 degrees on ice, and many dangerous and exposed sections.
Unlike Everest where you may get help from Sherpas, on Denali you are on your own. Unlike Everest, which has much higher success rates, Denali has only about a 35% success rate. The reason for many failures is the physical fitness required to move your gear up and down the mountain. 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 supply of food. The total weight between the gear, food, and other supplies can be up to 300lbs between two climbers. At low altitudes of 7,000ft, 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.
Nungshi: When we reached the camp at 14000ft high, the mountain was caught in the longest and most severe snowstorm in recent memory. Imagine getting stuck at that altitude in a tent the size of your bed with absolutely no way to move about, and temperatures dipping to -35-40°C! One week was like hell, yet our biggest worry was the increasing possibility that we would have to abort our attempt. Our rations and fuel were meant to last only a week extra and were almost over. Aborting this attempt would have a huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Our parents had, with extreme hardship, raised fees for this climb, and we knew how terrible our failure would be for them.
Tashi: By the week’s end, we had reached the point where we had to make a decision either to descend or ascend. Most of the climbers from fellow teams had already descended. And hoping for an improvement in the weather, we took a huge gamble. We 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!
This perseverance in the face of extreme odds gave us immense self-confidence. If Everest had put us in the list of good climbers, our McKinley success firmly established us as professional and tough climbers. I cannot describe the feeling when we finally stood on the top of North America! We had done it on our first attempt and under conditions that had persuaded most climbers to abort their attempt.
With such intense climbs and expeditions, there must have been many difficult points?
Nungshi: On Mt Everest, we had some profoundly transformative experiences. We knew that we would encounter bodies of earlier climbers along the way. The worst happened to us as on the summit push; we crossed the body of a fellow climber from our own season. It is a strange feeling, a few nights before you are together talking, sharing your dreams and sipping tea. A few days later you see that person lying lifeless on your path.
We also lost one of the Sherpas of our group even before the final push for the summit. On one of his outings to put the logistics in place en route to the summit, he probably forgot to anchor himself to the fixed rope line to prevent [himself] from slipping, and lost balance and fell a hundred feet into a crevasse. Fleeting thoughts do cross the mind that it could just have been one of us.
I think those who make the final attempt to the top are those whose motivation to reach there is stronger than the fear of losing their life or limb. We also saw one of our dear friends and fellow climbers, an actor in the Nepal film Industry, lose his complete foot below the ankle. He developed serious frostbite on the way to the summit. During our climbing season, 16 climbers lost their lives, most of whom we had either met or seen occasionally at the Everest base camp.
Tashi: But it is these very challenges and the process of overcoming our fears and physical dangers that instils a high degree of self-awareness and self-confidence to face life’s ‘storms’. These experiences also made us conscious of how precious life is and to celebrate each day.
As mountaineers do you have a particular training routine?
Tashi: Dad is our mentor and coach. While we focus on the actual hard work of physical training, he studies the peculiar requirements of preparing for each peak, makes out our weekly training program and ensures we ‘hit the road’ as per schedule. It involves three aspects: endurance, aerobic and strength training, and there is an intelligent mix of varying distances, varying loads and strengthening exercises. We usually ‘get into the groove’ about 45 days to 60 days prior, gradually building the tempo but we never train more than 5 days a week.
Nungshi: Our preparations also involve drawing balance between conserving body weight and doing these rigorous physical workouts. To keep up the weight as we train, we also take ‘mass gain’ [nutrition] products, as it’s not possible to gain weight rapidly with normal food when we are following such strenuous physical training regimens. We lost 12kg each on Everest in 2 months, 6kg each in just 2 weeks in Antarctica and likewise on other peaks!
Tashi: We are basically mountaineers and before each climb, we build up our readiness through an imaginative and balanced combination of endurance, aerobic and strength training as well as nutrition planning. This is difficult keeping in mind that we have to keep up our weight simultaneously. We are very light, barely 58kg each, and some mass is essential to lug all the heavy packs and long periods of living on very basic nutrition yet burning huge amounts of energy!
Earlier this year you returned from completing the infamous Eco Challenge adventure race, which you’re currently sworn to secrecy about. What was your preparation for it like?
Tashi: For Eco Challenge, frankly we could do very little training and preparation if any at all. The only things we could manage were 5 days of sea training with the Indian Navy (we had zero experience of water!), a 4-day swift water rescue course, a 4-day Wilderness Advance First Aid Course, a week of mountain bike practice (we had never been on mountain bikes before!) and 4-5 days of jungle survival and navigation training with the Indian army. This was the one event we were utterly unprepared for! If we’d had prior experience of racing, we would certainly have gone better prepared.
Did you have to pass any safety and competency tests to take part?
Tashi: Yes, as well as prior certifications in certain mandatory skills and competencies.
Will we see you take part in more adventure racing in the future?
Tashi: Haha! This is the first question that came to mind after the race! Our bodies had taken a severe beating. ‘Never again’ was the first thought that came to mind. But when the race organisers had very lovingly remarked during farewell, ‘See you girls again next year!’ we had instantly said, ‘Yes, of course!’
Nungshi: Looking back, Eco Challenge was much more than just a race. For us, it was a transformative experience. It opened a window to a whole new world of multi-dimensional experiences that went far beyond adventure. It was also a journey into a native people’s lives and in how a big adventure can be conducted without adversely impacting our environment and creating a ‘win-win’ for all stakeholders. We saw how this event benefitted and connected individuals from all over the world and the local communities. Can you believe that beyond the organisers’ generous contributions to a number of projects, on a request by a local village school along the race’s route, a group of enthusiastic race volunteers and participating teams quickly mobilized over $13,000 to construct a much-needed library for the kids? The ‘Eco’ part of this challenge was so inspiring! It expanded our horizons and possibilities.
Tashi: If we do compete again, it will be with a higher purpose. It will be to attain a much higher benchmark of performance next time and to win on behalf of girls who have to climb their daily ‘mountains’ of gender discrimination, exclusion and denial of basic human rights. It will be to demonstrate that girls can do everything. We will go better trained and more determined!
What’s on the horizon for you over the next six months?
Nungshi: For now we’re writing a book on our hugely transformative experience of the Eco Challenge race, its reflections and lessons from our adventure journeys of the past nearly a decade leading up to this race. We hope the book will be ready for release around mid-2020 after the television series on the race goes live sometime early 2020. That’s why we returned to Fiji after spending a month and a half in India – Dad said, ‘You’ll best recollect and capture the vivid details of the race experiences when you are surrounded by the same environment.’
Tashi: We’re also busy expanding activities and programs of our adventure institute called the Outdoor Leadership School back home in the Himalayan city of Dehradun about 300km north of New Delhi. Its aim is to build life skills through the great outdoors and the focus is on School Outdoor Leadership and Education (SOLE) programs across Indian schools and eventually from across the world.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
We have had a three-year contract with Mountain Hardwear as their Impact initiative Brand Ambassadors. It’s ending this month. We are seeking sponsors beyond that period and would be glad to associate with some top outdoor recreation, adventure and education brands.
Nungshi: With our youthful energy and global personality, we think we can also make a very inspirational brand for outdoor luxury and lifestyle gear. We are starting initial work on our own brand ‘NashTash’ combining how each of us is being commonly addressed by many friends these days!