Twin sisters prove women can scale any mountain.

BY JESSE MINTZ
Photos courtesy of Nungshi Malik and Tashi Malik

 

At the top of the world, the snow is deep, the air fleetingly thin; jet streams of hurricane-force winds gust with arctic temperatures.

There, two young women sit—their ice axes and crampons resting beside them—taking in the 360-degree panorama of the sun rising beneath their feet… or should we say feat. Because this is a view few others have earned.

For Nungshi and Tashi Malik, the first female twins to summit Mount Everest, it took weeks of stoic climbing, years of preparation and training, on top of overcoming countless physical and psychological obstacles to get to this point.

Many who have conquered the same ascent might consider this view from the top to be the climax of their journey, the conclusion to an inspiring story. Not Nungshi and Tashi, though. The apex of their story only came into sight while 8,848 meters high. “We realized how important it is for women and girls to stand on summits,” recalls Tashi, looking back on that morning in 2013.

Climbing Mount Everest started as a challenge for the sisters. They’d discovered mountaineering from their thrill-seeking father, who believed that young women should be given every opportunity in life to succeed and thrive. In a society still riven by biases about gender and class, the young women were used to people doubting them and thinking them less capable simply because of their gender.

Their father thought differently; he believed in them. On the mountains he loved so much, he watched as his daughters excelled—climbing higher and faster than others who trained with them.

Besting men up the mountain felt good, but standing on top of Everest, they realized it was even more than that. “We wanted to show that if women and girls have dreams, they can achieve them,” explains Tashi with passion in her voice. It became a calling.

They set out to conquer the Seven Summits, a goal that would see them climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents.

The sisters fulfilled this dream, and at 23 Nungshi and Tashi became the first female twins to climb Mount Everest on their way to becoming the first siblings to ascend all Seven Summits in 2015. Then, as if it wasn’t enough to reach this holy grail of mountaineering challenges, they went on to traverse thousands of kilometers of barren ice and snow, skiing to the South and North Poles to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.

As for why such ventures first attracted the sisters, the answer is straightforward: mountains don’t discriminate. They don’t care if you’re a woman or a man. “Exclusion, denial of their rights, discrimination… girls have numerous mountains to climb to merely survive,” declares Nungshi. Those invisible mountains were in their thoughts as they trekked, waist deep in snow, up some of the world’s most daunting terrain. And, they were in their mind again when they founded the NungshiTashi Foundation.

It really all began with climbing. After returning from expeditions, they’d be swamped with letters and messages from young girls who aspired to setting their own records and exploring the world. Sifting through these correspondences—a virtual pile of yet-to-be-realized dreams—the sister came up with a foundation that aims to remove barriers wherever possible in order to help empower young women and girls in India, specifically through access to outdoor sports and promising employment.

The goals of the foundation are close to their own hearts. “We come from a country where there’s still a strong preference for male children,” explains Nungshi. “Many girls in India aren’t given the same opportunities for education or are forced to marry early.” As she shares, even her father recalls receiving preferential treatment from his parents over his four older sisters.

Today, the NungshiTashi Foundation works with villages along popular trekking routes through the Himalayas, providing job training for girls to earn livelihoods as camp managers and guides. They also partner with schools, developing curriculums that teach leadership and outdoor education with at least 50 per cent girls’ participation.

At 26-years-old, the sisters have already touched the sky. Now, they want to reach even higher and re-write the rules for all girls in India. “Women are strong,” Nungshi says, a sly smile revealing she knows this is an understatement for her and her trailblazing sister. “If given the chance, they can smash records.”

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