The first twins to climb Mount Everest, Tashi and Nungshi Malik, on negotiating the death zone in pitch darkness and why their achievement is worthy of attention
There have been many firsts on Mount Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached its peak in 1953. This year, there was another: the first twins in the world to do so, Tashi and Nungshi Malik. It was Tashi’s dream all along to climb the world’s highest peak.
And on 19 May, at 7.30 am, her sister and their Pakistani team member, 22-year-old Samina Baig, helped her realise that ambition.
The glory of an Everest climb may have faded somewhat with the number of successful ascents over the past many years. In fact, the week the Malik sisters reached the top, there were as many as 670 others attempting the climb, and a crowd of mountaineers swarming close to the zenith. But the 21-year-old twins insist that more and more people conquering the summit every year does not mean the climb has become any easier. This, they say, is the impression of people who have never reached the top, never faced this true test of human endurance and spirit over the extreme vagaries of nature.
The twins’ achievement, though, cannot be seen merely as a mountaineering success. Their father, retired Colonel Virender Singh Malik comes from Anwali village in Sonepat district of Haryana, where the birth of female children is not exactly a cause for celebration. After the birth of his daughters, Malik decided to get a vasectomy done so that his family wouldn’t pester him to try again for a boy child. Before the meeting with the twins, Malik asks, “Would you prefer to talk to the girls alone?”, the words ‘the girls’ resonant with pride.
It was Malik and his wife Anju Thapa Malik, a Gorkha of Nepali origin, who were instrumental in ensuring that their daughters set out on this expedition, dipping into their personal savings to arrange the Rs 40 lakh needed for both of them. Malik knows that he cannot afford another expedition like this for the girls. “This was the cheapest category,” he says. But he has now busied himself with looking for sponsors for their next climb. They had already scaled the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, in February last year. And now they want to climb the highest peaks in every continent: Mt McKinley in North America, Mt Aconcagua in South America, Mt Carstensz Pyramid in Australia, Mt Elbrus in Europe and Mt Vinson Massif in Antarctica. The family is committed to make that happen.
The Everest ascent was a slow expedition. The girls stayed at the base camp, 18,000 feet above sea level, for 40 days to get acclimatised. The next 20 days were dedicated to scaling the peak, making halts at four camps, at 21, 23, 25 and 27 thousand feet above sea level, respectively. After Camp 4 comes what is known as ‘the death zone’, where they need to fend for themselves, and no help can come if they get into trouble. There are so many variables that can go wrong, mainly in terms of the weather, and can easily become life threatening.
The twins say that it took them 20 hours non-stop to trek from Camp 4 to the peak and then back. While these were the most gruelling hours of their life, parts of it were also some of their most euphoric moments.
The three girls started the ascent at 8:30 pm on 18 May, in pitch darkness. There was no looking back after that. All they could see was the climber just in front of them. Or sometimes, other climbers crawling at some distance with lights fixed on their forehead, almost like moving ghosts.
But in those hours, at that height, all they could think about was the next step they had to take, and then the next. Each step forward seemed to be a fresh challenge. They started to suffer from the ‘tunnel effect’—a problem amplified by the monotony of their surroundings, with darkness covering everything like a thick blanket—causing them nausea, confusion and fatigue. It was harrowing in many ways. All they kept reminding themselves, like a lifeline, was to take the next step.
They passed several dead bodies by the side of the track, staring blankly at them. Some were fresh, their clothes intact, face down. Others had been mummified in ice, witness to the mania of other mountaineers, year after year. In the past six decades, more than 300 people have died in their quest to conquer Mount Everest.
The girls were lucky that the weather remained stable during their climb. But Nungshi struggled to keep pace with her sister. Tashi would wait for her to catch up, but after every step, her sister had to stop for several deep breaths before she could go on. The Sherpa guiding them advised her to turn back, but Tashi was adamantly against this. The Sherpa stomped off fuming, but returned five minutes later to see why Nungshi was having such trouble breathing. It turned out that the regulator of her oxygen cylinder was not functioning and had stifled her oxygen supply. The Sherpa gave his oxygen cylinder to Nungshi, and thus their tryst with Mount Everest continued.
“There were three times when we thought we had reached the zenith,” says Tashi. But they were told, ‘still more to go’; it was frustrating. It took them 11 hours from Camp 4 to finally reach the top on the bright morning of 19 May. Those last few steps were testing. Tashi reached there first, but didn’t want to take the last step till the other two had joined her. The three finally took the last step together.
The extreme exhaustion that they had felt till that point disappeared. Filled with euphoria, they hugged each other and yelled in joy. The sky and the land seem to merge there. Other peaks seemed to look up at them in submission.
The three girls placed the national flag and stayed on the big flat surface, large enough for 50 climbers to stand on, for 20 minutes. “You can’t stay there for long,” says Nungshi. Their partner Samina was later congratulated on the phone by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who was gracious enough to extend the courtesy to the Indian twins.
As euphoric as their moment on top was, their return journey was excruciating. At some point on their way back, near Hillary Step, Nungshi rested her head against a rock, her mind dissolving in hallucinations. “I thought I was dead. I was in heaven. I could not feel or see anything,” she relives those moments, her eyes dilating. That’s when she was jolted awake by a fellow traveller, an NCC cadet. “Get up and walk,” he yelled into her ears. She was catapulted back to reality, enough for her to concentrate on that next step, and then the next.
A week later, they were back at the base camp, where they met their parents.
The twins’ mother thought it was a joke when they first told her about their decision to scale Mount Everest. It took her two years to agree. “I wanted them to do girly things,” she says with a smile.
“It was entirely their decision,” Virender clarifies, who looks as if he would have liked to have joined them, except “I don’t have that kind of money.” He knows mountaineering is his daughters’ passion. He got them trained at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi and shifted to Dehradun to support their passion. They were called ‘the Everest sisters’ right from their early days in the institute. The instructors saw early on that the girls had in them the will, skill and grit to scale that peak. As for training, “we go for daily walks”, say the girls.
They order some coffee. “Cold coffee with an extra dose of ice cream,” Nungshi says. “We are supposed to eat a lot,” she adds. And that’s exactly what they have been doing ever since they returned. On a diet of mushroom soup, energy gels and noodles during the climb, they have lost nearly 12 kg each, a fifth of their body weight, over the past two months. “Perhaps their mother needs to scale Everest too,” jokes Virender.
The girls are dressed in similar clothes—jeans and a T-shirt underneath an open shirt—in different colours. They argue that mountaineers’ insistence on not carrying supplementary oxygen on an expedition like this doesn’t make sense. “If climbers are open to using clips, ladders and ropes that make negotiating peaks so much easier, then why not oxygen?” asks Tashi.
There is no bravery in it, they feel. The sisters have already lost a friend and a veteran climber from South Korea, the 34-year-old Sung Ho-Seo, to the mountain. He died on his way down the peak, at Camp 4, because he had decided not to take supplementary oxygen. “It was like losing a family member,” say the sisters. A few days earlier, celebrated Russian mountaineer Alex Bolotov died near Camp 1, very early on in the expedition; he had slipped and fallen 300 m down a ravine filled with rocks. This year, three Sherpas and a Bangladeshi climber died too. “Novice climbers, seasoned climbers die. You can never be sure,” emphasises Tashi.