Sisters Nungshi and Tashi Malik are inspiring Indian girls and women to try mountaineering
Before Nungshi and Tashi Malik set off to climb Mt. Everest at age 21 in 2013, they hid a letter in the back of a closet in their parents' home in India. If they didn't come back, they wanted their mom and dad to know how much they appreciated their sacrifices and encouragement.
They also wanted the chance to say goodbye.
The Malik twins, from the Himalayan town of Dehradun, grew up hearing what they could not do because they were girls. They were drawn to sports because during their field hockey and cricket matches they felt free from this gender bias. Once they walked off the pitch they were laughed at by their male classmates. Their teachers even told them there was no future for girls in sports.
Their father, Virender Malik, had other ideas. He was the only boy born to his family in the rural village of Anwali in northern India. He had four sisters and saw the advantages he received both from his family and from India's society.
"In village life parents consider girls as a liability rather than an asset," Tashi Malik says. "The challenges that are thrown at a girl are like invisible mountains."
The twins' father could see these mountains, but rejected the concept of gender inferiority. He was elated to have two healthy daughters and against the wishes of his family and in-laws decided to not try for a boy.
"I realized the world was bigger than just having a son," Virender Malik says. "We have to overcome our own fears and not pass them down to the next generation."
As children, Tashi and Nungshi remember a man approaching their father and saying that it was too bad he didn't have a son.
"From that day on we decided that someday we would do something extraordinary to make parents realize that they are fortunate to have daughters," Tashi says.
When his girls were young Virender Malik took them on hikes. He showed them the majestic Himalaya Mountains that were practically in their backyard and told Nungshi and Tashi that there was nothing they couldn't do.
He also told them his own story about fighting societal barriers by marrying outside of his economic class and by becoming the first person from his village to enter the military. These stories inspired them.
So did the mountains.
After the twins graduated from high school in 2009, their father signed them up to a basic mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in India. Nungshi and Tashi excelled at this male-dominated sport. They discovered they had the right temperament and their bodies were perfectly suited for extreme elevations. They also found that they could climb faster, longer and higher than some of their male counterparts.
"Mountaineering was a completely new world," Tashi says. "It opened our horizons and we knew who we wanted to be in life."
After climbing less than a year, the sisters set their sights on becoming the first female twins to scale Mt. Everest. This dream led to the loudest "NO" in their male-dominated culture, but from an unexpected source -- their mother.
Nearly four years passed before she finally granted them her permission, and with this nod came the money to finance their trip, in part, from a loan she had obtained using all of her gold jewelry as collateral.
"I thought my girls were dainty and delicate," Anju Malik, the twins' mother, says. "But their mountaineering instructors assured me that they were made of steel."
The 10-day trek to basecamp was transformational, and the twins began to feel connected to the mountain. Virender wanted to make the trip, but he spent all of his money getting his daughters there. He did so knowing that he might never see them again.
When Nungshi and Tashi reached the Lhotse Face on their way to the summit, between camp two and three, they experienced something that changed their lives.
Their Sherpa, Mingma, just one year older than they were at the time, was climbing a 75-degree gradient ice wall when he clamped onto a wrong rope -- it had been there for many years, was brittle and snapped. From the foot of the wall, the twins watched Mingma plummet 2,000 feet and disappear into a unfathomable crevasse.
"All we could hear were the echoes of his screams," Nungshi says. "We became numb. We didn't know what to do. We stood there for hours not sure what had actually happened."
Returning to basecamp, Nungshi and Tashi could barely eat, think or move. Four days passed as they decided whether to make a bid for the summit or quit and go home. They texted their father, who motivated them to keep climbing in honor of their fallen Sherpa and for all of India. With mixed emotions they pushed forward and became the first female twins to summit Mt. Everest.
"We were at 29,000 feet, looking at the sunrise from under our feet and it gave us a sense of belonging and achievement for our nation," Nungshi says. "But even while we were celebrating, we had this troubling thought that this could be the end."
After conquering Mt. Everest in May 2013, the Malik twins turned their attention to the highest peak on every continent and finished the "Seven Summits" in December 2014. Tashi and Nungshi, then skied to the South and North Pole, completing the Explorers Grand Slam on April 21, 2015.
At the age of 24 they became the youngest in history to accomplish this feat. They were also the first South Asians and the second fastest from start to finish, man or woman.
"Mountains do not discriminate based on gender," Tashi says. "If you're passionate about what you want to do you have to back it with commitment."
The Malik twins now have their sights set on the Four Icecap Challenge, which includes Patagonia, Greenland and a return to the Poles, but they are equally focused on their mission of empowering young women in India.
In 2015, the twins were selected to participate in the U.S. Department of State and espnW 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 set up the NungshiTashi Foundation, designed to help young girls in India obtain employment in the mountaineering industry.
Two of their many missions include pushing India to recognize mountaineering as an official sport and to look at the mountains as an opportunity to spark economic development in a region that is suffering stagnation.
Nungshi and Tashi credited Cohig and the GSMP for giving them the tools needed to set up their foundation and to bring girls and sponsors through their doors.
"It was a revelation for us to meet so many women who were there to change the state of others and to make a difference in their own communities," Nungshi says. "With the work we are doing, we want to open horizons for other girls to climb their own mountains."
The hidden letter in the back of the closet was never needed. The Malik twins summited Everest and returned to show their gratitude by giving young women in India the same tools and opportunities that their parents gave to them.
Max Saffer is a Columbia Journalism School graduate and an avid golfer. He is working on his first novel. Follow him @maxavize