Nungshi and Tashi are remarkable twin sisters from Northern India who at the age of 23 became Guinness World Record holders for the youngest people (and first twins) to complete the Explorers Grand Slam (climbing the world’s seven highest peaks including Everest and skiing to the North and South Poles).
Nungshi and Tashi, can you please tell us a little about yourselves and what you are doing now?
Tashi: Our adventure began from an early age at school, as young girls we were accomplished sportswomen excelling at hockey, basketball, Badminton and athletics. At one point, we even considered pursuing hockey as a career!
Nungshi: We have always loved the outdoors and adventure but we didn’t even consider mountaineering until much later. We had so many interests including dancing, peace work, journalism, languages and international development, we only knew that we wanted to live life 100%, full of intensity and vigour. We know that can only happen if we’re following our passion.
In April 2015, you completed the Explorers Grand Slam, what is this?
Tashi: The Explorers Grand Slam is an adventurers’ challenge to reach the North and South Pole and climb the Seven Summits. When we embarked on our attempt to scale Everest, we had no idea what the Explorers Grand Slam was, or for that matter what the ‘Seven Summits’ were. It was during our interactions with fellow climbers some of whom were on this mission that we learned about these. Back then it had seemed extremely difficult to achieve, but now it’s all behind us! We completed it in just over two years, delayed only by lack of funds otherwise we are sure we could have done it in under a year.
Nungshi: Before we did it, only 29 people globally had completed the Explorers Grand Slam and only 8 women. We became 30th and 31st to complete and the 9th and 10th women as well as being the first South Asians to achieve the milestone.
That is a HUGE achievement for the most accomplished explorers, and you achieved this this when you were just 23! When did you start going into the outdoors and following your passion for the mountains?
Tashi: It was all absolutely by default! We were introduced to the sport soon after leaving school at the end of 2009, when we were 18 years old. An ardent believer in all-round development and holistic living, our father persuaded us that subjecting ourselves to physically dangerous and challenging situations was a key step to self-awareness and developing leadership skills.
Climbing Everest was our personal dream, but all the subsequent climbs and adventure were inspired by the ‘Indian Girl Child’ cause. With roots in rural Indian in Haryana, and hearing dad’s stories, from an early stage in our lives we had become acutely aware of the ‘daily mountains’ being faced by millions of Indian girls, especially in villages, facing mountains of gender discrimination, exclusion and denial of basic rights. We always wanted to do something for their cause and saw in our climbs a great opportunity to showcase their issues and bring a sense of pride in being girls.
Once you discovered your passion for the mountains, what did you do next
Nungshi: What started out as a one off experience for personal development was to become our deepest passion! Following a basic mountaineering course in 2010, we completed all the progressively higher courses: advance, search and rescue and Instructor courses earning ‘qualified to be instructor’ grade. Very few women in India are ever able to earn this qualification. During the same period, we also completed a ski course in Kashmir. Seeing our sterling performance, during the advance course, some of our instructors jokingly started calling us ‘Everest twins’ and urged us to scale the highest peak. These expectations helped us dream big and soon we set sights on Mt Everest!
When did you think you could climb Mt Everest?
Tashi: During each of our mountaineering training courses, our instructors were very impressed with our grit and determination, and would often comment, “You two should climb Mt Everest”. This sowed the seed of ‘must scale Everest’ in our mind. Added to all this was the encouragement by the Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. We remember our father calling him frequently to confirm if he genuinely believed in our capabilities. His endorsement was the tipping point for our parents.
Nungshi: As it happened, our Principal managed to get us places on an expedition to Everest in 2012, but as our father was away at the time, and as is a mother’s want, our mother forbade us from going!
Tashi: We had declared our intention to scale Everest as early as 2010, soon after our advance mountaineering course. While our father had advised more training and preparation, our mother was absolutely devastated by our decision and for next two years, even the talk of climbing Everest in front of her was a strict taboo!
Our training for Everest was by default spread over 4 years. From 2009 onwards, we started scaling small and big peaks as part of a series of our mountaineering courses at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. The first serious altitude we reached was at the end of our advance mountaineering course back in the summer of 2010. As the culmination of 3 weeks of intense climbing training we, a group of about 33 trainees, were divided into small teams each under an instructor and planned every aspect of the climb of Mt Rudugaira, a peak in the Indian Himalayas at an altitude of over 19,000 ft.
Nungshi: Successfully reaching the summit of this peak acts as a benchmark for qualifying on the course. We distinctly remember the gush of pride and joy when we reached the summit before all the other participants, putting even our instructor to the test to keep up with us! The speed and deftness with which we scaled this mountain earned us the name of the ‘Rajdhani & Shatabdi Express’, the names of the two of the fastest trains in India.
We followed it with Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak and in between continued with a fitness regimen that included fine mix of aerobic, strength and endurance training.
Tashi: Climbing Everest is as much about mental toughness and motivation as it is about physical strength and stamina. The biggest challenge was from society, peers and family. Most were intent on instilling fear in us with a list of what could go wrong! Convincing our mother to allow us to attempt Everest itself took two years!
Nungshi: We need plenty of self-discipline in preparation for the climb and for this, our dad was a great mentor and inspiration. He developed our fitness-training schedule to include climbing conditioning, strength training, cardiovascular and flexibility training. And he also made sure he kicked us out of bed whenever we tried to make excuses to avoid training! He also created a diet plan to ensure we did not lose weight before the climb. Overall it was very hard preparation but there was also a lot of excitement of the unknown.
How did your Mother and Father take the news you wanted to follow your passion, rather than the expected path of women from rural India?
Tashi: Both reacted very differently! In 2009 when dad first introduced us to basic mountaineering, we were just 18 years old, a very impressionable age! We immediately fell in love with mountaineering and knew it’s our first passion. However, there are huge costs involved. Just to scale Everest, which would cost us around 80,000 USD, would have been strong enough an argument for many fathers to say a ‘big No’ and we would have been convinced to abandon our plans. Our mother on the other hand was absolutely heartbroken!
Nungshi: We are fortunate to have a Dad who is very liberal. He himself has lived a life where he follows his heart despite numerous challenges from his background in a very conservative part of rural Haryana. To him, success is being able to live your dream. He focuses on giving us all possible inputs to make informed choices. Dad had always said ‘follow your passion’ and when we expressed our desire to climb Everest, he had to uphold his own value! He just advised us to ensure we were technically and physically prepared for this huge undertaking.
Tashi: It’s interesting. Dad is our manager, secretary, PR man, fund raiser and handles pretty much anything that is required for success of our mission. He is so occupied with activities, planning and finding funding support for our next expedition, that he barely says ‘well done girls! Proud of you!’ He is our ‘one man army’ who meticulously plans our climbs because he understands the extreme risks to life and limb and we totally agree that without dad’s support we could not have done it or at least it would have taken us a decade plus to do it on our own!
You have been to some of the most extreme environments in the world, Mt Everest, North and South Pole and Mt McKinley to name a few. How do you deal with the extreme cold?
Tashi: Extreme cold and over-prolonged exposure is the biggest danger in such adventures. We’ve stuck to the traditional practice of dressing in layers of clothing on all our extreme adventures.
Nungshi: It’s very apparent that we can keep ourselves warm this way without getting wet from too much heat and sweat which can easily lead to rapid cooling causing hypothermia.
Tashi: Base layers like Merino wool are the anchors to the layering system. They really help in providing good warmth and wicking properties for both cold and hot weather comfort.
Nungshi: On the physical side, we keep our hands and feet moving however cold and frozen they are to keep the blood flowing. And secondly, constantly keeping positive state of mind is hugely important, we keep telling ourselves that ‘it’s not that bad’! Then of course, there is really no shortcut to a thorough acclimatization process. And there is absolutely no room for false bravado on the mountains!
What is your favourite on mountain meal or food?
Nungshi: Backcountry’s lamb and chicken curry.
Tashi: Nuts come in handy, as great source of carbs plus various freeze dry products because they are easy to cook. In any case we have to always keep ourselves rehydrated and beverages are always a priority.
You have another passion, Indian Girl Child. What is this and why is this a problem in India?
Tashi: Gender discrimination and female feticide is a complex and deep-rooted socio-cultural phenomena in our country that requires extraordinary efforts to eliminate. This will remain our key agenda for the future, which we intend to execute through our foundation, the NungshiTashi Foundation. We will use all forms of media to spread awareness and to lobby governments, corporate and civil society to effectively implement policies and projects on girl empowerment.
Nungshi: Despite a ‘Shining India’ image being built in recent years, one very serious socio-economic phenomenon affecting many parts of India is the rampant practice of ‘female feticide’ as a result of parents’ overwhelming preference for a son over a daughter. The situation has alarming negative repercussions such as in dad’s native state of Haryana where there are only about 861 females for every 1000 males! To address this malice, the Indian Government has launched this campaign to focus attention and resources of all stakeholders on promoting and protecting rights of girl child. Due to our excellent credentials, our state Government nominated us as brand ambassadors for the campaign. We must say, we have been able to make a huge positive impact with our achievements as well as with our talks at public appearances.
Tashi: Even our father was born after three daughters! He often recalls how he was treated like a ‘special gift from heaven’ and was given preferential treatment in food, work, leisure and education. Dad also grew up with same desire for son, but he says our birth slowly transformed him, despite initial disappointment and determination to go in for more children until he had a son. Due to these credentials, we felt that our story will inspire many and will make a huge difference to the cause of the girl child in India.
Nungshi: Listening to him and later researching about this social evil, we felt the pain of the blatant and epidemic violation of our girls’ human rights. Many parents, especially in rural India still consider boys as their only offspring. The girl child is caught in a vicious cycle of feticide & infanticide, denial-exclusion-malnutrition-lack of education-domestic work and eventual economic dependence on the male. Right from her birth (that is, if at all she’s fortunate to be born!), our girl child has numerous ‘Mountains to climb’ to merely survive. And even more to realize her potential and full human rights. We resolved to stand solidly with her and pledge to use all our resources to help her earn her rightful and equal place in the society. Let the world realize that ‘Girl child is a human being first, always and every time’!
In 2015 you established the NunghsiTashi Foundation to advance the lives of Indian Girls and Women though the outdoors. How do you plan to achieve this?
Tashi: Yes! To further contribute to girl empowerment, in April 2015 we celebrated our successful completion of ‘Explorers Grand Slam’ by starting ‘NungshiTashi Foundation’, with twin goals of developing mountaineering as sport in India and of girl empowerment through outdoor adventure. The vision of our foundation is ‘Making India an ‘outdoor nation’, with active and equal participation of girls and women’.
Nungshi: India is still a predominantly agricultural nation where socio-culturally boys are preferred over girls, there is epidemic level of female feticide and infanticide, incalculable obstacles in the path of the girl child and yet whenever any girl achieves something big, especially at global level, the whole nation celebrates. For Indian girls, climbing a big mountain is more about making a powerful gender statement, and it has immense social impact. It is really amazing, how we receive thousands of messages from parents, citizens and girls telling us how our achievements have made them proud as Indians! Many young girls have utterly surprised their parents by declaring ‘I want to climb Everest like NungshiTashi’. We are a nation of extreme contradictions!
Tashi: Our foundation has two programme areas; ‘Outdoor leadership’ programme and ‘girls’ outdoor livelihoods’ programme. The former will tie in to national skills development and youth school programs, the latter into the ‘beti bachao’ (Save Girl Child Campaign). Our father has donated a few acres of land at the Himalayan foothills in our current city of residence, Dehradun and we are in the process of establishing an outdoor leadership camp there. The staff of three is busy developing content for these programs. The basic info is available at www.nungshitashi.org
Nungshi: We are still deliberating on how big we go with our dreams of girl empowerment through the outdoors. If we decide to go full steam, we will launch wide range of programs at national and global level tying into Government programs and schemes. Then of course we also plan to launch our own outdoor company to generate revenue to fund our foundation substantially.
So what’s next?
Tashi: That’s the Big Question! After completing the Explorers Grand Slam, it seemed like we’d ‘done it all’. However, adventure will continue to guide a large part of our lives and we’re now raising funds for #girls4icecapsChallenge to ski across the world’s four ice caps spanning over 5000km of ice. Also,there’s a clear opportunity for us to become motivational speakers and we will polish our public speaking skills as well as knowledge.
Nungshi: This year we’ve completed bachelor degrees in sport and exercise in New Zealand and are now talking with authors and publishers about the planned book on our Explorers Grand Slam journey. Apart from that, we will strengthen and grow our Foundation activities, and a few years down the line, we aim at start our adventure company in India and to get our long cherished 'mountaineers for peace’ project wherein we will organise annual 'mountaineers peace camps' for women mountaineers from South Asia and the world. As for our future career paths, whatever we do will involve travel, adventure and intercultural living. This coming December we will attempt Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak and considered one of the toughest peaks in the world. We don’t tend to plan to far into the future as it takes away the ‘adventure’ bit out of it!
What advice do you have for women who are passionate about the outdoors and just starting their journey?
Nungshi: Serious climbing poses extreme physical and mental challenges, whereby the mountaineer has to compete not just with himself but also deal with the unpredictable forces of nature. This demands the rare blend of an introvert who can assess himself and then calmly weigh the chances of success, as well as the single-minded enthusiast ready to face trials and tribulations, even death. I strongly believe that conquering mountains helps us conquer ourselves and become more humble and self-aware. These are essential qualities for great leaders! There is lot to cheer about being a climber.
Tashi: Many aspiring women climbers in India have asked us about career options in mountaineering. And we have been very candid, ‘at present, there is very limited scope for professional growth and earning power, unless you start your own entrepreneurship and make it a success’. There are only a few professional climbers in India, and none are world famous or financially well off. The corporate world and general public don’t see it as something rewarding like cricket or other mass market sports. Until now, most serious climbing has been done by security force personnel and those already in another profession following their passion. We may not pursue mountaineering as main career but as a major pursuit. Or we will build entrepreneurship around mountaineering. This is compounded by our Government’s lack of policy for development of mountaineering as a sport.
Tashi: We encourage all budding climbers to follow their passion and dreams. Life has taught us is that if you follow your dream with all the commitment it takes, you will succeed. It may take time and may test your limits many times over, but if you persevere you will eventually realize your dream. In this process, no matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying. We always remember Ratan Tata’s statement on his incredible entrepreneurial success in life, ‘In India, people have thousands of ideas but do not act on them, I had just one idea and I implemented it’.
Nungshi: Believe you can and you’re halfway there. The other half is an unwavering commitment to set aside fears of failure. Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. Innovate. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Passion backed with commitment is a sure recipe for success.
Last question, I read something that you names mean something?
Tashi: Yes, our names Nungshi and Tashi were originally pet names from our father, which we’ve since adopted as our official names. Tashi is a Tibetan word for ‘good luck’ and Nungshi is a Manipuri word meaning ‘love’.
Foundation link: www.nungshitashi.org
They completed the Explorers Grand Slam on 21 April 2015 in just over two years.
Climb the seven highest peaks, North and South Pole.
19 May - Mt Everest, Nepal
22 August - Mt Elbrus, Russia
29 January - Mt Aconcagua, Argentina
19 March - Mt Carstensz Pyramid, Indonesia
4 June - Mt McKinley (North America)
16 December - Mt Vinson (Antarctica)
28 December - South Pole
21 April - North Pole
15 July - Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
World records broken
Youngest persons to complete the Explorers’ Grand Slam
New World records achieved
Explorers Grand Slam records achieved