How and when did your interest in this sport begin?
Tashi: It was so much by default! We were initiated into this sport soon after leaving school by end of 2009, when we were 18 years old. Until then we never thought of or even talked of mountaineering as an activity we’d like to do. An ardent believer in all round development and holistic living, dad persuaded us that exposing ourselves to physically dangerous and challenging situations was a key step to self-awareness and developing certain leadership attributes.
Nungshi: What started out as a one off exposure for personality development was to emerge our deepest passion! Following the basic mountaineering course in 2010, we completed all the progressively higher courses: advance, search & 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.
What were your initial fears and challenges when you first started the Explorers grand Slam challenge?
Nungshi: Oh yes, several! In the beginning most people were aghast. Many would express sarcasm and their language of ‘sound advice’ was meant to create fear rather than confidence in our dream, ‘Do you realize you are a girl? What if you lose a limb? Oh, this is an activity of jawans, police and village people’, you won’t get good, educated groom with such background, how will earn your living from such stupid passion, your parents are really imprudent in letting you on this path’!
Tashi: Such a journey for a girl, especially in the context of societies such as ours, is full of numerous and unique challenges. And the hurdles operate at many levels. The society views mountaineering and outdoors as a ‘boys’ thing’, girls taking it up is frowned upon. Then there’s the attendant high risk to life and limb, which in case of girls is a much greater concern for parents. Then, mountaineering is dominated by men, and to travel alone to remote mountains, spending days and weeks together in the company of men, often sharing limited spaces in tents has its own risks and dangers. Several medical issues such as ‘periods’ are a particular challenge. We recollect while attempting Everest, our worst fears came true as periods started just the evening before we were to leave for the summit bid! With mounting cramps and absolutely no way to change sanitary pads, we labored on for 21 hours to reach the summit and return to the safety of Camp 2 at some 23,000 ft. In our case we have additional challenge of poor eye sight and have to use power glasses! These easily get foggy and pose huge problems of fitting in with all other extreme climate gear over the head and the face.
Nungshi: Even if she left the decision to us, mom certainly had traditional careers in mind and mountaineering, adventure or other sports were an absolute ‘No’. Her permission for Everest when it came after 2 years of persuasion was also meant to be ‘first and last attempt’ on any peak!
Tashi: Mom was shocked! She had tears in eyes and only said ‘you climb Everest over my dead body’! Then there is another profound reality at least for now. The financial stakes are too high to abandon any mission unless there is imminent danger to life or limb. It is miraculous how we have managed our funding which includes borrowings and loan against mom’s jewellery. We won’t let parents sacrifices go waste.
What was your most difficult climb so far?
Tashi: Even if we usually rate climbing Everest as our biggest feat, I would admit that it was successfully climbing Mt McKinley through week long extreme weather conditions that prevailed over entire Alaskan range during our climb in May-Jun 2014. While the mountain is not technically difficult, the lower half is packed with crevasses while above 14,000 feet 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. No wonder then, unlike Everest, which has much higher success rates, Denali has only about 35% successes. 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 weather is impossible to predict groups have to bring as much as a month’s food supply. The total weight between the gear, food, and other supplies can be up to 300lbs between two climbers. At low altitudes of 7,000 feet 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: It was under these circumstances, that when we had reached 14000 ft high camp, the mountain was caught up in the longest and severest snow storm in recent memory. Imagine getting stuck up at that altitude, in a tent the size of your bed with absolutely no way to move about, and temperatures dipping to minus 35-40 degrees! 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 huge impact on our future funding and credibility. Parents had with extreme hardships raised fee 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, 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! Only one Indian woman had climbed this peak a year earlier, and even she succeeded only in her second attempt. We had done it in first attempt and under conditions that had scared most climbers to abort their attempts.
More in Part 2… Coming soon…