Kuntal Joisher, vegan mountaineer
Kuntal is an Indian mountaineer who has pushed the boundaries in his sport with some amazing climbs.
In October 2014 he climbed Mount Manaslu, which at 8163 metres is the eighth highest mountain in the world. In May 2016 he went on to climb Everest, which he tackled from the South side. This was his third attempt on the 8850 metre peak, with the first two ended by natural disasters. More recently he’s climbed Mount Lhotse, the world’s 4th highest point at 8516 metres.
While all of these are amazing achievements, Kuntal tells us his ultimate goal and greatest achievement is yet to come. This is because in 2016 when he stood on top of Everest he was a dietary vegan - although he was using some non-vegan clothing.
“The day I climb to top of Everest without eating or wearing an animal as a true 100% vegan, I think that would definitely rate as my favourite” he says. “It hasn't happened yet. Hopefully soon.”
Meat free to vegan
Kuntal was born in a Gujarati Vegetarian family, and was raised a vegetarian, and he is aware of the difference between being raised vegetarian and choosing it. During that time he ate eggs and dairy as an ingredient, such as in ice-cream or a cake. “I think this was a combination of convenience, taste, and above all apathy towards the animal rights cause” he explained to Great Vegan Athletes.
In 2001 Kuntal moved to Los Angeles in the USA to study. A room-mate at the University was an ethical vegetarian, and he exposed Kuntal to the horrors of dairy, eggs, and leather industries. “After doing my research, I connected the dots that there is no difference between a glass of milk, a block of cheese, or for that matter a piece of beef. At that point, I could not reconcile my compassionate thoughts with my cruel lifestyle as a vegetarian. The only way forward was to adopt a vegan lifestyle. I turned vegan overnight. It's now 16 years that I’ve been a vegan, and it has been one of the best decisions of my life.”
The transition was made in December 2002. “I have never eaten, or had the need to eat animal products including even when I was standing on top of Everest” says Kuntal.
Kuntal’s approach to nutrition is a simple whole foods plant based diet low in fat, high in carbs.
“I love eating fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, dates, nuts and seeds - and this diet has done wonders for me. I recover much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating workouts (such as a 20 hour steep hike in the local mountains). On the other side, every-time I eat unhealthy food such as deep fried stuff / white refined flour, I've realized that my recovery becomes slower. One's body tells it what it likes. And my body likes a whole foods vegan diet. Some of my favorite food are fruits such as banana, mango, grapes, and power-packed dried dates, raisins and figs, and I cannot forget -- oatmeal made with either water or soymilk (my favorite breakfast of all!).”
When he’s climbing, Kuntal’s diet depends a lot on where he is. In the Himalaya region most local food is vegetarian and can be adapted. He can easily find vegetable stews, curries, fruits, lentils, beans, soups, wheat bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and noodles. “At the same time I do carry comfort food from home which tends to be trail mix of dried fruits and nuts, nutrition bars made out of dates and nuts, and a few local snacks even if they are unhealthy (after all on the mountain - calories are calories - you need them!).”
As the altitude increases, his needs change. “At Base Camp, which is at 18,000 feet, a climber’s calorie requirements could easily be around 4,000 calories a day” Kuntal explains “and this number would easily go up to 8-9,000 calories at 25,000 feet. A climber burns through about 15,000 calories on a typical Everest 20 hour round trip to the summit. While on an expedition, for me as long as the food is vegan, I don't care whether it's healthy. I'll eat it as I need the calories. For example a small bottle of 250 ml coke = 100 calories (99% simple carbs). A single Oreo cookie is 45 calories, and so about 20 of them would be around 900 calories! These are all calories and they taste great, and at 23,000 feet where most people can't eat anything, I would rather eat these and get my calories requirements met.”
“For the Everest/Lhotse climb, at the Base camp (18,000 feet) / Camp two (21,500 feet) - I ate pretty much everything fresh right from beaten rice, to semolina / oat porridge, deep fried Indian bread and curry, Tibetan bread, pancakes, Lentils and rice, pasta, french fries, burgers, and several Indian food items - all vegan of course. Our awesome cooks Ngima Tamang and Anup Rai even baked us a vegan cake! Beyond Camp two, I survived on mainly few things: electrolyte & energy powders, freeze dried meals, instant soymilk oatmeal, Oreo cookies, dried dates/figs, dried fruit such as kiwi, pineapple, papaya, nuts - almonds and cashews, and some Indian comfort foods.“
“When I shifted to eating a healthy vegan diet, I instantly had performance benefits during my training at sea-level. My recovery time improved, and I could train harder and harder for the big mountain climbs! But one of the biggest benefits and something that is not very obvious or tangible, is the amount of mental peace and focus that I derived after making this lifestyle change. Knowing that no animal or a sentient being died for me to go pursue my dreams gives me full peace of mind to go focus and achieve my dreams. If you are not already sold on the health benefits of this lifestyle, then I say go vegan for the mental edge that this lifestyle gives you! And having climbed Everest and Lhotse, I know that in the end it's all about your mental fitness and readiness.
“Another advantage I have over other climbers and that I have now been noticing for past few expeditions is that I never catch a stomach infection. Most mountaineers at some point or the other during their expeditions catch a stomach bug that causes intense stomach pain, loose motions and these climbers tend to go weak and some of them never recover and go home. In my opinion most of these stomach issues are caused due to either lactose intolerance, or on the other hand infected meat.”
How does a mountaineer train for a 8000 metre summit?
“I train hard for six days a week. This is a mix of Cardiovascular endurance and Strength training. I spend a significant time of a week trekking and climbing (3-4 hikes a week, some of them short 2 hour speed hikes, and some of them long hikes anywhere between 8 to 20 hours) in the local mountains, and then when I'm home I spend time strength training (2-3 sessions during the hiking season, and then about 5-6 sessions when it's monsoons and the mountains are too risky to go train and so I train indoors). Also I spend a significant amount of time of the year trekking and climbing in the Himalaya at high altitude and this helps me with building something called muscle memory which is very important. However, a big aspect of succeeding on big mountains is mental toughness. As they say – ‘It's all in the mind’ and I have experienced it first hand on several of my climbs.
“Climbing and training on big mountains in the most hostile conditions of the year is what I consider good mental training. However I can't spend all the time in the Himalaya. So when I'm at home, I continue doing mental training. For example, I go on long and hard treks without drinking any water or eating any food. The idea being that things can go wrong when climbing a mountain such as Everest. I may get lost, run out of food and water, and whole sorts of scenarios. And so it's smart to train for these situations.”
Perhaps even bigger that the challenge if climbing the world’s highest mountain has been the task of finding suitable vegan clothing and equipment to do it with.
“When I decided to climb Everest, I knew the biggest challenge was not going to be finding vegan food, but rather vegan gear. And over the period of years as I trained and went on expeditions I was able find vegan gear options for pretty much everything required to climb Everest. Well just about. On a climb like Everest, the final summit climb happens completely inside the Death Zone above 26,000 feet and a climber faces high winds, and biting cold temperatures of as low as -40C. Every year several climbers get frostbite injuries and have to get several of their fingers and toes amputated. And to tackle the cold - climbers wear specialized gear, clothing, and boots. Specifically climbers wear a one piece suit, and mittens which are made from a material called down. Down feathers are harvested by killing ducks/geese in the most cruel fashion.
“I tried very hard over the years, however I was not able to find an alternative to the one piece down suit. I even wrote to some of the biggest gear companies in the world like North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Rab etc asking them to build a synthetic suit for me - however they flatly refused saying it was impossible. At one point I contemplated building my own animal-free suit using a local tailor in Nepal. However, I quickly realized that the existing technology of synthetic insulation means that my suit would be too bulky and heavy - making it practically unusable. Yes there are several synthetic insulation jackets available in the market being created several big brands but none of them help a human survive the cold and thin air on the top of Everest.
“For two consecutive years (2014, and 2015) I searched hard and failed to find a synthetic one piece suit for my Everest expedition. Finally I made a one-time decision to purchase a down suit for my Everest climb in 2016. I stood on the top of Everest on May 19th, 2016 as a dietary vegan. However, an animal died for me to reach the top of Mt. Everest. I was wearing that animal in form of down. After coming back home, my conscience bit me big time. I pondered - did I give up too soon? I should have worked harder for the billions of animals slaughtered every year for food, clothing and recreation. And so my search to replace down started again.
“After I returned from Everest, someone mentioned to me about an insulation technology called "Plumtech", a synthetic insulation innovation by an Italian company called ‘Save the Duck’, a brand that has always been animal and cruelty free as well as environment friendly! I did my research and decided to reach out to Save the Duck on Facebook messenger and ask whether they could help me build a one piece synthetic suit that would work on an 8000 meter climb - I had decided to climb Lhotse in May 2018. Just like every other time, I thought my request to create a synthetic suit would be rejected. And then voila - Save The Duck said ‘yes’ - they would build a one piece synthetic suit, and they were confident that they had the technology that would work in any kind of weather conditions even on an 8000 meter mountain. I was ecstatic!
“Over the next few months we exchanged messages and design notes and then finally sometime in April 2018 as I made my way to Lhotse base camp the first synthetic suit of the world created by Save the Duck team was ready. And happy to share that when I climbed to the top of Mt. Lhotse, I climbed it as a 100% vegan - both my diet and my gear! The vegan suit made from recycled plastic created by Save the Duck kept me warm and toasty even in -30C at 28,000 feet! I'm sure that I'll be able to now go and climb Everest as a true 100% vegan - a lifelong dream!”
Vegan Mountain Man
As in many sports, there are still assumptions that animal-based foods are required to enable a mountaineer to succeed, although Kuntal’s performance has challenged this.
“As years went by and these climbers saw me go out and climb mountains successfully while proving to be a solid team-mate, their perceptions changed. And for me this has been a big learning. Instead of going out and telling people to go vegan, I realized it's best to go out there in the field and perform strongly and people now come and ask me – ‘Hey man? What do you eat? How do you train?’
“Still there's wide-spread scepticism of following a vegan diet in the high altitude world, and from time to time I keep get comments such as – ‘you have to eat meat’, ‘meat gives you energy’, ‘what about protein’ etc. My hope is that in coming years there would be more and more vegan mountaineers and the myth around necessity of meat for big mountain climbing will get debunked.”
With the prospect of climbing Everest with vegan kit in Kuntal’s mind, he hopes to make an attempt in May 2019. He also has high hopes of assembling a team of vegan mountaineers.
The experience of the challenges
“I tried climbing Everest twice - in 2014, and 2015. Both times the climb was cancelled due to natural disasters. Post that several people dissuaded me from climbing saying -- ‘the mountain doesn’t want you there’, and some even said - ‘You don't have it what it takes’. I didn't listen to them. Instead I kept the fire inside me burning, trained harder than ever, never gave up on my dream, and finally made it to the top in May 2016 on my third attempt! The lesson I learnt is that one should never give up on their dream. People will say things such as - you are crazy, it’s impossible, you are sure to fail etc. And a lot of those things will happen. But if you want to achieve your dream you have to nurture and protect it like your baby, work and train hard and smart, learn from your failures, and keep going at it until you reach to the top! As the saying goes, there are no shortcuts to the top!
“And sometimes whether it's running a business or climbing a mountain, we are so focused on getting to the top that we forget to live in the present and enjoy the journey we took to get there. Now don't get me wrong, getting to the top is important and extremely rewarding. Having a dream or a goal to pursue gives direction and focus to your journey that is also very necessary. Since I began spending more time in the mountain wilderness, I've started living in the present, enjoying and learning from every moment and living life as if there is no tomorrow. I realized that every destination segues into a new journey, thus making life an endless journey that needs to be lived fully.
“And this attitude got reinforced when I escaped from a sure death in 2015 avalanche at Everest base camp following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal. That night when I went to sleep – my entire life played out in front of me. And I realized one thing - if you have any dreams or passions, the best time to do them is now, not tomorrow, not the day after, not in 60 years when you have all the time and money saved. Now.
“At the same time I realize that most of us live a very privileged life. We don't have to worry about roof on our head, or whether we would have food on our table. Millions of people across the world don't have that comfort. A significant part of the world lacks the most basic necessities of life. Forget about pursuing dreams and passions, for them every day is a struggle. And that's when I told myself that when I get back home I'm going to strive and work hard to do my bit to create a world where everyone would have the basic necessities of life and at least would have an opportunity to pursue their dreams and passions and is the biggest Everest of my life.
“As part of this journey to give back to the community, I work closely with a non-profit organization called Sunsar Maya, which works for providing education to the underprivileged and orphaned in Nepal. Just in 2017 - here's what we achieved. We provided over 1950 hours of education, 300 art and STEM based projects, 300 hours of music, dance and meditation, more than 22,000 healthy meals that helped make a tangible difference to the lives of hundreds of kids at two of ours centres! A first of a kind school in Nepal, and possibly only one at the moment. Today we run two centres in Kathmandu, one in Jorpati, and one in Lalitpur. And the biggest need at the moment is to raise funds so that we can continue running the current programs and centres in Kathmandu smoothly, and also work on our expansion plans so as to cater to more and more kids across Nepal.
“On my climb Mt. Lhotse, I ran a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for Sunsar Maya education program. I’m happy to share that I ended up raising about US$9000 through the campaign and that essentially takes care of almost a year and half of education of an entire section of students who are enrolled at one of our centres in Nepal!
“You can learn more about Sunsar Maya, and the work we do, and if you would love to participate in our mission do make a contribution here."