The journey of a vegan mountaineer


Ahead of World Vegan Day, we speak to Kuntal Joisher, one of the few vegan mountaineers to scale Mt Everest

Three years ago, Kuntal Joisher’s whole life played out in front of his eyes. The vegan mountaineer was trapped at Mount Everest Camp 2, along with several other mountaineers during an avalanche triggered by an earthquake.

“Twenty-one people died at the base camp, and more than 100 were injured,” recalls Kuntal, who has made time to speak to me in the middle of a trek to Kala Patthar.

Over the phone, the 38-year-old describes how he balances his life as a mountaineer and a software engineer, running the nine-to-five race in Mumbai. In his mission to scale the Everest, Kuntal had many roadblocks, perhaps the biggest one being the challenge of climbing 8,848 metres while staying true to his vegan lifestyle.

The journey of a vegan mountaineer

“When I started out, there was no precedent of a person climbing Everest while maintaining a vegan diet both during training and while on the mountain,” he says.

“All literature in the industry pointed to meat, dairy and eggs being necessary for success. I know of at least three life-long vegetarians turning to eating meat to succeed on the climb. So in a way, the odds were totally stacked against me,” he says.

On May 19, 2016, however, he was finally on top of the world, as he had always dreamed of.

The dream

“Once I hiked to the Everest base camp and saw Mt Everest towering majestically over me, I decided that I wanted to be on top of the world,” recalls Kuntal.

He weighed 110 kilos then and realised that he was in no shape, whatsoever, for mountaineering. Physical fitness, since then, became the point of focus. Kuntal had a three-pronged fitness regimen during his training period, based on cardiovascular endurance, strength and functional training, and high-intensity interval training

“I am an engineer, and to me, it’s always like — here’s a project, how do you reverse-engineer and crack it?” says Kuntal. So he set out to Chile, which is home to two important ice caps: the Northern and Southern Patagonian, to work on his mountaineering skills. “I was part of a 45-day mountaineering course in the northern ice cap,” he says. A whole bunch of expeditions later, in late 2013, he began seriously planning his Mt Everest climb.

In 2014, after an aborted climb to the Everest, he started reading about Manaslu, the eighth-largest mountain in the world, and set out to scale its height — a feat, which had till then, been accomplished only by a single Indian civilian.

Standing on the summit of Manaslu, Kuntal realised that five years of preparation hadn’t gone to waste. “I was on the right track, now the question was when to climb the Everest and not how.”

Being vegan

Kuntal, who has been vegan for the past 16 years, says he chose this lifestyle to advocate animal rights. “I was raised as a vegetarian, and I hadn’t thought much about it initially. But I eventually connected the dots and realised that I am still contributing to insane amounts of exploitation,” says Kuntal.

His initial years being a vegan were relatively easy owing to the fact that he was living in Los Angeles. Once back in India, “It was tough, not in terms of finding vegan food, but more in terms of finding acceptance from my family, friends and extended family,” he says. He feels that in India, veganism is often treated with a lot of rebuke. “Sometimes, they draw parallels to how ‘even Lord Krishna eats butter’; there are religious undertones and reasoning,” continues Kuntal. His diet is structured solely based on what the body requires while on expedition or on training.

“I treat food like medicine,” says Kuntal, who sticks to only whole foods (unrefined) while on training. “Typically, my day would start with an oats smoothie made of bananas, oats, and a couple, of dates, blended with water.”

He has a protein-heavy lunch of Rajma, moong or channa, spread over the week, and for dinner, Kuntal tries to improvise with the food that is already available at home. “I do keep my own version of cheat meals in a week. This doesn’t mean I cheat on veganism; it’s second nature to me. A cheat meal for me would be a sukha bhel, or sev puri from the streetside vendor,” says Kuntal.

While scaling the mountain, only calories are taken into consideration: “At the basecamp, for simply breathing and doing basic activities, my body would require at least 4,000 calories a day, double the amount required while at sea level, while on the summit, it’s 15,000 calories. That’s worth 7 days’ food for a regular human being!”

Vegan gear

When Kuntal started out, he realised that vegan food was not as big a challenge as vegan gear. Over the years, he had been able to source vegan alternatives for leather, silk, and wool. However, there was one piece of gear for which he wasn’t able to find an alternative: a one-piece suit made of down (geese) feathers, worn while on the summit that protects the body from -50/55-degree Celsius temperatures.

“I had tried really hard to source a synthetic alternative, but it did not happen before I could climb Everest. I had to make a choice. I knew this would be a one-time thing. I wanted to tell the others that hey, even vegans can do it. So I went ahead and climbed the summit with this suit,” says Kuntal.

His search for an alternative continued until last year, when he chanced upon Save the Duck’s feather-free insulation. “I informed that I was climbing Mt Lhotse and asked if they would make a suit for me. On May 15, I climbed Lhotse, the fourth-highest in the world, wearing that synthetic suit.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:43:12 AM |

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