Alpinist, passionate vegan and one of the most revolutionary athletes of our time…
As much as I love the outdoor community, it’s fairly safe to say they’re generally not the most open-minded bunch… when veganism is concerned anyway. And, when the activities become more extreme or the altitude gets higher, opinions tend to become staid and ‘norms’ cemented.
Though things are progressing, ‘real boots need leather’, ‘real jackets need down’ and ‘where the hell do you get your protein from’ are still hurdles we’re overcoming. For many, the concept of an outdoor lifestyle means using animals products, and to even consider climbing the highest mountains in the world without eating or wearing something animal-derived … well, that’s just bonkers.
Over the years, groundbreaking vegan athletes have emerged in individual sports, dispelling many of these myths and helping to bring opinions out of a rut. Alex Honnold and Adam Ondra eat a mainly plant-based diet – climbing, check; Tia Blanco – surfing, check; Patrik Baboumian – weightlifting, check; and for trail-running or ultra-marathons you’re literally spoiled for choice.
When it comes to alpinism and mountaineering, for a long time we’ve been waiting for someone to save the day. And that day has come.
Kuntal Joisher is one of the proudest vegans you’ll meet. He’s also one hell of a mountaineer, having climbed 4 of the tallest peaks in the world (including Everest) and has become the first to do it 100% vegan… check out our interview to find out more.
An Interview with Kuntal Joisher – Ethical Adventure Interviews Vol. 3
First of all, thank you so much for chatting with us! Where are you speaking to us from?
For those that don’t know, how would you summarise what you do, or your ambitions?
I’m a software engineer by profession, a mountain climber by passion, and above all a vegan for compassion!
Have you always had a love for mountaineering?
My life started out dreaming about Software Technology. I wrote my first piece of Software code in 1993 when I was in 8th grade. Somehow I knew that for the rest of my life I’m going to be doing that. And that is what I do today. So by profession, I am a Software Engineer.
However, mountain climbing is a different story altogether. Never in my craziest dreams would I have imagined climbing mountains. There is no one in my entire family, extended family, or for that matter my entire community that has ever climbed mountains.
As a teenager, I saw the PBS Nova Everest documentary and was fascinated by Everest. The first seeds to climb the mountain were planted. Then my wife Dipti and I decided to go on a vacation to Shimla (Indian Himilaya) in 2009, with one simple objective – we wanted to see snow.
After a long picturesque drive on the old Hindustan Tibet highway, we finally reached the place – a quaint Himalayan town. Both of us quietly sat down and soaked in the beauty and grandeur of nature – and in that moment I felt something that I had never felt in my life before. All the pondering over the past and worries about the future melted away; the present moment was in complete focus and I felt alive. I could hear my own breath and hear my heart. Every single heartbeat. It was magical!
For the first time in my life I was at peace with myself, and I felt real, deep happiness. I decided then that for the rest of my life I was determined to chase this state of mind whenever I had the chance.
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How did you progress to some of your bigger feats?
Continuing along my mountain journey, a few months later I signed up for a trek to Everest base camp in Nepal in October 2010. After a few days of hiking through some of the most spectacular Himalayan landscapes, we reached the base camp of a mountain called Pumori – the daughter of Everest.
By the time it was evening, I saw the most magical scenes of my life. The last light of sunset was falling directly on Everest. The other mountains had faded into the evening hues, but Everest was burning golden in colour, as if someone had set the snow on fire.
I knew I’d found my dream. I promised myself that one day I would come back and climb to the top of Everest!
How did you start preparing for the climb?
I needed to be in the best mental and physical shape of my life, and so I trained hard for 6 days a week. At the same time, 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.
I personally think the key to attaining iron-like mental toughness is to put yourself in difficult situations and confront and overcome your fears. And so I spent a significant time of the year hiking and climbing in the mountains near my home and in the Himalaya.
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 my time in the Himalaya. So when I’m at home, I continue doing mental training… I go on long and hard treks without drinking any water or eating any food. The idea is 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 – so it’s smart to train for these situations.
To succeed in climbing this mountain and come back down alive in one piece, I had to be in top shape of my life – physically, technically and above all mentally. The burning desire to stand on top of the world helped me tackle the first two issues. However, I lacked the mental fitness to make it to the top. My biggest weakness was homesickness. I would go on a climb, and about halfway through would think about my father, my wife and come up with excuses to go home. I remember I once told myself “this snow slope looks avalanche-prone, I need to quit and go home”. I had no clue about the slope! The rest of my team made it to the top. I regret the decision to date.
I decided to make changes. I started emotionally detaching myself from my family and friends. I’d go on climbs and I would rarely call home. Even while I was at home I just switched off completely from my family life. I had zero personal life. ZERO. And I started training harder and harder. Several times I would feel as if I was going to pass out. And sometimes I stopped, however at others I continued pushing limits. I was becoming mentally strong. Finally, within a span of 2 months, I climbed to the top of three 6,000m-plus summits and I knew I was ready to climb Everest.
This must have been pretty difficult?
This was 2013. Since then my training has only got tougher, and I don’t remember having a serious relationship with anyone in my family. ANYONE. And now that I have climbed my dream mountain, and I continue climbing more and more, I realize the cost that I’ve paid. I didn’t die. I didn’t lose fingers. Heck, I didn’t even have a sunburn on my face. I had trained harder than most people, at least I would like to think so. And now that Everest is no longer in my life, there’s a huge amount of emotional emptiness. And I feel this is the price I paid to climb Everest.
And what led to your switch to veganism?
As part of my upbringing, I was taught and always believed that “animals are sentient and emotional beings with individual characters, and have as much right to live freely and happily as much as we do”. And so consequently I grew up a vegetarian. Then I moved to the United States in Aug 2001 to pursue my Master’s degree and it was my roommate at the university exposed me to the horrors of the eggs, dairy, and leather industry in Aug 2001. After that conversation, I connected the dots: a piece of meat, a cake made with eggs, a glass of milk, a block of cheese, a leather belt, down jacket – they all come from abused animals.
Think about where milk we consume comes from? Cows are impregnated over and over, their babies stolen from them and slaughtered for meat just so that you can have their milk! Or think about eggs – male chicks are worthless to the egg industry, and so every year, millions of them are suffocated or thrown into high-speed grinders while they are still alive. The birds are crammed so closely together that they are forced to urinate and defecate on one another. Diseases run rampant in the filthy, cramped sheds, and many birds die. What about that leather belt or feather jacket? These are made from the skin of cattle, horses, sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, elephants, snakes, and feathers of chickens, geese etc who are all slaughtered so that you can look good.
And then I learnt more shocking facts. The livestock industry generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, uses up about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. After knowing all this, I lost my sleep and peace of mind. I could not reconcile with the fact that as a vegetarian I continued contributing to immense amounts of animal abuse, cruelty and slaughter, as well as the destruction of the planet, and so I had to take a stand. That is the moment I turned vegan.
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Has the switch affected your mountaineering?
I decided to go vegan some time in late 2002. It has been close to 18 years now that I have been a vegan. Sometime in 2009, I realized that climbing Mt. Everest is the biggest dream of my life. I told myself that I am going to climb Everest as a vegan, or not climb it at all.
Most people in the high altitude mountaineering world might think I’m crazy, however my diet has never been an issue. I’ve now been part of over 25 serious Himalayan climbing expeditions and I’ve never had any problems being a vegan, even on this last climb to the top of Mt. Everest from the China side in May 2019. Veganizing the climbing expedition food isn’t that difficult.
What kind of things do you eat to fuel your lifestyle?
When I’m training it is very simple – “Whole foods plant-based”. Low fat, High carb. I love eating fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, dates, nuts/seeds and this diet has done wonders for me. I recover much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating workouts (example – a 20-hour steep hike in the local mountains).
Some of my favourite foods are bananas, mangos, grapes, and power-packed dried dates/raisins/figs, and I can not forget the oatmeal made with either water or soy milk (my favourite breakfast of all!).
Does this change much whilst you’re climbing?
My diet while on climbing expeditions is very different. At 18,000 feet, a climbers’ calorie requirements could easily be around 4000 calories a day, and this number would easily go up to 8-9000 calories at 25,000 feet. A climber burns through about 15,000 calories on a typical Everest 20-hour round trip to the summit.
If I’m climbing in the Himalaya, then most of the local food tends to be vegetarian, and easy to veganize. The food spread typically consists of vegetable stews and curries, fruits, lentils, beans, soups, wheat bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, noodles etc. So on my climbs in the Himalaya, I stick to eating the local cuisine.
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. 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 the Everest/Lhotse climb, at the base camp (18,000 feet)/camp two (21,500 feet) – I ate pretty much everything fresh, 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 fewer things: electrolyte & energy powders, freeze-dried meals, instant soymilk oatmeal, Oreo cookies, dried dates/figs, dried fruit such as kiwi, pineapple, papaya, nuts – almonds & cashews, and some Indian comfort foods.
How much do you find your diet affects your performance?
For me, 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 pursue my dreams gives me full peace of mind to focus and achieve my dreams. If you’re 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 is that I never catch a stomach infection. Most mountaineers at some point during their expeditions catch a stomach bug that causes intense stomach pain, loose motions. 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 infected meat. As a vegan, the chances of catching an infection is almost nonexistent. I have also recommended to my co-climbers to go vegan when they catch infections and it has worked wonders with most of them!
What do you think the future holds for veganism and the outdoors community?
I had this thought: if you need to eat or wear an animal to build muscle, stamina, endurance, or stay warm, or achieve peak performance, or to be able to climb a mountain – what’s the use? People always talk about styles: climbing without oxygen, alpine style, free soloing, running up the mountain and creating an FKT (fastest known time), climbing a virgin peak, establishing a new route etc. but if you need sentient animals to suffer, I think it’s all a complete waste and sham. True performance and feats come from compassion.
Unfortunately, at the moment there is not much interest from the mountaineering community as the prevalent notion is that eating meat and cheese and wearing “down” is a prerequisite to climbing mountains. But slowly things are changing. One of the best rock climbers in the world – Alex Honnold is now climbing on a plant-based diet. One of the best mountain runners in the world Kilian Jornet is 90% plant-based. These amazing athletes are disrupting the mountaineering world and I definitely see us mountaineers moving towards making more compassionate and sustainable climbing choices.
Do you have any advice for vegans who are wanting to get into mountaineering?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t climb mountains with a vegan lifestyle. There will be many naysayers. Many expedition companies will tell you to switch from vegan to eating meat/eggs/dairy for the duration of the expedition – I say don’t listen to them. Plan your journey well, train and prepare hard to give yourself the best chance at succeeding, stay focused and don’t give up as you go through the mountaineering journey. Above all remember why you’re doing it – for the animals!
Lastly, a question on sustainability: are you noticing climate change impacting your expeditions or the environments you’re exploring?
Yes, the glaciers across Himalayan mountains are receding and shrinking. I have been climbing in the Indian and Nepal Himalaya for over a decade and there have been several instances that I have visited the same areas and have seen drastic changes. And so its more important now than ever to lead a more conscious, sustainable and ethical lifestyle to conserve our planet not just for ourselves, but also for the future generations.
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When you get home from an expedition, what’s the first thing you eat?
Most of my expeditions are in Nepal, and the moment I’m back to civilization in Kathmandu I always want to eat the vegan heaven burger at a french bakery in Thamel area, or alternately a nice crisp paper masala dosa!
Your most meaningful summit or climb?
Without a doubt my Everest summit in 2019, as I did it in a 100% vegan style – both from food and gear perspective.
One piece of non-essential gear you wouldn’t leave for an expedition without?
A nice vegan treat to eat on the top!
The thing you’re most looking forward to in 2020?
Spending time with my 4-month-old… I’ve been away climbing mountains or training for almost 10 years. With Covid-19 in the picture, I’ve decided to take it easy this year and see my daughter grow 🙂
We’re on our way to India (slowly) what’s one lesser-known outdoor experience we’d be crazy to miss?
An unexplored trek or climb in the mountains of Uttarakhand, Ladakh or Spiti!