Formerly 110kg, Kuntal Joisher, a Software Engineer from Mumbai, may have seemed like an unlikely fit for the title of First Vegan to Climb Everest. Yet, as he recounts his story, demonstrating his sheer bravery and extreme dedication on and off the mountain, his achievement comes as no surprise.
On May 19 last year, a vegan programmer from India stood on top of the colossal Everest after 50 long, exhausting days. An amazing feat for anyone, but a tremendous win for vegans. You may not have heard of Kuntal Joisher though. Unfortunately his accomplishment was overshadowed by the tragic death of Australian woman Maria Strydom, who sadly lost her life to the mountain only two days after Kuntal’s success. Kuntal hopes his story will subvert the stereotypes associated with veganism and we at VC have no doubts that he will do just that.
The 36 year old hasn’t always been familiar with mountains, nor has he been that active all of his life. On the contrary, Kuntal, formerly 17 ½ stone says he doesn’t really label himself a climber.
“I’m not a typical climber, far from it. I’m not an endurance athlete…I have traced back 100 years of my community, people don’t even climb two floors where I come from!”
He openly mocks his overweight past self, before he out the blue decided to climb the tallest peak on earth. So what was the catalyst for his decision? What catapulted Kuntal from a relatively inactive office worker to a devoted mountain climber?
“It was actually a very freak event, quite a small one that most people wouldn’t pay attention to normally. My wife and I were on a trip in the Himalayas to see some snow as we had never seen snow in our life.”
During this trip Kuntal and his wife spontaneously decided to climb a peak of around 3400m, which took them a gruelling 4 hours. He was 110kg at the time, but he and his wife were so excited to see snow that they powered through to the top.
“When I got to the top, the kind of feeling I had there was surreal, it was so quiet I could actually hear my heartbeat intensely. It was so loud that I thought maybe my wife could hear it.
“The experience was absolutely magical. I had been stuck in a rut at home and on the top of that peak I felt alive. This was the exact feeling I wanted to feel for the rest of my life.”
Almost instantly after this life changing moment Kuntal decided to book a trip to Everest base camp. He had to put several plans in place, a training plan, a dietary plan and a financial plan.
It wasn’t just a physical effort though, Kuntal explains that his success is predominantly down to taking full control of his mental state. As the expedition leader of the Everest base camp trip told him, if he wanted to climb to the top of the world, he had to have a top of the world body…and most importantly, a top of the world mind.
“The only way I could have climbed Everest was to emotionally detach myself from my wife, my parents, my close friends & my extended family. Sort of being physically there but mentally on the mountain.”
“That is how my life has been for the last 3 years. My entire focus was on Everest. I didn’t care about my work, if they fired me I would have been fine.”
Luckily for Kuntal, he had wonderful support from his company, Callfire.
“They have went out of their way to accommodate my climbs. If it was not for them, I definitely would have no job. I don’t know any other company who would do that for their employee.”
He attempted to climb Everest in 2014 thinking he would make it to the top. Nevertheless, as Kuntal says himself, “when it comes to mountain climbing, the mountain always has the last say.”
Unfortunately in 2014, he and his fellow climbers were hit with an enormous earthquake, preventing his Everest dream. When he returned home, he evaluated the experience.
“I knew this time I had to train a lot harder and the emotional detachment continued for another year. I was almost entirely away from family, mentally.
“When I saw Everest last year I knew I would make it to the top. I was feeling very strong, from a physical perspective and a mental. The weather looked great and it all felt awesome.”
As he looks back upon the last 3 years, Kuntal realises how selfless his family have been.
“My wife has been so supportive of my dream and my passion. She wanted to make sure I was safe and if distancing myself was the way to keep me safe then she encouraged it.”
Over a period of time Kuntal started switching off and began climbing for months and months at a time.
“I tell my folks that if I’m not calling, every-thing is fine. No news is good news.”
When first deciding to climb Everest, his whole concept was that he wanted to climb it as a vegan or not climb it at all.
“I did struggle to find info on this though, even for vegetarian diets for climbers, but once I started training I realised a vegan diet was not a hindrance. It actually helped me, specifically when I started focusing on wholefoods.
“I used to be a very unhealthy vegan but I switched to a high carb low fat wholefoods diet and it did wonders for me…I tell everyone to follow this.”
He would go through excruciating training sessions and be able to recover in order to go through a far more excruciating session the following day.
“There would be times I would slip and eat something high in fat and this would show in my performance.”
The importance of eating right and eating enough during the training process was vital, but ensuring that he was eating right and eating enough on the mountain, was a matter of life or death.
Human beings at 18000 ft, even if they are resting, can burn around 4000 calories. On a typical Everest summit day, from camp to the summit and back, your body consumes around 15000-18000 calories. I was desperate to know what he ate to maintain such life-sustaining energy.
“I had a good amount of vegetables, lentils, Indian bread or regular bread, lots of fruits and potatoes in many forms like, French fries, boiled potatoes…they work really well on the mountain.
“One tip I took from the runner’s playbook, was a running gel full of electrolytes and carbohydrates. When climbing you cannot digest beans and fats easily and these gels were available to be used very quickly, so they became a big part of my strategy.”
Kuntal also relied on impressive food technology from food supplier Outdoor Herbivore. When adding hot water to these 250mg freeze-dried meals, they can become up to 1000 calories!
He did have a couple of comfort food too though, when he really couldn’t bare to eat anything else. One is a bottle of coke and one of them is a packet of Oreos.
“I think I ate about half a packet of Oreos and a handful of cashews before my final summit climb… at that point I just wanted to focus on climbing.”
The power of the Oreo got him to the top, but at points when he felt he was struggling, he had to remind himself of why he is vegan.
“I told myself, think of the billions of animals killed each day. Compare their suffering to your suffering, it’s not a comparison, just
Despite being hailed a hero for veganism, Kuntal isn’t convinced he is the first plant-based eater to have conquered Everest.
“Veganism is not documented that well so there is probably someone vegan who is not on social media and has climbed Everest. I am honoured to have broken a lot of myths surrounding veganism though, but I am fed up of being asked where I get my protein from!
“You know I’m standing still and not falling off my feet but people still ask me this. I climb Everest and they still ask me!”
A truly inspiring pioneer for the vegan lifestyle, Kuntal has proven there are no more limits for vegans when it comes to mountain climbing.
“I just hope to inspire people to get out of their comfort zone. That’s my biggest achievement and what warms my heart the most.”
Currently in Nepal, Kuntal has just finished one month of back to back treks to Everest base camp combined with climbing a 20,000 feet peak called Lobuche East. He is now back in Kathmandu and preparing for his next climb.
Follow his adventures via his Instagram: @kuntalj