How Kuntal Joisher Scaled Mount Everest Without Using Animals
The dedicated vegan reached the top of the tallest mountain in the world once already, but the second time he had something even more to prove
“Mountaineer by passion, vegan by compassion,” reads the bio on Kuntal Joisher’s Instagram profile. When this 39-year-old vegan mountaineer from Mumbai, India, stood at 29,029 feet on the summit of Mount Everest on May 23, 2019, it was his second time at the top of the world. Three years earlier he had scaled the world’s tallest mountain along its south face from Nepal and became the first to do so on a plant-based diet. This time, he climbed the mountain’s north face from Tibet, using only vegan equipment.
“I wanted to attempt the summit again because I felt that I didn’t finish the project that I had started,” he explains. “During my first summit in 2016, my diet was 100 percent vegan but my equipment wasn’t. For me, [veganism is] more than a diet, so it was important for me to complete this goal by not using anything made of animals.”
While Kuntal was making his way to Everest along its north face, Dean Maher, a vegan climber from Australia, was also attempting a completely vegan climb from the south side, reaching the summit on May 16. It was a victory for vegans on Everest this year, but one that was shadowed by a high death toll: 12 climbers died on Everest during the 2019 climbing season. Climbers need a high level of physical fitness as well as mental stamina to achieve the mountaineer’s ultimate goal of reaching the world’s highest peak. They can find themselves at the mercy of unpredictable weather conditions, and have to face the risks of debilitating altitude sickness and frostbite that can result in lost fingers or toes.
Vegans are so scrutinized. If I didn’t reach Everest and come back down safely then my diet would have been to blame.
Kuntal first set out to conquer Everest in 2014, an attempt that was aborted by a deadly avalanche that killed 16 sherpas. Disaster struck again the following year when the Nepal earthquake triggered an avalanche, killing 19 climbers at Everest base camp, a calamity he narrowly escaped.
For Kuntal, getting to the top is not enough: “For me, a successful summit is not only to reach the top but to come back down without frostbite or the need for evacuation,” he says. “You have to complete the climb in a safe and reliable way from base camp to Everest and back. Vegans are so scrutinized. If I didn’t reach Everest and come back down safely then my diet would have been to blame.”
As a vegan mountaineer, “What do you eat?” is the number one question Kuntal is asked. But food was actually the least of his problems. His greatest challenge was finding mountaineering equipment, the clothes designed to keep climbers warm and prevent frostbite, that wasn’t made of any animal products. He found vegan boots easy to come by, but climbing suits meant for sub-zero temperatures are always filled with down (made from goose or duck plumage), while mitts are made of leather.
“While preparing for my first Everest attempt, I tried hard to find vegan gear but none of the companies I contacted were interested,” he says of his quest to find a climbing suit not made of down. “I was told it’s not viable or even possible to build a vegan suit so I felt like I didn’t have an option. But eventually I found out about an Italian company called Save The Duck that makes vegan activewear out of recycled materials. I contacted them and told them what I was trying to do and they said they were willing to make me a vegan suit.”
Working closely with Save The Duck’s designer, Kuntal explained his requirements. On the top of Everest, temperatures go down to -58 Fahrenheit, so the suit had to protect him from the cold and wind. It also had to be as lightweight as possible, but synthetic insulation tends to be heavier than down. “I wore the first prototype of Save The Duck’s vegan suit, the first of its kind on the planet, when I climbed Lhotse in May 2018,” he says of his experience scaling the world’s fourth highest mountain. “The suit was solid in terms of the material, and the construction was rugged. It kept me warm at -22 Fahrenheit. Its next stop would be Everest.”
Mitts are another must-have for high-altitude mountaineers climbing in sub-zero temperatures. When it came to sourcing animal-free mitts, Kuntal literally took things into his own hands. “I worked with my friend Biden, a gear outfitter in Kathmandu,” he says. “I told him I wanted to design my mitts myself and we worked with a local tailor to create them. My idea was that they should stay warm even if they’re in the snow. We made the insides with 16 layers of PrimaLoft® (a patented brand of thermal insulation material made of synthetic microfibers). I tested them when climbing Lhotse and they passed.”
Though food was less of a concern, Kuntal did give careful consideration to his diet before and during the 45-day expedition. Fueling a climb to Everest requires an incredible number of calories. At 20,000 feet, the body burns 3500 to 4000 calories per day at rest, double the normal amount. Kuntal calculated that 15,000 to 18,000 calories are needed above an altitude of 26,000 feet for a 20-hour trip to the Everest summit and back.
“Basically I carb-loaded for 45 days!” he reveals. “If you look at every kitchen at base camp, there are a lot of carbs served up. But climbers complain and say they need protein. Of course you do need protein, but not crazy amounts. Look at the Sherpa diet: it’s made up of potatoes, lentils and rice. We actually need a lot of carbs and this should make up the majority of the calories required.”
On this past climb, I ate pizza, burgers, burger buns, sizzlers and even croissants — all vegan. Once they understand and see you’re passionate about a cause, they want to support you. They now call it the Kuntal diet!
Finding the right foods while on the mountain can be a challenge, as many of the expedition companies are not familiar with vegan diets. “I’ve been climbing with the same expedition company, Satori Adventures, and the same sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, for the past five years,” he explains. “During the first two or three expeditions I had to make adjustments because the cooks and the expedition agency didn’t understand what a vegan diet was. But I helped the cooks, Tendi Sherpa and Anup Rai, adapt the menu with vegan alternatives. If there was no alternative, no problem, then I wouldn’t eat that food. I don’t need croissants!”
Kuntal says that things have improved over the years, “On this past climb, I ate pizza, burgers, burger buns, sizzlers and even croissants — all vegan. Once they understand and see you’re passionate about a cause, they want to support you. They now call it the Kuntal diet!”
Once above 20,000 feet, there are no staffed kitchens dishing out food for climbers, so each climber must rely on their own resources to fuel their final push to the summit. Kuntal supplemented his diet with Nutrimake, an Indian product made of oats, millets, seeds and nuts, providing a combination of carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins. “Nutrimake prepared a special formulation for me with 700 calories in each serving,” he says. “It gives energy and helps to retain muscle. It also has a lot of fiber which is important because it keeps the bowels functioning. I used this every day, combining the powder with water and having it first thing in the morning, followed by a big breakfast some time later. I also used a product by Plant Veda: they made special protein cookies for me.”
“Climbing your personal Everest” has come to signify a journey in personal growth. Climbing to 29,029 feet at sub-zero temperatures and low oxygen levels calls for not only a high level of physical fitness but also psychological determination. Kuntal confirms that the climb is just as psychological as physical. “The physical part is easy,” he says. “Of course you need a good cardiovascular system and strong muscles. You can train your body to get to the top of the world. But as for mental fitness, there’s no blueprint. One of my co-climbers on this trip was a super fit guy who trained like crazy. He got to the top but could barely get back down the mountain. He just stopped and told his sherpa to tell his parents that he had lived a good life. But the sherpa gave him the kick he needed to wake up and get down the mountain. It’s all a mental ballgame.”
Kuntal’s rigorous training regime included techniques to strengthen his mental willpower and teach his mind to push his body beyond its limits. He would run laps until exhausted, and then push himself to keep going and complete two extra laps. Or climb 300 floors and do 50 more when he felt he couldn’t climb an extra step. His psychological preparation also involved facing his fears head on, eventually overcoming them. “I had a near death experience as a child during a rappelling accident,” he reveals. “As a result of that, I had a fear of heights and a fear of hanging from a wall. I knew that to climb Everest, I had to get over these fears. I’ve been working on this for years. I learned to just let the feeling of panic pass me by in a dangerous situation and I found that I then get a clarity of thought and I’m able to do the task.”
Before I became a mountaineer, I was a vegan activist and wanted to convert the world. But I didn’t manage to convert even one person. Since I’ve become a mountaineer, I don’t tell people to go vegan. But I’ve had a bigger impact. People are receptive when I tell them what I eat. We need role models and not only activists.
For Kuntal, climbing Everest is much more than a personal achievement. It’s also a way to draw attention to causes important to him. He has climbed for Sunsar Maya, an organization providing free education to underprivileged kids in Nepal. He has also worked to raise awareness and remove the stigma of mental illnesses like Lewy Body Dementia, which his father suffered from and ultimately succumbed to shortly after Kuntal’s second Everest summit.
“After my first climb I got a lot of media attention and since then I’ve given 182 talks to 25,000 people: school kids, college students, vegans, fitness enthusiasts, corporations, non-profits,” he says. “Before I became a mountaineer, I was a vegan activist and wanted to convert the world. But I didn’t manage to convert even one person. Since I’ve become a mountaineer, I don’t tell people to go vegan. But I’ve had a bigger impact. People are receptive when I tell them what I eat. We need role models and not only activists.”
“I don’t really care if I’m the first vegan to reach Everest,” he adds. “I just want to show the world it can be done. I went from being an unhealthy 240-pound software engineer in 2009 to climbing Everest. I hope more vegans will climb Everest and other mountains so that we can say there are so many of us doing this. My goal is to create a vegan climb to Everest. I’ll be their expedition leader and get them to base camp. Most people think it’s a big deal to do this as a vegan. I want it to no longer be a big thing. I want veganism to become mainstream.”