How Kuntal Joisher Became the First Vegan on Mt Everest
man (scratch that)
The mountaineer who in 2014 scaled Mt Manasalu (8163 m), the eighth highest mountain peak in the world, to become the only second Indian civilian to reach the summit, has made a habit of breaching the impossible. His life is a testament of undiluted passion and grit, which endures through his principled stance of “conscious, vegan” living. Kuntal Joshier — the dreamer’s vibe is one word — motivational.
TheVibe caught up with the rock-jock as he headed for a vegan outreach talk tour in Singapore, to get this exclusive nail-biting story of his climb to become the world’s first vegan to scale the summit of Mt Everest. Here’s the climber describing the “most arduous experience of his life as yet.” Hold your breath, pay attention and take notes, for the mountain king holds the fort.
TOP OF THE WORLD
The voice on the other side of the phone-call rings with carefree energy and it speaks the caller’s truth. “I live for the mountains. I write software to pay the bills as my means to an end. My dying passion is mountaineering, the end. My life is all about the mountains, and veganism. I describe myself as a vegan mountaineer.”
39-year-old Kuntal Joshier is the man whose cheerful voice belies an enigma — the man breaks all stereotypes. “I was born into a Kutchi family. My mother and wife already knew me to be mad, but it was my friends and extended family who were the most shell-shocked. I had everyone come up to me and tell me it was just a 6-month phase, give up, carry on with the normal. But when I’d found mountaineering, I’d found my life’s calling.” The dreamer had figured the best mountaineers averaged the early 40s, he still had time. This was the new normal, the well-wishers ought to have known better.
Before Kuntal, the world of mountaineering was hard-pressed for any true vegan heroes to have scaled such dazzling heights. He describes his nature, in his own words, “I identify with compassion. Compassion for myself, my fellow humans and non-humans. We are all part of the same.” He reveals, “When I’d decided to climb the Everest, I had decided to do it as a vegan, or not at all.” The path, however, was gruelling, and that was putting it mildly.
THE MOUNTAINS COME CALLING
“In 2009, when I had first googled about other vegan mountaineers, the search engine yielded not a single result,” says the veteran mountaineer. There were no references, no guidebooks, it had to be done to be tried. “Today, as a vegan, I have climbed the Mt Everest, and more than a couple of dozen mountain peaks, and walked thousands of treks. I’ve been at it for the last 16 years.” Climbing the Mt Everest is considered a superhuman feat for a reason. There is death at every turn. The sheer journey to the Everest Basecamp is a long relentless trek. “For me climbing the Mt Everest was a 5-year project. I put my body through extreme physical fitness rigours and mental stamina through that window.”
“The incident had left over 38 people dead, and more than 200 people injured. I was at Ground Zero, and that’s when the gravity of the situation and the toll took another meaning. Nepal needed to heal. The sherpas and the people had to heal. I committed myself to the rebuilding efforts.” But for detractors, even this human tragedy seemed like an excuse.
But nothing really prepares you for the reality of the extremes of high Himalayas, and Kuntal was to witness something that puts the chase in perspective.
“In 2014 and 2015, we had to abandon the climb because of natural conditions. In 2015, the mountain faced inclement weather conditions,” he explains. In a now video-gone-viral, Kuntal witnessed a deadly avalanche crash down on the entire basecamp during the devastating Nepal earthquake of 2014.
DETRACTORS AND NAYSAYERS
Hailing from an old-school Gujarati family came with its host of baggage in the form of well-wishing relatives, he says, but is quick to downplay later. “I had no shortage of relatives coming down to ‘remind’ me what a stupid decision it was to have sunk around 50 lakhs in pursuit of this dream. I had to be more responsible.”
“In 2014 — 15, I had not even got a chance to make the climb. So I was yearning to make it happen in 2016. If I were unable to do so, I would have moved on. My life had stopped for three whole years. I had had no relationship with my wife and folks at home. I was a man possessed. I had to focus on my training, learning to stay alive, and to be aligned.”
THE WORLD’S TOUGHEST CLIMB
To put the difficulty of the Everest expedition in perspective, here’s how one really embarks on the world’s toughest trek. The expedition itself lasts for a total of 65 days and is covered in three stages. The first stage is the journey to the Everest base camp and lasts for 10 days.
The next leg extends for 35 days and is basically a time when the body adjusts to the different altitudes of the mountains. Climbing the Everest is not a blitz to run through.
Kuntal explains, “Imagine yourself on a flight at 30,000 feet with the outside temperatures at minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Those are precisely the conditions to go up the Everest. It is incredibly challenging.”
The last phase happens over a span of 10 days, which is the time to climb up and come down the Everest summit. Joshier explains, “On the Everest peak, the normal wind speeds are anywhere between 200 to 300 km/hr. You get a short window of just 10 days when the wind speeds drop to 20 to 30 km/hr. This is when most mountaineers scale the peak.” It’s fleeting, yet the toughest moment of glory to reach the top.
“We got through the Base Camp and passed the first two stages and started acclimatising both the body and mind. The Indian Army party, which had gone ahead of us, confirmed the weather window dates,” reveals Kuntal. “This is when our Sherpa approached us and told us it’s time to get into the Death Zone.”
CHARGING THROUGH THE DEATH ZONE
One of the most inhospitable places on Earth is a natural passing for the mountaineers climbing the summit at heights of 8,000 m or 26,000 feet. Death Zone, as it is ominously called, is a point where one faces significantly trivial chances of survival.
You survive on borrowed time. With every foot of ascent of the Death Zone, your body is scientifically getting closer to death. Your body starts deteriorating with each step. Your job is to sneak in and out of the death zone as quickly as you can survive.
The Death Zone is hell on ice. Temperatures drop significantly, any exposure of body part means instant frostbite and incapacitation. You can easily slip and fall because the snowy ice in front could be very loose. The atmospheric pressure is very low, and only one-third of your regular oxygen intake is available for breathing.
In reality, most climbers take up to 12 hours to walk the distance of 1.72 km. Even achieving this level of performance means prolonged acclimatisation of the body for a span of 40 to 60 days. No rescue is possible at those heights.
A normal sea-dwelling human being without the necessary acclimatisation would likely
lose consciousness in 2 to 3 minutes.
WHEN EACH STEP FEELS LIKE THE WEIGHT OF A MILLION BRICKS
Describing the life at that perilous height, Kuntal says, “Just before we were to enter the Death Zone, my Sherpa came and told us that we had no drinking water between us. This would mean death due to dehydration, so I instructed him to get us some water.” It took the Sherpa 20 minutes to find a block of ice and another 45 minutes to boil the water. The result: ice-cold liquid water that could be bottled for survival for a few hours. When climbing the Everest, every problem is magnified by multiple times over.
“This climb was easily the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my 38 years here on earth. You face death at every corner, and there are no easy exits. As you are walking up the mountain, you are also mentally charting your way down the climb,” explains Kuntal on how mentally tough such a challenge means.
THE VIEW AT 29,029 FEET
“12 hours later, as we made our way to the summit, my sherpa stopped some 30 feet before the peak and took a symbolic photo of me there. One-half of the challenge was successfully overcome. Speaking about how he felt on reaching the summit Kuntal explains, “As I inched towards the summit, an intense sense of emotional relief flooded through my body. I was emotionally overwhelmed and I could sense that rush run through my body from head to toe.”
The mountaineer admits to feeling the goosebumps, even as he speaks on call. “It was a mixed bag of emotions, I was also feeling very confident about getting down the mountain safely.”
A whole lot of emotions came rushing in. “I remembered the CEO of my last company who jested sarcastically that I should ‘quit my day job to leave for the moon instead. The sheer sense of unabated glory washed over as each detractor’s voice faded away into the background,” reveals the man with an indomitable spirit.
“Every step was emotionally charged. I had tears starting to well in my eyes. You must remember, even then I had to fight the urge and calm myself down, before pulling off my mask. For you to click photos, you need to take off your oxygen mask, but at those freezing temperatures with tears in your eyes, your eyes can just get sealed shut,” adds the mountaineer. “I spent a good 20 minutes on the top. Words don’t do justice, it was magical. When someone asks if I’d do the trip again, my response is that for the view, ‘in a heartbeat.’”
THE FIRST VEGAN AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
“As I hoisted the vegan flag at the top of Mt Everest, I was excited about the fact that I had disproven everybody who doubted being vegan was an impediment to such extreme challenges,” responds Kuntal.
My feat is a testament that a common human can live sustainably on a simple vegan diet and still have a killer’s instinct to go back to the Everest for the third time.
— Kuntal Joisher
WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN
What most people don’t know is that most deaths on Everest happen on the descent. Climbers become complacent after having scaled the summit. In any other sport, you may get second chances, but mountaineering is unforgiving. “No rescue mission has been attempted at that height. You need to plan for a two-way journey. You have to be very focused,” adds the superman.
“I was intent on keeping all 10 digits of my toes and fingers intact. My emotional high of having climbed the Everest was stocked away as I focussed on getting down after 12 hours of climbing the Everest peak, and with no food and water on hand.”
“As I got down to the Base Camp, I saw our cook Neema at a distance waiting for us patiently with a bottle of Coke in his hands. I ran to hug him. I had to share my story with him.” He revisits his vegan philosophy to comment, “The sherpas diet comprises majorly of rice and big bowls of daal and veggies. Diet really wasn’t too much of a problem. What was hard was to find vegan-friendly, non-leather mountaineering gear.”
THE ROI OF LIFE
Through all of the mind-numbing challenges that Kuntal faced and the many detractors whom he dealt with along the way, he still reserves his never-die attitude. “My wife has been extremely supportive throughout this time. She shielded me from everyone who questioned my motives and goals. She was a source of unwavering support.”
One of my relatives still wondered as to what the real ROI (return-on-investment) of such a trip is. You are practically throwing away 25 lakhs per trip was his rationale. “The answer to that is… What is the ROI of your life? I live for this!”
All videos and images (unless mentioned otherwise) attributed to Kuntal Joisher.
©️ 2020. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.
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