This interview with Kuntal Joisher is one of an ongoing series I do each season with Everest climbers. Not the famous, sponsored ones who get plenty of publicity but the regular people, who often have full time jobs, full time families and climb for the love of the climb. I welcome suggestions for anyone climbing in 2018 I should interview.
My first interaction with Kuntal was in 2010 with an email that started
“What attracted me to your website is a very important term in both our lives “Dementia”. Your mother passed away because of Alzheimers (most common form of Dementia), and my dad was diagnosed of Lewy body dementia back in 2002 at a very young age of 52 years. I can very well empathize with your situation about your mom. My dad is currently in advanced stages of his dementia, and one of my prime goals of life is to make sure he gets the best possible quality of however much life remains of him.”
And with that we have been friends for eight years finally meeting at Everest Base Camp in 2016. I’ve come to admire this gentle man as a person of courage, conviction and integrity. He was thwarted, like so many, from his dream to summit Everest in both 2014 and 2015 but achieved his dream at 9:20 am May 19, 2016.
The stereotype of Everest climbers is that of a selfish, rich person who hires many Sherpas to drag them to the summit. In my experience, that is a tiny percentage and not the majority. Kuntal is a role model for many Everest summiters, a person who has a long love of mountains that grew into mountaineering and one day took personal and financial risks to pursue his dream.
He grew up in India, moved to Los Angels and then back to back to Mumbai, India in late 2006 to become the primary caregiver for his Dad. He has a world view that is reflected in his passionate speaking and writing, plus his photography. Kuntal has summited two 8000ers, Everest and Manaslu and is now going to attempt Lhotse in the Spring of 2018. Other peaks on his CV include Chulu far east, Island peak, Chamser kangri, Mentok Kangri , Mt Nakorche – first ascent – June 2013 , Mt Basisi – first ascent – June 2012 and Stok Kangri – July 2011.
Kuntal received global recognition as being the first “strict” vegan to summit Everest. While he attracted many admirers, he also brought on the critics. That same year Maria (Marissa) Strydom’s died on Everest. She had a mission to ‘prove vegans can do anything” and her death created a tremendous amount of headlines around diet for climbers and in many cases lead to shameful ridicule of her beliefs and practices. As I processed that experience with Kuntal and that others had already claimed to have summit Everest as a vegan, he told me:
“I don’t claim [to be the first to summit Everest]. Others claim on my behalf inspite of explicitly telling them that I may not be the first. And Dr. Atanos writes on his personal website – I am a Vegan who eats Honey. It’s like saying I am a Vegetarian who eats Fish. If you are a Vegan you don’t eat honey. Period. And if you eat honey then you are not a Vegan and should stop claiming to be one. Truly speaking no Vegan has summited Everest yet. Because as long as we use insulation jackets made of Down we are not Vegan. As simple as that. I have so many times told so many people I am not the first Vegan but no one listens. So I have stopped caring. If people want to write they can The more the word Vegan comes out and gets attached to me the more good it does to the overall cause.
You can see my full interview with him at this link. With that, lets get deeper into Kuntal Joisher.
Q: Lets start with the climb and motive behind this climb. Why did you choose Lhotse for your next 8000er?
I’ll be very frank. Lhotse is not my first choice. Makalu was. Lhotse was my second choice. However, a couple of dear friends – Sylvain and Caroline, reputed alpinists from Quebec, and also with whom I share my first 8000 summit of Manaslu, signed up to climb Lhotse. That’s when I decided that I’ll also climb Lhotse since I wanted to climb with both of them again. And of course, I have always wanted to see how Everest looks from the top of Lhotse. And I have always wanted to climb through the Lhotse couloir. So I’ll be back again at Everest base camp in few days and I’m looking forward to crossing Khumbu ice-fall, walking through Western Cwm, finally climbing Lhotse face and then diverging to climb to the top of Lhotse. I’m very much looking forward to the challenge.
Q: The final few hundred meters on Lhotse is notorious for dangerous rockfall. Are you doing anything special to stay safe?
I don’t see Lhotse as any different from any other 8000er or for that matter any high mountain or for that matter any mountain – even one that can be climbed in a day. Over the last 9 years of my venturing into the mountains I have realized to never underestimate any mountain. Respect the mountain, take the right calls, and stay safe to climb another day. During my climbing career I have turned around quite a few times on my expeditions when I have deemed the conditions unsafe. Sure I lose money, time and all the effort goes in vain, but I’m alive, doing well, and have never had a case of even a frostnip on my expeditions. I think having the correct attitude on the mountain is very important.
Now specifically to answer your question, in past few months my training has been completely centered around hiking and climbing quite a bit on exposed rock in the Western ghat mountains. I did this specifically to prepare for the Lhotse couloir which has similar terrain. I have already climbed to Camp 3 and beyond. So there I already know the terrain. So I specifically spent more time on rocky and scree based terrain to prepare for Lhotse. In addition to this I’m going to depend quite a bit on the judgement of my climbing partner and Sherpa guide – Mingma Tenji Sherpa. If he deems the conditions to be unsafe and asks me to turn around, without a blink of an eye I’ll follow the same.
So I’m not going to treat Lhotse any differently. I’m going to stay very focused through out the climb and back, am going to listen to my Sherpa who’s far more experienced than I am, and going to stick to the concept of – “Better safe than sorry”!
Q: You are a very talented photographer. Are you hoping to get a few unique shots for Everest from the Lhotse viewpoint?
One of my dream shots is to shoot the entire Everest south-east ridge route from Lhotse. A climber on Lhotse has a unique vantage point from where they can see the entire route all the way from Balcony to South summit to Hillary step to the summit of Everest. And my hope is that while we are climbing Lhotse, there would be a whole bunch of climbers on Everest summit route as well. That would give people a perspective of what it feels to be on these big mountains. Apart from this, I’m hoping to take some shots of the Lhotse couloir as well. I haven’t seen many shots of the couloir on the internet, and I hope to get some. However, for me mountaineering comes first and staying safe is of utmost importance. If at any point I think my photography is coming in the way, I’ll drop the camera and focus only on climbing.
Q: Who are you climbing Lhotse with and how did you select them?
I’m climbing Lhotse with Satori Adventures. They are my preferred go-to adventure company in Nepal. I first climbed with Satori in September-October of 2014 on Manaslu, and since then I’ve done several hikes and climbs with them. I think one of the critical things on an 8000 meter climb is to have a solid relationship with the Sherpa crew and the base camp crew. Over last few years, I have built a very strong relationship with the entire Satori adventures team, specifically with their Sirdar – Mingma Tenji Sherpa. Mingma is a rockstar Sherpa having climbed 8 out of 14 8000 meter mountains including several summits of Everest. I enjoy climbing with Mingma, and consider him my mentor, my brother and my friend.
This year I would be teaming up with Mingma again and I’m very much looking forward to that. Additionally, I am a Vegan, and it’s very important to get the right nutrition and calories at and beyond the base camp. Over the last few years I have been able to work closely with the Satori kitchen crew to help them understand what Vegan means, and how to prepare Vegan food. The kitchen crew remains unchanged since past few years, and they exactly know what I eat and what to prepare for me. In short, I’m climbing with Satori for their strong Sherpa team and base camp staff, above average arrangements at the base camp and above, and finally a solid team taking care of permits and logistics in Kathmandu. (https://www.satoriadventuresnepal.com/)
Q: My condolences on the loss of your good friend Anu Vidya. You are dedicating this climb to her. Please tell us about your friendship.
A year ago, a message popped up in my inbox. It read something like – “My name is Anu Vidya, and I have been a Vegan for 8 years. I have been following your instagram account and reading your amazing experiences. I have always wanted to climb the Everest since when I was a kid. I am planning to take a break from work and climb the Everest within the next 5 years.”
I had a smile on my face from one end to the next! I get a lot of messages from people wanting to climb Everest. But this was different. First of all – Anu was a Vegan! And then she was super clear that she would train hard, gain experience and climb Everest in 5 years time. Most people who write to me want to go from couch to Everest right away. So it was heartening to see someone so young with such clarity. A couple of phone calls later we got into a mentor-mentee relationship, and few months later we walked together to Everest base camp to get a glimpse of the challenge that Anu was about to take on. As we started walking home I told Anu that she wasn’t ready to climb Everest yet. But with her focus and determination she was very much on the right track to stand on top of the world soon. And during next few months I saw Anu train really hard and we were already discussing our next expedition.
Unfortunately, few weeks ago, Anu and her team got caught in fast spreading forest fire while trekking in the Western ghats mountain range of India. Anu got badly injured and was rescued, however few days later she passed away. In all 21 hikers lost their lives in this accident.
Today, words fail me as I think back upon my association with Anu. What I remember about her is her fierce resolve and focus for just about anything in life. May it be training to climb Everest, or standing up for Animal rights, or her passion for art! And one very important life lesson that I learnt from just observing her during the entire trip to base camp and then subsequent climb to Island peak – was Anu’s super chilled out and calm demeanor in face of extreme situations. I hope to someday have that kind of attitude both on mountains and in life!
I am inspired by the amazing life Anu led, and so I have decided to dedicate my next climb to her! She had hand painted a flag that read – “Liberation for all”, and I have that flag with me and my hope is to fly that high on Lhotse. That would be my tribute to Anu.
Q: Anyone who knows you, can “feel” your passion around being a “strict” vegan (100% food from plants, nothing else including honey). You garnered headlines when you became the first vegan to summit Everest. How did this passion begin and what message did it send to the world when you summited Everest?
I was born in a Gujarati Vegetarian family, and consequently raised a Vegetarian. However, I was a Vegetarian-by-religion, and not by choice. It was not until I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue my Masters that I got exposed to Veganism. One of my room-mates at the university was an ethical vegetarian, and he exposed me to the horrors of dairy, eggs, and leather industry. After doing my research, I connected the dots that there is no difference between a glass of milk, a block of cheese, or for that matter a piece of beef. At that point, I could not reconcile my compassionate thoughts with my cruel lifestyle as a vegetarian. The only way forward was to adopt a Vegan lifestyle. I turned vegan overnight.
The next few months of my life were a bit of a struggle. However compared to the killing and exploitation of billions of animals every year, my struggle was not even a struggle – it was just an adjustment phase. This was the first time in life when I took a strong stand on a major issue, and this opened flood-gates of change in me. I was able to get rid of some seriously shitty issues from my life such as homophobia, racism, sexism etc. Those introspection years were some of the most fruitful years of my life, and made me the person I am today, and it all started with taking a stand for Animals! The most important thing that happened to me was – “I was at complete ease with myself. I didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought about me, I did what I loved and was passionate about, I stood up for what I believed in, my mind opened up to new ideas and concepts, and above all I became very positive about life, in general.”
In 2009, I decided to climb Everest, and I told myself that I would climb Everest as a Vegan or not climb it at all. And frankly speaking, Vegan food has been the least of my concerns during the last 8 years of journey to climb Everest and big mountains. As I climb big mountains I’m not out there to prove that Vegan diet is a superior diet or somesuch. When I decided to climb Everest so many climbers and folks in the mountain climbing community told me that to succeed on big mountains you need to eat meat, eggs and dairy. I don’t blame them. Most nutrition advice in the mountaineering world centered around eating animal protein. So all I wanted to prove that climbing Everest or for that matter achieving difficult physical endurance feats is very much possible on a Vegan diet.
The message that went out when I climbed to the top of Mt. Everest as a Vegan was very clear – Vegan diet does not lack any nutrition, and that anyone can achieve biggest dreams of their life on a Vegan diet. What matters is the training and hard work one puts into the project. Also an FYI – Paula Leonard, a climber from Alaska, who’s also been a long term Vegan, climbed to the very top of Everest just an hour after I did. So on a single day two Vegans made it to the top in 2016!
Today several top mountain athletes rarely consume meat or dairy. Take for example Kilian Jornet. He’s almost a Vegan. Or Alex Honnold. He’s a vegetarian almost bordering Vegan.
Q: As mentioned in the intro, you are now on the board of Sunsar Maya. Tell us a bit about their work and how this links to your Lhotse climb.
I can never forget April 25th, 2015. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, and caused mass-scaled destruction across the Himalayan nation. We were in middle of the earthquake, and it would be an understatement that I am lucky to be alive. However, tens of thousands died, and millions lost their homes. That night I told myself two things – I’m going to continue chasing my dreams and passions, and that I’m going to actively contribute towards creating a society where everyone has an opportunity to do the same! Few days later as I walked through the streets of Sankhu, and saw the destruction first hand, I was very certain about one thing – I wanted to do whatever was possible from my side to help with the rebuild Nepal effort. And so over next couple of years I did photography exhibitions, gave talks and shared my stories and experiences from my climbing expeditions, and traveled around the world raising funds for the rebuild effort, and asking people to go take a vacation in Nepal and contribute to the economy of the country. It is also during this time a dear friend introduced me to the awesome work that SuMa had been doing in Nepal, and since then I have collaborated with them multiple times on multiple projects.
Finally in October 2017 I had an opportunity to visit the After school program that SuMa runs in Kathmandu, and it was a life-changing experience for me. I spent the entire day at the center, and the kids there have an opportunity to explore their own ideas, create through art, connect through music, dance, and play games, and most importantly be with people and educators who treat the children as special, unique, and of tremendous worth. However, the biggest takeaway for me was that these kids were learning some amazing life skills, and are on a path to become better versions of themselves! And so when I got an opportunity to get closely involved with SuMa as a board member, I had absolutely no hesitation in saying Yes! At the program, I saw the engagement, the joy, the spark in the eyes of these underprivileged kids and our hope at SuMa is to replicate this work across Nepal and the world and create an environment of inclusivity and consequently a better world.
Just in 2017 – here’s what we achieved. We provided over 1950 hours of education, 300 art and STEM based projects, 300 hours of music, dance and meditation, more than 22,000 healthy meals that helped make a tangible difference to the lives of hundreds of kids at two of ours centers! A first of a kind school in Nepal, and possibly only one at the moment, I am climbing Lhotse to support Sunsar Maya’s mission to help transform the lives of these young minds.
Today we run two centers in Kathmandu, one in Jorpati, and one in Lalitpur. And the biggest need at the moment is to raise funds so that we can continue running the current programs and centers in Kathmandu smoothly, and also work on our expansion plans so as to cater to more and more kids across Nepal.
Over the course of next few weeks I’m hoping to introduce my followers around the world to the kids of Sunsar Maya, and I’m hoping to run a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for Sunsar Maya. My hope is that a whole bunch of people following my climb would participate in supporting Sunsar Maya’s mission.
Q: Finally, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in young climbers from India on Everest, and some high-profile deaths. What is your opinion on this trend and what would you say to anyone looking to climb Everest?
Ed Viestures climbed his first 8000er after about 200 summits of Mt. Rainier and countless other climbs around the world. Jim Davidson had close to 25 years of experience before he attempted Everest. Alan – you trained and climbed hard for about 20 years before deciding to climb Everest!
I think blueprint to becoming a strong mountaineer is a combination of above average physical fitness, solid technical skills, and razorsharp mental focus. And once you can consistently do all these three things over a long period of time then it’s through this journey that you would transform to become a strong mountaineer. In my opinion, building varied mountain climbing experience over a period of time is a critical factor. It’s important to fail, and learn from the failures. It’s important to learn when to stop. These are all stepping stones for getting to the top and back down safely.
It would be a far more enjoyable and a fruitful journey to follow the above path to the Top of the World. I hope mountain climbers of future not just rush into mountaineering and making Everest the first serious mountain of their life.
Q: As always, anything else you want to add?
For last 10 years or so I have been the primary caregiver for my Dad. Of these 10 years, my Dad has now been bed ridden for about 5 years or so. It is also during this time I climbed to the top of Manaslu and Everest and several other high mountains in the Himalaya. And during this time period I have never compromised on the quality of my Dad’s caregiving. What I am trying to say is that you don’t need to give up on your dreams and passions if you are a full time caregiver. And that you don’t need to feel guilty if you are living your life and pursuing your dreams and passions. If my father was normal he would have wanted me to do that!
Which brings me to my next point. All this would aboslutely not have been possible without the tremendous support of my mother – Bharti, of my sisters – Dipa & Jigna, and last but surely not the least my super awesome wife – Dipti. When I’m away in the mountains, my mom and wife take on the responsibility of becoming primary care givers of my Dad, and that allows me to focus on climbing 100%!
The best way to follow Kuntal is on Instagram which he will be frequently from base camp. For those who don’t have an Instagram account, but would still like to follow my expedition and the causes I support, they can follow his public profile on Facebook, however he says the updates may not be as frequent as Instagram.
Best of luck with all that you pursue Kuntal.
Memories are Everything