“If a 110 kg Gujarati guy, living a sedentary life, with no background in endurance training or mountain climbing, can transform his life and climb to the top of Mount Everest, nothing is impossible.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
I first saw a photo of Kuntal back in 2017. There he stood, proud, buff and haggard, on Island Peak in the Everest region in Nepal, holding a Facebook-style plaque that caught my eye.
I had turned vegan just a couple of years before that, and was still fielding questions on where I get my protein and calcium from. And here was Kuntal, once your average Indian software engineer – standing atop the planet’s highest and one of its most formidable mountains. The first person to climb Everest on an entirely vegan diet.
I finally met Kuntal at a cafe in Mumbai, as he delivered an awe-inspiring talk to an adventure-hungry, protein-curious audience. Despite his feat, Kuntal humbly confessed that he couldn’t be called the first vegan to climb Everest, because he wore a down jacket as he climbed, stuffed with duck feathers (sometimes plucked live off animals and often involving abuse; fallen and collected feathers are just not enough to supply the industry).
So two years later, in 2019, Kuntal climbed Everest again – this time not only on a vegan diet, but also in cruelty-free gear. No down, no wool. His winter jacket was specially crafted by Save the Duck using synthetic and recycled plastic!
The journey from software engineering to mountain climbing
“Until a decade ago, if you told me I would leave my job and become a mountain climber, I would have thought you’ve gone crazy!” ~ Kuntal Joisher
Kuntal recalls himself as a happy-go-lucky software engineer, busy with the 9-to-5 rat race. No one in his family had ever climbed mountains, nor did he feel any such inclination. Then a trip to Himachal Pradesh in North India changed everything.
After a long, picturesque drive on the Hindustan Tibet highway, his wife and he found themselves amidst snow for the first time. Kuntal vividly remembers that moment. He sat down and took in the breathtaking beauty around him. All the pondering over the past and worries about the future melted away. He felt every breath, every single heartbeat. For the first time in his life, he felt real, deep happiness. In that moment, he decided he’d do anything to chase that state of mind.
On funding his travel expeditions without a full-time job
Perhaps like every outdoor enthusiast, Kuntal dreamt of climbing Mount Everest someday. But unlike many, he worked relentlessly towards achieving this dream. He tried to quit, but his software company offered him a flexible work arrangement instead. When he finally left, he decided to take on only part-time opportunities which would allow him plenty of time to train. Every year since 2010, he spent 3-4 months training in the Himalayas. The remaining months were split between work and high intensity training in Mumbai. To support his dream, his wife and family made a conscious decision to scale back on their lifestyle too.
An ethical vegan with a mountain to climb
“Climbing Everest was a personal and spiritual journey. It was also a chance to prove that a vegan diet does not lack nutrition and can support the most difficult physical endurance endeavor on the planet.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
Kuntal turned vegan back in 2002, just after he moved to California to pursue a masters degree in Computer Science. Along with shedding many of his preconceived notions, he learnt about the suffering, abuse and death caused by our choice to consume animal products like meat and cheese.
When Kuntal dreamt of climbing Everest as a vegan, his decision was met by much skepticism. Quoting from the BBC, “research indicates that high altitude mountaineers can burn upwards of 6,000 calories per day in the mountains. With excessive stress on their bodies, mountaineers’ very survival depends on a diet that includes a variety of foods to provide sufficient carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to support them nutritionally during their expedition. A typical Everest-climber’s diet includes protein-rich foods such as eggs, yak cheese and canned tuna.”
Yet in 2016, Kuntal Joisher became the first person to successfully summit Mount Everest on an entirely vegan diet!
Climbing Everest on a plant-based diet
“Through my expeditions, I want to inspire more and more people to ask the vegan question. That’s my real Everest.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
Kuntal’s training for scaling Everest included both, high intensity workouts and treks, climbs and mountain expeditions. His nutrition plan involved consuming a variety of plant-based whole foods that are low on fat and high on carbs – like fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, dates, nuts and seeds. Moving towards a healthier vegan diet, Kuntal says his recovery time improved, and he could train harder and harder for the biggest climb of his life.
His successful Everest summit in 2016 brought with it international fame and recognition. His journey was featured on BBC News, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, among others – and he certainly bust the myth that a vegan diet is nutritionally inferior to animal-based foods.
Mind over matter
“I go on long, hard treks without drinking or eating. Things can go wrong when climbing a mountain like Everest. I may get lost or run out of food and water. It’s smart to train for such situations.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
Kuntal believes that in mountain climbing, physical fitness is only 10% of the game. The other 90% is mental toughness. His cardio workouts usually include climbing 300 stairs up and down, running 20 odd kms and hiking for 18 hours straight. Then there’s strength, functional and high intensity interval training.
But his biggest weakness was homesickness. There were times when he gave up a climb halfway up a mountain, deciding to return home to be with his family. To acquire mental toughness, he started to detach himself. He would go on treks and rarely call home.
With time, he started training even harder, pushing his limits even further. In 2013, he climbed to the top of three 20,000 feet summits within a span of 2 months. And finally felt ready to take on Everest. During his build-up to the Everest climb, Kuntal remembers emotionally detaching himself from his family. But after accomplishing his dream summit in 2016, with Everest no longer in his life, Kuntal says he feels an ocean of emptiness inside him. He believes it was the price he had to pay to climb Everest.
Trekking solo and tips for newbies
“During my journey, I have learnt to respect the mountains and never underestimate them. Put in the time and effort to have the right mental and physical conditioning before venturing out in the wilderness alone. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. There have been too many deaths this season in the Sahyadri and the Himalayas – and believe me, no mountain is worth dying for.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
One of the key components of Kuntal’s training regime was hiking in the Western Ghats near Mumbai. He has done more than 450 hikes in the last 8 years, many of them solo.
For people who ask for advice on trekking solo, Kuntal recommends not attempting it, unless you know the terrain like the back of your hand, and are fully prepared, physically and mentally. He always carries a medical kit, including an anti-venom vial and rope, to tackle unforeseen situations.
Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears
Overtourism and responsible travel on Mount Everest
“Climbing Everest, and climbing it safely and reliably without being a liability to anyone on the mountain requires three things: Super-human physical fitness, solid technical skills in mountaineering and an insane level of mental fitness.” ~ Kuntal Joisher
This year, shocking pictures of the “traffic jam” on Mount Everest did the rounds, showing how the tallest and toughest mountain in the world too, has fallen prey to overtourism. Even more shocking was the death of 11 people on the mountain this year – the deadliest in recent history.
Kuntal says it makes him sad, angry and frustrated that highly inexperienced and under-prepared climbers have begun attempting to climb this “bucket list” mountain. Putting not only their own lives at risk, but also those of the sherpas who must try to rescue them or their bodies. Developing the skills to climb a mountain like Everest requires years of relentless training, expeditions and mountaineering experience.
Advice from Kuntal Joisher for people who want to pursue their dreams against all odds
Kuntal: “I tried climbing Everest in 2014 and 2015. Both times, the climb was cancelled due to natural disasters. Several people dissuaded me from trying again, some even saying ‘the mountain doesn’t want you there’. But I didn’t believe that, finally summiting successfully in 2016, and then again in 2019. I knew I was mentally and physically ready.
I realized the importance of living fully in the present when I escaped sure death from an avalanche in 2015. That night, when I went to sleep, I saw my entire life play out in front of me. One thing hit me – if you have any dreams or passions, the best time to go after them is now. Not tomorrow, not the day after, not in 60 years when you have all the time and money saved. NOW.”
If you dream of hiking / climbing mountains responsibly, sign up for climb with Kuntal to join one of Kuntal’s expeditions in the Himalayas or elsewhere in the world. Connect with him on Instagram for daily inspiration.
Thanks to Kuntal Joisher and Remya Padmadas for making this post possible! All photos belong to Kuntal, used with permission.
Are you inspired by Kuntal Joisher? What’s your biggest travel dream? How are you working towards it?
This post is part of my Solo Travellers Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on solo travellers from across Asia. Courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways yet typically underrepresented in the travel space.
If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!