Vegan mountaineer Kuntal Joisher talks to us about why he turned vegan and how he’s taking his message to the highest peaks
What came first – mountaineering or veganism?
Veganism 🙂 I’ve loved the mountains since I was quite young, when I spent most of my annual summer vacations in the Himalayas. I moved to the United States to study for my Masters degree, and it was then that I became a vegan. Veganism was instrumental in opening doors for the other passions and dreams in my life, and it was during this phase that I rediscovered my love for mountains and my dream to climb Mount Everest and stand on top of the world!
If I get a chance, and have enough funds and time, I would like to travel the entire world and climb every single mountain in every single country. There is no mountain that I don’t want to climb. I’m a passionate mountaineer and a nature lover and I don’t compare the beauty or difficulty level of the mountains. To me, going to the mountains is like going home!
Why are you a vegan? Tell us your story.
I was born in a vegetarian family, and consequently raised a lacto-vegetarian. We considered it acceptable to eat dairy foods, but not eggs. I was a vegetarian by religion, rather than by choice, I so didn’t eat eggs if they were obvious, but if they were in a cake, that was a different matter. I suppose it was a combination of convenience, ignorance, and above all apathy towards the animal rights cause.
It was not until I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 that I got exposed to veganism. One of my roommates at university was an ethical vegetarian, and he exposed me to the horrors of dairy and the leather industry. That was the first time I connected the dots that milk is meat, and to a certain extent far worse than meat. The entire dairy industry is just a vicious cycle of serious animal cruelty. I cold-tofu’d, and went vegan.
I donated all my leather and woollen items to a homeless guy living near my place, I replaced all my daily use products with vegan versions, and I shifted to a vegan diet.
For the next few months my life was a bit of a struggle, but I knew that compared to the suffering endured by billions of animals every year, my struggle was hardly anything – it was just an adjustment phase.
This was the first time in life when I took a strong stand on a major issue, and it opened floodgates of change in me. I was able to face up to my own issues, which included homophobia, racism and sexism, and to clear all that out of myself for good. Those years of introspection were some of the most fruitful years of my life – they made me the person I am today, and it all started with taking a stand for animals!
Finally, I was completely at ease with myself. I didn’t give a damn 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 new learnings, and above all I became very positive about life in general.
Standing on top of the world with a vegan flag in hand would be a great way to give something back to this cause that turned the direction of my life.
Do you think eating vegan has contributed to your abilities as a serious climber?
A lot of mountaineers think that meat and dairy are an absolute must to become a successful mountaineer. A typical diet on a high altitude mountaineering expedition includes salami, Spam, cheese, processed meats, candy bars, hard-boiled eggs and milk powder.
Veganism has helped me get fitter, has given me tons of more energy, and the biggest benefit on physical side has been super fast recovery times! I used to enjoy junk food but in the last few years my nutrition plan has been very simple – “whole foods vegan”. I love eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and this diet has done wonders for me. I’ve started recovering much faster, even when I do some of the most excruciating work-outs as I prepare to climb Mount Everest in 2015. I know that when I do eat unhealthy things like deep-fried snacks, white refined flour or white sugar, my recovery becomes much slower. Our bodies tell us what they like, and mine likes a whole food vegan diet.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for a big climb?
Doing a lot of trekking in the local mountains combined with a few mountaineering expeditions every year is how I’ve trained for my mountaineering expeditions so far. I find that doing “mountaineering” is the best training for “mountaineering” – both on physical and mental fronts.
However, I’m very aware that climbing Mount Everest is one of the toughest physical challenges I could possibly attempt, and I need to be in the best mental and physical shape of my life. At home, I’m doing a lot of cardiovascular oriented workouts (i.e. running, cycling, stair climbing etc), combined with strength/mobility workouts and Tabata/Interval training sessions. I’m a big believer in the KISS concept (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The most basic, simple and fundamental exercises, done in the correct fashion. That’s my mantra.
From a mental training perspective, I push myself beyond limits in training regularly, whether it’s running, or a strength workout, or a training hike. My philosophy is that the more we sweat and go beyond in the training, the less likely we’ll bleed in the battle!
Do you adjust your diet in the days before a big climb – and if so, how and why?
Indeed. In the months and weeks before a big climb, I follow a super disciplined diet and workout regimen. I try to maintain a healthy whole food vegan diet, and ensure that I’m taking vitamin B12, vitamin D3 and omega 3/6 supplements (of course all vegan). I also work out quite intensely, with a good mix of cardio, strength and interval training sessions mixed with hikes in the local mountains on the weekends. To fuel my workouts and post workout recovery I need to eat healthy whole nutrient dense foods and I also need to maintain a leaner body to support the strenuous workouts. However, closer to a big climb, I taper off from doing intense exercises, mostly to minimize the risk of an injury and wear and tear of the body and mind. During the tapering off stage, I continue eating the same amount of food, sometimes even more. On a long, high altitude climb, a person loses lot of weight through fat and muscle loss, and so it’s best to go to the mountain carrying a couple of extra pounds.
Do you take food with you when you climb? What do you take and why?
A lot depends on where I’m climbing. If it’s the Himalayas, then most of the local foods tend to be vegetarian, and it’s easier to veganize. The local cuisine typically comprises of vegetable stews and curries, fruits, lentils, soups, wheat bread or roti, rice, potatoes, pasta, noodles etc. I do carry comfort food from home which tends to be a trail mix of dried fruits and nuts, nutrition bars made out of dates and nuts, and several times I’ve carried Vega nutrition and protein bars on my trips. However, if I’m climbing in a non-vegan-friendly country such as Chile or Russia, I’ve to be more prepared and creative. For example, I did my glacier mountaineering course in Chile, so I let the instructor, Jaya Marr, know that I’m a vegan beforehand. She was super accommodating and came up with ideas such as soymilk powder, roasted lentils, dehydrated potatoes etc. On my trip to Russia, my mother and wife prepared a couple of Indian roti style breads, and I combined them with some home-made vacuum sealed vegetable curries. All this said, I do most of my climbing in the Himalayas, and it’s super easy to be a vegan in the Himalayas!
You can learn more details about how to handle veganism and mountaineering on the following blog post: http://community.nomeatathlete.com/CommunityBlog/tabid/94/ArticleID/37/Default.aspx
Do you have any advice for vegans who would like to follow in your footsteps?
My advice to vegans who would like to pursue mountaineering is that it’s very doable, both in terms of diet and gear, and in the remotest and the most hostile parts of the planet. Sherpas, who are the Supermen of the Himalayas, generally eat rice and lentils as the major portion of their meals.
You can make it happen, no matter where you are. It just takes a commitment – for animals and for yourself.
To start with, go on a couple of long, strenuous treks. See if you really enjoy the mountains and the expedition life. At that point, you will know whether you want to pursue mountain climbing. If the answer is a resounding yes, then I would suggest the next step would be to gain technical skills. You can sign up for a mountaineering course, and begin with a couple of small climbs while you continue improving your physical and mental fitness. Depending on the time and funds you have, you can then sign up for a big high altitude climb of a 6000 meter+ mountain, and then slowly move to higher altitudes.
What achievements are you most proud of?
2013 was a great year for me in terms of mountaineering. In June, I was part of an exploration expedition, and we became the first humans to ever set foot on a completely virgin glacier in the High Himalayas in India. As part of this expedition, our team also completed the first ascent of Mount Nakorche at 5850 meters. In August, I climbed couple of 6000 metre mountains back-to-back, and one of them was alpine style. And then in November, I participated in Everest boot camp held in the Everest valley in the Nepalese Himalayas. As part of this camp, we did several days of training and then finally climbed Island Peak in tough snow conditions. And in all of these climbs I proved to be one of the strongest members on all the teams. But are these the achievements I’m most proud of? No. That’s yet to come. I’ll be most proud of when I stand on summit of Mount Everest in 2015 with a vegan flag in my hand. That is the moment I’m looking forward to the most!
Here’s Kuntal’s list of vegan-friendly equipment for hiking and mountaineering. None of these products are made with leather, wool or down feathers.
Keen Marshall Hiking shoes
TrekSta Evolution Mid GTX
La Sportiva Olymnpus Mons Evo (for Himalayan 8000m expeditions)
La Sportiva Trango
Scarpa Charmoz Pro GTX
North Face Dark Star (-29C)
North Face Dark Star (-18C)
North Face Cats Meow (0C)
Extreme Expedition socks:
Mund K2 Extreme socks (-28C)
Mund Everest Extreme socks (-30C)
Outdoor Research Chaos Jacket
Patagonia DAS Parka
Mountain Hardwear Compressor (http://www.mountainhardwear.com/mens-compressor-pant-OM4420.html)
First Ascent Igniter pants (http://www.whittakermountaineering.com/brands/first-ascent/igniter-pants-mens)
Thermal Base Layers:
Patagonia Upper Body Base layer for expeditions
Patagonia Lower Body Base layer for expeditions
A website called www.veganoutdooradventures.com is compiling a list of all the vegan-friendly outdoor adventure gear available in the world. It’s a great resource to find vegan gear.