Image Credits: Kuntal Joisher

  • May
  • 15

Meet Kuntal Joisher : Vegan Computer Scientist Conquers Everest

Author Image Devanshi Rathi

"Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better- Samuel Beckett".

This quote is in sync with computer scientist geek turned mountaineer Kuntal Joisher who finally managed to scale to the peak of Mt.Everest in 2016 after two previous failed attempts, including a near-tragic experience. He successfully reached the top by being a complete vegan! In his inspirational journey, there are countless lessons to be learnt.

So, without wasting more time, let's move onto the Q/A.

 

1. Can you talk about how you got into mountaineering? 

I have now climbed four 8000m mountains (Manaslu in Oct 2014, Everest via South col route in May 2016, Lhotse via normal route in May 2018, and finally Everest via North col route in May 2019). However, mountaineering was never a part of my life. I started out dreaming about Software Technology. I wrote my first piece of Software code in 1993 when I was in the 8th grade. Somehow, I knew that for the rest of my life I'm going to be doing that. And that is what I do today. So by profession I am a Software Engineer.

However, mountain climbing is a different story altogether. In my craziest dreams I would not have imagined climbing mountains. There is no one in my entire family, extended relations, or for that matter my whole community that has ever climbed mountains. The love for Everest possibly started for me as a teenager, when I saw the PBS Nova Everest documentary, and I was fascinated by the great mountain. The first seeds to climb the summit were already planted. I had no clue back then what it takes to climb to the top of Everest - I just wanted to do it - as simple as that. I didn’t have any inclination towards taking up mountaineering or climbing as a passion. I possibly didn’t even understand what “passion” truly meant, or for that matter a word such as “mountaineering” existed. I was happy in my world of friends and cricket, and that’s all I cared about. But those images of the scary Khumbu icefall, and the magnificent 3000 feet ice-wall of Lhotse face, the treacherous Hillary step, stayed with me somewhere in my subconscious.

2.You studied computer science at the Master's Level at USC in the US. How did this happen? What made you pursue mountaineering along with the computer science path?

Until a decade ago if someone told me that I would leave my job and become a mountain climber I would have said – What kind of drugs are you getting high on? If someone would have told me that I would embark on a treacherous dream of climbing Mt. Everest, I would have said – Are you out of your mind? I was just a happy-go-lucky Software engineer, the guy next door, running the nine-to-five rat race and leading a mundane life.. And then one day that changed!

Here's the story. My wife Dipti and I decided to go on a vacation to Shimla in 2009. Shimla is located in the Indian Himalayas. We had one simple objective – we wanted to see snow. And that's why we chose to go in the dead of winter. Six days passed by, and there was no sign of snow. On the last day of the trip we decided to go about 80 kms north of Shimla to a place called Narkanda because a friend told us that you would definitely find snow there. After a long picturesque drive on the old Hindustan Tibet highway we finally reached the place – a quaint Himalayan town. And yes, there was snow. Both Dipti and I were ecstatic. We were like small kids in the candy store. We played in the snow—angels, snowballs, all those things. Both of us quietly sat down and soaked in the beauty and grandeur of nature -- and in that moment I felt something that I had never felt in my life before. All the pondering over the past, and worries about the future melted away, and the present moment was in complete focus, and I felt alive. I could hear my own breath. Breathing is such a critical function to human life, but I always took it for granted. And then I could hear my heart. Every single heartbeat. It was magical! For the first time in my life I was at peace with myself, and I felt real, deep happiness. And in that moment I decided that for the rest of my life - I was determined to chase this state of mind whenever I had the chance. If you ask me that one pivotal moment that changed my entire life -- It has to be this moment.

Continuing along my mountain journey, a few months later, I signed up for a trek to Everest base camp in Nepal in October 2010. After a few days of hiking through some of the most spectacular Himalayan landscapes, we reached the base camp of a mountain called Pumori - the daughter of Everest. By the time it was the evening, our team had gathered inside the dining tent, which was an absolute luxury at 18000 feet! And then I could hear loud noises outside the dining tent. Someone was shouting my name. That’s usually not a good thing, so I ran outside. And then I saw the most magical scene of my life. The last light of sunset was falling directly on Everest. The other mountains had faded into the evening hues, but Everest was burning golden in colour, as if someone had set the snow on fire.

And in that very moment – I had found my dream. I promised myself that one day I would come back and climb to the top of Everest!

In terms of how I balance between the 2 paths: It was in 2009-2010 that I decided to chase my new found passion of climbing mountains! However, it wasn’t until late 2010 when I made up my mind and announced to my family that I’m going to climb Mt. Everest. And I remember calling my boss in the US and telling him that I am going to quit my job. At that point my boss talked me out of it. He asked me to, in the next few months, transition to taking on an individual contributor role with the company, and that they would give me flexibility to take leaves so that I could climb mountains. And that’s the path I started on. About a year later, the company shut down due to lack of funding, and I decided that I won’t accept any full-time opportunities. Instead, I would work as a freelance Software engineer. My idea was to focus on training and getting ready for Everest. I didn’t want to compromise on my readiness. So, I ended up training 3-4 months every year in the Himalayas, and the rest of the time I would divide between training at sea-level and working. This arrangement has worked out great for me. I am able to follow my dreams and at the same time pay my bills too!

 

 

And one very important thing. The day I decided that I’ll work freelance / part-time (sometimes I only work for 30 hours a month), my family and I sat down and we decided to scale back on our lifestyle. Today, we live a very frugal lifestyle and focus on spending money on the most important things. This is a conscious choice all of us made so that I could go pursue my dream of climbing Everest. 

3. How did you go about the preparation to becoming a professional mountaineer?

I would not call myself a professional mountaineer. At the same time, I understand that climbing the tallest mountains in the world such as Mt. Everest is one of the toughest challenges, and that I needed to be in the best mental and physical shape of my life. So, I train hard for 6 days a week. A big aspect of succeeding on big mountains is mental toughness. As they say - "It's all in the mind" and I have experienced this first hand on several of my climbs. I personally think that the key to attaining iron like mental toughness is to put yourself in difficult situations and confront and overcome your fears. Thus, I spend a significant time of the year hiking and climbing in the mountains near my home and in the Himalayas. Climbing and training on big mountains in the most hostile conditions of the year are what I consider good mental training. However, I can't spend all my time in the Himalaya. So, when I'm at home, I continue doing the mental training. For example, I go on long and hard treks without drinking any water or eating any food. The idea is that things can go wrong when climbing a mountain such as Everest. I may get lost, run out of food and water, and other scenarios. Thus, it's smart to train for these situations.

However, people who decide to climb Everest are mad. Rationality and logic betrays us when it comes to mountain climbing. I knew that if I had to succeed climbing on top of this mountain and come back down alive in one piece, I had to be in the best shape of my life - physically, technically, and above all mentally. The burning desire to stand on the Summit of the World helped me tackle the first two issues. However, I lacked the mental fitness to make it to the pinnacle. My biggest weakness was homesickness. Yes you read it right. I would go on a climb, and about half way through I would think about my father, my wife and come up with excuses to go home. I remember once I told myself -- "This snow slope looks avalanche prone, I need to quit and go home". I had no clue about the slope! Rest of my team made it to the top. I regret the decision till date.

One of the biggest reasons it took me a while before I signed up for an Everest climb was because I knew I wasn't ready. That's when I decided to make changes. I started emotionally detaching myself from my family and friends. I would go on climbs and I would rarely call home. Even while I was at home I just switched off completely from my family life. I had no personal life and trained as hard as I could. Several times I would feel as if I was going to pass-out. I was becoming mentally strong. Finally, in 2013, within a span of 2 months, I climbed to the top of three 20,000 feet+ summits, and I knew that I was ready to take on Everest.

4. Now, let's come to talk about some of your expeditions. Can you recall your first one? How did you prepare for this and what went on in your mind as you went for the summit? You climbed Everest in 2016 after near fatal moments in your previous attempts due to the harsh weather conditions. What went into your preparation and how did you keep your focus and dream alive despite the setbacks?

My first attempt to climb Everest was in Spring 2014. Originally our expedition was set to begin on April 1st and, on April 18th, we were scheduled to go through our first climbing rotation through the treacherous Khumbu ice-fall. This was the same day as the avalanche tragedy (in which 16 Sherpa guides were killed). Due to complications, our plan was delayed, and we began the expedition on April 3rd instead. Despite the late start, our team made good time, putting us on track to still make our first visit to the icefall on April 18th. However, my bags consisting of all our technical gear never made it to the base camp, which meant our schedule was delayed again. Call it fate or destiny or luck, or whatever, we never went through the icefall on the 18th, and I stayed alive to tell the story.

Ultimately, despite support from my family and team, I made the decision to postpone my long-awaited climb until next year. It wasn't an easy call to take. The mountain was there long before me, and it will remain for many millions of years to come. I told myself - I can wait one inconsequential year to see it again.

My second attempt to climb Everest was in Spring 2015. On April 25th we had completed our first acclimatization climb to Camp two on Mt. Everest. Our team had come down and we had all gathered in the dining tent. We were discussing our climb from the past few days. And then suddenly the ground started shaking. I could feel it. I tried to tell everyone what I had just felt. Everyone dismissed me. One of my team-mate said you “You seem to have a case of Altitude sickness!” And then, the ground started shaking harder. This time everyone took notice. I shouted, "Earthquake!" and we all ran out. The entire ground was swaying like I'd never felt before. I was scared. Everyone was. By then, the earthquake had gone on for some time.

 

 

For a moment we were relieved, until we heard the loudest noise of our lives – it was like a huge bomb blast. Based on the direction of the sound we all looked east, toward Everest, to see what's happening. But it only took a few seconds to realize something was wrong. We saw several people running towards the direction of Everest. And I thought to myself - How could this be possible? Why would people run towards danger?

And, that's when I realized that an avalanche had occurred right behind us. A huge block of snow and ice, the size of a cricket stadium, had broken off the top of Mount Pumori, a few hundred meters to the west of base camp. The block fell off the mountain at an unreal speed and as it impacted with the ground it turned into a huge aerosol cloud filled with snow, ice and debris and headed towards the base camp at category 5 hurricane speed. 250 kms per hour. We turned around to find ourselves face to face with this huge white cloud of snow and ice. Huge doesn't even come close to this. It was like something out of a nightmare. It was the largest thing I had ever seen in my life—taking up all of the sky as far as I could see from the left to the right. The only thought that came to my mind at that moment was that I was going to die. It wasn't that I might die, but I knew I would die. I remember feeling a strange kind of emptiness, a sadness that I had never felt before.

I wanted to cry out loud. I didn't want to die. There were so many things I still wanted to do. But, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I was going to die. Several years ago when I stood on top of a Himalayan peak my life changed. And now my life was going to change again.

I was with two other team-mates as the avalanche cloud hit us. We jumped behind a tent when the cloud hit. Within seconds we were all covered from top to bottom in inches of snow, cutting off the already thin oxygen. I couldn't breathe. I felt as if someone had put a plastic bag around my face. It took superhuman effort to suck any air into my lungs. It's because when the huge block of ice broke and landed it set into motion a cloud of gas that was not air, but aerosol. There's no oxygen in it. I surely would have suffocated had it not been for my good friend, Jost, who saw my struggle and opened his hard-shelled jacket for me to put my head inside and breathe. I had received a second life. I knew it then, and I will know it for the rest of my life, that I will forever be indebted to Jost for saving my life.

Anyway, we knew what had happened to us was tragic, but once we heard from friends in Kathmandu, notifying us about the devastation that had occurred across Nepal, we were heartbroken to learn that more than nine and half thousand people had died, tens of thousands were injured, and over half a million displaced from their homes. It began to sink in that this wasn't a mountain-climbing tragedy; this was a disaster of unprecedented levels. As the leader of the team, I sat down with the Sherpa sirdar and we decided to call off the climb. It absolutely didn't make sense to go up the mountain. It was just too risky. Aftershocks and avalanches were continuing, and I had no intention to put any more lives in danger. I also wanted my entire staff to go home and be with their families in the time of need. And above all any more accidents on the mountain would divert all the focus away from the immense tragedy that had occurred in Nepal. It was time to go back to Kathmandu and see if we could help in any possible way.

After two failed attempts a lot of my family and friends dissuaded me from going back to climb Everest in 2016. I personally had my self-doubts. At the same time this was my dream, my passion and frankly speaking giving up was not an option. I told myself – I’ll go back one more time and make a solid effort at climbing Everest.

So, in April 2016, I found myself at the Everest base camp yet again - 3rd time in a row. This time around – the climb went forward smoothly. I completed Stage 1 & 2, and was 90% through Stage 3. I was stationed at South col, a campsite which is at 26,000 feet – an area called the Death zone. The air up here is so thin that you are pretty much living on borrowed time. Around 9pm, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, my trusted climbing partner and I started our final push to reach the top of Everest.

After twelve hours of climbing I got to the top of Hillary step, the final obstacle guarding access to the top of Everest. I knew the top was less than 15-20 minutes away given the pace I was doing. After negotiating three snow humps I was standing right there. The top was mere 20 meters away. For the first time in 40 days I felt emotional. I felt relieved. Tears of joy were flowing in copious amounts. I had finally made it to the Top of the World. A life-long dream finally turned into reality.

5. You are a vegan by nature and support its benefits. Can you talk in a bit more detail about your diet and nutrition and how it has fuelled your growth as a mountaineer? 

As part of my upbringing I was taught and always believed that "animals are sentient and emotional beings with individual characters, and have as much right to live freely and happily as much as we do". Consequently, I grew up a Vegetarian. Then I moved to the United states in Aug 2001 to pursue my Master’s degree. And then sometime in late 2002, my room-mate at the university exposed me to the horrors of the eggs, dairy, and leather industry.

Animals raised for meat, eggs and milk - the livestock industry - generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, uses up about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. I could not reconcile with the fact that as a Vegetarian I continued contributing to immense amounts of animal abuse, cruelty and slaughter, as well as destruction of the planet, and so I had to take a stand. That is the moment when I turned Vegan. For the next few months I struggled a bit, however compared to the cruelty and killing of billions of animals every year, my struggle was not a struggle at all – merely an adjustment phase. 

I decided to go Vegan sometime in late 2002. It has been close to 18 years now that I have been a Vegan. Sometime in 2009, I realized that climbing Mt. Everest is the biggest dream of my life. I told myself that I am going to climb Everest as a Vegan, or not climb it at all. Most people in the high altitude mountaineering world might think I’m crazy, seeing as the recommended diet for extreme climbing expeditions includes salami, cheese, processed meats, eggs, and dairy. I can’t eat any of these high-fat high-protein animal products. However, my diet has never been an issue. I’ve now been part of over 25 serious Himalayan climbing expeditions, and I’ve never had any problems being a vegan, even on this last climb to the top of Mt. Everest from the China side in May 2019! As such, veganizing the climbing expedition food menu isn’t that difficult. I’ve successfully worked with kitchen staff of expedition operators in the high Himalaya in India & Nepal, and even a remote region such as Northern Ice-cap in Chilean Patagonia. 

 

 

When I'm training it is very simple – "Whole foods plant based"- Low fat, High carb. I love eating fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, dates, nuts / seeds and this diet has done wonders for me. I recover much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating workouts (example - a 20 hour steep hike in the local mountains). On the other hand, every-time I eat unhealthy food such as deep fried stuff / white refined flour, I've realized that my recovery becomes slower. One's body tells it what it likes. My body likes a whole foods vegan diet. Some of my favourite foods are fruits such as Banana, Mango, Grapes, and power-packed dried Dates/Raisins/Figs, and the Oatmeal made with either water or soy milk (my favourite breakfast of all!).

Regarding my diet while I'm climbing - a lot depends on where I'm climbing. If it's the Himalaya, then most of the local food tends to be Vegetarian, and it's easy. So, on my climbs in the Himalaya, I stick to eating the local cuisine. At the same time, I do carry comfort food from home which tends to be trail mix of dried fruits and nuts, nutrition bars made out of dates and nuts, and a few local snacks even if they are unhealthy (after all on the mountain - calories are calories - you need them!).

At a higher altitude, the calorie requirements of a human body are dramatically different compared to while at sea-level. At Base camp, which is at 18,000 feet, a climbers calorie requirements could easily be around 4000 calories a day, and this number would easily go up to 8-9000 calories at 25,000 feet, and a climber burns through about 15,000 calories on a typical Everest 20 hour round trip to the summit. While on an expedition, for me as long as the food is Vegan, I don't care whether it's healthy. I'll eat it as I need the calories.

For the Everest/Lhotse climb, at the Base camp (18,000 feet) / Camp two (21,500 feet) - I ate pretty much everything fresh right from beaten rice, to semolina / oat porridge, deep fried Indian bread and curry, Tibetan bread, pancakes, Lentils and rice, pasta, French fries, burgers, and several Indian food items - all Vegan of course. Our awesome cooks Ngima Tamang and Anup Rai even baked us a Vegan cake! Beyond Camp two, I survived on mainly few things: Electrolyte & Energy powders, Freeze dried meals, Instant Soymilk oatmeal, Oreo cookies, Dried dates/figs, Dried fruit such as Kiwi, Pineapple, Papaya, Nuts - almonds & cashews, and some Indian comfort foods.

For me, when I shifted to eating a healthy vegan diet, I instantly had performance benefits during my training at sea-level. One of the biggest benefits was the amount of mental peace and focus that I derived after making this lifestyle change. Knowing that no animal or a sentient being died for me to go pursue my dreams gives me full peace of mind to go focus and achieve my dreams.

Most mountaineers at some point or the other during their expeditions catch a stomach bug that causes intense stomach pain, and these climbers tend to go weak, and some of them never recover and go home. As a Vegan, I don’t eat any living beings or drink their by-products, which means that chances of catching infections is almost non-existent. I have also recommended to my co-climbers to go Vegan when they catch infections, and it has worked wonders with most of them!

Protein is an essential nutrient, absolutely critical not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions. Basically all animal protein is essentially recycled plant protein at the end of the day. 

Coming to the point of supplements, the only supplements that one needs to take on a Vegan diet are Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D3. The animals that are raised for dairy and meat are injected with high doses of Vitamin B12. These animals are then consumed by humans, who thus get Vitamin B12. To me, this seems like a highly inefficient and a far more unnatural process. Wouldn’t it be smart to just inject yourself with Vitamin B12 or eat a tablet? Save the animal life, and make the entire process more sustainable? And similarly with Vitamin D3. So, no I don’t think Veganism is unnatural or unbalanced. On the contrary, it's the most natural and balanced diet that a human can consume - a mix of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

 

6. You support various brands and organisations, including a few non-profits in Nepal. What has been your experience with these partnerships?

For this question - I’m going to share more about my journey with Sunsar Maya, the non-profit that works for Nepali kids, and my work with Italian gear manufacturer - Save the Duck. 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 the 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 the next couple of years I did photography exhibitions, gave talks and shared my stories and experiences from my climbing expeditions, and travelled 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 Sunsar Maya (SuMa) had been doing in Nepal, and since then I have collaborated with them 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 centre, 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!

Once I was back home from Everest, I was contemplating a climb to the top of Mt. Lhotse in Spring 2018. And this time around I was not going to compromise and wear a dead animal on my body. So I started my search for an animal-free suit again. I wrote to a company in Italy called Save the Duck which specialized in building down free jackets. They didn't have mountaineering gear in their catalogue, but they agreed to work on one for me because we both shared the same vision. I was ecstatic! After about 8 months of R&D, they made the world's first ever one piece suit for 8000m mountains; Down-free and 50% of the suit was made from recycled materials - discarded plastic bottles and fishing nets. Good for the animals, and the planet.

7. With mountaineering as a demanding job, how do you find time to work on your coding and other computer projects?

Completely depends on what is important to you. For me mountaineering is my passion, and computer projects are only a means to an end. And that end being - climbing mountains. Once we have prioritized what's important to us in life, things fall in place. Of course, there’s quite a bit of planning and preparation, but the most important thing is to prioritise and show up. 

 

8. What are your near future goals and how do you stay motivated to achieve them? 

At the moment my personal climbing goal is to embark on completing the Seven summits in 2021. This project is basically climbing 7 highest mountains on the 7 continents of the world i.e. Asia, North & South America, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and Antarctica. I have already climbed the highest mountains in Asia, Africa and South America. 4 more remain. And I will be doing all the mountains in a 100% Vegan fashion - without eating or wearing animals.

For the near term, I have taken time off from climbing given the current circumstances. I’m using this down time to fine tune my nutrition and fitness regime, so that I can achieve peak performance for my projects beginning from May 2021!

9. Finally, what advice would you give to the readers?

I truly believe the best insurance and investment one can do is to invest in our own health - both physical and mental. We only have one life and one body. To be able to give ourselves the best chance to succeed in conquering our personal Everest - we need a top of the world body and mind! It all starts from what we put in our body. 

I tried climbing Everest twice - in 2014, and 2015. Both times the climb was cancelled due to natural disasters. Post that several people dissuaded me from climbing. Instead, I kept the fire inside me burning, trained harder than ever, never gave up on my dream, and finally made it to the top in May 2016 on my 3rd attempt! The lesson I learnt is that one should never give up on their dream. As the saying goes, there are no shortcuts to the top!

At the same time, whether it's running a business or climbing a mountain, we are so focused on getting to the top that we forget to live in the present and enjoy the journey we took to get there. Now don't get me wrong, getting to the top is important and extremely rewarding. Having a dream or a goal to pursue gives direction and focus to your journey that is also very necessary. Since I began spending more time in the mountain wilderness, I've started living in the present, enjoying and learning from every moment and living life as if there is no tomorrow. I realized that every destination segues into a new journey, thus making life an endless journey that needs to be lived fully.

This attitude got reinforced when I escaped from a sure death in the 2015 avalanche. That night when I went to sleep – my entire life played out in front of me. I realized one thing - if you have any dreams or passions, the best time to do them is now!

A significant part of the world lacks the most basic necessities of life. Forget about pursuing dreams and passions, for them every day is a struggle. That’s when I told myself that when I get back home I'm going to strive and work hard to do my bit to create a world where everyone would have the basic necessities of life and at least would have an opportunity to pursue their dreams and passions.

In the end I would like to say -- If an unhealthy software engineer living a sedentary life with no background whatsoever in endurance or mountain climbing can transform his life and climb to the very top of Mt. Everest, everything is possible!

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