This is our first interview that extends our borders and dashes us directly to India, the wonderful to meet a truly extraordinary person. The lucky followers of La Veganista are the first ones to read an exclusive interview with Kuntal Joisher who is preparing to climb Mount Everest. There are many climbers who attempt to reach the highest peak – so why is Kuntal so special? Well, because if he makes it he will be the first vegan to stand on the top of the world. This extraordinary accomplishment will have the power to ruin quite a few prejudices. Kuntal talks about the towering challenge, and also how veganism has changed his life.
This post – as an exception to the rule - will be available in English as well to make sure language barriers do not hinder spreading the news of this grand challenge.
La V.: First of all, Kuntal, please tell us a little bit about you. Who are you, what’s your background?
Kuntal: I’m 34, and I live in the city of dreams, Mumbai, India. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Mumbai University, and a Masters in Computer Science from USC, Los Angeles. I enjoy software programming and solving problems, I love mountaineering and trekking, I love being in the outdoors and nature, it goes without saying – I love traveling, I love photography, I’m a Vegan, a feminist, an atheist, I enjoy listening to progressive rock music, and last but surely not the least I am an absolute cinema buff!
La V.: A lot of us Hungarians are inclined to think – or hope - that almost everybody in India is vegetarian or vegan. Is that true?
Kuntal: Vegetarian, Yes. Vegan, far from it. I can count the number of Vegans in the city of Mumbai (and this is one of the largest cities on the planet with 20 million people!). We are the largest vegetarian country in the world, and I think religion has a big role to play in that regard. However the sad thing is that most vegetarians are unable to make the connection between dairy/leather, and cruelty.
La V.: What was your personal motivation to become a vegan?
Kuntal: I was born in a Vegetarian family, and consequently raised a Vegetarian. However, I was a Vegetarian-by-religion, rather than Vegetarian-by-choice. I would not eat eggs if I had to eat them in a more direct form, such as an omelet, or boiled eggs etc. At the same time, if I had to eat a chocolate which had eggs as an ingredient, I would happily have it. I think this was a combination of convenience, taste, and above all apathy towards the animal rights cause.
It was not until I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue my further studies that I got exposed to Veganism. One of my room-mates at university was an ethical vegetarian, and he exposed me to the horrors of dairy and leather industry. This is for 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 some serious animal-cruelty. I cold-tofu’d, and went Vegan. For example, I donated all my leather, woolen items to a homeless guy living near my place, I replaced all my daily use products with vegan versions, and pretty much stopped eating all non Vegan food. For the next few months my life was a bit of a struggle, however compared to the cruelty and killing of billions of animals every year, my suffering was not even suffering – 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. In next few years, I was able to get rid of homophobia, racism, sexism etc stuff from my life. 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 new learning’s, and above all I became very positive about life, in general.”
So in short, that’s my Vegan story. It’s been close to 11 years now that I’ve been a Vegan, and it has been an awesome journey, and standing on top of the world with a Vegan flag in hand would be a great way to give back to this cause that changed my entire life.
La V.: There is a photo of you on your Facebook page taken at Island Peak in Nepal (6189m – Everest boot camp). You are holding a sign saying “Vegan. 60 billion animals like them”. Why did you think it was important to pose with that sign?
Kuntal: Most people (including a lot of mountaineers) think that meat and dairy is an absolute must to become a successful mountaineer. And so above all, I want to dispel this myth, and show and inspire the world that mountaineering can be done on a healthy whole foods vegan diet!
Kuntal Joisher on Island Peak
La V.: Everybody has a “Mount Everest” in their lives. It can be a life-changing decision or an illness that you survive and changes your life. But out of the many billions of people living on Earth there are only handfuls who dream about climbing the highest peak. Since when have you been dreaming about it and why do you want to conquer it?
Kuntal: As a teenager I saw the PBS Nova Everest documentary, and I was fascinated by the mountain. The first seeds were already planted back then. I had no clue back then what it would take to climb to the top of the world. I just wanted to stand on top of the world! As simple as that. I didn’t have any inclination towards taking up mountaineering or climbing as a passion. Back then, I 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, stayed with me somewhere in my sub-conscious mind. Until, one day in 2008, when on a chance trip to the Himalayas with my super supportive wife, we hiked to the summit of small peak called Hatu Peak in winters. That was it. I realized that mountains were my calling. And since that day I haven’t looked back.
It is during this time, I re-discovered my dream of climbing Mt. Everest, and I decided to start training hard for achieving the dream, and here I am ready to go on the journey to achieve the dream.
Regarding your question about “conquering” Mt. Everest – I would like to point out that we can never conquer mountains. Instead it’s the mountains who allow us to climb them and stand on their summit. At the same time, I would also like to quote Sir Edmund Hillary – “It’s not the mountain we conquer – but ourselves.”
Also I have thought many times, but I have no reasonable answer to your question – “Why”? It would be dishonest to make up some answer just for the heck of it. I cannot describe in words, Why? Probably this quote by Scott Jurek (the famous vegan ironman guy) would answer your question – “But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realised that what I was often chasing was a state of mind, a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.”
La V.: Kékestető, our highest peak in Hungary is a towering 1014 meters tall. No wonder Hungarian climbers tackle the highest peak every once in a while. We know from their reports, as well what a demanding performance a climb like this is. How do you prepare? Do you have a special physical and mental training routine?
Doing a lot of trekking in the local mountains combined with few mountaineering expeditions every year is how I’ve trained for my Mt. Everest 2014 endeavor. I find that doing “Mountaineering” is the best training for “Mountaineering”.
At the same time, I understand that climbing Mt. Everest is one of the toughest physical challenges, and that I need to be in the best mental and physical shape of my life. For that when I’m at home, I do a lot of cardio vascular oriented workouts i.e. running, or cycling etc, and combine them with strength and mobility workouts at home. These workouts tend to be fairly simple. A typical workout could be a mix of pull-ups, push-ups, squats, planks etc, basically just simple and straight-forward stuff done with correct technique and posture. Recently I’ve been using the TRX suspension system for my workouts, and it has done wonders to my fitness. The great thing about the TRX is that it helps maintain a great posture, and your core gets engaged in pretty much every exercise that you do on the TRX.
To re-iterate, I’m a big believer in the KISS concept (Keep It Simple Stupid). The most basic, simple, and fundamental exercises, done in correct fashion. That’s my mantra.
La V.: Omnivores might envision that hundreds of Sherpas carry baskets of lettuce for a vegan mountaineer up until the final peak. But let’s be realistic. Do you have a special nutrition plan for this enormous physical challenge? Do you take any supplements?
My nutrition plan is very simple – “Whole foods plant based”. I love eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and this diet has done wonders for me. I’ve started recovering much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating work-outs. On the other side, every time I eat un-healthy food such as deep fried snacks, or white refined flour, or white sugar, I’ve realized that my recovery becomes much slower. Your body tells you what it likes. And my body likes whole foods vegan diet.
At the same time, I combine my diet with the following dietary supplements:
- Vegan Vitamin D3
- Vegan Vitamin B12
- Vegan CoQ10
I also use the following Vega products on the days when I work-out:
- Vega Pre-workout energizer
- Vega Post-workout recovery
- Vega Protein powder (only one serving)
La V.: You are planning to attack the peak next year. Obviously, many people will support you including your family, friends and vegans all over the world. Will you set up a webpage where we can follow your steps?
Kuntal: All updates related to my Mt. Everest 2014 climb would be posted on the expedition website created by my sponsor, as well as Facebook and Twitter pages from my sponsor. At this point we have only created the Facebook page. The URL is: https://www.facebook.com/CallFireFUEL
I’ll update you folks as soon as our expedition website is ready. My sponsor, CallFire Inc. (www.callfire.com), is running this awesome program called FUEL. It would be awesome if you could share the details with your readers as well. “Fearless, Unique, Exemplary Leaders. If this describes you, email us at email@example.com, and tell us about your mission. We may be able to help!”
La V.: When do you plan to begin your quest?
Kuntal: I’ll start from Mumbai around March 28th, 2014. For the next 4-5 days I would be in Kathmandu, Nepal arranging my gear and doing last minute shopping, documentation, permissions and any other logistics that need to be taken care of.
Once that is complete our team would commence the trek to access base camp. The trek to base camp is about 8 days or so. We would spend the next one month at and above the base camp, climbing and acclimatizing, and wait for the weather window for summit to open up. Once the weather window opens up for summit, it’s a climb of about 5 days to the summit. The return journey post summit would be around 7-8 days, and then I fly home to Mumbai! I’m targeting getting home by 1st week of June.
La V.: We do not know if it’s customary to have a snack on the top of the world but if you could do it what would you take with you in a lunchbox? Apart from baskets of lettuce, of course.
Kuntal: To be frank, eating is going to be last of my worries on Mt. Everest. I’ve heard from numerous climbers who’ve summated Everest that beyond camp 3 most people hardly eat anything. The oxygen at that height is so low that your body cuts off oxygen to the digestive system. At that point it’s important to keep the heart and brain healthy more than anything else.
That said, I intend to take a Vega One bar with me on the summit day. It’s a great mixture of fiber + protein + carbs + omega 3 + one serving of vegetables all in one small bar. All natural, and healthy, and tasty too!! In addition, I’ll carry a good vegan dark chocolate as well. Any recommendation from you or your readers what else can I carry?
La V.: If you succeed, you will be the very first vegan standing on the top of the world. This will be a huge feat and will receive worldwide attention. I know you want to draw attention to a certain issue. What is the cause you stand for?
There are mainly 2 causes that I would like to draw attention to:
- Dementia awareness – My father is in the advanced stages of Dementia at this point in his life. I and my family have been through a long emotional journey for last few years coming to terms with my father’s condition, and as his primary care-givers we have learnt a lot during this period. Through my climb, I would like to raise awareness about Dementia, share our learning’s from last few years, and at the same time stand on top of the world and make my father proud!
- Veganism – As mentioned earlier, I would love to dispel any myths related to Vegan diets and lifestyle, and what better than to stand on top of the World and shout out – “We Vegans can do it too, and in style!”
La V.: You are not just an enthusiastic mountain climber but you also take wonderful photos on your trips. The most touching for me is the “Shepherd and the bovine” that was pic of the day on January 13, 2013 in the National Geographic magazine. What’s the story behind that photo?
Kuntal: So we'd stopped just few kms before Kaas Plateau in the Western Ghats mountain range, and I was walking around enjoying the amazing panorama of peaks and greenery around. I suddenly ran into a group of cows and calves that were grazing, and their shepherd was just lying down nearby. I wanted to get shots of the grazing cows with the ghats and the nearby dam as the background, and so I started moving gently towards them. A young calf got very nervous and tentative, and sensing my presence she gradually moved toward the comfort of her shepherd father. What happened next completely shocked me! She went near the shepherd and tried getting his attention. The shepherd momentarily woke up, saw me, and went back to sleep again, but put out his open hand, as if gesturing to the young bovine that "I'm here, don't worry". And the bovine reciprocated with a gentle lick of his hand showing unadulterated pure love! I was mesmerized by the scene and awestruck! Luckily I was able to capture the moment and even today when I look back at this picture, I'm just amazed and the one thing that comes to my mind is "Love knows no color, creed, race, gender, or species..."
La V.: I am sure the readers of La Veganista would love to hear about your experiences after the climb. Would that be possible?
Kuntal: Absolutely. I would love to share my experience with you folks once the climb is completed.
La V.: Thank you very much for the interview! We wish you a very successful climb! Vegan Power!
Kuntal: Thank you! I very much enjoyed responding to your questions, and hopefully I’ll be able to inspire your readers to lead a healthy and a cruelty-free life, as well do what they love and pursue their passions.