Everest is a mountain which has a different value for different people. For some people it is a mighty mountain who they consider can’t be conquered. For some it is God. For some it is a peak to be conquered and is a prized possession.
How it was summited for the first time is not a story unknown. We all know that the first people to summit Everest were Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. As beautiful and as mighty as it looks the horrors while summiting it are known to all. The risky Kumbhu Icefall is notoriously famous as one of the most dangerous sections. Yet there are bravehearts who take up the challenge, go through an extremely tiring ordeal and yet summit the peak.
But here is a person whom we consider is not from the normal lot of mountaineers who summit the peak. Here we bring you a man who summited Everest on a diet of Poha, Pav Bhaji etc to start with. Kuntal Joisher is a Vegan. Yes a Vegan, who, is on a diet like plant based food, nuts, seeds etc. Kuntal Joisher is proud about his choice of life and has proved Vegans can do wonders and there are alternatives available when it comes to food. He is the first Vegan to summit Everest.
Since he has summited Everest in May 2016, he has become a star. Everyone wants to know his story of how he achieved this feat. We got a chance to interview him and his story just astounded us that a place where people succumb to high altitude sickness or any other natural disaster, how did he survive, how did he do it.
It was sheer pleasure talking to him and we got to hear immense amount of things. So much so that the interview is divided in a 3 part series where in you can know the different sides of this achiever. Here’s a first person account of what he had to say about his journey of summiting Everest.
Starting with how he got introduced to Mountaineering and his motivation for summiting Everest
Q. When was the first time you got introduced to Mountaineering?
I got introduced to serious mountaineering when I enrolled in the Mountaineering course at Patagonia mountaineering school in Chilean Patagonia. It’s also known as the Hardest mountaineering course in the entire world!
Q. What motivated you to summit Everest?
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 takes 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.
When he finally found his calling
But those images of the scary Khumbu icefall, and the magnificent 3000 feet ice-wall of Lhotse face, stayed with me somewhere in my subconscious mind. Until, one day in 2009, when on a chance trip to the Himalaya 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.
Also I have thought many times, but I have no reasonable answer to the question I get asked often – “Why climb Everest”? 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 Ultra-marathoner) would answer your question –
“But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized 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.”
And this is a state of mind I effortlessly attain when I’m climbing mountains!
Q. Since when did you start training to summit everest?
The journey started in February 2009, however I began serious training from October 2010 when I trekked to the Everest base camp and climbed to the top of Kala Pattar.
Here’s what he had to say about his training regime and his take on how should one prepare one’s self to summit a mountain
Q. What should one keep in mind before deciding on summiting a mountain?
One thing that people need to keep in mind is that a mountain climbing expedition is a round trip. It’s not a one way suicide mission. Reaching the top is optional, however getting back down alive and in one piece is mandatory. Keep in mind that mountains were there millions of years before us, they will be there millions of years after humanity has disappeared. But for us this is one life. One body. One set of fingers. It’s not worth losing any of it to get to the top of the mountain!
Q. What was your training regime for summiting Everest? Before summiting a mountain how do you prepare yourself?
I understand that climbing the tallest mountains in the world such as 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. And so I train hard for 6 days a week. This is a mix of cardio vascular training, strength and functional training, and High intensity interval training (HIIT). A few typical cardio workouts are: stair climbing 300 floors up and down, running some 20 odd kms, hiking for 18 hours so on and so forth. A big aspect of succeeding on big mountains is mental toughness.
As they say – “It’s all in the mind” and I have experienced it first hand on several of my climbs.
I personally think the key to attaining iron like mental toughness is to put yourself in difficult situations and confront and overcome your fears. And so I spend a significant time of the year climbing mountains in the Himalaya. Climbing and training on big mountains in the most hostile conditions of the year is what I consider good mental training. However I can’t spend all the time in the Himalayas. However when I’m at home, I continue doing mental training. For example, I go on long and hard treks without drinking any water or eating any food. The idea being that things can go wrong when climbing a mountain such as Everest. I may get lost, run out of food and water, and whole sorts of scenarios. And so 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. At the same time, I knew that if I had to succeed climbing this mountain and come back down alive in one piece, I had to be in top shape of my life – physically, technically and above all mentally.
When you try really hard and are dedicated
The burning desire to stand on Top of the World helped me tackle the first two issues. However, I lacked the mental fitness to make it to the top. My biggest weak point was homesickness. Yes you folks 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.
And the biggest reason I never 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 zero personal life. ZERO.
I started training harder and harder. Several times I would feel as if I was going to pass-out. And sometimes I stopped, however at others I continued pushing limits. I was becoming mentally strong. Finally within a span of 2 months I climbed to the top of three 20,000 feet+ summits and I knew I was ready to climb Everest. This was 2013. And since then my training has only got tougher, and I don’t remember having a serious relationship with anyone in my family. ANYONE.
And now that I have climbed my dream mountain I realize the cost that I’ve paid. I didn’t die. I didn’t lose fingers. Heck I didn’t even have a burn on my face. Of course I wouldn’t. I had trained harder than most people, at least I would like to think so. And now that Everest is no longer in my life, there’s huge amount of emotional emptiness. And I feel this is the price I paid to climb Everest.
When he reached the final camp, i.e Camp 4, the day had come for the final journey to reach the peak. Here’s what he experienced and how he did it.
Q. What challenges did you face on the day you left camp 4 for the summit?
South Col or Camp 4, is the final camp on Everest South east route. It’s a saddle between Everest and Lhotse, and about the size of two football fields. On reaching the camp, I crashed inside my tent and for next couple of hours just took it easy. Ate a couple of Oreo biscuits, some dried Kiwi fruit, and drank some water mixed with sugar. At 7 pm, Mingma came to our tent and said be ready by 8 pm. We are going to leave for the summit. The moment had arrived. The moment that I had trained for so hard for so many years. Three of us were sharing tent, and we all got started to get ready. By 8.15 pm or so all three of us were ready.
All the team members had left for their summit push. I could see a long queue of lights on the mountain. There must easily have been at least 150 people climbing. Mingma and I left about half hour later than the team. The good thing was that for next couple of hours I ran into zero traffic and I could go on at a decent pace. However that was only temporary. Soon we got on the steeper section of the mountain and we were behind a long line of climbers.
And for next few hours, we were behind the traffic and moving at a measured pace.
The good side of being behind traffic was that I never got tired, however the downside was that my fingers and toes started getting cold. We got to a flat area called the Balcony. It was quite windy with snow blowing in our faces. Here we stopped to change our oxygen bottles, and here is also where I was able to overtake quite a few climbers who had stopped for a breather.
From Balcony I could see the climber headlamps shining all the way up to south summit, the false summit that comes before the real summit of Mt. Everest. This year was an unusually snowy year on Everest, and so deep snow made our progress from from Balcony to South summit quite a slog. In about couple of hours we were beneath the rocky portion that comes before South summit. By now dawn had hit in full force and my cold fingers and toes were starting to warm up.
When Kuntal finally saw the peak…
After one final steep snow slog to South summit, I was on top of South summit. From here, I could see the entire route to the very top of Mt. Everest – the cornice traverse, the Hillary step, and a hint of the prayer flags fluttering in the distance. At this point I knew I was going to make it. I was feeling strong and on seeing the summit I had adrenaline run through my body.
At the same time there were easily 75 odd climbers coming down from the summit.
Mingma and I realized that it’s going to be a tricky ascent to the summit as cornice traverse is fairly exposed one way route. At South summit Mingma switched my oxygen and gave me a fresh bottle. And then we quickly started making our way towards the summit.
Just how many Mountaineers want to summit the peak!
And just as we thought within 15 minutes we ran into the traffic. There were 75 people wanting to go down, and about 15-20 of us wanting to summit. After a bit of discussions between the Sherpas we had to let the climbers wanting to go down proceed first. So one by one each climber passed us by and for next hour or so we had to wait there to let everyone pass.
Sherpa Mingma panics and then smartly strategizes
For the first time in the entire expedition I saw Mingma a bit worried. Wind had picked up on the summit and it was taking too much time for the climbers to pass by. Just as the last climber went by, Mingma turned up my oxygen to pressure 4, the highest possible, and asked me to go as fast as possible until we reached summit. At this altitude most climbers take a couple of steps and break for few seconds. And I had to go as fast as possible. But I believed in Mingma and his judgment and I just did as he said.
Two of us broke away from the group of 20 climbers that we were part of and quickly made it to the base of Hillary step. There were about 10 climbers on top of the step and they graciously offered to let us pass by. That’s when I realized Mingma’s strategy.
By breaking away from a bigger group, and going in a small 2 person team, everywhere where we ran into traffic people let us pass by. It’s easier to let 2 people go rather than 20.
Kuntal’s proud moment of tracing Edmund Hillary’s Steps
This year Hillary step was more of a snow slope. Once I was on top of the step I knew summit was less than 15-20 minutes away given the pace I was doing.
Too near yet too far
Now I was miserable. Tired beyond belief. I had been climbing for 12 straight hours inside the death zone. And now the summit was only 20 meters away. I could see climbers taking photos, prayer flags fluttering in strong wind, and Mingma standing and waiting for me to step foot on the summit!
When dreams turn into reality
For the first time in 40 days I felt emotional. I felt relieved. And then I have no idea what happened. I just started crying. Crying out loud. Tears of joy were flowing in copious amounts. And for the next 10 minutes as I made my way towards the summit I couldn’t stop crying. I had finally made it to the Top of the World. Literally! I had lived this day in my dream for last eight years! A life-long dream about to turn into reality.
This is how Kuntal Joisher, the first Vegan to summit Everest fulfilled his dream.
Coming next up in the series is how he became a Vegan and how he survived in the harsh weather on Everest on a Vegan food intake.