Breaking Barriers with India’s First Vegan Mountaineer Kuntal Joisher
We first heard about Kuntal through a college in Mumbai where he did a talk and from there we learned about his journey and just knew we had to reach out and ask him to be a part of our Slicc community. The Slicc team came across his avalanche video during the time of the 2015 Nepal earthquake and we were just left in shock and awe at the reality of it. It was unbelievable to the eye that Kuntal and his team actually experienced this firsthand and after watching the video, we became even more curious to learn about Kuntal, his mindset, and his life journey. We conducted an Instagram live interview with Kuntal and had the most fun time talking to him about breaking common myths around veganism, overcoming pushback from people around, importance of mental and physical resilience and all things in between! For all those who couldn’t join us at the live session, we have scripted our conversation with Kuntal below for you to read and learn from.
KUNTAL JOISHER. A VEGAN MOUNTAINEER
Kuntal is India’s first vegan mountaineer and the world’s first vegan mountaineer to climb Everest. He’s a nutrition and fitness coach, a bodybuilder, and an advocate for health, fitness, and veganism. He’s inspired thousands through his journey and through his personal mission he’s motivated many other people to work towards their goals and overcome different challenges. He sincerely hopes that there are many many more plant-based mountaineers and vegan mountaineers from India so that he can lose the tag of “first vegan mountaineer”, “only vegan mountaineer” and those kinds of things. He wishes that there will be tons and tons of people like him in the coming future and that they wouldn’t be referred to as vegan mountaineers but rather just mountaineers
A GLIMPSE INTO THE INTERVIEW
We know that your decision to climb Everest on a vegan diet was obviously a goal for yourself. But, I’m assuming it was also more so to create that awareness around a vegan diet and its limitless possibilities of it. So based on that, did you think there was added pressure on you to endure the success of the climb because there was a bigger cause to fulfill now?
First of all the thought didn’t come to my mind that vegan would be a problem. It was only after I started writing to a lot of expedition agencies like “hey I would like to climb Everest and this is what my diet looks like”, that’s when I started getting a lot of pushback. That’s when I realized that this seems like a problem. Then I started researching on the internet and quickly realized that no vegan has climbed Everest. Sure, vegans had climbed mountains by then. Like I know a couple in 1996 who climbed Denali in Northern America. So we have vegans climbing all the way in 1996 and a mountain like Denali which is probably someone would say harder than Everest. So there were precedents but there weren’t any precedents on Everest and mountaineering agencies were “no you can’t do it, you need meat, what will you eat at 28,000 feet, you need some cheese, you need some beef jerky, you can’t do it without that.”I was like that does not make any sense to me. So for me, it was between I have to do it as a vegan or not do it at all.
That’s when the whole vegan thing came into the picture. I thought why is everyone thinking this can’t be done. It can’t be this hard. That’s the journey I went through for the last decade or so and let me tell you this. If I have to build a list of 100 challenges I faced on my journey, a vegan diet wouldn't even be the 101st challenge on that list. It was that non-issue to be very frank. It was never hard to find vegan food on any expeditions. Neither eating at 29,000 feet or at the top of the world nor while training at sea level here in Mumbai. But going back to your point, it never started off that way but as I went into the journey and witnessed so much pushback around veganism, I thought you know what I’m going to make this the center point of my whole expedition, and my whole endeavor. And yes there was always pressure because vegans are living under some kind of a microscope I feel. It’s not like I’m invincible if I’m vegan or something. So that at times created pressure but every time I thought about giving up, I went back to thinking about animals and why am I doing this. Once the WHY was clear in my mind, the pressure wasn’t a problem
Talking about the pressure of being a vegan and the feeling of being under a microscope, as a vegan it’s very common to hear myths such as “oh you’re compromising on your nutritional value, you’re compromising on your protein intake, etc”. So you being a mountaineer and a bodybuilder what advice would you give to someone who’s contemplated starting a plant-based diet about dealing with these myths based on your own experience with mountaineering and bodybuilding?
I think if someone is transitioning onto a plant-based diet and if they have a serious cause like they’re doing it for their health, they’re doing it for the climate crisis or maybe they’re doing it for the animals, I think that is going to be the primary driver. If it’s for reasons such as my favorite actor/athlete has turned vegan so let me also try it out, I think in that case there could be some difficulties and they would have to plan their diets better because they don’t have a very strong driving force to go vegan. So for people transitioning to become vegan, I would say that it requires some planning. You need to do some research. You need to understand the concept of lean protein (Lean protein is when the majority of the calories of the item are coming from protein and a minimal amount of stuff is coming from either fats or carbs), especially in the vegan context, and be able to include a reasonable amount of lean vegan protein in your diet. It could be in the form of tofu, tofu is not the best lean protein source but it’s pretty reasonable, very cheap, very tasty, and very nutritious! Tempeh is another lean protein source along with seitan (wheat gluten), and vegan protein powder which in my opinion is an amazing source of vegan protein.
You need to have the right balance in the sense that you have to have a relatively high nutritious diet and then keep yourself some flexibility to include processed foods that are fun. As a fitness and nutrition coach and a coach who works with a lot of vegans, every time I see an existing vegan diet, it’s almost as though everyone is undereating protein. And then they all come to me and say but I’m not falling off my feet. But we can still be smart and make better choices and eat a better, balanced meal. If you have athletic goals, putting in some effort and research onto your plate will go a long way
Diverting a bit from the vegan aspect, we wanted to ask you what advice do you have for people on mental and physical resilience? Given that you’ve been in extremely challenging, high-stakes situations, what is the mindset that you go through when you are faced with a period of difficulty and you have to make quick decisions under pressure. What advice would you give to people who might be facing challenging situations on how to deal with them?
For me, it all started with finding my Everest, and that Everest was of course climbing the literal Everest. In 2014, I went to climb the mountain and 17 sherpa guides died and the expedition was canceled. I went back in 2015 and I still remember it was April 25th and we had the largest earthquake to ever hit Nepal in a century. 21 people dead at the base camp, 10,000 dead in Nepal and we survived a near-death experience. I was very certain I was going to die but to survive that avalanche and stay alive, I had one deep epiphany that evening. All the moments that I have now are all bonus moments and this is my second life. When I saw that avalanche it was almost like a tsunami of snow and ice in front of me so to come out alive after that feels like a second life to me and I couldn’t think of wasting any moments in life.
So anytime I’m faced with these circumstances where I have failures or where I’m struggling on the mountain or where I’m thinking of giving up, I always look back on that moment and this second chance at life. I also think that if I give up, the regrets are only going to be mine. If I give up, this is my loss no one else’s loss. That is what is always going on in my mind and that is something that has kept me going quite a bit and helped me chase my dreams. Also, as I said earlier, it’s also the vegan aspect that I fall back upon to find that last push. But to be very frank, in the end, my dream is what keeps me going. My dream of climbing mountains, my dream of bodybuilding, and my dream of representing animals, are what keep me going. That said, I do try to keep a positive mindset all through that no matter what happens I’ll get through. If I don’t climb the mountain, I’m still alive. At least I’m not dead. If not Everest, I’ll climb some other mountain in life. If not mountaineering, I’ll do bodybuilding. If not bodybuilding, I’ll find something else and do that.
As someone who has been in the center of the vegan market for so long, what are your thoughts on the current vegan market and where do you see it going in the next 10 years? What are your hopes for it?
We are a 1.4 billion people country and a significant chunk of that is still living in the villages, towns, or rural areas. I do hope that the vegan business space takes that into account. I am happy having access to amazing plant milk, cheeses, butter, and all sorts of fancy vegan meat and everything. But I do hope that we can also take entire India along this journey and not just a niche section of the upper-middle class or the middle class. I think everyone can be vegan and everyone can have access to vegan food. Just how they’re getting their cow milk or buffalo milk today, I hope one day they can get plant milk similarly at the same price or even a lower price point than that. I hope to see a world where no chickens are slaughtered, no animals are slaughtered, animal agriculture is non-existent, and all of that kind of disappears. That’s the kind of world I wish to see in India. I do hope that the business space takes into account the rural portion of India. I haven’t done a business, I haven’t created or ran a start-up so I’m not going to sit here and criticize people who are already doing great stuff in the vegan business world and getting the word out there so I’m not going to do any of that. But I do hope that eventually there’s enough demand that all you folks can lower your price point, increase the nutritional value of the products, and make them more environment-friendly so that you’re not creating any harmful by-products. So I hope we can do all that and I’m not saying that this is going to happen overnight. Maybe next 10-15 years. But the way the market is going now, I think it’s going to be very very soon and I’m going to see it in my lifetime. That’s my sincere hope.
You’ve already made such a big impact by summitting Everest so we were wondering what’s next for you now? Is advocating/pushing for veganism still the bigger goal you’re trying to achieve?
One feeling that stayed back with me when I came back from summitting Everest was the feeling of intense gratitude. Gratitude that I was able to do this. That I was able to get to the top and that the mountain allowed me to do so. As a privileged person, that is something I have learned through this journey. Sense of gratitude for everything. Sense of gratitude that I’m alive. From an attitude perspective, I’ve always known that I’ll get to the top. The top doesn’t have to be the top I decided so maybe I’ll have to course-correct and get onto another top but given the scheme of things I’m happy. I’m happy where I am right now and where I’m going. I am satisfied. Yes, bodybuilding is great and climbing mountains is great. But we’re so goal-driven or so target-driven, it just becomes really tricky when you don’t have goals in life. I’ve just shifted my goalpost and I’ve made it such that the biggest Everest of my life now is to show up every morning and try to be the best version of yourself or just try to be better than what you were yesterday. I think once you shift the goalpost, you don’t need these constant targets. I think that entire thing where I want to stay relevant is something I’ve thought about a lot in the past but all of that I’ve just kind of put to the side and be like let’s just be the best version of ourselves and we’ll figure out what we need to do and how to stay relevant.
SLICC’s FAVOURITE HIGHLIGHTS
- “I will do it as a vegan or not do it at all” - Kuntal’s passion for his cause and level of determination to achieve his goals is very inspiring and we hope to achieve our goals with this same level of determination, passion, and energy
- The WHY behind the goal is as important as the goal - Intrinsic motivation is very important because once your reasons for doing something are embedded more strongly in yourself, it’s easier to work towards fulfilling your goal.
- Do your research - Before transitioning to a vegan diet it is important to be well-researched on how to create a nutritious and balanced diet.
- The key to facing a difficult situation is to have a positive mindset - Focusing on the positives rather than the negatives is a good approach because it helps get through challenges more easily.
We hope you too were inspired by Kuntal’s journey and his attitude towards his challenges. Kuntal also offers a unique climbing experience, “Climb with Kuntal” to have other people experience even a bit of the thrill and joy he gets when he’s mountain climbing so if you’re interested in learning more about Kuntal from the man himself, do check out his page at www.kuntaljoisher.com