Climbing the Mighty Eight-Thousander: Mt. Lhotse
By Kuntal Joisher
May 19, 2016 – 9.35 AM (Nepal time): I was standing on the highest point of our planet – the summit of Mt. Everest – 29028 feet. The 360 degree Himalayan panorama was literally out of the world. In the distance, I saw Makalu – the fifth highest mountain in the world. Makalu, also known as the Black Pyramid took my breath away. In that very moment, I told myself, “My next dream mountain – Makalu it is!” And just like that, one journey segued into another.
I trained hard for the next few months and finally found myself in Nepal in March 2017, getting ready to climb Makalu a couple of months later. As part of the acclimatization for the climb, I decided to climb a 6000 meter mountain called Lobuche East in the Everest valley. It was also an opportunity for me to lead a group of novice climbers to their first 6000m summit. And we all did.
I very distinctly remember – it was around 9.55 AM on March 25, 2017 and I was on top of Lobuche East on a bright sunny day with amazing views of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Ama Dablam and other peaks. One by one, the team members started making it to the top. Seeing them smile, cry, jump with joy, took me back to my first Himalayan summit. And then it was time to descend and say goodbye to the team and head to Makalu. Mentally, I was already at Makalu Base Camp. Just physically, I had to get there.
And then Murphy struck. During the descent from Lobuche, I injured my right knee. I was descending at around 5800 metres and there was still about 1400 metres of descent till Pheriche village. Every step that I was taking with my right leg was compounding the pain, making it unbearable. Somehow I made it to the mouth of the glacier, and sat down on a boulder writhing in pain. I applied lots of anti-inflammatory cream on the knee, popped a pain killer, and tightly wrapped a crepe bandage around my knee, and rested for about fifteen minutes. But then, next up was the 1200 metre descent. Around 6.30 PM, I made it to the tea house in Pheriche barely able to walk.
Next morning I elected to take a helicopter and fly to Kathmandu and from there to Mumbai to meet a Sports Injury Specialist. I was asked by the doctor to climb one floor. I could barely manage to climb few stairs. I thought to myself, “Here I am – the guy who climbed Everest, who can’t manage to climb even one floor now.” My climbing career, but above all my long term well-being was in serious jeopardy. I called off my Makalu climb, and decided to focus on my rehabilitation for the next few months.
“To me, mountain climbing is not just about reaching the top, but also sharing some great camaraderie with my fellow climbers and also a chance to climb alongside my brother, mentor and guide – Mingma Tenzi Sherpa.” (Kuntal Joisher)
“I realized the mistake I made post Everest. I became complacent. I lost a bit of focus. I didn’t train as hard as I should have. I was lucky to not have picked up a bigger injury. It reinforced my belief that one learns a lot more from failed expeditions than successful ones.”
For the next 6 months, I trained hard. And in October 2017, I found myself walking to Everest Base Camp yet again with a bunch of friends. After walking through the Everest valley for 8 days, we reached Everest base camp! Next day we were going to climb to the Kala Patthar top. This hike was going to be the real test of whether my knee had recovered. I wanted to test my fitness as well.
Early morning around 5.30, the mercury read -15°C. It was time to hit the trail. Kala Patthar is a tough climb due to serious altitude. You start at 5150 metres and the top is at 5550 metres. About 400 metres of height gain. Right from the word go, I was hiking at a good pace and my knee was holding up well. And then fifty minutes later, I was standing on the top. This was my tenth summit of Kala Patthar, and I set my personal best time. Standing on top of Kala Patthar – I knew that my knee was in good shape; I would be able to pull-off climbing another 8000 metre mountain in a few months!
It was also during the same time period that I got a message from my good friends – Sylvain & Caroline – alpinists from Quebec that they were contemplating climbing Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world. They inquired whether I would be interested in joining them. Right then, I knew my next target mountain – I was going to climb the Lhotse. I had done my very first 8000 metre summit – Mount Manaslu with Sylvain and Caroline, and it was one of the best climbs ever! Both of them train hard, are reliable and strong mountain climbers and have a great sense of humour; basically, a joy to climb with! To me, mountain climbing is not just about reaching the top, but also sharing some great camaraderie with my fellow climbers and also a chance to climb alongside my brother, mentor and guide – Mingma Tenzi Sherpa.
Veganism is a lifestyle choice. Not just a dietary choice.
Post Everest, my life changed a lot. I was invited to speak about my journey across India and world. Every-time I stood up to give a speech, and told the audience that I am the first Vegan in the world to climb Everest, my conscience bit me big time. I would ponder: How can I be a Vegan when I climbed Everest wearing a down suit and mittens derived from leather? My excuse – for a one time purchase of non-Vegan gear, I made it to the top and possibly inspired many to turn Vegan! I saved many animals. What BS!! A complete cop out on my part.
Back in 2014, before my first attempt to climb Everest, I wrote to several big companies including North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Rab to name a few. My request to them – please create a synthetic one piece suit for my Everest expedition. All of them rejected the idea and said it’s pretty much impossible to pull off. The technology to replace down just does not exist for Big Mountain Climbing.
I was super dejected. I decided to build my own synthetic suit using synthetic insulation material. I quickly realised that the end product would be so bulky and heavy that I would almost look like a Michelin man! At the end of this entire exercise – I gave up. Doesn’t happen too often, but I did.
And then finally when I decided to climb Lhotse, I was faced with the same dilemma. I still hadn’t figured out the synthetic suit and synthetic mittens. However, I was committed to resolving both the issues. A friend had mentioned to me about something called “Plumtech”, a synthetic insulation innovation by an Italian company called “Save the Duck”.
So I reached out to Save the Duck on Facebook and asked whether they could help me build a synthetic one piece suit that would work on an 8000 metre climb. Just like every other time, I wasn’t very hopeful of a positive response. And then voila – Save The Duck said that they would build a one piece synthetic suit for my Lhotse expedition. I was on the moon! Next up was synthetic mittens. For the mittens, I collaborated with a local trekking shop in Thamel, Kathmandu called Holyland Hiking shop. It’s run by Biden Rai, my trusted gear guy in Nepal since 2010.
Since May 2016 when I climbed Everest, we had been discussing the prospect of creating our very own synthetic mittens.
Once I signed up for the Lhotse climb, I visited Biden again. This time we sat down and discussed technical details of the mitten pertaining to the kind of insulation, palm grip, outer material, stitching etc. About thirty odd years ago, Biden was a climber himself having attempted 8000m mountains. For the past couple of decades, he’s been one of the trusted gear-outfitter for several big 8000m expeditions. He understood all the nitty-gritties and promised that by the time I landed in Nepal in Spring 2018, my synthetic mittens would be ready. And he kept his promise; and so did Save the Duck! By April 2018, I had both synthetic suit and synthetic mittens!
My dream of a first Vegan 8000 metre expedition no longer seemed impossible. However, I was scared too. I would be risking my life, my fingers and my toes high up inside the Death Zone in bone chilling winds and ultra thin air. Neither the synthetic suit nor the synthetic mittens had been tested in these conditions. I was going to be the famed guinea pig. But I was ready – more than ever – for the animals! Veganism is a lifestyle choice. Not just a dietary choice. I wanted to be a Vegan from every aspect when I stood on the top of Lhotse. And that time had finally come.
May 10, 2.00 AM: It was time to get ready to cross the Khumbu ice-fall one last time to kick-off the Lhotse summit push. But it was also decision time: Should I take along the one piece suit made from Down with me as a backup in case the synthetic suit failed to keep me warm? My family had been adamant that I should! They were super worried, and so were the folks at Save the Duck, who manufactured my synthetic suit. I was a bit worried too. If something happened to me high up in the mountain, I would definitely be a newspaper headline across the world – “Vegan gets in trouble due to his Veganism”. People love negative click bait news about Veganism. However, I was very clear. The down suit was staying at the base camp – unopened since 2016. It was now or never for me.
May 14, 11.00 AM, 24000 feet: Climbing from Camp 3 to Camp 4, somewhere close to the famous yellow band, our team was caught in a severe snow and wind storm. Visibility was close to zero. The wind gusts were incessant, sometimes hitting even 70kms/hour. For a moment, I thought I’m going to get thrown off the mountain face. One of the sherpa and his client climber behind me even discussed abandoning the expedition. As to me, I follow what the Sherpa sirdar says – and our Sherpa sirdar asked us to keep moving ahead when we radioed him. High winds meant that the entire route had disappeared and everything was covered in soft powdery snow.
My crampons were not getting bite on the soft terrain. Every step I took to climb up, I would slide down two steps. It was hard work. For the first time in the expedition, I was worried that I was going to get super cold super fast, and I’ll have to turn around and go home. The wind was hammering us big time after all. I didn’t get cold at all. The one piece synthetic suit from Save The Duck worked wonders – it shielded me from both the wind gusts as well as the biting cold. I was toasty and comfortable. And right there, I knew that the suit was going to keep me warm and safe on my journey to the top.
May 15, 4.00 AM, 26,500 feet: Somewhere below the Reiss Colouir, we were on our final march to the top of Lhotse. It was bone chilling cold. But I was warm inside my suit. Around 12 noon, I took the final steps and was finally on the top of Lhotse! Frankly speaking, this has been one of the hardest expeditions of my life. And I was quite knackered on the top. However, my biggest joy was that I climbed without using Down and leather. As far as my research shows, I became the first human to ever ascend an 8000 metre mountain as a true 100% Vegan!
In Spring 2018 climbing season, I reckon there were more than 45-50 climbers who got frost-bite injuries on Everest/ Lhotse. Possibly the death of a climber on Lhotse was also hypothermia related. The cold was unlike anything I had experienced before. So in a nutshell, yes, I risked my life. I risked my fingers and toes. But it was a risk I took for the billions of animals that are slaughtered every year for food, clothing and recreation. I wanted to make the statement – NO animals need to be killed or exploited for humans to achieve the biggest dream of their lives!
May 15, 5.30 PM, 25,500 feet: We had just come back after summiting Mt Lhotse. Mingma and I were sharing tent and he was boiling ice to make water. I had possibly endured the toughest day of my life during the climb to the top. In the expedition, I was following Mingma Tenzi Sherpa all the way to the top. Mingma, the insane rockstar that he is, broke trail in knee deep snow, removed close to a kilometre of buried fixed line, and then at the very top fixed about 150 metres of rope to open the route to the top.
As Mingma was handing me a cup of hot water, out of the blue, tears just started rolling down and in no time I was crying profusely. Mingma asked: “Are you okay, what happened?” And I told him that I was super home sick. I was remembering my mom, dad, and my wife… Mingma removing the satellite phone from his pocket told me, “Control! Give a call home man!” I turned on the phone and the battery showed one point. I started dialling the number and that’s when the phone switched off. And I shrugged off and smiled – Aah…our life in the mountains.
May 17, 2.00 PM: Chhiring Sherpa was waiting at the start of the Khumbu ice-fall. I recognised him from afar. I also knew he was there with a bottle of Coke. 250 ml of coke holds no value for me at sea level. But after an excruciating forty day climb, it was nectar! And I knew that I was back to safety. An expedition is only complete when you make it back down in one piece with all digits intact. It was time to go home to hot showers, home-cooked food, and family.