Logo: University of Southern California

A Summit of Courage

Alumnus Kuntal Joisher survives a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest
By: Sam Corey
August 17, 2015 —
Everest 580
Everest range as seen from Pumori Camp 1. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

On April 10, 2015, USC Viterbi alumnus Kuntal Joisher stood at the base camp with his fellow climbers staring down Mount Everest, eager with anticipation to not only climb the world’s largest mountain and stand tall on Earth’s apex, but also to conquer a milestone he set after his father was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia (LBD).

Mount Everest stands at a gargantuan 29,029 feet and has claimed the lives of over 250 people seeking the thrill of conquering nature’s largest landscape. This daunting prospect didn’t faze Joisher.

“Whenever I’m climbing, I’m not thinking about anything else,” Joisher said. “My family and my dad are the only things that are on my mind. My father is always with me in spirit while I’m on the mountains.”

Joisher and his fellow climbers descending the Khumbu Icefall. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

Fifteen days later, after descending 3,000 feet over the Khumbu Icefall, located at the foot of the western side of Mount Everest, Joisher and his peers sat in the dinner tent and discussed their progress.

Suddenly, the ground started shaking. Joisher tried to alert the other climbers what he just felt, but was initially dismissed.

Then, the ground shook harder and more violently and everyone immediately scrambled out of the tent. After the crew realized they were standing in the midst of a shattering earthquake, a frenzied panic immediately spread amongst the camp. But moments later, the ground suddenly stopped.

The mood lightened as the fear of imminent danger escaped the minds of the climbers, but that relief was short-lived as a cloud of snow billowed into the summit, steamrolling the terrain along its path.

“I turned around to find myself face to face with a huge white cloud, possibly the largest thing I had ever seen in my life, approaching the camp at an unreal speed,” Joisher said. “We had no time to react or think through next steps. The only thought that was able to cross my mind in that moment – this is the end of my life.”

Joisher was born and raised in Mumbai, India, a bustling metropolis that hosts over 20 million citizens and carries the moniker, “the City of Dreams.”

According to his childhood friends, Joisher wasn’t always the ambitious, determined climber who was set on conquering the world’s largest mountain. Rather, he was quiet and passive.

“He would do whatever he was asked to do,” said Jinesh Varia, a childhood friend. “If we wanted to play cricket, he would play cricket. If we wanted to see a movie, he would see a movie. He didn’t really have any opinions in the sense that he didn’t want to do any particular thing for himself.”

“I used to be a follower,” Joisher said. “I saw that five of my friends wanted to go to the U.S. so I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe I should go to the U.S.’”

In 2001, Joisher left Mumbai to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Southern California. Joisher said that moving to America exposed him to more diversity, which allowed him to grow as a person.

“There is a complete acceptance of any kind of person,” said Joisher. “This kind of thinking helped me find and pursue my passions because it taught me to have an open mind. If you have a closed mind, you are living in a well. I don’t want to live in a well, I’m the kind of person who wants to live in an ocean.”

Veganism has provided Joisher with a new, exhilirating lifestyle and a newfound determination to climb Mount Everest to help spread awareness. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

During his stay in Los Angeles, Joisher underwent a major shift in his dieting. He fully incorporated veganism into his nourishment. His self-proclaimed “Whole Foods vegan diet” of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds became the cornerstone ingredients in fuelling his training.

Joisher said that turning vegan “changed himself and his relationship with others.” But this transformative experience was met with an accompanying tragedy that also altered the course of his life.

Soon after Joisher left for the U.S., his father was diagnosed with LBD, which causes physical, sleep and behavioral problems. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is the second leading case of dementia diseases that affects 1.3 million people in the U.S. and accounts for 20 percent of dementia cases worldwide.

“When I left for the U.S., I wasn’t very close with my father, said Joisher. “If I stayed in India, I could’ve helped him more or I could’ve helped my mother take care of him. That’s one thing I will repent my entire life.”

Joisher and his peers heading toward Basisi Col Summit. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

After completing his master’s in December 2002, Joisher was immediately hired as a software engineer at LRN, a company that helps businesses and leaders shape behavior through ethical solutions, culture transformation, and leadership initiatives.

He worked there until 2006, when LRN made an acquisition in Mumbai, and Joisher saw this as an opportunity to move back to India to be with his family and care for his father.

“There was a huge change in Kuntal emotionally that made looking after his father his first priority,” said Jigna Joisher, Kuntal’s younger sister. “Until then, he was emotionally detached from his family. When he first left for America, we thought he would forget about us.”

Soon after Joisher learned of his father’s diagnosis, he decided to commit himself to pursue a higher goal, to do something exhilarating with his life, so his father could live vicariously through his adventures.

“I felt like I was going through the motions my whole life,” Joisher said. “When my dad was diagnosed, it was one of those moments that sunk in and inspired me to do something monumental – not just for myself, but for my father and others.”

From that moment onward, Joisher rededicated his life, diet and fitness to climbing Mount Everest. His goal: Become the first vegan to climb Mount Everest.

Kuntal improved his cardiovascular fitness for Everest by speed-climbing smaller mountains near his home in Mumbai. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

While Joisher was training for smaller summits, he met Jordyn Steig, his personal trainer, in August 2013, to mentally and physically prepare him for the rigors of climbing the world’s largest mountain. “When I first met Kuntal, he was wildly enthusiastic,” Steig said. “He was committed to focusing on core strength, head-to-toe fitness and destabilization, which forces the body to coordinate from the center out.

Joisher started working out six times a week, from running and leapfrogs across the beaches of Mumbai to body-weight training and high-intensity interval training. He zeroed in on not only breaking the barriers of his physical boundaries, but also pushing his mind to handle crippling exhaustion and excruciating muscle failure.

Joisher’s dedication quickly paid huge dividends, leading to a lifestyle of health and fitness. Friends noticed the change.

Manaslu Base Camp. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

“When I first met Kuntal, he wasn’t very athletic, but he really started to lean out after he started training hardcore,” said Ron Burr, CallFire CEO and Joisher’s colleague at LRN and CallFire who became his expedition sponsor. “After committing himself to this goal, I knew climbing Everest wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘when.’”

In April 2014, Joisher made his first trip to Mount Everest. He planned on making the Everest base camp his home for the next few months, familiarizing himself with the feeling of tossing and turning to the sound of moving glaciers and bonding with fellow climbers hailing from across the world.

On April 18, 2014, a huge rumbling occurred at the base camp shortly after sunrise. Joisher woke up to his fellow mountaineers solemnly pointing north to the Khumbu Icefall.

A fatal avalanche occurred, claiming the lives of 16 Sherpa guides.

“Although I thankfully never made it to the icefall, I couldn’t help but ask myself questions about my own family,” Joisher said. “Who would have taken care of my mother and wife, and especially my father who suffers from dementia, for whom I had made the journey? The mere thought of it was too much to bear.”

The Nepalese government responded to this deadly avalanche by shutting down Mount Everest for the remainder of the season.

Joisher could have obtained a pass from the Chinese government to access the climbing paths from Tibet, but that would have likely involved bribing government officials. Joisher chose not to pursue this route, he said, to preserve the integrity of his journey.

He ultimately decided to postpone this trek for another year.

“As much as the summit is important, the journey to the summit is more important,” Joisher said. “The countries you visit, the friends you make, the hospitality from the Sherpa people, the support from your family are all priceless. The journey is transformative and the idea is to come out of it a better person.”

View of Mount Everest from Manaslu Base Camp. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

One year later, the journey placed Joisher in a life-and-death situation as a cloud of dense snow barreled into his base camp at the speed of a bullet train. His heart pounding, he suddenly had to rely on his survival instincts

“In the mountains, anything can happen,” said Ernst Bergmann, leader of Canadian Mountain Studies Initiative, an interdisciplinary organization that studies human interaction with mountains. “There’s no protocol to deal with avalanches, the climber needs to understand the landscape and mentally prepare for anything nature throws at them.”

Joisher was with two other climbers when the noxious earthquake-generated mass descended upon their camp.

“By the time we saw the avalanche cloud, which was almost like a tsunami of snow, ice and debris that was the size of at least 10 football fields, the cloud was less than three seconds away from us,” Joisher said. “There was no time to think or use any skills to make any life saving decisions.”

They immediately took shelter behind the tent and ducked down with their hands on their heads when the massive cloud belted snow in all directions.

“At that very instant, our survival instincts kicked in,” Joshier said. “When we saw the avalanche cloud, we were quite sure that we were going to die. There was no way to escape, nowhere to run.”

An avalanche near base camp. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

They were covered from head to toe in a matter of seconds, stifling the flow of already extremely thin oxygen.

“Buried under the snow cloud’s wake, I felt as if someone had put a plastic bag around my face,” Joisher said. “It felt like it took super human effort to suck any air into my lungs.”

He said he would have suffocated without the help of his friend, Jost, who saw him gasping for air. Jost opened his hard-shelled jacket so Joisher could tuck his head inside, which gave him much needed space to breathe air that wasn’t littered with snowflakes.

“When those first molecules of air entered my lungs, it made me feel like a newborn baby taking its first breaths,” Joisher said. “Fitting, seeing as I had received a second life.”

Once the cloud passed and the snow settled, the air began to clear. But as the surroundings became more visible, the damage and destruction was more evident. Although a head count of the team affirmed the group was fine, the backdrop was far from intact.

A substantial part of the base camp was devastated and debris thrown everywhere. After being glued to the radio for hours, the climbers learned many unfortunate souls lost their lives to this natural disaster.

“We knew what had happened to us was tragic, but once we heard about the devastation that had occurred across Nepal, we were distraught to learn about the thousands dead and the millions displaced from their homes,” Joisher said. “It began to sink in that this wasn’t a mountain-climbing causality; this was a disaster of unprecedented levels.”

A massive earthquake that registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale caused the avalanche. This was the largest natural disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Biar earthquake, which measured 8.2 and killed around 10,000 people.

This earthquake killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. Nineteen people lost their lives on Mount Everest during this disaster, the deadliest day in the mountain’s history, according to the New York Times.

Joisher stares down Mount Everest as he mentally prepares for the rigors this landscape presents. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

In the aftermath of this horrific event, Joisher continues to ponder a third attempt at climbing Mount Everest.

“I was heartbroken, I still am,” Joisher said. “My heart goes out to everyone who lost their lives or loved ones in the earthquake. Right now, I am waiting to see what the Nepal government does, and I will have a decision next year.”

In the meantime, Joisher is leading expeditions across Nepal to raise awareness about the various landscapes within the country and to encourage travellers to visit after thousands of potential vacationers cancelled their trips following the earthquake. He is also selling his photos of the scenery to raise proceeds to help relief efforts, and already held an exhibition in June that raised over $6,000.

A picture of Mount Everest taken on one of Joisher's journeys that will be featured in his exhibition in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

Joisher is bringing his exhibition to Los Angeles, on Sept. 20, which will raise money for Nepal Youth Foundation, an organization that brings health, shelter and education to Nepal's children, and Empower Nepali Girls, a chairty that provides scholarships, mentoring, career guidance, and subsistence for Nepali girls who lack an opportunity to attend school and pursue the career of their choice.

To buy tickets for Joisher's exhibition in Los Angeles, click here. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.
To buy tickets for Joisher's exhibition in Los Angeles, click here. Photo courtesy of Kuntal Joisher.

After having a brush with death, witnessing the horrors of sporadic natural disasters, dealing with nature throwing obstacles at his life’s ambition and seeing years of training and hard work buried under tons of snow, jeopardizing his entire livelihood – Joisher continues to persevere by maintaining a positive attitude and a simple message.

“Life is fragile. More people need to learn to live for today. Don’t let your dreams be dreams, make them a reality.”