It took grit and determination for Dr Robert Gropel of Ivanhoe East Veterinary Hospital in Victoria to become the first vegan to climb the Seven Summits.
“The Seven Summits are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. In 2018, I was fortunate to summit them all as the first vegan. Since then I’ve completed six of the Volcanic Seven Summits and two unsupported crossings—East to West Greenland and South Pole Last Degree. I have plans for a North Pole crossing and the final volcano in Antarctica within the next couple of years.
“In 2008, my wife Marisa (who passed away in 2016) and I did a mountaineering course in New Zealand. That was the first time we ever put on crampons and everything evolved from there. We climbed volcanoes and started on more prominent peaks. In 2009, we attempted Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the Americas) and made it to high camp before turning back. Then we attempted Denali (in Alaska) and both managed to summit. Kilimanjaro soon followed and Marisa started the initial Vegan Seven Summits website.
“At the time it was very difficult to be vegetarian, let alone a vegan, in the countries where the peaks are located. Thankfully things have improved dramatically since then. There are plenty of reasons to be vegan—you live a longer and healthier life, you halve your carbon footprint, and you don’t contribute to the cruelty of the animal agriculture industry. Animal agriculture is also the leading cause of habitat destruction, ocean dead zones and species extinction. On expeditions I tend to keep quiet about my diet. I find people often get sensitive if they feel their beliefs are being challenged.
“In 2016, Marisa and I attempted to climb Mount Everest. Despite her incredible fitness and warrior mentality, she was only 100 metres from the summit when altitude sickness started to affect her. She did the right thing and began to descend immediately from the peak. It was just me and one or two sherpas assisting her down. We spent 36 hours in the death zone, much of it without oxygen. Marisa passed away two hours from camp 3 and helicopter rescue. I’ve continued my quest to complete the Seven Summits, inspired by my late wife’s dedication and passion.
“Mountaineering calls to me at a very elemental level. For me, it’s something I never thought I was capable of doing. There’s something about being in a place where people really aren’t supposed to be. Looking down from Denali or Aconcagua or Everest, you can see the curvature of the earth. Everything looks unique and you find peace.”