The Blog

A Vegan Died on Mount Everest, Papers Are Keen to Tell Us - Not That She Was an Academic, A Wife, And an Experienced Climber

Three people died in as many days on Mount Everest this weekend. One was a vegan. Maria Strydom wanted to "prove that vegans can do anything and more" by climbing seven summits in seven continents. How foolish of her.

This vegan was also an Australian, an academic, an experienced climber and a wife, yet the adjective newspaper outlets chose to describe her was 'vegan'.

Why? Because Maria Strydom said she wanted to "prove that vegans can do anything and more" by climbing seven summits in seven continents.

How foolish of her.

Headlines that followed the 34-year-old's tragic death on Saturday included 'Vegan dies on Everest mission to defy sceptics' and 'Vegan climber dies on Everest during mission to prove vegans can climb highest peaks'.

The tone of these headlines, and their subsequent articles, imply that Strydom failed in her attempt to climb the mountain because she was vegan. Her sceptics were right all along.

Yet from what we know so far, the cause of her death had nothing to do with her lifestyle choice.

Strydom died of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness occurs when the body is not able to get enough oxygen from the air, which is "thinner" at high altitudes.

It occurs most frequently when people who are not used to high altitudes ascend to heights of 2,400 metres or more. In severe cases it can affect your lungs and brain. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, exhaustion and hyperventilation.

Another climber in the same expedition as Strydom, Eric Ary Arnold, also died on the mountain after suffering from altitude sickness. His diet and lifestyle have not yet been revealed.

Between 1924 and August 2015, 169 westerners and 113 Sherpas died on Mount Everest. What these people ate has not been documented.

I've trekked to Everest Base Camp. I am also a vegan.

A vegan diet does not play a part in how your body reacts to an increase in altitude.

While the Base Camp is drastically lower than Everest's summit - by about 3,500 metres - many climbers get altitude sickness just reaching the camp's altitude of 5,364 metres. I was fortunate enough not to be one of those climbers, but there were others in my group who did suffer the nausea and painful headaches that come with the condition, the only cure for which is to descend to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.

There are many health benefits that I am willing to attribute to my vegan diet, but escaping the pains of altitude sickness is not one of them. Likewise suffering from altitude sickness should not be held against someone who is vegan.

To use Strydom's vow that she wanted to prove her sceptics wrong in an article about her demise is disrespectful, thoughtless and in incredibly poor taste.

Vegans are constantly questioned about their diet - are we getting enough protein, what about our calcium intake, are we getting enough iron?

I wouldn't presume to speak for Strydom, but if she's anything like me then these constant questions about our diet - normally directed at you with the intention of picking holes in your lifestyle - grow tiresome and disheartening.

They are also somewhat irrelevant.

Heavyweight boxing champion David Haye is a vegan, and I would love anyone to question him about his protein intake. The best female tennis player in the world, Serena Williams, is a vegan, as is her sister, Venus. Marathon runner Fiona Oakes and Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier also abstain from meat and dairy products. There are lots more, but you get the picture.

What exactly is the message that these publications want to portray? That Strydom shouldn't have attempted the formidable challenge? That she shouldn't have done so on a vegan diet? Or that she shouldn't have dared to claim that 'vegans can do anything and more'?

Whatever the motive, using Strydom's death as an opportunity to mock her claims about veganism is distasteful at best, nasty at worst.