Ask an experienced alpinist what climbing big mountains is like, and after extolling the virtues of stunning views, shared experiences, life-affirming challenges and the afterglow of snatched success or glorious failure the realities of being cold, hungry and occasionally scared will emerge. Some will argue that it is in enduring the freezing temperatures, confronting our fears of real or imagined dangers, and subsiding on barely sufficient rations which makes our experiences on mountains so visceral.
Photo: Alpine climbing in the Himalaya
I tend to subscribe to this school of thought, but there is always a but. As a 6’ 5’’, 80kg climber I don’t carry a lot of fat, and find that to maintain performance I need to fuel the engine, so going hungry for long periods of time is a bad idea. This becomes especially important on longer expeditions, where weeks of sub-optimum nutrition could be the deciding factor between success and failure.
Unlike ultra-runners, during our harshest tests alpinists don’t benefit from the comfort of food stations, and dropping out often isn’t an option. Careful planning is needed to make sure that enough of the right foods are carried to see you safely off the mountain.
Eating whilst climbing steep, snowy mountains can be a testing affair. Choices are limited by considerations of weight, along with the practical considerations of what can be consumed when cooking isn’t an option. Stopping for a leisurely picnic is far too time consuming, with pocket grazing through the day a better option.
Photo: Shopping for an Alaskan expedition in Anchorage Walmart
For breakfast, bars and dried fruit are often the only option. I find the Chia Charge salted flapjacks to be great for this, easy to eat and savoury enough to stomach during early morning starts. Through the climbing day food needs to be easy to eat on the hoof, with more bars, gels, a re-sealable bag of pre-chopped chorizo and another bag of sweeter snacks forming the bulk of the menu. Where possible a pre-prepared bagel, wrap, tortilla or chapatti add luxurious variety.
Photo: Camping on a small ledge at 5800m on a Himalayan north face- not an easy sport for cooking.
Whilst alpine climbing the only thing I’ll put in the stove pan is snow, reducing the need to wash up. Dehydrated meals are by far the easiest way to go, light, calorific and low faff- simply add boiling water. Make sure that you find meals that you can stomach, all freeze-dried foods are definitely not born equal.
How you are going to get to basecamp will inevitably affect the food that you can take there. With the luxury of air or porter support to whisk your bags to BC an array of tasty treats can be packed. When all food needs to be dragged, hauled or carried to camp then weight becomes an overriding concern.
Photo: Carrying loads to basecamp in the Avellano Valley, northern Patagonia
Either way, for the sake of health, happiness and expedition morale basecamp needs to be stocked with sufficient tasty, calorific food to make sure that you are fully recovered for your next attempt on the mountain. Here freeze-dried meals can play a big role, but for the sake of variety it is good to mix this up with cooked food. Porridge with added sugar, milk powder and dried fruit makes a great breakfast, with pancakes with Chia Seeds making a great rest-day breakfast treat. If possible, bagels, wraps and even camp-cooked chapattis make lunch a meal to savour, slathered in nut butter and jam or surrounding cheese. A bacon-fat fried bagel is fit for a king when shivering on a freezing glacier.
Photo: Pancakes for breakfast on the Kahiltna Glacier, Alaska