December 2, 2008
In the past, my primary mountain meal was always dinner, forcing down as many calories as I could before I zipped up my sleeping bag and tried to sleep. The problem with this is that the end of the day isn’t always a good time to eat a (relatively) big meal, as this is when your metabolism slows down and you’re fatigued. When you’re tired you just want to get into your sleeping bag and sleep, so dividing your time between hydration and solid fuel leaves you thirty while forcing down food. Dehydration also reduces your appetite, and eating a biggish meal (or half a cup of cuscus!) may make it harder to sleep well, as it’s best to eat your dinner 3 hours before sleep in order for your body to digest the meals nutrients before your system slows down. Also if your bodies forced to digest food while sleeping, it will suppress you’re appetite for breakfast, compounding the problem. It’s for this reason that I now see breakfast as the most important climbing meal of the day, with a good power breakfast setting me up, kick starting my body and brain after several hours of inactivity.
The small breakfast is a part of the modern diet, but while sleeping your body will draw on it’s glucose stored in the liver and muscles, causing chemicals to be released when you wake designed to stimulate your appetite for high carbohydrate foods. If you fail to replace these stores you will not only suffer from a lack of energy, but also make your brain less able to process information correctly and cope with stressful situations, which could account for the common morning bivvy blues. A good breakfast should both hydrate and fill the stomach with enough high complex carbohydrates and energy-supplying monounsaturated fats to last until lunchtime.
So if breakfast is so important what should you take?
Breakfast can by broken down into two categories; the tent breakfast and the bivy breakfast.
The tent breakfast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in a tent, but is form of breakfast were weight doesn’t take precedence over calories, and can also be prepared and eaten in a relatively comfortable environment. This can range from a bowl of cereal (hot or cold) to a full ‘fry up’, in fact I once heard a story about Mo Antoine and Joe Brown enjoying a ‘full English’ after bivying out of the Super Couloir, much to the surprise of the top French team who came across then that morning! Porridge or Ready break (easier to prepare) are probably the real breakfast kings, being light, simple and high in water content when cooked, and although hot food has the same calories as cold, it gives you a good kick start on a cold morning. 100 grams of dry porridge will give you around 500 calories when cooked and mixed with milk powder, and this can be increased by a bigger portion (maybe as much as 200 grams) and by adding sugar, raisons, almonds etc. You can also add to this breakfast a caffeine power gel (chocolate or coffee), both to kick start your brain and increase your calorie content. Make sure you drink enough water to re hydrate and help with digestion, drinking the remainder of your water bottle once you wake. Many climbers steer clear of tea as it’s a diuretic, but after years I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s worth it, especially tea a la ‘Sherpa’, with lots of sugar and milk (again to bump up the calories and get your brain going with some simple sugars). You should carry on drinking up to 90 minutes after eating to aid digestion, so you should make sure you have liquid to hand. If tackling a big route this may be your last weight free calories before leaving the ground, and so is crucial. If climbing a high aerobic route (say Denali, Mont blanc or a trekking peak), then this kind of breakfast is what you’ll need in order to fuel your body thought the days to come. Lugging 200+ grams of breakfast a day may sound a lot to those used to surviving on half as much, but this weight will be taken off your dinner.
If you’re taking breakfast seriously then bivvy food needs the same attention to calories but with the added focus on weight, bulk and ease of preparation. You don’t want to be cooking in the morning on bivvy if you can help it, so this means you need to have already melted enough water for the day and breakfast the night before (1 litre for breakfast with 1 to 2 litres for the day), with your breakfast water can be stored in a light dedicated water bladder. Firstly drink a third of the water, adding energy drink to the mix. This not only makes it taste better, but also increases your performance by easily replacing vitamins and mineral (plus carbs). Next what to eat. Breakfast can either by wet or dry depending on how hard it is to eat. If you’re in a fairly comfortable position then a wet breakfast (cereal with milk), is best, but if you’re in an awkward position, such as standing on a ledge or hanging in your harness then this might not be so easy to eat. A good wet breakfast is 200 grams of Alpen, with lots of sugar, crushed almonds and milk powder mixed in, giving you a whopping 1000-calorie breakfast! This should be double bagged in tough medium sized zip lock bags (fold and tape for storage), into which you can just add water saving on cleaning or going out of your warm sleeping bag to look for a pan. A dry breakfast would be two biggish muesli bar (modern cereal power type bars are perfect), which two banana flavoured cereal bars giving you 500 calories for a total weight of 130grams. Throw in a couple of gels and some protein drink and you should be getting close to 1000 calories. The best thing about the dry breakfast is that you can eat it on the move, say if you’ve climbed through the night, or need to move out quickly, and both can be consumed without ever leaving your sleeping bag, which means you’re not wasting time and warmth cooking in the coldest part of the day.