Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Firstly I must admit that like many other climbers I’ve ignored this important area of daily nutrition in the past, believing wrongly that I just didn’t have time to eat anything when climbing, with any food I did take always ending up eaten at the end of the day, or not at all. Even when I thought I’d begun to take day food seriously, eating a couple of packets of gel food (240 calories) I was jut kidding myself.
On the Lesure route Mark Ryle, who, being more of a rock climber then an alpinist (a lot more muscle and a lot less fat!) took his day food very seriously indeed – leading me to question my own views on food. I started with two packets of power gel and one packet of M&M’s per day (about 700 cals), which for me was pretty good, fitting into a small stuff sack. Mark on the other hand had so much food it almost warranted it’s own rucksack! Firstly he had a huge bag of the weird black banana things (how do you make a banana smaller and heavier then a full size banana?), with just one banana probably containing the same calories as a normal climbers full day ration of food! Then he had an ‘industrial’ croissants (cheap ones that don’t go stale) per day, and a slab of very rich cake, plus chocolate and sweets for in-between probably giving him doubling his calorie intake. Each day’s food (muesli and potato powder) probably toped half a kilo each, with another half kilo added per day once you took Marks food into account, adding significantly to the weight of our pack (which slowed things up meaning we neede more food). I spent many hours trying to persuade him that you just can’t justify that kind of combined weight on a technical route, but he would not be convinced. On such a route (over a dozen grade VII pitches) there is a lot of belay duty, and so plenty of time to snack. By the end of the 6 days on the face I’d lost a stone and a half while Marks weight remained unchanged.
The problem for me was being unacclimatized I found it hard to eat dinner (potato powder with cheese, butter and full fat milk powder), only managing about 20% before feeling nauseous, forcing me to give it to Mark to eat. It’s fine saying that you should just force down food when you feel like this, but the outcome is always counter productive as you just end up puking up what you’ve managed to eat! This meant that because I’d invested 45% of my calorie intake in food I couldn’t eat I was asking my fat reserves to take up the slack (I maintained a high enough carbohydrate intake to allow my body to metabolize my reserves rather then have my body switch over to burning muscle). A much better bet would have been to take those 200 grams of dead potato powder and changed it to more edible day food.
Focusing on day food has several advantages. Firstly topping up your reserves through the day (maintaining blood sugar levels etc) means you won’t suffer drop in performance once your breakfast burns off, with performance not only meaning muscle power but also brain power and psych. It’s often the case that by evening low blood sugar levels are making you irritable and more prone to ‘belay blues’, and staying ‘topped up’ means you can focus on hydration first once at the bivy, rather then gobbling down food they falling asleep. Another good thing about day food is it doesn’t require cooking. Meaning if you find yourself unable to bivy, cook or have to carry on climbing, then you can consume the following days day food. So what makes good day food? Well like all meals try to have a balanced mix of carb, fat and protein, aiming for high calorie food that is quick to eat and robust enough to live in your pocket.
If your going out for the day, or on the first day of a longer route then nothing beats a big beefy sandwich (or four), being light, palatable, resistant to freezing and containing a great balance of calories.
Classic hill food like a king size Mars Bar (384 cal) or Snickers (540 cal) are fine as your body will burn off the sugars quickly, and once frozen are good enough to belay off. A better option to old school chocolate bars are the myriad of modern power bars on the market (250 calorie per bar on average), many of which have become quite palatable, or power muesli bars which are more palatable, both of which providing a much higher quality of calorie (complex carbs for a slower burn). One of my favorite hill foods is home made flapjack – a power food as good as anything you can buy in a packet. Firstly it’s less processed, you can control what goes into it and best of all it’s dirt cheap and the easiest recipe in the world to make (duramecho.com/Food/Flapjack/ has a good recipe). A normal recipe gives you about 500 cal per 100g (a good mix of complex and simple carbs), but you can increase this considerably by adding nuts, raisons, chocolate, banana etc. A slab of this slow burn carbohydrate makes the perfect primary day ‘meal’.
Secondary day of snack food (food used to top of food levels) include power gels (discussed in July’s High) which are perfect, being very portable and light (you can stick several packets away in your pockets), and can be consumed in a few seconds and is palatable even when you’re dehydrated (which you often are). Salted and honey coated peanuts, dried fruit mix, sesame seeds (573 cal per 100g!), chocolate coated peanuts (and chocolate coated coffee beans!) are all great snacks that can be eaten when belaying, and are great way of taking your mind of the boredom. Don’t forget to include fatty day food, which will help to keep you warm; such as individually rapped mini cheeses, pepporami (134 cal) and other dried meats are also great (unless you’re a veggie that is), and I even once met some Canadians who swore by dried Japanese seaweed due to it’s high iron content? Whatever you take it’s crucial that it doesn’t just end up forgotten in the lid of your sack, so it’s best to secrete it about your person at the begin of the day. Personally I usually put all my food in my belay jackets pockets, so I can guarantee I’ll have something to do when standing around for hours on end. Another tip is to use a 500ml Nalgene bottle in a zipped 1litre insulated pouch (made by several companies), filling up the dead space with food, and attaching it to you rucksack, meaning you can eat and drink at the same time. So who was right on the Dru - Me or Mark? Well I think next time I’ll certainly do things differently, although saying that it does beat going to weight watchers!
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram