Modern ideas and practices in short term alpine food
30 November 2008
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).
Before I start let me define what I mean by alpine food. Basically I see it as any food that’s lightweight and easily prepared, with a minimum of fuel, fuss and effort, in sometimes very difficult circumstances. This article is applicable to any alpine climbing, from Fitzroy to Hunter, Troll wall to Trango, aimed at climbers genuinely interested in a lightweight approach to alpinism. I admit it is partially biased towards my own experiences and tastes, but it does include a few new, interesting and obscure ideas on modern alpine food.
Chamonix, January 93.
Inexperience coupled with heavy sacks and deep snow turned the shortish walk to the Jorasses into a two-day marathon. Halfway to the Shroud we collapsed into the snow, exhausted. Our bodies had no reserves left to give. They’d been used up just keeping warm, living rough in the woods above Chamonix for the last two weeks. Our cheap diet of bread and Bosan just wasn’t enough for winter alpinism. The cold was horrible, with very little fat in our diet our feet froze even before we set foot on the mountain. We turned around while we still could and hurried back down our trench to Chamonix. Two Skiers stopped us on the Mer de Glace, concerned at our appearance “Are you Polish” they asked.
Eat a lot and eat well before you climb, the old favourite of cheese and pasta is still the best, providing plenty of Carbohydrate and fat. On easily approachable routes take lots of nice foods to eat before you start, things like pasta, tasty cheeses and fresh bread plus plenty of cakes, buns and chocolate for pudding. Maybe buy some fresh pastries to have as breakfast before you start, enjoy the time before the climb, good food helps you relax and sleep. Take bottles of water to cook and brew up with, and make sure you’re completely hydrated before you start. Better to lay off the red wine. A good example of a major pre climbing diet is your typical Patagonia diet. Noel Craine and Simon Nadin spent one and a half months waiting for decent weather windows while trying a new route on Paine, most of which was spent cooking with the occasional days climbing to break up the washing up rota. Their stables were Garlic Dall, pancakes, gapaties and that great foundation of British mountaineering, porridge. On such trips little bags of carefully weighted calorie counted food goes out of the window if moral and sanity are going to survive the trip, enjoyable food is essential. Better to start the route a little fat and happy than lean and mean, because after four days you’ll be very lean anyway except maybe not quite so keen. Don’t overdo it though, it’s important to be and feel as fit as you can be.
For a climber like Mick Fowler, breakfast is usually a simple affair, a cup of tea and a Toffee crisp being found to suffice for the days climbing, or if you like your creature comforts try Marc Twights Power bar washed down with the milky contents of last nights hot water bottle, mmmm, nice. But if you’re trying to move fast, and or you’re bivied in a difficult or uncomfortable position this meal is crucial, get it wrong and you lose time and energy, get it right and you start the day as you mean to go on. The best way to save time and fuel is to forgo a hot drink. Cold fruit tea or better still a Carbohydrate drink is the way to go, down one or two cups, and you’ve racked up and packed up by dawn and you’re away, saving time and fuel and inconvenience. This also lets you do all your snow melting the night before, avoiding the chilling task of snow melting in the morning also means you avoid difficult tasks at the coldest time of the day. By filling up your Nalgene bottles (With warm water if you want to warm your feet) after your evening meal you only have to do the difficult task of cooking once a day, making cooking simpler and more efficient, On Alpine routes fluid is king, even on hard multi-day routes your body can keep on climbing on a couple of Tracker bars a day if it has to, but dehydrate it and your dead. If you’re running short on fuel; drink cold, barley melted water with Carbohydrate drink instead of solid food, melting snow inside your sleeping bag or clothing with your Nalgene bottle also saves vital fuel. Solid food is usually best found in easily consumed museli bar form, be it Tracker, Harvest crunch or Flapjack, two bars are usually equivalent to a typical serving of porridge or muesli. Again fuel is saved and the bars can be eaten along with the pre-melted water, inside sleeping bags or during packing. I also usually add a packet of Peanut M&Ms to this meal, stashed away to eat on the first belay. If you want a more traditional start to the day individual packets of Alpen etc are perfect for alpine climbing, just add water or if your really indulgent add a little powdered milk, shame on you. Personally, I try to avoid normal tea and coffee because its a Diuretic, preferring fruit teas of which there are hundreds of varieties. If you can’t go without your Earl grey or Nescafe, never mind, as with all things in life its good to break of few rules. So the first meal is out of the way and you’re off, the sun comes up as you finish the first pitch, only thirty-seven left to go!
Chamonix, January 94
We sat at each end of the hut, French and British, a million miles apart when it came to our equipment, attitude and more importantly food. Tea, boil in the bag rice and Mountain house curry followed by custard for us. Instant cappuccino, Cheese, sausage and bread followed by soup, noodles and a bowl of chocolate for them. In the morning we lumbered while they flew, we expected the worst while they knew better.
This is entirely up to personal preference, some people like dried bananas, nuts and sunflower seeds while others prefer chocolate, salami and jelly babies. Try not to get too bogged down in calorific nonsense, just take what you like to nibble on, and make sure you do, if it has a high-calorie content then that’s a bonus. A mix of savoury and sweet usually works very well. Boiled sweets were the old favourite, revitalising dry mouths, especially when mixed with a little snow. As an alternative why not go down to your local supermarkets pick and mix, because as they say variety is certainly the spice of life. No doubt once on your route you’ll wish you’d brought more liquorice torpedoes and fewer chocolate eclairs, but never mind its great fun digging around your sack for hours on end in a futile attempt to find that last Cola cube. Try to avoid any power type bars that require lots of water to digest, enough said.
Chamonix January 96
We climbed up the face for three days, every bivi sitting hell. Our tiny 30-litre sacks containing only sleeping bags and duvets offered no hindrance, although after the first day the added burden of a bit more food wouldn’t have troubled us too much. Two days ultra-minimalist food stretched to three. Eight Tracker bars, four hot chocolates and six cupa soups just weren’t enough to stop us watching on each belay. We topped out in a violent storm with nothing left to give, afterwards my partner gave up climbing, to him it had just stopped being fun.
Modern alpine food can be easily split into two categories, the high tech and the low tech. The introduction of Power gel from America is set to revolutionise alpine food, being lightweight instant Carbohydrate energy (300+ Kal), that’s squeezed into the mouth from a foil packet or tube, which unlike power bars requires very little water to digest. Its light, it doesn’t need cooking and it’s available in various strange and tasty flavours, including Vodka. Powdered baby food is another hi-tech option used by a fanatical few, providing easily prepared highly nutritious and easily digested food, although price and taste make it very hard to swallow. Speaking of Vodka a great example of low tech alpine food is the Russian alpine diet of pig fat or `Salla’, dry biscuits and Vodka. Makes your mouth water doesn’t it. They’re also mad on condensed milk, using it as a drink or as a meal in itself, plus it can also be turned into a solid block of caramel by boiling it in its can. Low tech alpine food can be cobbled together using just about anything. Adam Wainright and Paul Pritchard survived on Christmas stuffing on Nameless Tower while Stevie Haston soloed a new route on the Nant Blanc face of the Verte carrying only an apple and a Banana. A typical meal for me goes like this. First of all, I have a litre of cold energy drink, usually a mixture of High 5 and Isostar. Drinking cold water saves a lot of fuel and gets liquids to the body quickly. This is followed by a hot cupa soup. No direct cooking is done in the pan, as all the food is mixed or stewed in a large insulated plastic mug, the type found in an increasing number of climbing shops, an invaluable piece of alpine equipment. As more snow is melted and boiled I usually try to relax and drink my soup, adding croutons or stuffing mixture to add a bit of bulk. Take lots of different cupa soups because you can soon tire of one taste. The main course is usually one and a half packets of super noodles, These are crushed into the mug and boiling water added. Stir, replace the lid and within two minutes you’ve got a litre of noodles, filling, nutritious and extremely lightweight. Another alternative is potato powder. This is followed by more fluid in the form of a square of a fruity jelly mixture or carbohydrate drink, then maybe some custard, semolina or hot chocolate. Salt is a vital part of the meal, reducing cramp and muscle spasms while bivvying or climbing and I usually take a few Individual packets of bran biscuits and cheese, a nice accompaniment to a meal. To anyone reading this not already established on some alpine route this may seem like a very spartan diet, and it is, but its incredibly lightweight and easy to cook, using only one 100 epi gas cartridge or less per day between two. If you plan on taking a long time on a route (4+ days?) or you feel uneasy taking such a small amount of food you can flesh this out with various items mentioned earlier, or just say to hell with it and take some heavy luxuries. Even hard men like Brendan Murphy and Dave Wills couldn’t ration themselves less than one packet of chocolate HobNobs a day while attempting Latok. If you’re prepared to work that little harder then take it. This approach to food seemingly ignores the calorific content of the diet, this is only half true. I do try to keep the carbohydrate level high, with fat close behind, although the higher you climb the harder the body finds it to break fat down. Sugars are high in calories but technically make poor mountain food, Chocolates and sweets are there only to improve morale.
There may come a time when you’re forced to keep on climbing through the night, either due to approaching weather, lack of any bivi sights or just a lack of bivi gear!. Adrenaline will suppress the appetite and although food will be the last thing on your mind you should try to eat through the night. Tomorrow’s breakfast of Tracker bars and M&Ms and those cheese and biscuits you had stashed for dinner suddenly become perfect belay food. If you’re out of water, I’d probably lay off the food in order to avoid using up vital body fluid digesting it. Some climbers carry Pro Plus as a mild stimulant in order to stay awake, a real problem while belaying, while some American climbers carry chocolate covered coffee beans which they chew. Both systems are only worth considering in real emergencies as caffeine may cause more problems than it solves.
Chamonix January 97
We sat, all three of us huddled together on the tiny ice ledge, feet buried in rucksacks, mindful not to drop anything into the black void below. Even in this precarious position, we produced a feast, Spicy Mexican cupa soups mixed with instant noodles followed by Fruit tea, High 5 and yet more Tracker bars. It doesn’t look like much now, but back then it felt like just the right amount. laughing at our predicament we swapped chocolate limes for Refreshers and took turns balancing the stove on each other’s knees. The following day we flew because finally, I knew better. So there you go, this system is primarily designed for multi-day alpine routes where extremely difficult climbing has to be done with the added burden of a sack. But the basic approach is applicable to any climber, you could be bivvying on the Cuillin in winter or climbing the Moonflower buttress in Alaska, It doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you want to go, lightweight, quickly and enjoyably. If this system is used on extended routes weight loss is inevitable. Once you return to civilisation try not to pig out too much, best stick to a high Carbohydrate, high exercise diet until you feel back to normal. Hard alpine climbing can be an incredibly grim, Tense and scary affair, so don’t compound it with poor food, give your mind and body a break and remind yourself of one of the good things in life.