Monday, December 5, 2011

Lessons from a lazy, but hungry, climber


Readers of this blog will surely be familiar with the "Send-wich". Pack as much meat, cheese, mayo, mustard, onion, etc between two bread-ish platforms as possible. Sometimes the delicious filling bursts the bread-y bounds and you just carry it around in a feed-bag. Either way, it's a powerful way to fuel any sort of adventure.

This post is not, though, about the Sendwich. Though it is certainly about SENDING!

In my continuing series of muddled and useless fast-and-light climbing advice posts, this post will discuss the ideal food strategies for long alpine climbs (2+ days). While a monstrous sammich is more than sufficient for one-day clambering trips, when you're gonna be out for a while, eating a sufficient and varied diet while climbing is essential to success. And, as with everything else I talk about, it needs to be as light as possible for this weak climber to have any chance of getting up anything!


Last February, my friend Blake and I were at Piedras Negras base camp, just north of the Fitzroy Massif. We had just returned from a 24hr push, establishing a new route on the West face of Aguja Guillamet. We'd consumed most of our food supplies, and had planned on returning to town, about 20 miles distant.

So imagine our excitement, and subsequent frustration, when a few of our friends showed up at camp with reports of more good weather! Weather windows are rare and highly prized in Patagonia, and here we were caught flat-footed in the middle of an enormous, wall-to-wall picture window, without sufficient food to pull off another climb without returning first to town.

Our friend Hayden, always the optimist, counseled us to "go for it!" and push the North Pillar of Fitz "Slovenian style" with our three bars and single tea bag for nourishment.

This advice we ignored, and opted instead on a lightning run/hitch-hike back to town to re-supply. We returned the next day, and still managed another solid day of climbing, making the FFA of a route on the west face of Aguja Mermoz.

I know that, whatever might work for Slovenes or Poles or Honeybadgers or other manifest badasses, I need sufficient food to have success on a climb. For long periods of sustained activity, like say, thru-hiking the PCT, a young man of 150-180lbs might need upwards of 4000cal/day in order to maintain his weight. In this post, I'm focusing on alpine climbs from 2-7 days, so it might not be necessary to replace all of the calories you're burning, since you can roll back into town/basecamp a few pounds lighter. But if you're consistently and severely shorting yourself everyday, you will not be able to function at peak performance. So, I'll assume that I need to average 3000-4000 calories/day. What is the best, and lightest-weight, way to achieve this goal?

-Energy Density-

Pay attention to the energy (caloric) density of the foods you take into the mountains. It should be easy to achieve a balanced and nutritious diet while maintaining an average ratio of at least
100 calories per ounce.

We get calories from Fats, Carbohydrates, and Protein. Of these, Fats are the most energy dense. Oils have the best ration of any food I know of, with Olive Oil providing 250cal/oz. Carbs, whether from sugars or starches, often provide 100cal/oz. Proteins are less calorie dense, with Beef jerky providing 70cal/oz.

For a balanced diet, we need all types of energy, but obviously we're going to focus on fats.

-Meal Ideas-
BREAKFAST: a hot breakfast is a welcome luxury after a cold bivy, and helps to get the day started right. I like instant oatmeal, since it's fast and easy. But don't just buy the packets and call it good; load it up!

Fully Loaded Oatmeal:
Instant oats
powdered milk
dried fruit
protein powder (vanilla)
sugar, cinnamon, etc

Pack it all up in one big ziplock bag, and ration it out every morning for a powerful kickstart to the day.

LUNCH/SNACKS: Rarely on a big climb do we have the time to stop and lay down a picnic lunch. So here, aim for convenient foods that are easy and tasty to chow:

Nuts (Cashews, Peanuts, Almonds, etc) Fatty, salty, protein packed, there's nothing better. Cashews offer 160cal/oz.

Bars are certainly easy to eat, and are often very dense with energy. Larabars are mostly made of dates, nuts, and creative flavorings. Formed into delicious little rectangles, these bars don't melt or freeze easily, so pack a ton! Up to 135 cal/oz.

A clutch of Larabars at a bivy site

Gels, like Clifbar's Clif Shot, offer a different mix of calories, focusing more on ready-to-use sugars. They often include heaps of caffeine too, so use these when you need a quick power boost. Because they don't include many fats, they're a bit less dense, often just below 100cal/oz, but they're still essential to avoid the bonk.

Chocolate, need I say more?

Energy Cookies: if you're into baking, make yourself some super-powered cookies, using your favorite recipe. Make sure to load it up with nuts, chocolate, butter, dried fruit, and maybe some quinoa. Making them fairly dense and more brownie-shaped will help them not to crumble.

Blake prepares some power-packed energy cookies in Chalten, Argentina

DINNER: The biggest meal of the day, this is where you'll need to refuel to prepare for the next day. Protein will help with recovery, so it's worth including despite is relative energy paucity. Freeze dried meals are my staple for dinner, since they're easy to make and delicious. Backpackers Pantry makes some tasty dinners, but make sure to pay attention to the actual energy content. Many supposed "two-man" dinners contain only 400 cal TOTAL! Since we're aiming for 1000+ calories (per person) for dinner, you'll need to supplement a hearty freeze dried dinner with other foods.

Backpacker's Pantry:
Santa Fe Chicken 7.5oz, 800cal
Pad Thai 8oz, 920cal

Add other instant foods, like soup mix, sausage, olive oil, couscous, potato flakes, milk powder parmesan cheese, in order to round out a good meal.

I like to carry a small plastic bottle of olive oil and add it to just about all meals. At 250cal/oz, it will enhance the power and flavor of everything it touches!

Hot beverages are always in style, so brew some up whenever you have the stove out. I like the Via instant coffee packets, hot cocoa (add to the coffee!), or tea bags. Also, Emergen-C, that vitamin packed fizzy drink mix, it excellent as a hot drink.
Add milk powder and sugar to tea, etc for extra energy.

While they may not add a ton of calories, there are many light-weight ways to add flavor to otherwise bland meals:
Bring a few cloves of fresh garlic, plus a jalapeno or other peppers to chop into a meal.
Many instant meals are already well-salted, but you will crave a lot of salt if you're sweating all day. Grab some little salt and pepper packets from a gas station or fast-food joint to add.


Very Important.


  1. This is really helpful Scott!

    I'm trying to learn more about how I process food and water. I've had a few cases where I simply decided not to eat what little food I had left because I was already getting dehydrated. I drank plenty of water, but I think I actually ate enough that my metabolism sucked too much water out of my body.

    Do you have experience with this?

    Also I keep reading about alpinists taking nothing but 40 GU packets on nonstop pushes in Alaska.

  2. Hey Colin!

    Thanks for the comment, hydration is definitely an integral part of success on big climbs; I haven't really given it a ton of thought.

    I have certainly been in the position you describe, not eating for lack of water. In my post, I was assuming a somewhat regular supply of water. I guess on most alpine routes, this would be a function of time and stove fuel to melt snow/ice.

    As far as taking nothing but 40 GU packets, that doesn't seem like a great decision to me. First off, GU does not have the calorie density of other, fattier foods. I do think that GU has benefits and is worth carrying; sugars are easy to metabolize into energy.

    Also, I know that personally, I would get very tired of eating the same type of food (taste, consistency, etc); I need variety. I would combine GU with salty, fatty foods, like nuts.

    1. These climbers you are describing happen to be Mark Twight, Scott Backes, and Steve House on the awesome ascent of the Slovak Direct on Denali in a 60 hour push. Read about the ascent in Steve House's book, "Beyond the Mountain".