Text and pictures © 1990-2017 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2015/11/17
"Many times I have thanked God for a bite of raw dog." — Robert Peary (1856—1920), polar explorer.
"Food is an important part of what you eat"... I once heard that on TV. Well, that certainly applies on the mountains where you have to carry everything you eat and plan accordingly. You carry not only the food but the entire kitchen (stove, pots, gaz...) so in the end, if it tastes bad or if you starve it's entirely your fault... On this page I'll suggest a few recipes for the hungry alpinist.
Every so often planning is not enough, you have to make do with what's available. The very first thing I ever cooked in the mountain was rice with prunes and ham. We had been on a ski mountaineering tour in the Alps, sleeping in empty huts in winter. Although our tour was well planned by my more experienced friends, they hadn't foreseen the storm that moved in and kept us grounded for two days. We missed our train back home, but more importantly we ran out of food. On the last evening, the storm moved out and we decided to ski down at night, but first: "What do we eat ?"
We pooled our resources: half bag of rice that had opened at the bottom of Jean's backpack, an open pack of ham forgotten from the previous week-end in one backpack pocket and half a bag of dried prunes. The ham had an ominous green color and the rice was mixed up with the kind of melange you find at the bottom of any pack (sand, down feathers, clothing fluff and hair). So now that we have the ingredients, here's the recipe: bring water to a boil (if you have any salt, by all means add it), add rice and ham and cook for 10 minutes. 2 minutes before the end, add the prunes. It worked wonders and allowed us to do an amazing 2000m ski descent in the moonlight back to civilization.
My friends were so impressed that they named me official cook of our future adventures. The responsibility implied mainly that after a day of climbing I would cook for them while they rested and traded climbing tales.
A few WE later, on a similar ski mountaineering trip I experimented another recipe: the Sinked Pasta. Take an average mountain hut kitchen with a clogged sink full of rotting nameless leftovers and a banged up pan without handle... You see it coming, right ? So I cooked our last bag of pasta in the pan, then I started draining the water out of the pan by holding it with a dirty rag... I promptly burnt myself and dropped the pot in the sink... Followed an entire minute when Vincent, his brother and I were looking horrified at our last food mixed up with the putrefied horror at the bottom of the sink. Vincent, never one to complain about food, promptly spooned everything back into the pan, adding odds and bits in the process, and managed to cook it for an extra two minutes: "Just to make sure...". No one died.
"He was skinning a bear. I was terrified at first, because the corpse resembled a naked man quartered between two trees. He'd created a deadfall trap over some big talus blocks and the bear had fallen in. He used the skin for something and jerked the meat. If it wasn't astonishing enough behavior in a national park, the next day he made donuts, using bear fat for grease ! Surely, by now, he's created an empire somewhere in the world..." — Dave Cook.
This is a recipe that was suggested by Vincent himself. He once went with Lionel to climb an ice gully in the remote southern Alps in full winter. One full day of approach and they then started to settle for a comfortable bivy and the base of the climb. They get their gear out: sleeping bags, pads, stove... Vincent gets the bags of freeze-dry food out, assembles the stove and hooks up the gas. From this point on the conversation went more or less like that:
After searching their packs over and over and beating each others senseless in anger, they came up with this original recipe: take a pack of freeze-dry food, add a couple handful of snow. Chew thoroughly. They did climb the gully the day after, continuously eating snow along the route.
"In 1961 I led this chimney in a state of metabolic uproar. At the base of the pitch I smoked several cigarettes (the first and last ones of my life). This was to calm me. Then I spooned half a jar of honey. This was to ensure superhuman strength. Mort Hempel, my partner, watched this silly ritual with mouth agape and eyes exploding with fear." — Steve Roper about the 3rd pitch of the Worst Error.
OK, now let's go into more elaborate cuisine. Various countries have various culinary traditions, particularly when it comes to keeping food for a long time, which interests us for long mountain journeys. The Alps are for instance famous for their dry sausages and ham which you can find on any adjacent country. But what of other countries ?
On my first extra-European expedition with Vincent and the rest of his family we climbed several high volcanoes in Ecuador and also toured the country quite a bit. In the southern part of Ecuador we came across a restaurant with a barbecue up front and a good smell. The sight was not so enthralling: several large rats were spread open on the grill, gutted and skinned but whole with head, claws and tail !
After a brief talk with the chef, we learned that they were not rats but cuys, a local variety of guinea pigs bread for food. Whoah, makes you feel a whole lot better, no ? Let's have it ! So we walked in the restaurant and all ordered one, or at least some chunks. My plate came with a whole cuy on it's back, flattened like fresh roadkill, an impression confirmed by the dark color (charred BBQ or skid mark ?). No, what really impressed the hell out of me were the eyes: the damn thing was looking at me !
It tasted like a fat rabbit tossed in charcoal. I thought I'd never have any again, but a year later, while hitch-hiking back from some peruvian mountain I ended up with 17 other indians precariously perched on the top of a small pickup truck. After a few hours of travel a lady opened up a box and took out some pieces of meat and started to pass them along. She offered me one too, and although I was using both my hands to cling to dear life in every curve, I managed to free one in a stretch of straight road and ate the thing. It was cuy alright, but cooked in spices and marinated cold. It was pretty good. And it got rid of the road dirt accumulated between by teeth.
So the story ends sometime later, while in Peru with the usual Vincent and a Gib leaving his home country for the first time. With Vincent we decided to take him out to some specialties, which was particularly easy since he didn't speak a word of Spanish. So we ordered some cuy in sauce and started eating without telling him a thing. After a while we noticed that there was a problem: he had stopped eating and was looking at his plate with fright after licking the sauce off a big piece of 'meat': a rat head was looking straight at him. We kept on eating with just a cursory: "Oh, that happens here..."
"Gorp /interj./ mealtime sound made by a hungry alpinist.
Rurp /interj./ sound made by a climber after downing a hasty lunch."
When planning an expedition, think about the food not only in term of calories but also of variety and 'goodness'. I mean if it was only calories, you'd be fine carrying only sticks of butter, no ? More calories per weight. At altitude one already suffers from loss of appetite, but if you only have poorly chosen food to eat, it will only make matters worse. How many expeditions have failed because their only thought after 3 weeks was not the summit but a nice steak at the nearest restaurant ? No matter if the nearest restaurant is 3 days away in a filthy hole were chicken eat cans of cokes and beggars with skin pealing off in large chunks spit on the ground like in Tingry...
During our 2000 expedition on Cho-Oyu, we had two fairly good Nepalese cooks at base camp. The only problem was the metal plates. By the time it reached us the food was already frozen solid. No the real problem was higher up. One of us (who shall remain nameless) had been charged with ordering the bags of freeze dry at Lyophal. Now let me get this straight, Lyophal is a French company that makes good food. They have plenty of variety like rabbit in mashed chestnut, venison with cranberries and others. No, that nameless expedition member ordered 400 bags of only 4 different tastes... And bad ones too.
So after a few days spent at the high camps we would run through the choices: pasta with disgusting sauce that makes you fart. No. Chicken with rice that gives bad breath. No. Beef with the same rice and something green that doesn't look good when puling. No. Something vegetarian without calories that makes you weak. No. Hmmm, let me try again...
Fortunately we had also carried to the higher camps some Lardo di Colonnata, an italian delicacy made of 100% pure pig fat. Delicious and a real kicker for breakfast. And also prosciuto ham, dry sausages and a few other essential survival things. Others expeditions had Sherpas and oxygen. We had pig fat and I had no ethical problem with that.
Still about freeze-dry food, I discovered that in the US they sell you light freeze-dry !!! I couldn't believe it when I saw that back in '95 as I was shopping for my Denali expedition: less than 100 calories ! It was so unbelievable that I phoned the makers. Here's the dialog: "— Hello, I was shopping for some freeze-dry for a climbing expedition, but all your stuff has less than 100 calories... — Yes, we make light freeze-dry food because most of our customers actually eat them at the office and don't want to have too much calories... — Then why do you sell them in climbing stores ? — Mmmmh, I guess it makes them feel more active to buy them there..."
Moral of the story: check the calorie content before buying for a big expedition. And take a stick of butter to add inside. Nothing beats butter for pure calorie intake. When I got back to base camp after 10 days on Denali, I started boiling some water for my freeze dry and as I was cutting a piece of butter to throw in, my arm moved towards my mouth by itself... just like if I was about to eat the frozen stick of butter like an ice cream cone. I guess my body was trying to tell me it wanted some pure old-fashioned fat.
"Q: What's the difference between a large pizza and a mountain guide ?
A: A pizza can feed a family of four !"
OK, now that I have whetted your appetite, here's a hearty recipe good for long expeditions: the Logan bread, originally designed for the first ascent of Mt Logan in Alaska:
Mix all together and pour into buttered pan. Bake for 2 hours at 135°C/275°F and let cool before removing. It will keep for a month in a sealed plastic bag if the weather is not too hot.
"I climb way too badly to worry about cholesterol..." — Brad B.
Now onto something a little better. It may not be convenient to do into a tent (need some airspace), but it's perfect for car camping. Sure, there's a story going around with it: back in '95 in Yosemite we used to have dinner together with the bunch of other climbers on the same campsite. So one night I decided to make crêpes. I wandered around the campsite looking for two large frying pans and ended up inviting the guys who had given them to me. And word got around so eventually a lot of folks showed up around our table for a real Camp 4 event. I spent 4 hours making crêpes for everyone, but that's not the funny part...
At one point one of the stoves ran out of gaz. I told Adam to change the cartridge, he removed the old one and started screwing the new one... He must have gotten it wrong because gas started flowing out at the seal in a loud whistle... just next to the other stove... Bang! we have ignition... and lift-off as Adam throws that big fireball up in the air and it lands on top of a tent ! He runs after it and kicks it hard into the woods. Then he gets some rags and manage to unscrew the cartridge while it is still spewing forth a one meter flame. He comes back with smoking fingers, my poor squashed stove and we continue on with the crêpes.
Now here's my recipe:
"It's not advisable to drink too much strong liquors while climbing in the Alps. If, however, you are going to fall over a cliff, it's advisable to be thoroughly intoxicated when you do so." — Anonymous English alpinist.
Everyone says you have to stay well hydrated while climbing. Yes.
I first started rock climbing while a university student. We had a bar in the dorm building with 55 different kinds of beer, so there were many days when my ascetic climbing partners would drag me out of a bed I had barely managed to reach a couple hours earlier. One such time Jean took me to climb at the Viaduc, an abandoned bridge in the middle of a forest in the suburbs of Paris. A great place with dozens of 35m routes on very gritty and pocketed rock. He had been working on a 6c+ traverse for 3 months. I wasn't impressed. Mostly because I could not form any coherent thought and also because, having started climbing a few weeks before, I had never done anything above 6a. He tried to do it several times while I was dozing on the ground and failed. I then gave it a shot and flashed the 10m traverse. When I put my feet back on the ground and mumbled: "Easy, see ?" I saw him pick up a rock with murder in the eyes...
So does drinking enhance your climbing ? That's what I thought at the beginning, but after a couple of events that I won't detail here, I'm not so sure... A few years later I met with a couple of climbers from Marseilles in southern France for a day of climbing in the beautiful Calanques. They were old school, having themselves opened many routes there 30 years ago. The night before I had hooked up with a bunch of (other, younger) friends I hadn't seen in years, so I arrived at the morning's appointment passably tired and hungover. During the hike in, I couldn't but notice that the group had huge packs. On the first route I was shaking so much from the night's libation I almost peeled off a couple times. But then after a route or two they opened up their packs for a pause: folding chairs, ham, saucisson, thermos bottles of wine, plenty of food... After some wine put me back together we had a great time climbing.
When I started mountain climbing, I had the weird tradition of filling up with beer or wine in the evening before the big ascent. The reason was that for those long alpine days you need to get up as early as 2 in the morning, so you need to go to bed early too and finding sleep when it's only 7pm and daylight was not easy for me, used to late student parties. A couple bottles of strong microbrew bought in the hut or some red wine diluted in the soup (or the opposite) would handle the job admirably well. Big expeditions nowadays take only a couple bottles of wine to celebrate, but if you look at books by Whymper or other old timers, you'll find out that they were taking drums of wine with them ! And look at what they did climb...
The problem was doing the climb with a hangover for the entire day and possible worse consequences... So nowadays I stick to one only drink in the evening.
A place where drinking is commonplace is Antarctica. People are known to become alcoholic during the long boring winters. At least it's easy to freshen up the Vodka: just leave it 10 minutes outside. After my 3 months in Dome C in 2000, I was put straight by Jenny when we did our first day in New Zealand doing the 24km approach hike on the heinous Tasman glacier... She had to drag me to reach the refuge after 17 hours. Talk about rehab...
"Once, I was lost in the wilderness, and I was forced to eat a dog to survive ! Later I realized I was just in the back yard, but boy, was my mom pissed !" — C. Rostan.
Left: Kitchen at the Antarctic station of Dome C. Claire and Jean preparing some crêpes.
This one is easy to do, but you should keep it for the last day of your trip (trust me on this, or make sure to ask one of the eaters to promise to clean the pot beforehand). Use about 150g of Swiss cheese per person. Now this needs an explanation: the Swiss cheese available in the USA has nothing to do with Swiss cheese. It turns to water. So buy something that says either Comté (from where I come from), Gruyère (from Switzerland) or possibly Emmental (from France). Cut it into 1cm cubes. Put the cheese in the stove. Pour dry white wine until covered. Ground some nutmeg on top and a spoon or two of corn starch diluted in wine. Cover and let simmer for 15~30 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally.
In the meanwhile cut some bread (real bread, not sliced/cubed one with 21 ingredients in it) into pieces of about 2cm. It's actually better if the bread is 1 or 2 days old. When you serve put the stove in the middle of the tent/table on minimum heat (otherwise the bottom will burn). Dip the bread in with a fork and eat. Whoever looses his piece of bread in the fondue has to strip naked and run around the tent in the snow. As an option, when the cheese is nearly finished you can break an egg in the pot.
"— I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
— Huh... It was my MSR..."
Except when climbing big walls where you need to haul all your water anyway, in most cases you want your food to be as light as possible, which means it should not contain water. So forget about that watermelon, even if the trip is going to be hot. It's impossible to make freeze-dry food at home but you can make dehydrated food. In the US you can buy a dehydrator for fairly cheap with prices starting at about $40. What's the point if you can find beef jerky and dried food in any supermarket ? Well, it much cheaper, it's fun, it's good and you can experiment.
I'm sure there are plenty of recipes websites for dehydrators, here are just a few examples for beef jerky: buy a roast beef (or a similar piece without any fat) and slice it very thin with a long very sharp knife. Let the slices to marinate for 3 hours in either:
The more you marinate, the less you need to keep in the dehydrator. Same thing before dehydrating fruits, you can marinate them in lemon juice, orange juice, honey or others... When I was in Alaska my boss even had a homemade fish smoking installation: two barrels in his garden, 15 meters apart, the higher barrel was filled with grates of fish, the lower one had a fire of green wood and leaves going on and he kept a hose spraying cold water on the metal pipe connecting both barrels. A nice contraption. He 'drilled' the holes in it to let the smoke out with a gun...
"If Everest is the cake, Trango is the topping."
Besides a Swiss army knife, what's a climber's kitchen like ? If you take a look at Jenny's lists you'll see several suggestions. I distinguish two situations:
For when you hike and carry everything on your back, probably in cold areas. The best choice is to get a hanging stove such as the Markill Stormy (but get the version with feet so you can also use it on a table). Cooking in a tent, always with the door open against carbon monoxide poisoning, allows you to stay warm in your sleeping bag, to save time, to save butane and to do other things at the same time. When you are in this situation you want to reserve the stove to boiling water, period. Use freeze dry food, instant soups and tea so you never get the pot dirty. There's no way you can safely use a gasoline stove safely in a tent: one flare and you end up naked and sunburnt in the snow.
Right: Bread baked in a camping oven.
Just like when going light, I prefer propane stove to white gaz/kerosene. It's easier to use (no priming), you can simmer easily and it doesn't clog. A two-burner stove works great although you won't be able to use it in a small tent. Bring a selection of non-stick pots and pans, wooden spoons, knives and others. Two nice additions are a small titanium pressure cooker and a camp oven.
The pressure cooker, although quite expensive (let me know if you feel generous for Giftmas...), not only allows you to bake potatoes in a few minutes and make stews quickly, but also will prove invaluable if you ever do a himalayan expedition (remember that water boils at a lower temperature at altitude: pasta is gross and rice doesn't cook).
The camp oven which you can purchase from ??? is a simple system with a heat diffusion plate, a pot, a cover and heat retention fabric which you place on top of a normal stove. It doesn't look like much but you can cook anything that you do in a normal oven. Here are a few examples:
Right: Baking Pizza in a camping oven.
Right: Custom windbreaker around the camping oven on a windy New Zealand campground. One more use for beer.
And now the story: while we were cooking in Camp 4 in Yosemite one night, two guys with a huge camera and a microphone on a pole approached us and the conversation went something like this:
— What are you cooking ?
— Well, it's a pasta with a cognac sauce, smoked salmon and fresh shrimp. With some freshly baked bread. And for dessert some pears in wine with chocolate sauce. Why ?
— Oh my, we gotta get that, it will be quite some contrast with all the other climbers who eat cheddar cheese on crackers stolen at the Lodge !
It happens they were doing a documentary on Camp 4 for National Geographics after its classification as a historical site. They filmed us cooking for a while. And eating. So there'll be a prize for anyone who can send me a video file or DVD of the documentary, if we made it through the cutting room.
Right: Car camping in luxury under the stars during our road trip.
There are plenty more food stories that are worth retelling around a keg of beer:
Since they were in text format or MS Access format I converted them to html and compiled them into one big Windows Help file (.chm, which you can also read under linux with xchm). It's freeware and I have the author's permission, so download it here.
Warning: it's Windows only, French only and 6.6 Mb (10000 recipes).
Comme elles étaient seulement en mode texte ou MS Access, je les ai converties en html puis compilées en un gros fichier d'aide Windows (.chm). C'est freeware et j'ai l'autorisation de l'auteur, alors téléchargez gaiement.
Attention: seulement pour Windows, seulement en français et 6.6 Mégas (10000 recettes).