Life At Druva

The Food at the Top of the World

Since this summer, Sauraj Jhinghan, Druva’s manager of human resources in Pune, has been chronicling his preparation for an ascent to the top of Everest. In this post, he describes what mountain-climbers eat at such high altitudes.

As I sit looking out of the window, I have to wrest my attention away from the snowcapped peaks in the distance, and compel myself to focus on the task at hand. It’s the 7th of November, 2014, and I am sitting with our climbing team in our office in Katmandu, going through a pile of documents and paperwork. We have to complete our planning and file our “expedition report” to the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) in order to get approval for our climb. The peak in question, and our target, as we are all aware of, is a US$100,000 expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.

Stacks of files addressing pressing logistical issues clutter my desk, involving climbing and camping equipment; wages and insurance for porters; salaries and accommodation for kitchen and camping staff; transportation and helicopter evacuation arrangements; medical supplies; communication equipment; purchase manifests; and medical reports for the climbing team.

But the one document that catches my attention and registers highest on my priority list is the file titled, “The Food and Ration Manifest.”

“An army marches on its stomach,” famously claimed Napoleon Bonaparte (or someone else). Taking this axiom to heart, I now concentrate on the problem of feeding our small army of 40 people. It takes a lot of people – and food! – to climb Everest: camp staff, kitchen staff, the climbing sherpas, the porters, and the administration team. We will spend two months living on a glacier at 17,500 feet above sea level, in one of the most inhospitable terrains known to man, supporting our expedition team of two intrepid climbers. The challenge is multifold. I must account not only account for food as body fuel, but also consider our period of stay, ensuring variety and flavor, and tantalizing taste buds in every possible way. In addition, it is crucial to take into consideration the regional diversity with respect to the team, which include Nepali, Indian, and Sherpa palates.

It’s important to remember that while we are on the glacier, away from family and friends, without any sign of greenery or vegetation, the term “comfort food” takes on a whole new dimension.

Huge destruction and devastation caused by the clash of these mighty titans of nature, glacial ice and mountain rock, leave behind a brutally scarred landscape upon which we puny humans attempt to carve out an existence in flimsy fabric and Gore-Tex tents. Everest Base Camp, our home away from home, is a city consisting of some 500 tents scattered across the southwest shoulder of the Khumbu Glacier, 250 kilometers from the nearest motorable road in Nepal. The remoteness of this location forces us to fly all our food and equipment across from Katmandu to the small airstrip of Lukla, located at the head of the valley, from where it is then ferried via yak caravans through the high passes and deep gorges of the Everest valley. The caravans traverse a distance of 65 kilometers over 8 days before finally ascending onto the Khumbu Glacier and Everest Base Camp.

Despite this mammoth logistic challenge, and notwithstanding the exorbitant associated costs, the simple pleasure of enjoying an American breakfast of fried eggs and buttered toast, along with baked beans and sausages… Mmmm… truly priceless! However, when the cost of procuring freshly baked bread amounts to $3 a slice, the pleasure becomes an exception rather than the norm. On most days, based on our experience in prior expeditions in the Khumbu and Everest valley, our major source of nutrition is potatoes. Grown extensively in this area and extremely rich in starch and other complex carbohydrates, it isn’t unusual to have a rich diet of potatoes, not just for lunch and dinner but also for breakfast. Canned food makes up a very large part of the diet, too; it is often accompanied by a very generous helping of rice.

Another important consideration is the food prepared at high altitude camps above Everest Base Camp. We are severely restricted to small Butane burners and a limited water supply; that limits us further to dehydrated food and power gels. Special treats, like favorite dry fruits and chocolates kept specifically for this period, often go to waste. With the increase in altitude, not only is there a directly proportionate decrease in appetite but also a gradual inability to distinguish and differentiate tastes. As a result, that much-appreciated Snickers bar or that lovely piece of dark chocolate suddenly turns into sawdust in your mouth; and because of the cold, it refuses to slide down your dry, almost parched throat.

However, gone are the days when we would survive on poor food substitutes such as dehydrated potato mash or baby food like Cerelac. Fantastic research and innovation in specialized foods for high altitude survival has given climbers many options. GU Gels, for instance, provide climbers with a shot of 100 calories in the form of a patented carbohydrate blend (70%-80% maltodextrin and 30-20% fructose) to deliver high-quality, easily-digested, and long-lasting energy. GU also includes electrolytes to ensure proper hydration, an antioxidant blend to stave off muscle tissue damage, and an amino acid blend to delay muscle fatigue. Sitting and going through this list of high-altitude food, I can’t help but wonder if some poor soul in NASA is looking at exactly the same food list for sending a team of astronauts into space.

With our “Food and Ration Manifest” safely taken care of, I’m now extremely aware of the clock ticking. Before we know it, we will be at Everest Base Camp, enjoying a hearty meal of potatoes (ugh…..!) . With this thought in mind, and an urgent requirement to start packing on the calories, I might as well make good use of my time and start eating. With all this talk of food, I suddenly find my stomach growling in anticipation and thus I’m faced by one of those great conundrums in life: butter chicken and naan, or pepperoni pizza?!

Did you enjoy this post? Read the others in this series: Why Everest? Because It’s There; Climbing Everest: Lessons from Lebouche; My Pursuit of Mount Everest Begins.