Story by Gijs Schuurhuis
I lost almost fifteen pounds during our Lenin expedition. Allert was even worse, he looked like he didn’t have a proper meal in months. When we got home, for some of us it took a full week before our bowel movement got its shit together. So I think it’s safe to say that, in our preparation towards this expedition, we took some valuable Lenin-food-lessons with us.
First of all, it’s completely normal to lose weight during an expedition, as it is practically impossible to replace all of the calories that you burn in days climbing.
However, it’s not only calories that you burn, it’s also fat and muscles. Without going into the specifics, you have to understand that my body (and yours as well) is inherently lazy.
It’s lazy because it uses the easiest fuel available and converts it into energy. The good news is that sugar scores pretty high on the ‘lazy fuel’ list and boy do I love sugar! The bad news for the untrained body is the fact, that fat does not come in second place – muscles do – and well you need those to get your bloody heavy backpacks to higher camps and to climb steep ice.
So this year we needed to change our game and I must say looking back we really did a good job! For me personally I felt way more energized during the expedition and I only lost about five pounds in the end. So what did we do differently?
Our body has some difficulties converting fat into energy. However, the good news is that you can train this. Low intensity training is the magic word. In preparation to this expedition we did endless long sessions of jogging, cross training, rowing and/or stepping. All these sessions focused on volume and not on intensity, keep your heartrate low and you will start burning fat! This type of training is widely used by biathlon athletes and teaches the body to burn fat instead of muscles or sugar. If you want to know more about this, I really recommend the book ‘Training for New Alpinism’, written by Steve House.
Besides all of the specific training, nutrition is key. This my Achilles heel. I don’t mind going to the gym 5-6 times a week, but I can’t just torture myself and put away my candy. That is where I draw the line between being a pro-athlete and being an ordinary guy with a fulltime job and a crazy passion for high mountains! But fortunately this works for me and it makes me respect Allert even more, because I know he switched to a no-sugar, high protein and fat diet!
However, reading more about the subject makes you more conscious about what the body needs. Even though I didn’t totally switch up my diet, I made some adjustments during and before the expedition. Just small things that for sure made an impact. We all used extra supplements in the weeks leading up to the expedition, especially boosting our iron and vitamin C levels.
Something to build upon
This year we took a lot of food and bought even more at the Grand Bazaar in Bishkek. When it comes to expedition food we are lucky enough to get support from our partners at Summit to Eat and Cliff Bar. Their products offered a solid nutritional foundation to which we added all of our personal preferences.
It’s important to know that everybody gets a little bit sick at high altitude and the first thing to go out of the window is your appetite. That’s why in the morning and evenings you need a proper meal with lots of calories, but perhaps even more important you need something you can feast upon, a nice meal with good flavors. Summit to Eat is a new brand with incredibly high calorie meals and good taste! They even have a chili that gives you quite the kick. After having eaten it for weeks the only feedback we could provide is to make bigger packaging!
During the day you try to eat as much as possible and what you eat is very personal. We all find ways to get over the mental barrier of not wanting to eat. Some have more trouble getting stuff down than others and that’s why it is really important to find snacks – food that you like. We teamed up with Clif bar and they provided us with their protein-filled energy bars, gels and their brand new Clif Bloks!
Especially energy gels can be quite tough on the stomach. I have tried tons of energy gels during training sessions. Caffeinated, not caffeinated, from mocca to raspberry and banana, gels – or drinkables. You need to discover what works best for you. For me two things stood out. Firstly, Clif provides a longer lasting and intensified boost of energy. Second, the Bloks reminded me of the winegums I eat back at home – Score!
Both Summit to Eat and Clif Bar provided an upgrade to what we took on our Lenin expedition and a solid base when it came to nutrition. In addition to this we made quite a simple but essential change, which boils down to: take more food, diversify your food, bring food that everybody can eat.
This is exactly what we did and it boils down to two important elements:
1. Shakes are not only for bodybuilders
When you bring it back to the basics you need a lot of calories and carbohydrates to fuel your engine, you take sugar for short sprints and you need protein to recover. On Lenin we made the mistake to focus on the meals and snacks and less on the recovery food.
This year we took protein shakes. At first I was reluctant, but they really do work. Besides the fact that it’s lightweight, the boost in protein makes your muscles recover quicker and you feel more energized in the long run. We made sure that upon arrival in any camp we all took a protein shake, sometimes two a day.
2. Take your local bazaar serious and share
On arrival we did extensive shopping before departing to basecamp, something we didn’t do last year. We bought almost eight pounds of nuts, all different kinds and all high in protein and fat. Looking back it was the perfect snack, at all times, in all places. We were literally eating all the time.
Dried salamis also work well and I think this is key – nice food offers a boost in moral. Climbing high mountains means long days, getting into camp, death-tired, still having to put up your tent. It is these moments that you all get into tent start unpacking your stuff, you’re tired, hungry, your head aches and you just want to lay down…and then all of a sudden you find this a salami....soulfood. Everybody stops, you look at each other until someone says……“shall we eat half?”.
As climbers we’ve all been inside that tent, perfectly happy with our share of the food. For me it’s those moments that define my love for adventure. In normal life we get overthrown by complexity, pressure, ambition and tend to forget that it doesn’t take much to be happy, as long as you share it with the people around you.