A lot of people have asked me what we eat while climbing Mount Everest. This is a fun one to answer, since it ranges from the familiar to the far out. What we eat really depends on where we are.
The corridors surrounding Jokhang Temple.
We start the expedition in Lhasa. This is the largest city in Tibet and there are a number of good restaurants to choose from. Often we are boring and take advantage of the availability of western food, but there are some really cool Tibetan spots with an ancient feel and traditional food.
Makye Ame traditional Tibetan food in historic Lhasa.
Makye Ame is an authentic Tibetan restaurant surrounded by 7th century buildings near the Jokhang Temple. Tibetan fare is far from your western dish; Tsampa (it looks a bit like play-dough to me, but it's made of barley flour and butter tea), sour yogurt and yak cheese abound. Some items are quite tasty, while others have an acquired taste that I haven't quite acquired.
The Potala Palace at night.
Before we hit serious altitude, we try to relax and enjoy the views from the cocktail bar at the St Regis. This 6th floor bar has one of the best views of the Potala Palace and serves up classic cocktails with an unintentional Tibetan flair. My two favorites are the Dirty Martini (Grey Goose with canned black olives) and the Margarita (Don Julio, Cointreau, OJ on the rocks with a salt and sugar rim and a green olive in the bottom...we renamed it the Margatini).
Leaving Lhasa, we head west toward Everest Base Camp, stopping in Shigatse and New Tingri (Shegar). Most of the cities en route to EBC offer Sichuan Chinese, Tibetan and the occasional Indian dish. The food ranges dramatically, and the book can't be judged by the cover. Cement restaurants with dusty, warm beer stacked on shelves often greet the diners as they enter, but the food can be surprisingly good.
Dinner on the road to Base Camp: typical Sichuan Chinese Dishes
Chinese food seems to be the best bet for western palates. Dishes are served family style with rice, often on a lazy Susan. The most common dishes are fried egg and tomato, fried green bell pepper and sliced pork, fried tofu with mushrooms and green stuff, and fried beef with sliced green onions. It's mostly fried, but quite tasty.
When we arrive at Base Camp, it's all about our cooks and the food we've brought from home. We inconspicuously bring in (we're not smuggling) meat and cheese that are hard to find in Tibet and also snack foods that we love from home. Upon arrival, our cooks usually have a great lunch prepared with salad, hot orange Tang (it's not that weird actually), grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries and something special like grilled salmon. Cooking at 17,200' is hard and our cooks do a great job with the base ingredients they have.
Meals at Base Camp are supposed to be appetizing to keep climbers and Sherpa strong. This means our cooks try to make familiar food and create a comfortable dining space. Members (climbers, guides and our team Doctor) eat mostly western food and Sherpa, cooks and support staff eat eastern food in separate tents. This might seem like a warped Tibetan form of segregation, but separation allows members and Sherpa to eat food they're comfortable with, speak their own language and relax. It's a big part of resting and recovery for everyone.
Left: Momos, Tibetan dumplings. Right: A typical dinner at Base Camp.
The altitude at Base Camp and above makes eating difficult. First, it reduces appetite and changes what we might otherwise find appealing into stomach turning slop. This change occurs due to the lack of oxygen to the gastrointestinal tract. O2 is diverted from the GI tract to feed other tissues, such as the brain and skeletal muscles. The reduced O2 makes it harder to digest foods, especially those that require relatively larger amounts of oxygen to break down. Carbohydrates require the least O2, followed by protein and fats, making carbs the easiest to digest at altitude.
Spanish Chorizo, Jamon Serrano, and Manchego.
Difficulty of digestion aside, the most important thing is to consume enough calories. Climbers and guides bring a few items they love from home for the group so that we always have something appetizing. Expedition Leader Adrian Ballinger single-handedly put the owner of Trader Joe's kids through college by purchasing massive duffels of their best snacks. Lead Guide Chad Peele brought the underdog, mini peanut butter filled pretzels, as well as a few other goodies. Mountain Guide Topo Mena brought Chifles and organic chocolate from Ecuador and climber Brooks Entwistle supplied his own signature coffee blend. Team Doctor, Monica Piris was the show stopper here, bringing a plethora of aged cheeses, Jamon Serrano, and specialty olive oil from Spain.
19,000' Interim Camp between BC and ABC
The Next Stop above BC is Interim Camp at 19,000'. As the name suggests, this is a basic camp that serves as a rest stop for both climbers and yaks carrying loads between BC and ABC. The infrastructure is spartan, but we have a small Sling Fin dome for dining, a cook tent and sleeping tents. Meals here are simple. Pasta with tuna fish for dinner, spicy ramen noodles for breakfast and we're off to ABC.
Tula, one of our Alpenglow Expeditions cooks, headed to ABC.
ABC is similar to Base Camp for infrastructure. We have a large dining tent, a lounge tent, personal sleeping tents, a storage tent and of course the cook tent. Food wise, the biggest difference is the distance from base camp. Fresh food must be portered or brought in by yak, so it's less prevalent and more precious at 21,000' Advanced Base Camp. Meals are still quite nice. We typically enjoy dinners of pasta, roasted chicken, broccoli, cauliflower, fried Tibetan bread, curry, rice, and sausages.
We don't spend a whole lot of time above ABC, but when we're there, the food is all about minimizing weight and ease of cooking. In total, we sleep about 5 nights at the North Col (23,000'), or above, during acclimatization rotations and the summit push. Meals we eat at the North Col, Camp 2, or Camp 3 are made on an MSR Reactor stove so they need to be easy to make with only hot water. Instant soup and freeze dried meals like Backpacker's Pantry are dinner staples. For breakfast, it's instant oatmeal, instant grits or cold cereal with powdered milk. "Lunches" are a series of snacks that we eat as we climb. Favorites are Tahoe Trail Bars, Gu or Cliff Shots, string cheese, trail mix, and the all time classic climbing food: the Snickers Bar.
Everyone's favorite: Expedition Cake!
After summit day, the celebration is on and the cooks pull out all the stops! Happy to wrap up the expedition, the cooks prepare a great meal with the best ingredients left at ABC, complemented with beer and Champagne. Exhausted, we feast, rest a day and pack, before descending to Base Camp to wrap up the expedition!