She was sitting by a roaring fire in an English pub with a plate of 10 mince pies in front of her. She proceeded to obliterate them one by one in a ritual of body-feeding and pie-sacrifice. No, Christina Franco was not doing a refashioned American ‘hot-dog’ eating challenge. She was preparing for an unsupported crossing of the Arctic hoping to become the first woman to accomplish that. That was some 8 years ago and I do remember finding the episode both bewildering and amusing…
Fast-forward this to 2015. My kids have a book on plumbing of a human body. They take hours to look through the pictures and ask questions on blood flow, functioning of lungs and make-up of a brain. They assemble and disassemble a half-sliced model of a frog that displays all gory inner details of an amphibian. They are fascinated with the science and the story…
I fear I have parked that curiosity at the age of 14 at an anatomy lab in high school as I raced off first down the lane of humanities and then into the world of economics. Investing did make me curious about functioning of human brain and neural impact on decision-making. The body… well, that curiosity was limited to contemplation of fad diets.
Taking on an endurance challenge makes one acutely aware of one’s dependence on nutrition, hydration and physical well-being. What is an innate knowledge for a professional athlete is a discovery for a lay person.
Simple and clear? Yes until you discover a discourse of the ‘vrais’ alpinists vs. the ‘new’ alpinists. Uelli Steck vs. Steve House. One arguing for a gel and half-a-litre of water to scale the North Face of Eigher, the other applying the science behind endurance sports to mountaineering. I suspect the length of Alpine routes supports the side of Uelli, whereas Steve speaks about expedition nutrition. I know too little about anatomy to take sides in this great debate. But for the first time in my life I am worried about not weighing enough.
I am 5 feet 5 and weigh 110 pounds. That is a great advantage on the rock with a sound weight-to-strength ratio. I can move up fast not being burdened by the gravity. The Poles and Denali expeditions are a different story. I have to pull the same 90 pound sled as a 180 pound man, with me taking on some 90% of my body weight in a polk, vs. 50% for my teammate. I feel it’s fair and it is my choice. Still I have to adapt to perform. I adapt by strength training and meticulously taking out every little bit of my kit that is not essential, and, well… by limiting the heaviest component – food that I take. Hm, not so smart.
With a 4 months long succession of high altitude climbs that I am about to undertake – Carstensz, Elbrus, North Pole, Everest and Cassin Ridge on Denali, I worry about losing too much weight and muscle.
The nutrition math is fascinating. On an average day on high altitude (5,000m+) I would lose some 4,000 calories. On an average day pulling a sled in -30 degree weather, a person with my complexion would lose 5,000+ calories.
What can you possibly eat to replace those expanded calories?
200grams of nuts (1000 calories)
5-7 chocolate/power bars (1200 calories)
2-3 gels (300calories)
a dinner of boil-in-the-bag (700 calories)
a breakfast of eggs, toast and bacon (500 calories)
Lunch, well, there is no lunch on the hill or while sledding… So adding it up, you could possibly get to 4,000 calories with a stretch. The truth is though, as you carry on climbing higher, your appetite vanishes and the body taps into the muscle and body fat. Needless to say, alcohol calories are non-existent on altitude.
To lose 1kg of weight you need to expand 9,000 calories. Well, that’s just a 3-4 days of not eating adequately.
Hydration is another story where the alpinists school themselves to limit water intake to maximum 2 litres a day. That is nowhere near enough, yet we have to remain light to keep moving fast… so the body adapts until it stages a revenge. Every time I come down from the summit, my body swells retaining all the liquid, preparing for a siege and draught. It takes a few days to rock it back into a comfort zone whispering that I will treat it nicely in the coming weeks…
Taste buds get transformed by a burned tongue. As you breath heavily through your mouth on a glacier, your tongue not slapped in high UV cream burns heavily. So when you are back down in Kathmandu, that curry with beer kills you ever so fast…
So here I am in Chamonix sitting in front of a large cheese plate, contemplating obliteration…. hm… not that easy to change the way we are. I start thinking of Christina’s logic ‘what you don’t eat today, you have to pull behind you in a sled’. Hm, that’s a threat big enough to stuff myself with a bit more of creamy brie.