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Eating for Ski Mountaineering, By Andrew McLean.
Like any endurance sport, eating for ski mountaineering and staying properly fueled up is essential to having long, fun days in the mountains. The plot quickly thickens though as trying to eat when you are cold and working hard can be tough and it is often tempting to just skip the fueling process or put it off “for just one more climb.” What people eat depends on a variety of factors, but one of the biggest ones would be the temperament and objectives of the group you are with. For many ski tourers, lunch is an involved sit-down affair with carefully prepared food, hot drinks, a choice view and a leisurely pace, but for others, namely my touring friends, it is everyone for themselves with no set food stops and a serious focus on getting more skiing in.
Based on the more skiing = more fun scenario, your core long lasting energy comes from having a good dinner and breakfast before you head out. These meals provide the enduring, slow burning energy that you need to keep moving all day and I equate them with having a nice big stack of dry firewood to burn. That said, fires do need to be tended throughout the day, which is where energy snacks come into play.
One of the reasons people don’t eat or drink enough when ski touring is that it can be a pain to stop, take off your gloves and pack, find a treat, buckle back up and then try to eat while you are moving and trying to breath at the same time. For this reason, I prefer pocket-sized treats which can be eaten in variable quantities and still stashed in your jacket pocket without exploding all over the place. Prime candidates would be the Clif Bloks (I like the salt in the Margarita flavor), chocolate or Stinger Waffles. For quick hits like this, I try to strategize them for either the beginning or towards the top of a climb. For years I’d often hold off on eating until I made it to the top, but the top of peaks can often be cold, windy places where you are mainly interested in taking a quick look around, stripping skins and getting moving. Conversely, valley bottoms can often times be cold sinks (where cool air pools) and after a powder run you might be a bit chilled and want to get warmed back up by moving again as soon as possible. What I try to do is anticipate the top of the climb, then do a quick break maybe 15 minutes before, switch out to some warmer gear, have a bite to eat and then finish it off. This way the food has time to work its way into your system for the descent, which is good as skiing is much more dynamic than skinning and requires a different type of energy.
If you do have the luxury of an extended lunch, I prefer clean burning solid fuels like jerky, sausage, cheese, crackers, bread or whatever good looking food your partners are willing to share. The grass is always greener in your partner’s lunch box. For fluids I prefer a lightly flavored energy drink like the Nuun tablets, which I mix with one tablet per liter of water. Ski touring involves a lot of heavy breathing and having your mouth coated with an excessively sticky drink mixture and be unpleasant. Nuun also works very well with warm tea, and if you have the thermos this is one of the quickest ways to get an instant energy boost.
For super long events, like a 24 hour race or an extended summit push, staying fueled is critical as once you bonk, it is almost impossible to recover. Altitude also makes most people’s stomach queasy, which is why it is important to force yourself to nibble as you go. Bagging a big, high peak is a classic example of the tortoise verses the hare; slow and steady will almost always win out over starting too fast, and staying well fed is important to do, even if you don’t really feel like it. For high outings, I prefer “pocket food” like jerky and cheese which can be nibbled on constantly without fiddling with a wrapper. For 24 hour events, I try to start out with a good breakfast/dinner base, follow that up with as much solid food as I can (turkey sandwiches, potatoes, etc.) and then go to warm soup when things start to get grim.
Ski mountaineering racing is a whole different animal as the races tend to be short (about two hours) and the idea is to totally spend yourself during the event such that you probably won’t be doing much in the afternoon aside from recovering. Again, a solid breakfast base is essential, but during the race gels and Clif Bloks tend to be the fuel of choice as they are fast acting, quick to digest and involve minimal fuss – just don’t lose the wrappers or you might get disqualified for littering.
The art of pacing and eating during ski mountaineering outings differ from person to person, but once you find out what works for you the sport suddenly seems much less grueling and a lot more fun. Keeping eating, take it easy and before you know it miles of powder will be following effortlessly under your bases.