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What To Eat To Climb A Mountain

Written by: Clare England, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Food is fuel for the human body. What we eat gets broken down into component parts that our body uses to move our muscles, send information and repair, build and grow new tissues. Our bodies are capable of extraordinary things. But they can only continue to do extraordinary things with fuel, and ideally the right fuel. However, food is also a lot more than fuel. Food is a way of bringing people together. It brings emotion and feelings and is part of culture and traditions. I set about challenging my body to climb Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, sitting at 4167m. This is what I learnt about eating to get to the top.

group of hikers celebrating on top of snowy mountain

I signed up to climb the mountain as part of a group of 12 ladies. These ladies started as strangers but quickly became a very powerful circle of hope. We would summit on International Women’s Day 2023 hoping to inspire ourselves and others to go out and achieve things we once thought impossible. We were led by Jo Bradshaw, an experienced guide, expedition leader and Everest summiteer, a tenacious leader, quick to pass on her skills and knowledge to those wanting to learn. Our expedition was planned immaculately by Sue and Jim at Adventurous Ewe, a small independent adventure travel company, and as this was a girls-only trip, it was Sue that joined us in the ascent of the mountain.


Morocco is famous for two types of food, couscous and tagines. And as luck would have it, they are perfect mountain climbing food. Couscous is small, steamed granules of semolina. It is wheat-based and a complex carbohydrate, perfect for fuelling long walks in the mountains. Our couscous was served piled high with spiced vegetables. A tagine of lentils accompanied our couscous, made in a fragrant and frankly delicious sauce. The two partnered beautifully, and the mixture of local spices meant we kept filling our plates.


We met this beautiful meal at our first rest stop. We had walked from the mountain village of Imlil. 3 hours of walking through gently winding valleys led us to this rest stop. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us and the prospect of climbing the tallest one seemed both daunting and exhilarating. Eating took on new importance in the mountains. Whilst the food was delicious and easy to eat, it was imperative that we had enough energy to keep going. Our energy was tested during the next 5 hours of walking. We were walking on snow with the Moroccan sun blasting down on us. It was sweltering, slippery and a long slow climb to our overnight refuge. Snacks were consumed in abundance to keep us going. I was working through my stash of oat bakes and cereal bars, interspersed with dried fruits and nuts.


We were greeted at the refuge with hot tea and popcorn. It was beautiful, freshly made, lightly salted, popcorn. The tea was a mixture of green and mint with a little sugar, it was like a small but heartfelt hug. Refuelling was the priority at the refuge and after tea and popcorn, there was a short break before our evening meal was presented. More couscous and tagines, copious vegetables, bread slices and fresh fruit. We couldn’t have asked for better. Our bodies were working hard to recover and rebuild. Meanwhile sharing our food became a way of getting to know each other better. We swapped stories, shared insights into other areas of our lives, laughed and smiled and all the while kept sharing and enjoying the delicious food prepared for us.


Our second day on the mountain was spent learning vital safety skills. The use of crampons and ice axe was new to many of us, so we needed to concentrate to take on board as much as possible. We were now officially at altitude which makes everything a little more difficult. Carbohydrates were the fuel of choice. Not only were we rebuilding the stores that were diminished the day before, but we were also using this fuel to practice our new mountain skills. We climbed to a slope where we could practice ice axe arrests. An ice axe in its most basic role is to be used to stop you from sliding off the mountain. To practice this, you must slide, roll and plant the axe into the snow or ice and bring yourself to a stop. Terrifying to begin with, this practice quickly becomes a little fun as you learn how to stop. The sliding gradually got faster and the slope longer and steeper, until we all felt more confident. Next up, crampons. These spikey boot attachments make walking on snow and ice so much easier, however, there is a technique to walking well in them. We set off, upwards again, this time kicking each step into the snow. By kicking the crampon into the snow, the fix is much firmer, and you are less likely to slip. It felt great to feel secure on the snow and after a few hours we were all ready for a rest and some more food.


Fresh popcorn and Moroccan tea were served. Shortly followed by rice, vegetables and lentils. This evening was all about summit preparation. There was a palpable excitement around the table, and we all made a conscious effort to eat as much as we comfortably could to ensure our energy levels were topped up. We were briefed on how long it would take, advised on what to wear and what to pack and it was our job to be ready for breakfast at 4 am with departure for the summit at 4:30 am. Once our summiting gear had been prepared it was time to focus on snacks. We would need a constant supply of energy not only for going up but also coming down. We were planning a big day, getting to the summit, returning to the refuge and walking back to the village of Imlil. It would be at least 10 hours of walking. We stuffed all sorts into our pockets and bags. It was going to be below freezing in the morning so we needed to pay attention to where things were so they wouldn’t freeze. We also wanted easy access to the snacks so that we didn’t have to stop for long in the freezing conditions. Chocolate bars, fruit and nut snack bars, cereal bars and many other snacks were loaded. An early night was had by all and as the alarms rang out in the morning, I felt like an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. We gathered for warm porridge, pancakes and bread. The nervous excitement had built but by sitting and sharing a calm meal together we collected our thoughts and as one, headed out onto the mountain.


The starlit sky above made the valley look beautiful. The moon shone on the snow-capped mountains and painted a stunning picture. We slowly but surely zig-zagged our way up the mountain. As the sun came up, we could see the summit. The sun painted reds, oranges and pinks across the sky. And then the final push. We reached the summit as the sun was starting to shine on the ground below. We looked out over the Atlas Mountain range, and around to the Sahara. Clouds gently bubbled in the distance while in the foreground snow-capped peaks stood majestically. It was beautiful. We took pictures, we laughed, we cried, and we hugged. We celebrated with chocolate. I had held back a special bag of chocolate-coated blueberries, and these were shared with everyone. We all ate and drank and soaked in the views. It was a very special moment to savour, and then we began the descent.


Descending was a long affair. Once back at the refuge, we shared a quick meal but needed to keep the momentum going to get back to Imlil. We were again in the full heat of the Moroccan sun. The snow underfoot was slippery and unpredictable, at times it would simply disappear beneath you. We slid, slipped and wobbled our way down and completed our descent in the dark. Eating had again taken on a new purpose. It was a comfort now. We were exhausted and food was a way to ease the pains and say thank you to our bodies for achieving our goals. We sat together and collectively exhaled. We had done it.


Communal eating is a tradition in many cultures. It is a way of sharing joy and celebrating the food available. It is a way to learn from each other’s experiences, enjoy each other's company and delight in the pleasures of life. Sometimes, in our hectic lives, we forget the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with friends or family and taking time to savour both the food and the company. This trip has taught me that yes, it is very important what we eat, but it is also important how we eat. Snacking on the go keeps you going and can get you to the top of the mountain but sitting down with friends, family and special people can enrich the journey. Food is a celebration; it is pleasure and fun. When we take the time to share this delight with others, we are rewarded with so much more than calories, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Food is hope and food is joy, may we all go on to share this hope and joy as we tackle the many mountains that are part of life.


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Clare England, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Clare England MSc is a Registered Associate Nutritionist specialising in plant based nutrition and living. She is a talented recipe developer with specialist knowledge in chocolate, vegan, and non-dairy innovations. Clare takes great pleasure in sharing the joy of chocolate and educating people in the art of plant based living. A lifetime learner, Clare is always seeking to improve her knowledge and skills through continued research and education. She has a passion for sharing this learning and does so with warmth and integrity.

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