Mount McKinley 2013 - Food and Drink

nly sick people don't enjoy eating. It's the only biologically mandated, essential activity that we must do on a regular basis that is actually pleasurable. You see it everywhere - the Asian family who open a Thai restaurant ... in smalltown, U.S.A.; the street vendor selling chili-enhanced slices of mango and papaya on a busy street intersection ... in any Mexican community; and the mountain guide flipping "Denali burgers" for clients on an Alaskan glacier.

Without sufficient calories you obviously lose weight. That may be O.K. while working 9 to 5 at a desk job, and may even be preferable for one's long term health.


On Mount McKinley getting enough to eat is absolutely essential.

It's a combination of the cold and physical work. Fully 85% of food's energy content goes to simply heating your body above the surrounding temperature. It's a huge waste, in a sense, because it means only 15% of what's consumed actually goes to moving your mass uphill. With low environmental temperature the required energy to maintain body core temperature rises markedly. Hence just sitting in the cold, even with multiple layers, raises the metabolic rate relative to home.

food bags
Each bag holds a days worth
of expedition meals.

Note gallon of fuel. (DC)

Now add physical labor. What results for camp moving days is a daily energy requirement double your normal calorie needs. A typical expedition food supply calls for 2 pounds of dry food daily - roughly 3,500 to 4,000 Calories. If you don't eat that amount weight is lost, and as commonly occurs on Mount McKinley climbs. Ten pounds is typical. I lost nothing, which is to be considered a minor triumph.

High altitude tends to diminish appetite. In addition fats are poorly tolerated at seriously high elevation. Hence it is well to plan meals accordingly, with an increasingly larger fraction of total calories as carbohyrate rather than fat and/or protein. The resulting diet can become monotonous. In contrast, I found that on our expedtion every meal had an acceptable balance of these items.

ven more important than food is water. One can do without sustenance for several days - even weeks for a person with sufficient "reserves". However without H2O you perish in a few short days. Dying by thirst is horrible as it's so slow and insidious. Better to go quickly.

At Mount McKinley dehyration is an omnipresent threat, lurking silently in the background and compromising the climber who fails to recall that he must drink more than he "feels like". High altitude and cold dry the air, robbing it of almost all moisture content. Hence just the act of breathing releases more water vapor than can be taken in - and the effect increases as you climb higher.

Inside the kitchen tent at 9,600 feet. (DC)

Perhaps one gallon daily suffices, including all fluid naturally contained in food. Regardless, our two one-liter water bottles are generally topped-off before leaving camp since then there is no opportunity for melting snow, to replenish supplies, until either returning there or establishment of a new one.

Unfortunately water is pretty much tasteless. It's one of G-d's mistakes, failing to flavor the water molecule. Citing its smallness is not an excuse since table salt, NaCl, is equally tiny yet is hugely tasty.

To render water palatable one uses powdered drink mixes. I bring enough of this sugar-free stuff to flavor 40 quarts, corresponding to 2 quarts daily over a 20 day expedition. The balance of my hydration requirement comes in-camp as more enjoyable alternatives - hot chocolate, oatmeal for some breakfasts, soup at most dinners and pasta (which is roughly 80% water by weight after cooking).

Parenthetically I note that pasta has advantages over pizza, sandwiches and enchiladas at suppertime on the glacier -

Taken collectively, this need for food and water has an immediate consequence -

Without Cooking Fuel the Expedition is Finished.

The aircraft taxi companies provide gallon tins of Coleman brand fuel. A three week expedition plans on one gallon per climber, the main use being to melt snow for water.

Food preparers should note the following facts regarding how much energy is required to simply melt snow versus heating it to boiling (such as for cooking pasta).

  • By definition it takes 1 calorie to heat a gram of water 1 degree Centigrade.
    The food Calorie equals 1,000 such physics calories.

  • It takes a whopping 80 calories to melt just one gram of ice or snow.

  • It takes only one-half the energy to heat a gram of ice 1 degree Centigrade
    as it does to heat similarly the same quantity of water.


Chicken burgers with swiss cheese
await hungry customers at 14,300 feet. (DC)

Thereby the vast majority of fuel requirement goes to simply melting snow as distinct from additionally heating it to either a "hot drink" temperature or to the boiling point for cooking purposes.

Super-sophisticated outdoor plumbing
for our post-prandial convenience. (DC)

That's for an idealized system without heat loss in the process. Doubtless one strives to minimize this effect, through insulation, one that becomes increasingly difficult as the water temperature rises owing to the increased thermal gradient.

Drinking ice-cold water is not ideal, requiring energy for heating it to body temperature after consumption. Given the small fractional increment in required fuel, heating meltwater to at least "room temperature" seems advisable.

Water boils at an increasingly lower temperature with rising elevation. Sparing the details (which I once explained at mealtime), the approximate result is a linear decrease of 1 degree Centrigrade (1.8° F) for every 1,000 feet of elevation. Thus at Advance Base Camp water boils at roughly 186° F - while at the summit it boils at only 175° F.

This has immediate implications for how long it takes to cook (and sterilize) food. Would the additional weight of a pressure cooker be offset by a corresponding savings in fuel requirement? Likely not. However it would be beneficial anywhere animal power carries the burden - such as Aconcagua's Plaza de Mulas (14,200 feet) and Everest Base Camp (17,500 feet).


t home I eat a large lunch, a habit aligned with much of the world, and contrasting with the unhealthy American habit of sitting down to a large evening meal. Unfortunately a formal meal in the middle of a climbing day is inconvenient (except on "rest" days). Thus on an expedition the trend is to eat a hot breakfast and a hot dinner, relegating "lunch" to a day-long snacking affair that begins in the morning and continues through supper and beyond.

The following is a compendium of what is eaten on the expedition.
Mouse-click on any of the photographs to stimulate YOUR appetite!


ttention to variety is never keen with breakfast, be it here or in the typical home. In part this arises because, let's face it, standard breakfast fare is inherently not as varied as lunch or dinner.

On this expedition all hot meals are group affairs as this proves efficient for planning and preparation. However on a private climb it is quite sensible to have individual tastes accomodated.

Regardless of this dichotomy,


Here are the breakfasts we ate, including my recommendations for potential improvement where it exists. Moving days result in quicker affairs, obviating pancakes which are individually cooked on the griddle.

All mornings include a hot beverage, the choice depending on what you selected in Anchorage and/or brought from home. Coffee in some form is generally available.

  • Pancakes with dried blueberries plus cooked bacon.
    Maple syrup is available. However it's ice-cold, instantly turning cold any pancake portion
    that it flows onto. Eventually I did without for this reason alone.
    Butter expressly for melting atop (rather than just for cooking) would have been nice.

  • Assorted varieties of oatmeal in the familiar individual packets.
    Examples include apple cinnamon, brown sugar cinnamon and cinnamon spice.
    Nuts and available for mixing-in. Dry milk powder would have been nice,
    and also the "Fruit and Cream" varieties commonly found nowadays.

  • Cheesy hash browns plus cooked bacon. This cardiologist's nightmare is full of calories,
    and is preferably served on stay-at-home days owing to its fat content which is difficult to
    digest compared with carbohydrates. One morning ketchup is available!

  • "Denali burgers" - a two ounce sausage patty inside a toasted sesame bun,
    served with a 1 ounce cream cheese packet. Flavor is lacking, and the cream cheese
    can never be melted in time (by squeezing it inside the sandwich) to "save the day" as the
    sandwich rapidly cools. A flavor boost is achievable with dehydrated onions and added salt.

    Salt was not available in the group spices even though it was requested by clients several times.

    I cannot assist with my own spice kit since it contains only potassium chloride salt
    which is bitter-tasting.

  • A fascinating savory combination of cooked grits with bacon bits and parmesan cheese.
    I've never had this item previously, never ever. I will definitely be reproducing this
    at home - and improving upon it with melted butter.

  • One morning we enjoy toasted English muffins with melted cheddar cheese and bacon.
    It is delicious! A variant is available, I believe, with AMS (Alaska Mountaineering School)
    expeditions - toasted muffins with cream cheese and jam. In the best of all worlds
    both toppings could be available for variety's sake.

  • One morning we have cinnamon raisin toast cooked in butter! I think somebody calls it
    "French toast", yet unless it came that way from the freezer aisle I fail to see
    how that's possible without fresh eggs to make batter.

    Regardless it's delicious, and served with cooked bacon. The cold maple syrup again disappoints,
    I'd love to see melted butter to spread atop the toast.

    Given our circumstances, expecting warm maple syrup and butter is certainly excessive.

Pancakes with blueberries,
crisp bacon and maple syrup.

hash browns

Cheesy hash brown potatoes with bacon.


Toasted English muffin
with cream cheese & jelly.

We could have enjoyed scrambled eggs at breakfast. A cheesy omelet would be better still! However I have found that powdered eggs taste bad upon rehydration. Furthermore, they provide no carbohydrate as required for performance enhancement. To bring real eggs up the mountain courts disaster should they break. They also have a lower than ideal calorie / weight ratio.

Hot Lunches

here are a pair of hot lunches enjoyed at Advance Base Camp on days
we wait for diminished winds higher up the route.

  • Grilled cheese sandwiches, 3 halves per person. "American" (cheddar) cheese is used.

  • Hot peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. Somehow I get two entire sandwices,
    the second one literally dripping with jelly.

Toasted peanut butter & jelly - served HOT.

It is about then, at ABC, that my lower lip becomes blistered enough to adversely impact eating. I can no longer spice food, not even add salt, with considerable pain passing it through my lips. Pieces of each sandwich are first torn off with fingers, the individual bites carefully inserted. By the time I leave ABC this issue has self-resolved, presumably for having taken a pair of courses in Valtrex - an anti-herpes medication.


am thoroughly pleased with the variety and quantity of food available for the day's main meal. A soup course often preceeds the entrée, while a dessert sometimes follows it. The soup provides needed hydration, the dessert tops-off calories. I could live on dessert alone with vitamin pills!

The following items are enjoyed, along with recommendations for possible improvement. The only item truly lacking and which should be addressed is provision of salt within the group spice kit.

Any complaints noted are peculiar to myself, I don't believe that others are quite as nitpicky - these should be considered the opinions of a foodie and definitely not indicative of normality.

  • Pasta primavera with chunk chicken is served at Kahiltna Base Camp.
    There is parmesan cheese to pass around.

  • Steak and cheese sandwiches on French rolls, two per person, also at Kahiltna Base Camp.
    Onions, red and green peppers are included - plus an au jus gravy on the side

    * This is my number one vote for dinner food during our expedition. *

  • Thai-inspired rice with cashews and chicken chunks. It's full of carbohydrate
    yet lacks the flavor one expects from southeast Asia. Surely this blandness is intentional -
    and is readily addressed with the group spice kit which includes tabasco sauce.

    I generally add my own spices brought from home, not wishing to "hog" my share
    of the group's allotment. These include hot Indian Vindaloo paste, chili flakes,
    Cajun-inspired spice mix, garlic salt and a regular salt / potassium chloride blend.

  • Macaroni and cheese with cooked bacon on the side. Generally it needs "something",
    even if merely more salt. I am certain the other clients find it perfectly tasty as-is,
    my predilection for highly flavorful food showing itself. That tabasco sauce is a good addition.

    Recall that I eat this dish repeatedly while in Advance Base Camp with Zach.
    The usual nuclear orange cheese powder flavors this dish. I prefer
    real cheese here, and as employed for all manner of other cheese-based meals.

  • Chicken burgers with swiss cheese. This one is quite the surprise!
    The patties are large indeed, and are accompanied by optional pineapple rings.

    Caitlin personally selected the expedition's menus - "THANK YOU".

    This one is a "winner" if and only because of
    the variety provided - chicken rather than red meat.

    How may one incorporate fish into our diet? I have this pound of salmon jerky
    among my assorted snack foods - and it's for that salmon I generally save the cream cheese
    packets noted in the breakfast section above.

  • Pizza with Italian salami (one night) or pepperoni (another night). Each person gets
    two eight-inch Boboli pizza shells with plenty of melted cheese, the aforementioned
    sausage, and his choice of artichoke, black olive and pineapple tidbits.

    It's soooo good! For variety I add garlic salt - although it's honestly not needed.

  • Quesadillas - with guacamole sauce optional. I forego the latter because,
    as with maple syrup at breakfast, it is stone cold. Normally that would be fine
    if the corresponding dish were piping hot - yet the quesadilla is only luke warm by the
    time it's half consumed.

    There is a surfeit of cheese dishes on our expedition, and as previously noted. I applaud this concept.

Steak and cheese roll with
onions and au jus gravy.


Macaroni and cheese with bacon.


Pizza with salami, artichoke, black olives.

Once we have cheesecake adorned with dried blueberries.

Another time we have Oreo cookies spread liberally with cream cheese cake frosting.
I take my share and add a flavor dimension with jelly beans.

On several nights we split a pair of gourmet chocolate bars - one milk chocolate, the other dark chocolate. People are fair, and, knowing I love dessert (this was demonstrated at the Bear's Tooth in Anchorage), make certain that I get to enjoy the remaining squares. In fact, I quite often get served first if and only because I always demonstrate a huge enthusiasm for whatever is offered.

I also make certain to thank the specific guides who prepare my meal.

Post-expedition in Anchorage - from viewer's left we have
Caitlin, Zach, Dan, James, Nickel and Yoshiko. (DC)


ll food apart from breakfast and dinner is included here. We each bring snack food for personal consumption, the resulting items necessarily different between individuals.

The variety available is staggering, and is divided into two camps - savory and sweet. Among savory items we have salmon jerky, meat jerky (multiple varieties) peanut butter crackers, corn nuts, sticks of cheddar cheese and little wheels of "Laughing Cow" processed cheese (regular and low calorie), cashews, almonds, mixed nuts and "trail mix".

Sweet items include chocolate-based candy bars (Snickers, Butterfinger, Hershey's Almond, Kit-Kat, Caramelo, etc...); granola bars and so-called energy bars (some with up to 30 grams of protein); squishy gummy-bear-like chews, Jelly Belly jelly beans (49 flavors), Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, and my favorites - dried blueberries in dark chocolate plus almonds and coconut in dark chocolate.

There are also drink mixes available - cocoa (regular and sugar-free), instant coffee crystals, apple cider powder (surely just flavored sugar), and low calorie powders to flavor water.


bring several items from home that I know are supremely tempting and hence will be eaten,
there being no benefit, indeed a detriment, in carrying undesirable food...

  • Cinnamon babka, an extremely sweet brown sugar coffee cake to be enjoyed
    with morning beverage. I bring four 400 Calorie slices, each separately wrapped
    and then split 4 ways to be eaten over as many occasions since food must be rationed
    on the mountain as to last the duration.

  • Chocolate babka, as four 150 Calorie slices such that there's enough cake for
    a total of 20 mornings.

  • One pound of butter toffee cashews. I had purchased two pounds in May,
    realizing that I would be unable to resist them while still at home for a month.

  • Three ounces of chocolate covered coffee beans, intended for SUMMIT DAY when fatigue
    sets in - such as before descending from Denali Pass back to High Camp.
    I had actually purchased a full quarter pound - yet found myself sampling it at home
    prior to the expedition.

  • 105 sticks of chewing gum, enough to last 21 days at the rate of five per day.
    There are two flavors - "apple pie" and "rainbow sherbet".

  • The aforementioned drink mixes to accomodate 40 quarts, as 4 varieties each enough for 10 quarts.

    A revelation for you: The same sweetening power as one pound of sucrose (table sugar)
    is available in just one-tenth pound of low-calorie sugar substitute. Hence my roughly six
    ounces of sweetened drink mix provides the same sweetening power as nearly 4 pounds
    of sugar.

    On a Denali expedition that's a significant weight difference, one that can be
    applied to bringing healthy, nutritious food instead of cancer-causing sugar.

    Sugar is a terrible habit, its detrimental effects only now being discovered
    by medical researchers. I never drink regular soda pop, and will throw the bottle
    out, unopened, if accidentally purchased (as happened twice in the past decade).

Cinnamon babka - best with coffee,
spice tea or hot chocolate.

coffee beans

Dark chocolate espresso coffee beans

The number of items selected from our expedition's snack stores is configured such that my total snack item mass is tolerably similar to what it would have been had I not brought any food from home. After all, I am carrying it uphill. Thus the recommended "100 items" of snack items is replaced with 80, the above food from home comprising the difference.


f you are halfway normal then food is a welcome companion in an otherwise difficult day - be it from boredom in a storm-bound tent, or as the sole creature comfort on an exhausting, twelve hour march. Do yourself a favor and plan to bring enough food, and in sufficient variety to make every meal something to anticipate with relish.

A privately arranged McKinley climb might see dinner items similar, if not altogether identical to, what I devised for Aconcagua in 2006 - yet perhaps modified to accomodate the unique tastes of every attendee. The actual list makes me hungry.

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