“Jesus Josh, would you please eat a sandwich or something?” Helen remarks as we stand in the early morning dark outside Kathmandu airport. “You’re starting to look like a stick figure!” I grin in response, and explain to her that she shares my mother’s opinion. As I help her husband Jake unload our bags from the van we just arrived in, I begin to explain to her the basis of my little experiment, and how it will face its final test between now and nearly two weeks later, when we attempt the 20,075ft summit of Lobuche East.
As we wait in a crowded line of other non-Nepalese, all in the customary down, Gore-Tex, and fleece, looking like an advertisement in Outside Magazine and complete with stuffed North Face duffels just like ours, my story continues. Beside me Jake discusses details of our upcoming flights with Rabindra, who is our head Sherpa for the journey ahead. Jake is the team leader, and the owner of Juggernaut Adventures, the company that has brought me to Nepal. Along with the four of us are Andy, Ken, and Brian, the three enthusiastic clients that round out our team. And as soon as this massive line of other trekkers, climbers, and assorted thrill seekers are allowed to filter through the closed doors in front of us, we will board flights to Lukla airport, billed as the most dangerous in the world. As we land, it’s not terribly difficult to see where Lukla gets its notoriety. It’s not so much the altitude of the place, clocking in at 9,383ft above sea level, nor the fact that it feels as though were flying inside a maraca every time the wind broadsides us. It’s more the fact that the tiny plane dives without warning and lands suddenly on a small strip of asphalt about half the size of your average Starbucks drive through, carved right out of the jagged mountainside.
In fairness to the pilot, it was a textbook landing.
After a stop for tea in the winding, stone built town of Lukla, which is carved literally out of the mountainside as well, we meet the rest of Rabindra’s team, and then set off for the town of Phakding. For the next 16 days, we will trek slowly towards our eventual rendezvous with Everest Base Camp, stopping in the remote alpine villages each night to slowly acclimatize to the increasing altitude and decreasing oxygen. From EBC we will make our way to our climbing high camp, leaving around midnight that night to summit Lobuche Peak, before picking our way back to Lukla and eventually Kathmandu.
Each day is a slow and steady trod through the dusty landscape of a small country that contains every different type of climate zone on earth. It’s certainly not the most “wild” of movements. When compared with all the running, jumping, and swinging that has become such a large part of my recent training, trudging slowly and steadily uphill day after day seems rather dull. Yet the towering, snow capped peaks of the world’s greatest mountain range make for an environment that is the epitome of wild, and this is the movement they require.
I am here to gauge how my body acts and feels in this massive world of rock and snow as a result of all this varied training, and as each day passes, I am consistently happier with the results. My legs and lungs have responded exactly as I had hoped. It feels easy to pull ahead, and tempting though it is, I do my best to remain with the group.
With each day, we wind our way up steep, rocky mountain trails, past porters, trekkers, and yak herds clanging with neck bells. Around every bend is a view more mind blowing than the last. The Himalayas are truly a sight the likes of which I have never seen, every bit as vast and rugged as one would expect from a wilderness that was created as a result of the Indian subcontinent smashing into the rest of Asia.
By day two we have gotten our first glimpse of Everest herself. With each passing day, I find myself staring at the jagged, snow covered mountains I know so well from years of reading, Googling, and dreaming about them. Lhotse. Ama Dablam. Makalu. The list goes on. They are more than any photo has ever done justice, yet somehow every bit as legendary as all the famous stories about them imply. Each one keeps me at a loss for words. Instead I simply stare, as though my grasp of the English language never existed to begin with.
Alongside my awe, I am happy to find that as we grow progressively higher in altitude, and as my body acclimatizes to the thinning air, so does my experiment seem to be working. My energy levels remain stable, devoid of spikes and crashes. The hills and heights become more intense, and while there is certainly tiredness experienced, everything seems to remain stable. It is an experiment, however, that is not above the need for some adjustments on the fly.
Maintaining my fat based, non-sugar diet is difficult in a place where every menu is dominated by boiled potatoes, noodles, and rice, and every store filled with soda, chocolates, and candies as we make our way steadily higher towards the roof of the world. Bringing in nutrients seems quickly dismissed as misplaced optimism.
I found it unavoidable to ask myself why I managed to ensure a full supply of vitamins and other nutrients for the two months I spent gallivanting across Southeast Asia a year ago. Certainly we experienced our fair share of culture and adventure, between climbing, hiking, and taking in the sights. Yet admittedly the trip was a vacation, not a mission, and thus included its fair share of drinking tequila shots, getting wild with other travellers, and riding motorbikes as fast as possible through the madness of traffic in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Yet here, a place I had spent a lifetime dreaming of visiting to pursue some actual physical objectives, I had somehow managed to leave supplemental nutrients behind. Well, I tell myself, if this was meant to be a bare bones experiment, it will certainly be authentic.
I am consequently forced quickly to make a few adaptations as all good adventures require. How my decided adaptations will live up to the hard science behind the Maffetone Method, I’m not certain. But seeing as I have been my own guinea pig for this long, it seems only fitting. Morning meals will consist of as much fat and protein as I can ingest: boiled eggs, the occasional wedge of yak cheese, and my ever-steady diet of peanuts. As the trek progresses, I refuel only with fat for energy. The slower going makes it easy to stay well within the threshold for oxygen debt, despite the steadily decreasing presence of oxygen in the air. I am counting on the two months of training my body to become a fat engine to carry through now.
Each night, we sit in alpine lodge rooms built around a small, circular furnace, heating our bodies by burning patties of dried yak dung. I consume my reasonable share of the rice, fried noodles, or boiled potatoes. The need to refuel the body is not a question but a fact, and while it may shake some of the purity that this little experiment had in its initial stage, my theory seems to be working. The hope is that everything consumed at the end of the day that will be inadvertently converted to fat can still be tapped as fuel in its fat form the following morning.
With each day, we gain altitude, and as my body acclimatizes to the thinning air, so does my experiment seem to be working. The influx of simple carbs is welcomed nightly by my battered body, seemingly on board with my last-minute adjustment, and eager to convert the evening meal into tomorrow’s fuel.
Now before I go any further, and some nutritionist, or trainer, or other mountaineer has my head for writing this blog, I feel the need to clarify something with utmost specificity: I am not suggesting that I have discovered the revolutionary climbing diet, nor do I claim to be evidence of some newly discovered form of athleticism. I am just some guy that lives in a van who likes climbing things, did some reading, and was stubborn (or stupid) enough to test these concepts out on himself. I’m certainly not suggesting you fast track your climbing career based off this page. I can’t tell you how your body will react to this, or how many things will be different once I get around to working with an actual nutritionist on whatever the next stage of training this all evolves into. What I can tell you, however is this:
All the way to Everest Base Camp, my experiment proves a success. My energy is stable and consistent, despite that I continue to grow thinner, as evidenced by Helen’s occasional reminder that I look like a stick figure.
Yet now the biggest test looms: the 20,075ft summit of Lobuche Peak. Here begins the mountaineering, and the stretch of the feat that above all else I have come here for. As we part with the members of our team who are not climbing, I ask myself why I would choose my first shot at a Himalayan Summit, something I have spent my whole existence dreaming of, to attempt some zany and otherwise inadvisable dietary experiment upon myself. Saying it aloud makes it seem all the more unreasonable: keep the body functioning below the oxygen debt threshold in a sport whose central pillar is performing under heavy oxygen debt. For all I know, it is an impossibility, and for this reason I have packed a couple of Twix Bars purchased at twice their cost in the US, and a bag of date and nut rolls kindly given to me by a friend’s parent before I set off.
Looking down at my ankle, I am reminded of my unavoidable inclination to take things too far.
Well, I tell myself. I guess we’re about to find out.