You cant climb Everest on an empty stomach (cont)

Here’s the piece I wrote for the second issue of Saffron Magazine (it came out in August) in full, in case you haven’t gone out and bought the app!

Chips and chocolate cake – you can’t climb Everest on an empty stomach

Everest is 'Extreme' in all senses of the word....

Everest is ‘Extreme’ in all senses of the word….

When it comes to travelling, I would put good local food right at the top of my list of priorities. So much so that I’m renowned in my family for planning every meal of a holiday with the precision of a military campaign to ensure I don’t miss out on sampling the very best, whether in a market, restaurant or local shop. But last April I arrived back from a three-week trip to the Himalayas, having subsisted for most of the time on Mars bars and egg and chips, and thinner than when I had set out! So what had caused this change of tack?

Back in April 2012, an innocuous e-mail pinged into my inbox from Twins UK. (I’m an identical twin and my sister and I take part in twins research on a regular basis). Hidden amongst the news pieces was a request for volunteers to sign up for a trek to Everest Base Camp. But this was no ordinary trip to Everest Base Camp (if such a thing exists!)  This was Extreme Everest 2, a team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists conducting experiments on themselves and other volunteers at high altitude, to develop new therapies to improve the survival rate of their patients. So, of course, we said yes!

Obviously, given my ardour for all things related to satisfying my stomach, one of the aspects I was most concerned with before setting out, was exactly what we would be eating as we trekked from our arrival at the tiny (and terrifying!) airport in Lukla at 2,800m to 5,400m at Base Camp, staying at local tea lodges on our way up through the Khumbu region. And I can’t say that the food we encountered ranks highly in my lexicon of fine dining or interesting cuisine. But, as is the case with any destination, I am always fascinated by what the food, and its sourcing and preparation, has to say about the people, history and culture of a region. Whether it’s a city deli, local market or just the little shop on the corner, I can spend hours watching and talking to people about food. And there are so many stories to be unveiled wherever I go.

The main street in downtown Namche bustles with

The main street in downtown Namche bustles with trekkers, locals and animals

Nepal served to remind me of this at every turn. Trekking into the mountains with no roads, combustion engines, or many of the tools we take for granted, with utilities at a premium (intermittent water, power and light), where everything for human habitation from lavatory bowls to gas bottles has to be carried up long steep paths by animals or men, you have to re-evaluate everyday expectations. And that was true for food as much as anything else.

Food preparation becomes a completely different challenge when every ingredient is either teased out of the few fertile metres of land in the small window of warm weather, or carried up steep rocky trails on the backs of men or animals. The sherpa cooks we encountered from our arrival at Lukla through to Base Camp, were operating under extremes – of ingredients, power, water, altitude. The fact that they produced edible food at all was astonishing; that, on the whole, it was reasonably tasty was a pleasant surprise.

Every patch of land is utilised to grow vegetables

Every patch of land is utilised to grow vegetables

The ingenuity of the local people was in evidence wherever we stopped, and the ability to produce food out of any small metre of suitable ground was present even at high altitude (though obviously not in the hostile environment we met as we walked across the boulder and ice strewn terrain into Base Camp!). Even the smallest patches of land were terraced where possible, and utilised to grow onions, lentils, garlic, cabbages, carrots and those greens that withstand the cold such as pak choi.  And lots of potatoes – the ground is worked by the women and enriched with yak dung – nothing is wasted. Rice is grown in the more temperate lower levels of Nepal, and ingredients more familiar to Western palates such as pasta are imported. The food we found was mainly vegetarian – there is no fish apart from canned tuna and little meat. Yak steak is an occasional luxury, and we encountered some very good fried chicken at base camp but eggs appeared at every meal in some form – hard-boiled, omelettes, in fried rice. By the end we were all practically clucking ourselves! In fact if I never see another plate of fried eggs and chips again it won’t be a moment too soon.

Heavily loaded, yaks and porters negotiate the vertiginous trails

Heavily loaded, yaks and porters negotiate the vertiginous trails

The route up to Base Camp is one of the busiest in the region; the mass of people, yak trains and porters moving up and down the trails, was surprising for such a remote area. The popularity of the route meant that we experienced what might be regarded as the crème de la crème of local accommodation and cooking. The old Nepal hands amongst our group all commented on the improvement in both the facilities and the quality of the food and, although the menu choice was limited to a few dishes that appeared without fail wherever we stopped – and did become monotonous by the end – the food was usually well prepared and tasty. The local people recognise the importance of trekkers to their economies and are trying their hardest to provide the service that will keep guests coming and spending vital money.

The primary need for trekkers is to consume enough calories to support the body as it is pushed to the limit. But in amongst the endless plates of egg and chips, egg fried rice, the rice and veg curry combination know as dhal baat, and the inevitable omelettes, there were a few unexpected oases of foodie pleasure. Hidden in the vertiginous streets of Namche Bazaar, the market town of the Khumbu that clings precariously to the mountainside at 3,400m, we discovered not only excellent Italian coffee, lattes and cappuccinos, but also a really rich dense chocolate cake, carrot cake and superb brownies.

Chocolate cake and Illy coffee in downtown Namche

Chocolate cake and Illy coffee in downtown Namche

On quizzing Nyima, the smiling owner of Namche’s Café 8848, for his tips for baking at altitude, I found he’d sourced his recipes online from Australian food guru, Donna Hay. Bire, the chef at the lodge in Namche where we spent three nights being tested by our team of docs, was also an accomplished baker. His soda-raised breads were works of art – whether shaped into temple-like structures and steamed, fried into pancakes of the lightest texture, or simply rolled out into flat bread and cooked on the griddle as we watched.

One of the most balanced and tasty plates we encountered - from chef Nima in Namche

One of the most balanced and tasty plates we encountered – from chef Bire in Namche

The main challenge affecting cooks operating at altitude is the low pressure and humidity, which leads to lower boiling points, faster evaporation and rapid rising. So the trick is to reduce the amount of baking powder and sugar used, and add more liquid to counter the drying out. Cake tins must not be over filled as any mixture will rise further and faster than at lower levels. Further up the mountain we came across several German-style bakeries which daily baked a wide range of pastries and breads to serve hungry trekkers. The challenge of stopping the products from being too dry wasn’t always successful but we were more than happy to test the results at the places we stopped off at for very welcome rests. Regular snacks with plenty of fluids were recommended en route by Ian, our guide, to maintain energy levels and avoid altitude sickness. So Snickers bars and Danish pastries just had to be consumed whenever we found them!

As good as it looks - Those sherpa chefs know a thing or two about baking at altitude

As good as it looks – Those sherpa chefs know a thing or two about baking at altitude

Chocolate cake made another impromptu appearance further up the mountain – at Base Camp itself when we were presented with an elaborately iced confection as a farewell gesture on our last night in camp. But it was just one of the selection of great if rather unorthodox dishes the team of resourceful cooks cooked up for us there. Curries were excellent and we had some rather odd local takes on pizza and pasta, sometimes all served together on the same plate! But a really good fruit crumble displayed a sure touch with the topping, and the morning porridge, fried eggs (more eggs!) with home-baked toast and Marmite, all washed down with copious mugs of weak black tea, were very welcome after a night spent in a tent set precariously on the glacier at -18C. How the sherpa cooks managed to rustle up three meals a day, including 3 courses for the evening meal, must be some kind of miracle. They were cooking for 50 plus people in the Xtreme Everest camp every day in the most basic conditions – a long low tent set on boulders with calor gas stoves, unreliable power and an electric bread maker.

The base camp kitchen at 5600m

The base camp kitchen at 5600m

I came away with great respect for the cooks who fed us at that demanding altitude and under such challenging conditions. And secretly rather pleased that I’d eaten all that chocolate and lost weight – not my usual holiday practice but one I’ll never forget!

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You can’t climb Everest on an empty stomach…..

Temple shaped steamed bread OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_0020

Saffron magazine is finally up and running as an app (£2.99 at the App store) and my piece on eating my way up to Base Camp is there complete with yak bell accompaniment! At the moment it’s only available as an app for the iPad but we are working on how to get it out to those without. Here’s a taster (no pun intended!)…

Chips and chocolate cake – you can’t climb Everest on an empty stomach

How did self-confessed foodie Mary Gwynn fare when trekking to Base Camp, in a region not renowned for gourmet cuisine? [ends]
When it comes to travelling, I would put good local food right at the top of my list of priorities. So much so that I’m renowned in my family for planning every meal of a holiday with the precision of a military campaign to ensure I don’t miss out on sampling the very best, whether in a market, restaurant or local shop. But last April I arrived back from a three-week trip to the Himalayas, having subsisted for most of the time on Mars bars and egg and chips, and thinner than when I had set out! So what had caused this change of tack?

Back in April 2012, an innocuous e-mail pinged into my inbox from Twins UK. (I’m an identical twin and my sister and I take part in twins research on a regular basis). Hidden amongst the news pieces was a request for volunteers to sign up for a trek to Everest Base Camp. But this was no ordinary trip to Everest Base Camp (if such a thing exists!)  This was Extreme Everest 2, a team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists conducting experiments on themselves and other volunteers at high altitude, to develop new therapies to improve the survival rate of their patients. So, of course, we said yes! (You can find out how we got on at our blog at www.twinseverest.wordpress.com)

Obviously, given my ardour for all things related to satisfying my stomach, one of the aspects I was most concerned with before setting out, was exactly what we would be eating as we trekked from our arrival at the tiny (and terrifying!) airport in Lukla at 2,800m to 5,400m at Base Camp, staying at local tea lodges on our way up through the Khumbu region. And I can’t say that the food we encountered ranks highly in my lexicon of fine dining or interesting cuisine. But, as is the case with any destination, I am always fascinated by what the food, and its sourcing and preparation, has to say about the people, history and culture of a region. Whether it’s a city deli, local market or just the little shop on the corner, I can spend hours watching and talking to people about food. And there are so many stories to be unveiled wherever I go.

Read on for just what I found to eat at altitude at Saffron Magazine via the app store £2.99

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Bust ups at Base Camp – the potential for trouble was clearly present while we were there….

Since returning from Nepal three weeks ago, I’ve been reading about the problems between the Sherpas, the porters and climbers at Everest Base Camp with sadness but no surprise. Even after a relatively short time in the mountains and just three nights in camp, the potential for major problems seemed obvious. Here is my own take on the issues that soon became clear to us during our visit. There are obviously subtleties involved and this is my own very personal view but it may help shed some light on what is going on at 5400m.

Team F with the infamous Khumbu ice fall behind

Team F with the infamous Khumbu ice fall behind

Our group, Team F, was one of ten groups of up to 14, travelling up to Base Camp over a six week period from mid March to early May 2013. The treks were organised and managed by trekking company Jagged Globe but we were there to take part in research for the Xtreme Everest 2 project. Our trek leader Ian Ridley was a seasoned climber with plenty of experience around the world and particularly in Nepal. He had previously made one unsuccessful attempt on the summit of Everest from the Tibet side, and last year, had made it all the way to the top from the Nepal side. His experience and opinions were informative and valuable over the three weeks we spent with him up to base camp and back, as we experienced the challenges presented by both the basic living conditions in the mountains and the altitude. His affection and respect for our Sherpa guides, local porters (and all who helped us on our trip) and for all the customs of the region he knows and loves so much were inspiring and educational to those of us newcomers to the area.

One of the biggest surprises of doing this trek for me was the sheer numbers on the trails making the ascent to camp and returning down – people of all ages and nationalities, in larger organised teams, smaller informal groups but also a surprising amount singly. This was due to the small window between the harsh winter and summer monsoon rains that provides the best conditions for both trekking and attempting the summit, along with the increasing popularity of Everest as a destination trek. I had been warned that it would be busy but even so the trails were far more crowded than one could have imagined. There was never a point in the entire three weeks were there weren’t people ahead or behind us; the number of yak, mule and pony trains carrying goods and bags to and fro was a constant stream, porters laden with the most incredible loads and often on mobile phones as they climbed either singly or in groups of threes or fours, were a permanent fixture. We had to stand aside repeatedly to let them pass. The numbers of incomers to the area was even more of a shock when we finally reached Base Camp itself. As you can see from the short film I took of the camp, it isn’t just a few tents but a small village spread over half an mile of rocky terrain.

You will hear Ian in the background of the film answering a question about who decides where each group’s camp will set up. As he says there are no rules or policing – just the precedent of previous years. And as camp get bigger and bigger the issues of rights, who goes where and does what, must get more tense! This tented village has to be built anew each year, and the level of detail for each team’s area surprised us. The local Nepali skill at dry stone walling was much in evidence and some of the encampments were amazingly well provided for. After only three nights in camp we recognised what a difference such comforts as good food and a hot shower would make for anyone staying in these conditions, especially when about to attempt such an intense physical challenge.

The first Sherpas and porters arrived in Base camp back in February and started preparing for the arrival of both local and international summiteers. The Sherpa ‘ice doctors’ start their work of preparing the ascent for those who will follow. They go out each day in small groups to set up the ladders and markings that will provide the crossing places across the crevasses in the ice, and the best and safest routes up to the top in the prevailing conditions. They are not tied together and this work is done in the most extreme conditions. They also set up the other smaller sub base camps that are in place up the mountain to which summiteers must trek up to and back from several times, going further each attempt, as they slowly acclimatise to the altitudes. This process is what keeps mountaineers going out from and back to the main base camp for six weeks or so until they are ready to make the full ascent. Even when acclimatised operating at altitude is the oddest experience – just turning over in your sleeping bag at night meant coming awake gasping for breath for a minute or two – a very unsettling experience! And your mind feels foggy and hard to focus.

The Khumbu ice fall is the first and one of the most dangerous stages of the ascent

The Khumbu ice fall is the first and one of the most dangerous stages of the ascent

Amongst the most dangerous part of the ascent is the initial section across the Khumbu glacier itself, viewable from base camp. The glacier is moving all the time – the mess tent in our camp had move several inches on the ice since it was set up in February, so the risky path setting up is done every year at the start of the season. Without the Sherpa ice doctors there would be no climb. With its many lethal dangers married with the effects of altitude on both the body and the mind, this is hugely challenging and dangerous. While we were on our trek back down, one of the ice doctors out preparing the route slipped and fell into a crevasse. He was killed as the ice doctors are not roped together to do their work. Ian led us in a minute’s silence to pay our respects to the sacrifice of a life to the harsh conditions of the mountain.

As we were walking through base camp on this sunny evening I asked Ian how it was decided who would climb when? It was clear that with so many groups setting up to make the attempt, such a short time to do it in, and the fact that there are not lots of separate routes up to the summit but the one set out by the experts, there could be a lot of very committed people trying to do the same thing at the same time. Ian confirmed this and told us that now everyone uses the same detailed weather reports, each group is likely to identify the same optimum conditions for their attempt. Add to this the high cost of the whole enterprise for individuals, the licence paid to the Nepali government alone is $10,000 a head plus the two or three months spent in Nepal acclimatising and preparing, the mental and physical preparation, and the stakes just become higher and higher. The Sherpas revere the mountain as a goddess and have their own historical relationship with it – dangers and challenges tied in with their own beliefs. Add egos and emotions running high and the situation can only become increasingly toxic.

The experienced trekking hands on our group were all surprised at how improved the conditions in the lodges, the food and the service was since their previous visits of only a few years ago. I was told that the advantage to trekking to Everest as the most popular of the region’s climbs would be the most modern lodges with the best provision for western tastes. So we found – conditions seemed basic but we got wi-fi, twin bedded rooms instead of dormitories, the loos though primitive were better than we had expected, and the food was very good considering the conditions it had to be prepared in. This all comes with a downside – lots of people and maybe a lack of understanding of the intense challenges for one of the poorest regions in the world, and what the local people live with and accept everyday. Even for such a remote region there was a feeling of ubiquity to such a supposedly unique experience. I know I want to go back to Nepal but next time will choose a less busy trekking area for my next trip. The conditions may not be as comfortable but I look forward to experiencing the mountains with a little solitude next time.

I know I have been incredibly lucky to be involved with XTreme Everest. As climbers and Nepali old hands, the teams of doctors have a very special relationship with the locals which is one of the reason they have been able to set up and run this important research and used Sherpa subjects as well as twins, children and those who have been to base camp before. Getting to know them all and being part of their challenge and this research has been a very special opportunity. If you get the chance, watch the BBC documentary on the first Extreme Everest study, Doctors in the Death Zone, filmed in 2005 as the doctors made the Everest ascent themselves, testing all the way to the top. It gives an idea of what we experienced on our own small trek but also the challenges faced by various groups all heading for the summit at the same time and shows clearly some of the issues that go to the heart of the current problems. The documentary also shows our doctors being called on to treat other climbers in trouble even at the risk to their own safety and the success of their enterprise.

To sum up – Everest is now a destination climb for many. It has the highest profile, the most kudos for lots of climbers, and it is now a big money spinner for both the Nepali government, the local population of the Khumbu region, and for the companies and individuals involved in organising the treks. This will unlikely to change. And everyone involved needs to think hard about the next steps before there is a real tragedy.

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See a selection of my Everest photos in our gallery

The view of the base camp village on our last night

The view of the base camp village on our last night

I’ve put up a small selection of the many photos I took which you will find if you click on the gallery button along the top of the blog….

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Over and out ……

So we’re done. Our trekking clothes are washed and put away. The photos have been sorted and saved. The sleeping bag and down jacket sent back to Jagged Globe. Our awfully big adventure is finished, and its back to the real world.

I’ve returned to Hampton Court and am continuing to learn how to be a garden designer. Mary’s back in the world of writing about food. There’s not much left to say about our trip to Base Camp that hasn’t been said.

But….. if anybody is noticing a yawning gap in their lives which used to be filled by witty, action packed posts about the ups and downs of trekking to Everest Base Camp – well there’s always my everyday blog. No Base Camp – but lots of ups and downs. Just go to olddognewtricks.me

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Sunday 7th April – final trek day, Namche to Lukla

Suffering serious Everest trek and particularly Team F withdrawal symptoms so I’m just sorting out photos to add to a gallery of the whole trip! But before it goes up, here’s a posting from other trek twins Beckie and Jain’s blog on the last day’s trek to Lukla. They’ve taken some great pictures which give an good idea of just how steep the hills we tackled were!

twinstrek2everest

We were sorry to leave the delights of Namchge but were relishing the prospect of getting to Lukla, my legs were aching and I couldn’t cope with much more. However I was quite sad at it being the last day, this experience and the team have been amazing and I didnt want it to end.
Khumbu resort and view from bedroom window

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A final post on the whole Xtreme Everest thing…

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An hour still to go into London Heathrow and I am sitting here in the comfort of Jet Air flight business class (one of Jane’s great ideas) and taking stock. I don’t want this to end – it’s been the most extraordinarily intense experience which I know will be impossible to repeat.

So the highlights – the joys of travelling and laughing together as a group; the intense physical challenges of base camp and surviving them relatively unscathed; being a part of something bigger; the beauty and variety of the changing landscape as we climbed; the vibrancy and colour of Kathmandu alongside the poverty and dirt; working with all of the medical teams with their own particular culture and outlook; the unusual experience of meeting an entirely new group as twins and learning in a fresh way that will inform my future that we are very different and I am not defined by our twinhood; remembering my 0-level geography as we climbed about the structure and behaviour of glaciers, with the satisfying language of moraines, ice falls, corries, mica and so forth; learning not to take so much for granted, such as access to copious amounts of hot running water, healthy fresh food,  a flushing clean loo, constant on-demand electricity; that sleep will come naturally when you are tired, and that sleeping bags have a life all their own……. and I don’t trust them.

And finally that my twin Jane is a truly wonderful person – I knew it already but seeing her in action with a whole new group of people, just confirmed to me her true spirit, drive and joy for life.

PS This will be my last post here but I am planning to blog on the food in the Khumbu in all its rich ‘diversity’ (that’s if you like carbs!)  on my trufflehound blog so watch out for it there…..

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