Notes from an Expedition
This summer, I participated in a five week expedition in the Himalayas with the British Exploring Society (BES). We were based in Ladakh, at the northern tip of India, on the border with Pakistan and Tibet. Spending approximately thirty days trekking and sleeping under canvas between our Base Camp (BC) and other sites, food was an important part of our daily routine; predominately as a source of fuel.
During our intermittent days at BC we were able to indulge a little more (although the word indulge here may prove generous as you continue reading), as well as re-stocking our supplies for the three-to-five day treks we were otherwise pursuing. To explain our diet in brief, our meals were composed of the following:
- Breakfast: Porridge with dried milk powder, sugar and sultanas
- Lunch: Dried produce such as crackers, nuts and dried fruit; as well as tinned fish and tinned cheese (Amul)
- Dinner: Ration packs (lovingly nicknamed 'Rat packs') or 'Fresh' ingredient dinners
- Snacks: Biscuits (lots of biscuits) and an expedition Flapjack for each day
Our limited resources in breadth of flavours and variety led to some very original creations. During our celebratory 'feast' three weeks into the trip, we were able to make pizza, as well as being given a 'Masterchef' challenge where people were adventurous enough to make delights such as doughnuts and an Amul cheese cheesecake. (We quickly learnt that this cheesecake in particular should never be made for human consumption ever again).
Our favourite discovery was taking the rock-hard dried apricots and soaking them overnight in water, before boiling them down with sugar/tinned fruit syrup to make a delicious and vibrant apricot compote to add to our porridge. The apricots themselves were sourced locally in Leh, where apricots are a seasonal special. With only three months of growing time, the Himalayas can be challenging growing climate and the summer time is essential for locals to grow and gather as much crop (predominately wheat and barley) as possible. When we arrived in late July, the fruit were still green on the trees, but four weeks later as we drove back, you could see bright gems of orange hanging from trees at the edges of fields and in peoples' gardens; ready to be plucked for the turn of winter.
I reached a point about two weeks into the expedition where I realised 1/4 - 1/2 of my daily dietary intake was coming from some sort of oat-based produce: Porridge, flapjack or oat cakes that were shared by the gluten-free members of the group. Although it was evidently keeping by bowels in check (where the rat packs most certainly were not), I realised that a greater intake of nutrients during other mealtimes was also important.
Breakfast and lunch were both repetitive to say the least, but when you are trekking at over 4,500m, whether something is exciting or tasty to eat becomes a lower priority. At altitude, staying hydrated but also consuming enough to fulfil your calorific needs are both extremely important. One symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a loss of appetite, and for some, the thought of munching their way through a 700kcal ration pack just before bed was less than appealing. At first we were told that we should be aiming to eat a main and dessert (add another 500kcal) each day for the amount of energy our bodies would be burning. I learnt that sharing a dessert between two or three girls in addition to the 'main course' was more than enough to suffice.
A note on rat packs: Rat packs are freeze-dried food packets that are created to be high in energy, specifically created for people on expeditions. To make your rat pack edible, simply add water and wait for five to ten minutes (if you have the patience for it), stirring occasionally. On expedition we were using 'BeWell' rat packs, a company thoroughly endorsed by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whose face is embossed onto the front of many of the meals (predominately the meat options). For logistical purposes, meat-eaters were given only meat options and the vegetarians inevitably had vegetarian options. The meat options included: Chicken Vegetable Pasta (my favourite), Chicken Pesto Pasta, Chicken Tikka Masala (not great if you are sharing a tent), Creamy Chicken Korma, Beef Shepherds Pie (a scarce find, but apparently a winner - I think someone had stockpiled them for themselves), Chilli Con Carne, 'Tasty' Beef Stroganoff, Beef Curry with Rice (to be avoided at all costs). To phrase it nicely, we found that the last two options sort of "went straight through you", and we all found ourselves the next morning taking repeated/urgent trips to the latrine; or if out on a trek, running for the nearest rock. Bowel-wise, I believe the vegetarians perhaps had a slightly easier ride, although their protein and calorie intake was definitely lower.
Moving onto desserts, we had three options: Chocolate Chip Cream Dessert, Rice Pudding with Apple, Papaya and Pineapple Dessert (which contained no traces of pineapple) and my favourite, Strawberries and Cream. Counterintuitively, the boys loved the chocolate option. It was high in protein and they would wolf it down, despite the fact it only had a mild chocolate flavour. My tent-mates and I often would often share a Strawberries and Cream, experimenting between having crunchy, meringue-like sugar crystals from adding too little water, or a cream-like soup if we added too much. Eating rat packs was a matter of personal preference. Some flavours loved by one person were hated by others. Some liked their water up to line 'C', whilst others, up to line 'A'. Eating them becomes somewhat of a ritual in your daily trekking life. A warm, filling meal to look forward to after a long hard day on tough terrain. Despite our high-calorie diet, I do not know a single person out of a team of eighty-two who did not lose weight over the course of those five weeks. It is part of the expedition experience when your body is pushing itself harder than in any other everyday circumstance.
The food was certainly a mixed bag. Highlights being our 'fresh' evening meals of strangely composed noodle dishes that were a refreshing change to our beloved rat packs. Biscuit and flapjack consumption on the expedition were both excessive to say the least. One team-mate would hoard other peoples' flapjacks, having up to three in one morning. It seems that expeditions bring out the oddest of our cravings and eating habits. But surprisingly, even after over-consumption of butter biscuits, flapjacks and porridge, I do not find myself with an aversion to them now. That said I have not particularly craved them since my return home.