As the bright sun pops over the shoulder of Mt. Hunter’s North Buttress the steam of our boiling breakfast water curls up into the frosty blue Alaska morning. Soon, the drone of bright DeHavilland Beavers and Otters bringing climbers into and out of the Alaska Range will fill the sky. For now, though, we hear only the hiss of MSR Whisperlites and JetBoils, sometimes even the jet-engine roar of an MSR XGK. My co-guide, students and I sit in the open-air kitchen and seating area we have dug from the snow. Before us on the table is a buffet of breakfast choices.
So much of your day to day happiness in the mountains hinges on the food you choose to bring. Once wheels are up on the tarmac in Talkeetna you have what you have – for better or worse. Instead of relying on oatmeal and Freezy D’s – which are MUCH better than they were even a decade ago and certainly have their time and place on climbing trips – you can build a varied menu before you even board the plane to Alaska. Keep these two salient points in mind when wandering the aisles of your local Safeway (or Stop and Shop, or King Soopers, or Fred Meyer’s, or H-E-B…):
- You are airplane camping. This is similar to the backcountry gourmet’s dream of ‘car camping’, where you have such luxuries as a cooler and a tailgate. You have only to put the bag containing your ingredients in a sled and drag them to camp, which is usually a few hundred yards from where the airplane lands. You can ‘go heavy’ with certain items that would be off the menu if you had to carry them in your pack.
- The Alaska Range is covered in frozen water. Hundreds of feet of it, in fact. You can dig a cooler and place perishable items inside. This both keeps foods cool and prevents more delicate items from freezing in cooler overnight temperatures and turning to mush when they thaw. You can make a prep/cooking area that allows you to sit or stand as you prefer. You can make a special little cave for your spatula. The possibilities for organizing your culinary zone are endless.
These two guidelines will, I hope, start helping you think outside the box where Alaska Range cooking is concerned, but are incomplete without a discussion of the foods that will leave you feeling full of energy for long days on the glacier.
Good, long-burning fats are the gold standard in the cold. Carnivores, by signing up for this course you have earned yourself a carte blanche excuse to eat a whole bunch of butter and bacon. As a carnivore myself I have found that pre-cooked meat or lightly processed meats are the safest bet for an 8 or 12 day course. Cooked meats in a bag with sauce – barbecue, green chile, etc – make for a clean and easy dinner, as do vegetarian or vegan meals like Tasty Bites. I will eat the meats more likely to go bad on the first days and save those with more preservatives for the last days. I bring a couple different kinds of cheese. I add shredded cheese to meals to boost the fat content and get some more of that long-burning energy into my food. I also like some varied cheeses (goat cheese or hard cheeses are amazing on the glacier) to snack on with some crackers as we sit down in the evenings to cook and tell tall tales. I see the happiest vegans on courses eating avocadoes, a variety of nut butters and using the oils of their choice – coconut, olive, avocado – to boost the fat content of their meals.
The equation for a delicious glacier breakfast or dinner is deceptively simple: start with a carb/starch and add protein, fat, vegetable and sauce. Whatever is used as a meal base should be pre-cooked (say it with me: we’re airplane camping, heavy is ok….) or require only a short time boiling in water or frying in butter or oil. Bagels, instant oatmeal, instant grits, tortillas and parboiled potatoes are all great breakfast bases. Ramen packets, wheat, rice or buckwheat noodles, mac and cheese, frozen chilaquiles or tamales, parboiled potatoes or instant/precooked rice make excellent starts to a satisfying dinner. If you choose to go this more cooking-intensive route bring enough butter or oil to fry up your dinner. Remember to bring two nights of lighter food and two easy breakfasts – here is where freeze dried meals shine on these courses – for the nights when your course moves camp. Bring a small bottle or two of your favorite sauce to spice things up. On some courses we have sampled regional hot sauces students have brought from all over the country, and sometimes the world!
Airplane camping also allows for certain foods that would be luxuries in other places. You can crack eggs into a rinsed-out Gatorade bottle (or any plastic bottle with a wide mouth). For extra security put the egg bottle in a Ziploc bag before flying. You can do the same thing with fresh salsa – just make sure to transfer anything that you buy in a glass container into plastic to avoid disaster! Bags of frozen veggies do better than those bought fresh, and will be less likely to freeze overnight and turn to mush. I bring a few pieces of fruit for the first day or two, then switch to dried fruit.
Much of your meal prep can be done binge-watching Netflix or listening to podcasts in the comfort of your living room. Your efforts will be rewarded as you recycle the big pile of packaging that you are not taking to Alaska. The more you can do at home the less rushed you will feel at Cubby’s in Talkeetna or at the Anchorage or Wasilla Fred Meyer. I like to make a list of perishables so I can be efficient with the limited amount of time I have during the shuttle stop in one of the Alaskan grocery stores.
Buying some smaller plastic containers and transferring your cooking oil and hot sauces into them can save a lot of grief and mess on the snow. Bringing a little (8”) frying pan from home can make frying cheesy bagels or brats much easier. Some frying pans are designed to be used with canister stoves like the JetBoil. If your meals require chopping, a thin plastic cutting board and small paring knife work wonders. Gallon Ziploc bags and a few sheets of paper towels (not the whole roll) are pretty much a form of currency once you land on the glacier, so throw a few extra in your duffels.
May your Alaska Range course have splitter weather, and may your meals inspire student and guide alike.