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Vegging Out 

Backpacking food can be lightweight, or it can be good. But if you know what you're doing, it can be both.

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

"WE HAVE TO TAKE OLIVES, THOSE GREEK OLIVES," said my friend Anna J.

I looked at her in horror over a tabletop scattered with packing lists, water filters and a hundred Ziploc bags.

"Are you out of your mind? We're cutting our toothbrushes in half to shave off a fraction of an ounce in our packs -- and you're talking about olives? Olives have water in them, they have weight!"

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"You'll see, you'll be glad." Then she said, "I'll carry them!"

Anna J., her pal Mary Ann and I were preparing for a hiking adventure we'd been planning for a year, a climb up Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous 48 states at 14,500 feet). They were experienced adventurers; I was a raw recruit, having backpacked exactly once before in my life. For weeks we had been working on our equipment -- the subzero-rated sleeping bags, the expedition-weight capilene long johns, the cutting-edge packs. Now it was all about food.

There are some neighborhoods where you just can't find a decent restaurant, and Mount Whitney is one of them. Everything we needed for the three days of climbing had to be carried on our backs. This was tricky. On the one hand, we would be subjecting our bodies to a grueling test of endurance and needed to fuel them properly. On the other, any excess had to be hauled up and back down again -- so it was critical to calculate the right amounts, as well as the right food.

My experienced comrades explained that the basic plan is always the same: You work it around dehydrated meals and trail mix. The creative challenge is to add bits of this or that to subtly transform the pouch plan into something like real food. Better yet, real good food.

We were going vegetarian, both from preference and because it made sense. At high altitudes, food that is relatively easy to digest is best. Too much protein can backfire -- literally. For the foundation of our trekking diet, we tried to stay with food that is normally dehydrated, such as risotto and pasta. At Trader Joe's we bought those polystyrene cups of dried risotto and soups designed for microwaves in college dorms -- they're lightweight but substantial. And they work just as well in a titanium pot over a propane jet.

Of all backpacking equipment, the least heralded is the Ziploc bag. We bagged up several kinds of trail mix -- the plain mix, the luxury gorp with chocolate chips because you can't even consider going into the mountains without chocolate, and some salty Japanese rice-cracker mix. Though scorned by Mary Ann, who claimed she didn't like it, the cracker mix would prove its worth. At 12,000 feet, she was begging for it. The salt craving that can strike you on a strenuous hike is amazing, and should be respected.

Once we had the basics Ziploc'd, the slimming began. Everyone who has backpacked knows how this works. You spend hours shaving the weight from your pack. It's a strict budget, only you pay for everything in pounds and ounces rather than in dollars and cents. Then, at the end, you go for the one indulgence for which you are willing to splurge, to carry the extra pound. One friend carried a split of champagne up Whitney -- a glass bottle -- because it was important to him to have that toast at the summit.

For us, it was the idea of having some sort of fresh produce in the pack. Flavor. Something juicy. In pursuit of variety, and our holy grail -- live food at 13,000 feet -- we decided on a short list of five-star backpackable foods: pitted Kalamata olives, a few sun-dried tomatoes in oil, a wedge of dense, sweet cabbage, a couple of carrots, a few sprigs of Italian parsley, a chunk of excellent sharp Irish Cheddar, a smaller nugget of aged Parmesan (grated into a Ziploc) and one jalapeño pepper. These foods had to be delicious but tough. Anything that goes into a pack is going to take abuse, and a wedge of cabbage or a carrot can nestle next to the crampons and come out fine.

We also slipped in tiny packets of tamari and hot mustard, the ones you get with Chinese takeout. Our fresh-fruit ration was three apples and three oranges, for all of us. And in the category called "first-day food," we added a crusty baguette that we'd eat early on, so we wouldn't have to carry it long.

Finally, we were down to the elixir of life -- coffee. I wouldn't hear of instant. I ground up Kona beans (they don't weigh any more than the others) into double Zip-locs, then held up the paper filters and the mini­filter holder and said, "I'll carry it." Two ounces would be worth it. Now, we were ready.

THE FIRST DAY'S CLIMB WAS A REVELATION, THAT COMbination of exhaustion and exhilaration that is the essence of all hiking and backpacking. In the sunny October weather, the lower slopes of Mount Whitney were beautiful. We made our late lunch stop at about 8,000 feet or so, on a grassy strip by a rushing river. Hot, tired, hungry. Feet in the river, we split open the baguette, layered in pieces of crumbly Irish Cheddar and those slick, salty black olives. Washed down with the cold mountain water we had just filtered, it was the sandwich of my life.

That night we camped by a lovely meadow, crisscrossed with running streams. The huge, craggy cliffs of the mountain rose around it like sheltering walls. We ate our curry with slivers of jalapeño, and shared oranges before trying the chocolate trail mix. It had melted in the sun during the day, but now, in the sudden cold of evening, had hardened again into weird-shaped clusters -- the perfect dessert.

By the second night we had reached base camp for the summit ascent, a shelf of boulders and rocky gullies well above the tree line, nothing green or soft anywhere. It was bitter cold with the sun going down, so we worked fast, finding a flat piece of rock for our kitchen. While I cooked the risotto, Anna J. sliced cabbage with her Swiss army knife and then shredded a carrot. She mixed it all up, dripping tamari over it.

Dinner was something like a miracle. Anna J.'s salad was the first of four courses. Next we had the risotto, with a pinch of fresh Parmesan and a few leaves of green parsley stirred in. Then slices of apple with almonds and more of our special, twice-melted gorp. Finally, in an almost ceremonial moment, we poured hot chocolate into our thermal cups, and I broke out the teensy airline bottle of Glenmorangie I had stashed at the last moment. Shared three ways, it was hardly a drink, more like a memory of life somewhere else -- a nostalgia.

To appreciate how exquisite and lavish this simple meal was, imagine how you'd feel eating this in outer space -- that's how it felt there on those high, high rocks, a moonscape with the world spread out below us and the snowy slope of the mountain looming above. Far away from the sources of food as we were, each bite had a clarity and importance that enlarged it, and not only because we needed it for survival. We knew we were living high.

AS IT TURNED OUT, WE NEVER COOKED OUR THIRD planned dinner. After our triumphant ascent of the peak, our brains were addled from lack of oxygen, so we struck camp and headed down. We walked all the way down the mountain in the dark, exhausted, sharing dim flashlights, driven crazy by the idea of sleeping in beds at sea level. It was over.

But never forgotten. Often when I have risotto, or a fresh cabbage slaw, or coffee just dripped through a filter, I think of how it tasted those two nights on the mountain, when our senses were razor-sharp, and every taste rang like a bell in a great hall.

Anna Thomas is a screenwriter and film producer, and the author of The New Vegetarian Epicure.

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