On Top of the World

On Top of the World

Are you taking too much food or too little on life’s journey? You be the judge.

By Leslie Bilderback 09/11/2013

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There are many habits I’ve acquired by virtue of being in the food business. I grab hot things barehanded without hesitation. I eat with my hands while standing. And when I prepare meals, I always prepare too much. I am terrified of running out. Running out in the restaurant business means you are poor at planning, or poor at customer service. I never want to be caught in what I refer to as a “Veal Prince Orloff” moment. (An homage to The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode in which, with the help of character Sue Ann Nivens, Mary hosts a fancy dinner party, which is ruined when Mr. Grant serves himself three portions of the Veal Prince Orloff.) Running out is simply not okay. So ingrained are these traits that, as you might expect, they manifest themselves outside of work. Such was the case on a recent backpacking trip.   

I like to think of myself as outdoorsy because I like trees and pine cones and stuff. (Although, come to think of it, I do spend the majority of each day indoors.) I have camped plenty, hiked a few mountains and I backpacked once in 1979. All of this, I figured, rendered me plenty capable for a stroll up to the top of Mount Whitney.  

I love getting to the top of things. It’s not a power thing; I just enjoy a good view. And the idea of being on top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States was irresistible. At 14,494 feet, and about 11 miles from trailhead to peak, it seemed completely doable. Wilderness access is awarded by lottery and, after several years of trying, we finally won our two-day pass. (Non-hikers will probably think it’s a little weird to refer to such an arduous hike as winning the lottery. “Congratulations! You get to work your ass off and poop in a bag!” Yay!!!!)

Hikers can reach the peak from the west via Sequoia National Park and the John Muir Trail or, as we did it, from the Whitney Portal at Lone Pine to the east, in the bustling Owens Valley (famous as the location of many old cowboy movies, as well as for its population of sketchy bearded characters à la Sons of Anarchy).    

I am no stranger to the wilderness and well versed in camp cooking. But backpacking requires that one leave behind a certain amount of civility. There are no s’mores (although I made a case for the ultra-light marshmallow), no dump-cakes, no hobo packs, no mess kits. Cookware needed to be minimal, and calorie content had to be high. (The estimated calorie burn for hikers is about 3,000 a day.) There is no room for tableware — one plastic spoon must suffice. And forget manners — if I’m not allowed to brush my teeth, use deodorant, shampoo or soap, why should I bother with a napkin? (Scented hygiene products attract bears and other critters eager to look their best.) Luckily, the only person on the mountain I wanted to impress had already married me. Sucker.  

In the backcountry, anything you want to eat must be carried in a bear canister. That is an approximately 3-gallon-capacity drum with a bolt-sealed lid to keep smells in and bears out. We loaded ours with our favorite picnic lunch — salami, cheese and Toblerone bars. We filled Ziploc bags with our special blend of trail mix (blister peanuts, golden raisins and M&Ms — because they melt in your mouth, not in your hands). We brought some extra-fancy granola and a full pack of Starbuck’s Via (the only decent instant coffee), because there is no ascent without caffeine. This breakfast menu then required powdered milk for the granola and a tiny stove to heat the water for the coffee. In my brilliance, I sought out MREs (meals ready to eat) like the ones I became enamored of during my recent Navy trip, thinking it would reduce the need for cooking accoutrements. There are great entrees that are heated by magic (a.k.a. flameless ration heaters, which operate by oxidation-reduction reaction of water on magnesium. Sciency.). As an added bonus, there are little bags of goodies inside with things like matches, toilet paper, gum, Gatorade packets, bread and peanut butter snacks, toothpicks, salt and pepper, instant coffee, sugar and creamers. We also carried several varieties of instant sport drink tablets, because variety is the spice of electrolyte replenishment.   

We loaded our packs carefully at home to minimize excess weight. We got nifty camp chairs that weighed a mere 1.5 pounds. We had a lightweight tent for two, good sleeping bags and the bare minimum of lightweight clothing. Once packed, the bag seemed manageable enough. But...

At the end of day one, after nine miles of vertical trail, we were exhausted, starving and cold, but our MREs didn’t heat adequately. We wanted none of the little extras that came with the meal, nor did we want to sit in our cute camp chairs. We wanted only to sleep.  

Our summit hike the next morning required just a day pack. Four hours straight up culminated in an amazing view, an unparalleled sense of accomplishment and a delightful salami and cheese lunch. The Toblerone, however, proved to be too much. As it turns out, high-altitude exertion does not result in a chocolate craving. We really wanted Gatorade, but we forgot to mix it up.

Three hours later we were back in camp, packing our bags for the nine-mile trek downhill. Still inside our bear canister was a fair portion of the food we’d packed, a fact I cursed with each wincing step, as my back and legs started to ache. I tried to enjoy the babbling brooks and fragrant shrubbery. But all I could think of was how much stupid food I was still carrying. Why did I bring all 12 Via packs and the box they came in? Why so much trail mix? Why so many Toblerones? And the stupid MREs, which I was now packing out, were more packaging and condiments than food.  
Simply put, I did it again. Too much food is clearly my modus operandi. But I can’t blame my profession. It’s the way I live overall — with too much stuff, a wealth of choices and a sense of entitlement to things like good coffee and fancy chocolate.

When you realize the actual weight of everything you haul around on your back, the list of things you’re willing to live without suddenly gets pretty long. It’s an apt metaphor for my modern life, and a signal for me to clean out the garage, look up from my iPhone and enjoy the scenery.

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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