Winter Park, Colorado, Image by Author

If you are from the Midwest, or a place of comparable altitude, and have ever taken a trip to the mountains, then you are probably familiar with the humbling experience that is trying to breathe air that just doesn't seem to be there.

A simple task, such as walking up a hill can elicit dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. Legs become heavy and slow, and lungs flap uselessly against heaving ribs. It’s not pleasant.

Which is why in anticipation of a recent snowboarding trip to Colorado, I wanted my body to be ready for the hypoxic air. I had put off upping my cardio training until it was too late for it to make a meaningful difference, so I thought maybe what I ate would help me out.

Armed with my decade-old college freshman understanding of bioenergetics, I reasoned that with less oxygen available, my muscles would be depending more my anaerobic glycolytic system, which uses carbohydrates stored in the muscle in the form of glycogen, to produce energy in the absence of oxygen (It should be noted that our cells’ multiple energy systems work on a continuum, and are always humming along, producing energy using a variety of fuels, but the duration and intensity of any given activity determine which of these energy systems is providing the greatest percentage of energy at any given time). With this in mind, I planned on eating more carbohydrates than usual. In practice, my appetite trumped my intentions, which as we’ll see, is pretty normal.

My friend Dave and I started our first day with eggs, bacon (that we hoped was left in the fridge by our rental’s more recent inhabitants), and packed turkey sandwiches for lunch on the slopes. We ate what we were hungry for, when we were hungry. I didn’t get the feeling that what I was eating had much of an affect on how I felt or performed on the mountain any more than my diet affects my physical activity back home. We had decent snow conditions, and were able to push ourselves pretty hard without much discomfort, enjoyed some après ski beers, and I destroyed Dave in a few games of Settlers of Catan (don’t bother fact-checking that last tidbit). In the end, according to this sample of one, the carbohydrates (or lack thereof) didn't seem to matter.

Granted, at our highest, we were just a little over 12,000 feet. According to a guy who has been much, much higher than that, and who knows a fair bit about nutrition at high altitudes, our metabolism really isn’t that much different in Colorado than it is in Minnesota.

Robert “Brownie” Schoene (pronounced Shane-ey), MD, is a former president of the Wilderness Medical Society, and was a member of the 1981 American Medical Research Expedition to Everest (AMREE), the first of its kind dedicated to studying human physiology at extreme altitudes. One of Dr. Schoene’s roles was to study nutrition, malabsorption, and weight loss at high altitudes.

(for more on this subject, read Layla Eplett’s 2014 post on Weight Loss at High Altitudes).

“Glycogen stores of highlanders and lowlanders are basically the same.” Schoene told me over the phone. A biopsy from my thigh and one from someone who grew up in Nepal would reveal relatively similar muscle physiology, he said. This means that the fuel one uses, and therefore the food one eats, is not much of a limiting factor in performance, even at extremely high altitudes. What matters more, said Schoene, is appetite.

In a clinical account of the 1981 AMREE, fellow physician Frank Sarnquist, MD, wrote that the team supplemented locally grown fresh foods with a “large, varied selection of preserved foods brought from the United States, including canned ham, tuna, crab meat and salmon, breakfast cereals, candy, cookies, dried fruits and meats.” The team avoided freeze-dried food, Sarnquist wrote, as previous experience told them it was “unsatisfying and often tasteless at high altitude.”

Mt Everest, Image via Wikimedia Commons

“When I first got [to Everest] I didn’t have much of an appetite and I was looking for protein and carbohydrates to eat because those seemed more palatable.” Said Schoene. “However, after a couple of weeks I was hungry for anything.” At those altitudes, Schoene said that just getting enough to eat is important, since weight loss, including muscle atrophy, regardless of physical activity level seems to be inevitable.

(again, I point you to Layla’s article on weight loss at high altitudes)

So what of us mortals, for whom a trek up and/or a ride down a mere 12,000-foot peak gets our endorphins pumping?

“At recreational altitudes (8-12,000 feet), you really don’t invoke the anaerobic system that much more and your fuel utilization at those altitudes is basically the same.” Said Schoene. “What I recommend when you go to altitude is to eat what you feel like eating. . . When you’re skiing or snowboarding you’re taking breaks throughout the day so it doesn’t really matter. . .For the person on a longer, multi-day trek, you have to be more thoughtful, since you have to carry all your food, and if you don’t like it, you’re not going to eat it.”

Sangre de Cristos, Image by Author

Schoene also stressed that it’s important to drink plenty of fluids, because of the drier air, the higher respiration rate, and natural diuresis (peeing more), even at altitudes as low as 7-8,000 feet (well, low to him).

I asked Dr. Schoene what he likes to eat on a mountaineering expedition. "Spicy sausages and meatballs." He replied. He went on to explain that he had actually been tasked with planning the meals for the 1981 AMREE trip.

“I went to a grocery store and took down the names and addresses from labels of foods that I thought we’d want, and wrote letters to those companies asking if they’d donate to the expedition. Almost as a joke, I wrote a letter to the owner of Romanoff Caviar. Surprisingly, he wrote back: ‘You can have all the caviar you want!’”

I can imagine his team’s surprise when he pulled out a jar on the Southwest face at 22,000 feet. One may as well eat well when there’s not much air to breathe. It makes me wonder if there’s a way to get caviar donations without having to climb to the top of the earth. Maybe Romanoff would sponsor my next snowboarding trip. It would certainly make Dave feel better about me spanking him in Settlers of Catan…