Iceland CEO Malcolm Walker writes:
In the old days it was all so simple. The pukka British explorer toddled from his St James’s club to the dedicated Expeditions Department of Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, and selected whatever he needed to sustain him as he hacked his way through the jungle, slogged up a mountain or trekked across the ice. And it wasn’t just food and drink, either; the Department could supply a complete range of other Expedition essentials from butter knives and sauce boats to folding chairs.
George Mallory was undoubtedly a dedicated Fortnum’s shopper. In Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane records that, for his second attempt to climb Everest in 1922, Mallory’s expedition unloaded two tons of luggage at the docks in Bombay, including cases of champagne and tins of quail in aspic. Having failed to make it to the top, he upgraded his supplies for his third and final assault on the peak in 1924, when the 60 tins of quail were in foie gras rather than aspic, the champagne was four dozen bottles of 1915 vintage Montebello and there were truffles and crystallised ginger to round off their civilised meals. All carried up the mountain by 70 porters with the aid of 300 animals.
Fortnum & Mason themselves, on the other hand, record the quail in foie gras and the Montebello champagne as having been supplied in 1922. What is certain is that Fortnum’s invoice for the 1924 Expedition can be found in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society.
With food like that to sustain them, whichever year they took it, how could they possibly have failed? Well, of course, whether Mallory and his 1924 climbing partner Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine did fail to get to the top remains one of the world’s great mysteries. When Mallory’s well-preserved body was discovered in 1999, 75 years after he disappeared while heading strongly for the summit ridge, the contents of his wallet were intact; but they did not include the photograph of his wife Ruth that he had vowed to leave behind at the summit. The Holy Grail of Everest historians now is to find Irvine’s body, and perhaps the camera that could yet prove that he and Mallory made it to the top. Though, as Sir Edmund Hillary observed, getting back down alive is a pretty important part of successful mountaineering.
Since those days mountaineers seem to have lost focus on food. The successful British expedition of 1953 was largely fuelled by Army compo rations.
Modern Everest expeditions typically take dried food and treat it simply as fuel – and the fuel required to get to the top is pretty daunting. The body consumes 5–6,000 calories a day during the climb, rising to 12–15,000 calories on summit day itself – ten times what the body uses on a normal day. To add to the joy of the experience, appetite decreases with altitude, so climbers must simply force themselves to eat.
Above around 17,000ft, the body literally starts to consume itself to obtain the energy it needs to keep going, so weight loss is more or less universal. The average Everest climber loses 10kg (22lb) and some as much as 15kg (33lb).
Other altitude-related hazards include strong solar radiation, causing dehydration and headaches; facial swelling, coughing so violent that it can crack ribs, insomnia, altitude sickness and the considerably increased risk of a heart attack, stroke or cerebral oedema - a swelling of the brain that causes disorientation, temporary insanity and even death.
Unsuccessful attempts to climb Everest tend to be defeated by illness or by the weather, over which we can have no control. There is also little we can do to guard against altitude sickness – some people are prone to it, some aren’t. On the evidence of our climb up Kilimanjaro in January, my son Richard and I are lucky enough to fall into the latter category. We are also taking with us an experimental new food - bars impregnated with leucine, an amino acid - which, it is hoped, will provide some protection against altitude sickness.
The other common cause of failure that we can guard against is stomach upsets caused by tainted food. Everyone knows the risks caused by poor hygiene when holidaying in exotic places (and I never cease to be amazed by the number of supposedly intelligent, educated, middle class British people who carefully refuse to drink the local tap water, then cheerfully accept some ice in their gin and tonic and tuck into washed salads).
At 25,000 feet up Everest, an attack of the runs caused by food poisoning isn’t just a nuisance. It’s not even a threat to your summit bid. It can kill you.
That’s why we at the Iceland Everest Expedition are taking no chances on the purity of our food, and have also devised tempting menus that should keep our palates stimulated even at altitudes where appetite naturally weakens. The delicious meals devised by Iceland supplier Loxtons are cooked by the sous vide method, favoured by many top restaurateurs including Heston Blumenthal. This captures all the flavour and goodness of the ingredients, and is already used in many of Iceland’s ready meals. The only difference in the Expedition food is that we have asked Loxtons to make them in larger portion sizes, to meet our high daily calorie requirements, and have had them additionally pasteurised by Campden BRI to ensure that they will keep without any refrigeration during their journey from the UK to Kathmandu by air, and to Everest Base Camp by yak.
We are also going to set new standards of hygiene and decorum at Base Camp and beyond. Most climbers seem to be quite comfortable with squalor; I’m not. That is why I am taking Loxton’s executive chef Chris Bates to Base Camp with us, to prepare our meals, and why we will be eating at tables with a cloth and proper cutlery, and enjoying not just the splendid Loxton’s main courses and puddings but a range of additional delicacies and fine wines kindly supplied by the Individual Restaurant Company.
The Iceland Everest Expedition will undoubtedly be the best supplied since Mallory and Irvine’s in 1924. We are following in their footsteps from the north side of the mountain, too. I’m hoping that the key difference will be that we succeed in proving that we made it to the top by planting the Iceland Foods, Loxtons, Individual Restaurant Company and Alzheimer’s Research UK flags at the summit. And, of course, that we all make it down again safely after we have done so.
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