This is the third in Josh’s series of blog posts. Josh is our man across the Atlantic. Explorer, expedition leader, teacher, Bear Grylls survival expert and Wildfitness Coach, he explores the journey he has taken from outdoor passion to Wildfitness philosophy. He is also part of the team that will be delivering our first American retreats in the Hudson Valley, NY, in May.
“Dammit,” I cursed, glaring up into the swirling gray clouds hovering above the Emmons Glacier and completely concealing the upper flanks of Mt. Rainier from sight.
The light flurry of snow seems determined to increase as we pick our way up the steep slope below and towards Steamboat Prow. We are marching into the tail end of a freak summer storm that has battered Rainier with everything from snowfall, to gale force winds, to lightning. The fact that this storm fell on the exact dates that our team is in Washington to tackle the peak is of no surprise to anyone. My ability to bring foul weather with me has long been a running joke amidst my fellow adventurers.
Yet I am not cursing at this fact. I’m not cursing at the costs we’ll incur to fly back a month from now to climb her again. I’m not even cursing at the fact that United Airlines lost my luggage containing all my precious climbing gear. (A feat that unbeknownst to me, they will repeat AGAIN a month from now when we return to complete the climb, leaving me to climb the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 using mostly women’s equipment, belonging to my friend and fellow climber Mat’s fiancée.)
I’m doing my best to remain grateful, considering I’m climbing at all. Back at Raigmore this past May, I was overjoyed to learn that my ankle was not broken, merely mashed, jammed, and sprained in the way one might expect from my Achmelvich antics.
A few days after, I found myself arguing briefly with Nala over how I was fine to join everyone on the day’s hike. She (rightly) had relegated me to driving duty so as to extend my healing time as much as possible. I quickly conceded despite my stubbornness, appreciating that perhaps my affinity for pushing too far had caused enough already. My climbing season, after all, had been saved.
Yet fast forwarding to July, I find now, that despite that I’ve managed to make it here with four functioning appendages, I’m cursing at myself, or more specifically, my climbing. My energy levels continue to spike and then crash, and my fuel of what I call glacier candy is not facilitating the levels of performance I am seeking, let alone accustomed to. Much of the team is ahead of me, and even though our climb is soon to be turned around, (we sought high camp in hopes of capturing some scenery, but the weather will not have it) it makes me no less frustrated.
I have always hiked and climbed relying on a mix of sugar based energy foods, and though I would certainly experience variances in my energy levels, I had always performed well. Today I’d made the mistake of leaving without breakfast, and wound up stuck with some sugary pastry in place of what would normally be a well-balanced meal. Now, I find myself peaking and crashing on a whole other level, while watching the rest of the team pull easily ahead on the windswept glacier.
Vic, our head camera man, who is normally a strong athlete as well, made the same mistake I did, and is lagging behind alongside me, sharing my frustrations.
Ego aside, this is not the type of climber I’m accustomed to being. There has to be a better way.
At about 9,000 feet the team regroups, sinking our ice axes in the snow around us for a quick discussion, before agreeing to turn around. One by one we sit in the snow to remove our crampons, in preparation to glissade down.
For those of you that have never tried it, glissading can be a thoroughly exhilarating experience, so long as you have taken the time to be certain that you won’t deposit yourself at the bottom of a crevasse, or smash into a rock field at high speeds. It is essentially the process of sledding down a slope or mountainside on your rear end, using the bottom spike of your ice axe to control or brake. One will be quickly impressed, if not a bit unnerved by the high speeds this can achieve, not to mention the laughter at the sight of a team mate being launched into the air over a bump and landing in a heap at the bottom of the glacier.
The snow filled pants are well worth the fact that what may have taken hours to ascend is descended in a few high-adrenaline moments.
Back in Seattle, I complain to my team mates about what I perceive as my poor, sugar driven performance.
Mat, who is the central character of our film shoot, recommends the book Natural Born Heroes, the latest by Christopher MacDougall of Born to Run fame. I have been a barefoot runner for six years now, and won’t deny that the book was a large piece of the research I put into making the switch. So I’m more than open to whatever glass of Kool-Aid the author’s latest work has to offer.
Still, I didn’t read it right away. In fact, it wasn’t until after my team had returned to Rainier in August, summited successfully during the Perseid Meteor Shower, and flown back to New Jersey. This had all taken place over a single weekend, the climb itself being a 33-hour epic slog from car door to car door with virtually no sleep, and as previously mentioned (thanks to United), primarily in women’s climbing gear aside from my own boots and ice axe.
Yet, when I finally did open the book, in no way did I expect the story to be such a linchpin between the worlds of Wildfitness, climbing, training, and general nutrition.
I certainly didn’t expect it meant I’d be giving up brown rice and black beans for three months, a move akin to losing a relative for me.
What followed was an incredible and noble story of how the hearty people of the island of Crete, in cahoots with a few misfit Brits, formed the cast of one of the least known underdog stories of WWII. Together, they kidnapped a Nazi General from right under the nose of the German forces, an act of resistance amongst countless others resulting in so much trouble for Hitler that it was instrumental in delaying the flow of troops and supplies to the Russian Front. Eventually, this allowed the Russians the time to mobilize enough to start pushing the Nazis back west, and the rest is history.
Within this amazing tale was woven a narrative of fitness, wild movement, and dietary efficiency, specifically how the Cretan diet and way of life allowed them and their British cohorts to become hyper-effective mountain machines, allowing them to run, climb, and melt into and out of the mountains with ease.
Now we were speaking my language.
The story of the mountain fighters, and the description as to why and how they were able to move the way they did, proved to be the first time everything I had experienced back at Alladale took a contextual form in real life. Suddenly, a bridge had been built between the wild combos, the running, and the parkour that linked them directly to my number one playground, the mountains.
More so, the focus on a specific manner of eating had painted the locally sourced menu from the Alladale retreat into a whole new light, particularly with regards to the realm of athletic performance. Eating was the central pillar of Natural Born Heroes. More specifically, doing so in a manner that turned the body into a fat burning engine, using a system of diet and heart rate training called the Maffetone Method. I was to learn that while the average human body has roughly 5,000 to 8,000 sugar calories on hand to burn, it has roughly 140,000 fat calories at a given time, an endless source of fuel, should we only be able to tap into it.
It was admittedly all new to me, and I wasn’t sure just how well it would work once you threw in the wild card of steadily higher altitudes. But it was as though what I had been looking for had been dropped in my lap, so I decided then and there that I would serve as my own guinea pig to see whether or not all this would actually work.
To get started, all I had to do was take sugar out of my diet. Easy, I figured, considering I didn’t have a sweet tooth, and ate a generally low sugar diet already.
Or so, at least, I thought.