WARNING: nothing new here

 nutrition for ice climbing

salmon sushi: ideal recovery food

Every year I take a selection of people out winter climbing and all year I see people blag out from lack of decent nutrition – tho they usually blame it on other things.

Its not magic – thousands of words have been written about eating right for climbing in the cold – but it is disconcerting to see someone whos payed a lot for their gear and trip to be let down by what they fuel themselves with. In part I can make up for a tiny degree of this by managing what they eat on the trip – in the end, the clients success is my success – but leading up to that…well, you gotta take responsibility sometime. This is not bowling were doing here.

Like twenty pull ups, a decent marathon time or a 2XBW deadlift, putting good things into your mouth is a fair indication of a climbers greater capacity.

Its simple

Don’t just eat crap before heading out to climb. Your eating habits between trips is your platform for during trips, and no amount of analyzing your gear or watching Will Gadd videos will make up for ignoring a major factor to your performance.

Im not the only one whod gamble to say that crap eating is the biggest factor other than weather in undermining a trips success. One or two days out each week wont trip you into the red zone too far – particularly if you over-consume during the week anyway – but what will pull the rug away tho is a diet of garbage, deficient in the nutrients needed to get you thru the rollercoaster of a climbing trip; crappy sleep, dehydration, lack of fresh food, stress, irregular bowels, bizarre energy foods and enormous kcal expenditure – and that’s when things go well.

Like sharpening your tools, treating your gloves, drying your boots, studying the topos and airing your sleeping bag, good eating before and after trips is just a part of taking climbing seriously. Simply put; you can either do it, or not do it. So why not? You gotta eat, so why not make it properly? If it was a spectator sport in some nice stadium it wouldn’t matter – but its not. Its alpine climbing. The side effects of getting it wrong can include surgery for frost bite, hypothermia and death.

Whats here has all been said before. Id be a zillionaire one way or another if I could package it somehow new. But if youre not doing this already you are letting yourself down. If you wanted something where nutrition it made no difference you should have stuck with bowling.

Eat fresh stuff

Enzymes, fiber, vitamins and minerals are more present in fresh food. Also, lots of nutrients work in ratio, not just quantity, so by eating things as lived you get closest to that. Fresh food also means eating natural food, so even tho they can be stored for months things like nuts, seaweed and kim chee count as fresh. Some frozen stuff that’s snap frozen at picking is actually in better condition than produce that’s been on the shelf a week.

nutrition for ice climbing

broccoli: a ‘heavy vegetable’ thats a good alternative to bread or pasta

The point is, dose your system good with lots of stuff that’s laced as little as possible with the sorts of things they preserve food with.

Eat protein

Your body takes a pounding when climbing, so providing it with the optimum amount of building material is necessary for recovery.

nutrition for ice climbing

beef: winter climbers need solid amounts of protein too minimize loss of muscle mass

It need not always be from meat. Protein is everywhere. As always the quality is the important thing.


You need sugar for your brain to work. What you don’t need is so much it takes up kcal room from other things.

You absorb 300-400 kcals an hour – sugar is an easy way to suck up that. don’t waste it on crap simple sugars, consume the sorts of good complex sugars that come in dried fruit and gels. The odd nasty candy just to pick the brain up is smart use of sugar – thinking you will fuel a day at -10c on pop tarts and Fanta isn’t.

Fuel efficiently

You need carbohydrates to fuel yourself and kick start fat metabolization. This is not the time to strip base body fat – that was summer. Its not hard, just avoid refined grains and replace them with ‘heavy’ vegetables (good name for a band that…), starchy fruit and cereals like buckwheat. If its got to be bread or pasta, get the whole grain stuff.

nutrition for ice climbing

garlic bread: good for post-trip calorie re-gain

As far as getting your carbohydrates from pumpkin, broccoli, beets, carrots, bananas, avacados and soba noodles theres plenty to live off. The odd bowl of spaghetti, rice or fries wont hurt.

This branch of your diet is the most invasive to manage – but the results are the most noticable for increases in energy and metabolic function.

Eat quality fats

Fat from plants is good. Fat from fish is good too. Fat from mammals (and birds, and probably reptiles for all I know) is only good in small amounts. Fat from industrial processes is shit.

Alpine climbing is fat-consuming territory. Don’t shy away from the stuff, just eat the good version of it. Limit fat from legged creatures to the minimum of what you cant drain out it when cooking. Fat runs out of meat when heated, so any cooking method that lets it drain or float away is fine.

For vegetable fats, go to town.

Eat nutrient-dense stuff

Pack your system with enough nutrients to last. Yes, yes a handful of lettuce has the RDI of calcium for a day – but when the next fresh food is a week away, think ahead. Many nutrients hit thresholds then pass the excess from the system, so at least head off at saturation.

nutrition for ice climbing

avocados: rich in oils, vitamins, quality carbohydrates and enzymes

Thankfully ‘nutrient-dense’ is just a secret name for ‘wholesome’. Yes, a loaf of white bread will give you X amount of fiber – but 2 slices of the good stuff will do it better, and probably cheaper across the board. Things like seeds, seaweeds, beans, berries and fish have shown to be tightly packed with good things so dose up good on them. Unless you live in Zimbabwe or Mongolia, we have the wealth of the entire worlds cuisines at our disposal – no reason to not be well dosed up.

Eat well

Don’t restrict yourself to some ascetic new age diet that stresses your body and throws out the ratios of what it needs. If any pursuit has lee way with calorie intake its winter climbing – the focus here is on quality of nutrition, not restriction of it. Wait till spring to worry about weight loss.

If you crave fries, make your own good ones. If its chocolate, buy the good dark stuff. Cakes? Less of the good stuff beats more of the crap. Life is for living and food is part of that – if youre suffering with your diet something bigger is wrong. Understand the demands of a climbers lifestyle and find a happy angle on it. the occasional tub of homer hudson or halva (or both) makes life worth living – just don’t let any of it make up more than about 20% of your total intake.

even better, leave it for the day after a hard trip when youve earned the leeway.


Why bother? Unless you cant eat properly due to time issues, its cheaper to just consume what you need from real food. High altitude is different, but for regular winter climbing unless youre preparing for a heavy trip on limited supplies, just eat well.


Get them into you. A climbing trip almost certainly includes dehydration.

Food goes down better with liquids so drink enough to piss properly. Lots of liquids carry nutrients too so get into soups etc. As a fast delivery format for salts, chemicals and sugars when you need them most (halting cramps, losing focus etc) take the liquid route. Coffee dehydrates but life without it is unimaginable if you need to get shit done. Make up the difference with other fluid.

Hows any of this differ from normal healthy eating?

The difference is this matters. Normal eating has leeway over a large cycle, eating for winter climbing is about focusing on a period of depletion, expecting to burn into the red, then replenish after. This means minimizing the effects of the deprivation period by having a margin of nutrients to pull from.

Day in day, out you do yourself a favour eating well – before and after a climbing trip the intent is on minimizing deficit. Consider it as if you have a period of deprivation coming up, so load on the good stuff and aim to replace it afterwards. If the trips longer than about 4 days, and if youre carrying all your supplies, you WILL go into deficit. How you minimize that has a lot to do with the nutrient platform you come in from. Normal eating assumes you have a pantry of stuff to get things right across a larger period of time. It also doesn’t assume you are spending 4000kcals a day, much of it under physical stress.

‘Healthy’ in regular terms means topping up – the Nutrient Platform means saturating.

In normal life theres a shop round the corner to restoke sugar levels. Climbing doesn’t have that.

Do it

The week before a climbing trip go into preparation mode. Lean up your fat intake away from animal fats to vegetable ones, pull the bread and replace with pumpkin and bananas, go hard on the green vegetables, double your intake of good liquid, try not to skip meals, get drunk or eat much crap.

Aim for about 3300kcals a day and make it all quality. Go for a ratio of about 55% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 15% fat. The longer the trip planned the more you can shift towards fat. After a hard trip shift towards protein. When not in the climbing cycle drop the fat back to about 5% and even out the protein/carbohydrates. Its not hard. If you can work out how many slings to take you can work out what to eat.

A body loaded with optimal nutrient thresholds functions better. Its that simple. Throw out the orbit of one or more nutrition elements and the rest of the machine goes wonky.  Starting out burning quality carbohydrates leads to more efficient fat metabolization. Having a system primed with electrolytes, minerals and vitamins keeps stress at bay longer. Why buy the best gloves if youre only wearing a crappy baselayer? Why dress like a serious climber if you don’t function as one? Why not make the whole lot work together?