In June 1997, Kim and Demetri ("Coup") Coupounas successfully climbed to the summit of 20,320 foot mountain Denali (a name meaning 'The Great One'), also known as Mount McKinley. In addition to being avid high altitude mountaineers both are committed vegans and have had to combat the prevailing 'wisdom' about what climbers need to eat while at high altitude and in the cold - Denali is in Alaska. They carefully planned the vegan foods they had to carry with them and took great care in their choice of animal-free clothing and climbing gear. Here is an edited version of the article they wrote in AHIMSA, the journal of the American Vegan Society July/September 1998.
High altitude mountaineers can burn upwards of 6,000 calories per day. With so many demands on their bodies, mountaineers' very survival depends on a diet that includes a wide enough variety of foods to provide sufficient carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to support them nutritionally during their expedition. Climbers who eat a lot tend to feel and perform better and enjoy the experience more. But since exhaustion and lack of oxygen tend to steal away their appetites and their desire to cook, the food has to be easy to make and taste great or it won't be eaten. It can't weigh too much, since all of it has to be carried. Consequently, menu planning is one of the most critical aspects of preparing for an expedition.
As vegans, we both felt committed to designing a menu for our Denali expedition that met all the demands of a high altitude climb, without compromising our moral values or sacrificing our health and strength. Although this choice could prove challenging if climbing with non-vegetarians, we were fortunate to have had one other vegan on our climbing team, Michael DeMartino.
We three vegans climbed to the top of North America and felt fantastic the entire way easily acclimatising to the altitude and reaching the summit with plenty of energy and in great spirits. Despite arguments by some in the mountaineering community, it is quite possible - and we believe much easier and healthier - to engage in serious high altitude mountaineering on a vegan diet. How do we know? Not only does mainstream research on high altitude physiology support this premise, but we have experienced it ourselves. Most of the mainstream research concludes that the human body performs best at high altitude on a high carbohydrate, moderate fat, low protein diet. This would a vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, many serious climbers clog their bodies and diminish their energy stores eating large amounts of cheese, butter, beef, chicken, tuna and other animal products on expeditions, in the belief that because they crave these foods, which are needed to keep them warm and strong.
Our own observations and comparisons to non-vegan climbers on Denali convinced us that a strictly vegan diet puts far less stress on the body by not introducing foods - such as cheese or meat - that require excessive effort to digest. With less stress, the body can thus acclimatise to high altitude more easily.
At altitude, with less than half the oxygen as at sea level and extremes of temperature and weather, a climber's very life depends on one's equipment. Every piece of essential equipment must perform its function under the most demanding conditions. Fortunately, the days are long gone when leather and wool were the materials of choice for high altitude mountaineering. Today, a synthetic substitute exists for every essential piece of equipment, and in most cases these synthetics outperform their animal-derived counterparts. And since they perform better as well as being cruelty-free, synthetic has become the preferred choice for many modern-day mountaineers.
As we outlined this article, we were so excited to think that every single solitary shred of equipment we used on our recent Denali expedition was vegan - until we remembered that the mountaineering socks we've had for years are a wool/synthetic blend. Virtually everyone who climbs uses wool blends because wool resists compression underfoot much better than synthetic materials.
When a fabric is compressed, the insulating ability is greatly diminished, as a result that can prove disastrous with sweat-laden feet in sub-freezing temperatures - ideal conditions for frostbite. We nevertheless continue to experiment with various brands of synthetic climbing socks on our expeditions, and as the technology continues to improve, we expect that synthetic socks will surpass wool on every performance dimension.
The most common animal-source equipment found in the mountains are down-insulated sleeping bags and parkas, and leather boots. By contrast, our sleeping bags are insulated with Thinsulate Lite Loft, a type of polyester fiber, making the bags about a pound heavier than comparable quality bags at the start of the expedition. But they were probably as light or lighter by comparison after a few days because they do not absorb moisture (and get heavier) to the extent that down does. They also do not lose their loft and insulating capabilities when damp or wet the way down does.
On an expedition's "summit day", only one sleeping bag is generally hauled up to the summit by a team for emergencies. Of our team's eight sleeping bags, Coup's synthetic bag was the one chosen for emergencies on our summit day because it was not as vulnerable to puncture or moisture as the down bags. Our expedition parkas are insulated with Primaloft, another synthetic fiber with all of the advantages and disadvantages (compared to down) of the Thinsulate sleeping bags described above. Our Gore-tex waterproof shell jackets are made of 100% synthetic materials. Our climbing boots are made of plastic outer shells, rubber soles, and synthetic insulation. This is the modern-day standard for extreme cold and glaciated mountains, and virtually no one climbs in such conditions with leather boots.
Our inner clothing layers were exclusively synthetic, including pile (Polarfleece) jackets and 100% polyester long underwear and liner socks. Synthetics are now the standard for all subparka clothing, and virtually no one wears wool sweaters in the extreme cold. Wool is not only heavier for the same warmth as polyester and pile, it also retains moisture, whereas polyester does not. Polyester liner socks and long underwear pull moisture (typically sweat) away from the body and into the outer fabrics, thereby helping to prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
Our hats, gloves, mittens, glove shells, balaclavas, and liner gloves are all made of synthetic nylons, polyesters, and rubber (for the palm grips on glove shells).
The Denali climbing expedition was called the Zero Deficit Climb and raised public awareness about the ill effects of the US Federal Budget deficit and national debt. It was the brain child of Kim and Demetri Coupounas and combined their shared interests in climbing, veganism and strengthening the USA economy.
After a 1992 honeymoon climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, they set out to climb the tallest mountain or molehill in
each of the 50 US States. Only 55 individuals and 2 couples have successfully climbed all 50.
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Cross-reference: Endurance of the Veggie/Vegan Diet
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