The Angry Corrie 57: Apr-Jun 2003

Everybody's got a Hungry Hill

by Perkin 'Picnic' Warbeck

It was John McIntosh who started this particular musing. And it has been a long time in the making. The thing that triggered my renewed interest in this month's subject was an encounter with someone in the States who had made his fortune in high-energy bars. Ironic, in the same era when most food is sold on its lack of fat and kilocalories, that there could be a corner in energy bars. If the bars were labelled equally truthfully "high-calorie bars", would they shift? Scientific illiterates we have become when energy and calorie are somehow seen as separate quantities, the one good, the other bad, instead of straightforward synonyms.

image from TAC57

Anyway, on to John McIntosh. A number of us used to go away for New Year. I would still if I had the chums. "What, you, Perkin Warbeck, a man amongst men, vice-editor of TAC, without the chums?", I hear you ask. Well, it's not really an absolute lack of chums so much as chums of the unentangled variety. Back in the days to which I allude around 15 of us would take a cottage for a week and indulge our sybaritic desires for the hills, the drink, pizza, crisps and John McIntosh singing.

There were two groups. One consisted of Bohemians carousing the night away; the other of hardy hill types rising with or before the dawn. The man who was to become TAC's editor was of the latter type. There was a joke that he and Frank McHugh, the fabled and fabulous Archbohemian, didn't need separate beds: they routinely passed on the landing like ships in the night, one heading for his bed after hours of revelry, the other bound for an icy Mamore. I somehow fell between the two groups depending on the vibe.

On this particular day, I was with the Bohemians who rose late. A stroll up Glen Nevis was the most anyone fancied. John McIntosh was in the throes of that debilitation brought on by the cratur and declared himself "devoid of energy". Wry shakes of the head all round remembering that last endless rendition of "Caravan" (see the cover picture of TAC10), not to mention that last round of drinks. Then, just as John was at his lowest ebb, he spied on the ground a Fox's Glacier Fruit. Never pausing to speculate upon where it might have been, he downed the sweetmeat and proclaimed that he could feel the energy "coursing though his veins". And thus we come to my point: hillwalkers and food. Skip ahead now if you thought it was going to be more profound.

Hillwalkers love their little picnics. The editor, for example, is never without his samosas and his sardines. Time was he kept a packet of custard creams and a lump of cheese in either pocket of his Gore-Tex. Didn't the cheese make his Gore-Tex stink to high heaven? Well, we would need a control experiment to see what his Gore-Tex would have been like without the cheese.

My brother Henry, to take another example, carries a cool box and even one of those freezer packs, just to chill his hard-boiled egg and duty-free-sized bar of Dairy Milk.

One reason for this attention to the hill snack would be in line with the philosophy of Phil Stacey (see TAC6, p13), namely that the ascent is considered so miserable an experience that delayed gratification is in order. But my own observation is that most walkers, after the fashion of John McIntosh, think they actually need all this energy.

And this is where I have to get off. The average hill-walker's body is awash with energy. We carry around 336000 kilojoules (kJ) in fat (we're talking average people here, not Tam Cowan). We store about 7560kJ as glycogen in the liver and muscles. That's seven Nestlé double creams or Mars Bars. Unless you are Joss Naylor doing a Bob Graham round in the Pond District, you could do a day in the hills and not need to eat a single kilojoule.

Think about all those stories of our cave-dwelling ancestors: they might not get to eat a sabre-tooth for months. Between times they had to survive on berries and their fat. So you will not start burning up your myocardium for fuel like Ranulph Fiennes unless, like him, you have been pulling a 200-kilo load for five weeks or have spent 24 continuous hours doing laybacks on El Capitan.

So come out of the closet. You eat on the top 'cos you like it. There's nothing to be ashamed of. And speaking of Mars Bars, what size of hill would one of these fuel? Let's be very simplistic and assume that the average male walker has a mass of 81.55kg. (Eh? - simple Ed.) Let's pretend we climb a hill without ever going down, that it has a Schiehallion-like shape and with utter economy of movement we only expend energy in the raising of our centre of mass. In that case the work done in lifting an 81.55kg walker through 1000m is 800kJ. Suffice to say, a calorie is really a kilocalorie, a kilojoule is 4.2 kilocalories and 800 of these is not much more than half a Mars Bar. And that's only using the chemical bonds. If we could liberate the nuclear binding energy...

In addition to the work done against gravity, the body must fuel all its usual functions such as pumping the heart, powering the brain, operating the sodium potassium pump, fiddling with its GPS and waggling its walking poles. This takes up 281kJ an hour if you are fasted and lying on your back - something I happen to know because I once volunteered to have it measured. (Interestingly, my rate was within 2% of that predicted for my size, and thus it is for most people - including those fatties who claim to have a "slow metabolism".) Once you are exercising, however, the base metabolic rate goes up by some factor - probably between five and ten while hillwalking. This is all getting way too complicated now, so let's stop and approximate. What have we got so far? It takes less then one average chocolate bar to shift your centre of mass through the vertical distance of a Munro. But we need quite a few more kJ to keep the body going. I have made an estimate of this factor using the data above and am thus able to equate various expeditions with some typical snacks.

Meal one

Cadbury's Marble chocolate
Two cheese sandwiches
One packet crisps
One banana
500ml Lucozade Sport

Energy produced: 7252kJ

Would get you up: Beinn a'Bheithir

Meal two

Italian sausage sandwich (Whassat? - veggie Ed.)
Aero mint chunky
One packet crisps
Two bananas
One litre Lucozade Sport

Energy produced: 7904kJ

Would get you up: Stob Coire Easain in the Grey Corries

Meal three

Italian sausage sandwich
Two 85g bars Kendal
Albion mint cake
One packet crisps
One banana
100g raisins
One litre Lucozade Sport

Energy produced: 9173kJ

Would get you up: Braeriach

Meal four

Dairy Milk 200g ('duty-free' size)
Two cheese sandwiches
One packet crisps
One banana
100g raisins
One litre Lucozade Sport

Energy produced: 11052kJ

Would get you up: Ben Nevis plus Ward Hill

The Glaswegian Ben Lomond in yer wee black sannies meal

Two spam sandwiches
Two cup-a-soups
One packet crisps
One Mars Bar
Two litres Irn Bru
Two Tunnocks caramel logs

Energy produced: 12279kJ

Would get you up: Ben Lomond twice

The Anne Hathaway's Cottage from Stratford-upon-Avon station meal

One-sixth of a slice of white bread (unbuttered)

Energy produced: 53kJ

Would get you up: I did look it up. Looks like an eight-metre ascent

So there you have it. I apologise for the obscurity of Ward Hill. I just looked up Alan Blanco's tables to fit my deficit. It appears to be in Shetland.

Exercises for the reader:

One final point. If we really needed the food to fuel the body, we'd surely want to eat before the top as the bulk of the work is done getting up.


Having committed the above musings/drivel to disk, I elected to check some of the science with Dr Iain Small of Peterhead, another Warbeckian sibling. Not only is he some sort of doctor but he has also run marathons and gone on sports medicine courses. He sent me two whole pages which, for your sake, I shall not reproduce here. But the gist is this:

"Operating at 90% of our aerobic capacity, the average fit person will use up their glycogen in three or four hours. Take it up a few per cent and we get down to under three hours. This is important for the annual April masochists in their clown suits, but seldom relevant to the walker in the hills who probably ticks over (at a rough guess) at about 60-70%. If we are walking, we almost certainly have enough energy to do most of the hills it's possible to do in one day. If we get a bit of a jog on, we might need to augment our body stores with a slightly hypotonic, complex carbohydrate solution, preferably at body temperature: 50%-diluted flat Coke would suffice. Not a Mars Bar, however, because (a) it's too concentrated a glucose solution and might not be absorbed if you're working hard, and (b) you get an insulin surge to cope, and end up hypoglycaemic 30-60 minutes later."

TAC 57 Index