The Tetons. Photo by Sean Neilson.
As summer approaches, climbers with pending free time might consider volunteering for Work Week at the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch from June 7-11. "Work week is an opportunity for volunteers to help prepare the Ranch for opening in exchange for free lodging during the month of June."
The Ranch, which is operated by the American Alpine Club, provides rustic accommodations at the base of the Tetons in Wyoming. The ranch consists of about a dozen communal cabins, an indoor library/lounge, and a large pavilion for cooking and socializing. The ranch is only open from early June to mid-September, and is inhabited mainly by mountaineers who stay for as little as one night or as long as three months. It is a great place to meet other climbers, swap information, and plan spine-tingling climbs.
Some years ago, I participated in Work Week and then base camped at the Ranch for the rest of the summer. Though I had a fantastic time mountaineering in the Tetons, those lofty spires and my adventures thereabouts are not the subject of this article. Rather, what I want to focus on are the jaw-dropping eating habits of climbers at the Ranch. To put it bluntly, they eat like pigs.
Allow me to begin the rogues gallery tour with a wildly disheveled, middle-aged mountain man I'll call "Compost Heap". Why I call him Compost Heap will become clear later. Let me first paint a vivid portrait of his appearance. I think this can best be accomplished by imagining one of those illustrations that charts the evolutionary progression of man from a crouched chimpanzee-like creature, through various stages (each less hairy and more erect than the last), to the clean-shaven office schlep of modernity. With that picture firmly in mind, direct your attention to the creatures in the middle of that progression. That is where you will find Compost Heap. Now that you know more or less what he looks like, I'll briefly describe his eating habits, which will make it clear why I call him Compost Heap. The reader will also find that his eating habits correspond to his place on the evolutionary scale. Getting to the point now, what made Compost Heap stand out was that he ate all of the vegetable parts that others threw away (or tried to throw away). He chomped on rejected broccoli and cauliflower stocks and munched the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage. He savored carrot and celery ends and chewed onion skins and potato peels with a flourish. And he ate them all raw, and sometimes right out of the garbage. To the incredulous stares of his unwitting patrons and other spectators, he claimed that the vegetable parts they profligately discarded contained the highest concentrations of nutrients, or some such nonsense.
Unlike Compost Heap, the climber I will call "The Poet" was more dignified. He was well-groomed and eloquent, even philosophical. However, he was unable to keep up appearances, and around meal time he regressed, like Compost Heap, into savagery. For instance, during casual breakfast conversation one fine morning, The Poet suddenly cried "wait!" as someone deposited a burnt pancake into the garbage. He lunged at the garbage can, plunged his hand through the small swivel door at the top, and began fishing around inside. After a few tense seconds of looking back and forth out into space at nothing in particular (as people do when they are searching with their hands for something they cannot see), he pulled out the pancake. Appearing more annoyed than triumphant, he mumbled something about it being "a perfectly good pancake". In fairness to The Poet, it was only black on one side. Then, after a final cursory inspection, he ate it. It had all happened too fast. The reader must understand that the garbage can was completely covered and the contents not visible, meaning that The Poet had little idea, beyond what he had felt with his groping hand, what the pancake had contacted inside. After this incident, I was not surprised to see The Poet eating meals of plain white rice directly out of plastic grocery bags.
There are those who march to the beat of a different drummer, but they don't last. Take "Can Man". Can Man did not eat out of the kind of can into which Compost Heap and The Poet intrepidly ventured. Quite simply, Can Man only ate food from factory-sealed cans. Thus, there would be no symbiotic relationship between Can Man and Compost Heap, and you can forget about grabbing a burger or pizza with him after a climb. In regard to climbing, his backpack must have weighed a ton, which is perhaps why he disappeared faster than you can say, "Star Kist and Campbell's and Chef Boyardee, the food never spoils was his repartee."
Eye-opening eating displays were not confined to the Ranch. Some of the worst displays occurred at the notorious Dornan's All-U-Can-Eat Barbecue in the nearby village of Moose. Dornan's served only a few items, each simmering away in enormous black cauldrons that were lined up on, yes, a trough. The customer ladled barbecued beef and beans onto his plate, and returned as many times as he liked (or dared). A group of us returned too many times one gorgeous evening and spent the next few hours back at the Ranch concentrating on one thing: keeping it all down. Good training for high-altitude climbing, perhaps. As we sat around groaning and trying not to laugh, Dean (I will use his name since he deserves some credit, as the reader will soon discover) suddenly looked as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from him. He had at that instant made a bold decision that, in fact, promised to do just that. Dean rose slowly with a solemn air of resignation. He walked deliberately, though not hurriedly, across the creaking floor boards of the cabin, out onto the porch, down the front steps, and into the brush behind the cabin. The sound of his footsteps grew faint.
As Dean gagged himself and threw up violently out back, making quite a lot of horrible noise in the process, I grimly contemplated an aphorism by John Stuart Mill to the effect that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. On that gluttonous night, we were not even pigs satisfied.
Sean Neilson (L) and Sam Page (R) on the summit of the Grand Teton in 1996.