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Happy climber enjoying their luxurious alpine digs.
Cooking is the art of necessity in the alpine world. Given the choice, I’d rather have linguine with sun-dried tomatoes, clams, and parmesan cheese than ramen noodles any day, especially when I’m fueling up for a big climb. Cooking in the alpine world, however, can be a chore, and as a result, many backcountry feasts are about convenience, rather than gourmet tastes. Whether you’re winter camping, or out on an extended expedition with a basecamp, going the extra mile when setting up your alpine kitchen might just inspire you to create a culinary masterpiece, rather than just eating ramen …
The plush life.
If you’re establishing a stocked basecamp and/or climbing with a large group, setting up a central kitchen can make cooking easier. Floorless shelters (e.g., the Black Diamond Megamid, or the Mountain Hardwear Kiva) work great for kitchens, and provide cover while still allowing you to stand up — luxuries that aren’t easily accomplished inside a tent.
Dig a hole. Digging out a five-foot-deep “basement” before setting up your floorless shelter optimizes your cooking and living space. Hint: the hole should be one foot narrower than the perimeter of your floorless shelter. After digging your basement, the next step is to build a countertop that will support your floorless shelter’s telescoping pole. This is the crux of your kitchen, and a little planning goes a long way. I like my countertop to be three feet tall, two feet wide, and three feet long. If you start the countertop in the center of the kitchen and extend it lengthwise to the back of the pit (the side opposite the door), you’ll have one end for the pole and the rest as workspace. Make sure you build the countertop out of work-hardened (compacted) snow, a must for creating a solid foundation for your pole, and a sturdy countertop space that can accommodate multiple stoves.
Protect the countertop. Once you’ve dug the hole, you’re ready to set up the tent. A small piece of plywood slipped under the pole will keep your floorless shelter from sinking by preventing direct metal-on-snow contact — a sure way to end up with a saggy kitchen by the next morning. I have a small piece of wood (a six-inch square works great) that I’ve covered with duct tape. This seals the board, preventing sharp splinters or jagged edges from ripping your floorless shelter when it’s stuffed in the same storage sack.
It’s easy to set up your kitchen with options for sitting or standing. Choose two sides of your basement to build benches. These benches should be two and a half feet higher than the bottom of your basement, to allow for comfortable seating positions. Leave the other two sides for dedicated standing/changing room. At high altitude, even the highest-tech boots won’t keep your feet from freezing, but a small (four-foot-by-four-foot) ensolite mat can double as a floor mat or a seat for your custom bench — either way, you have great insulation between yourself and the glacier.
A simple piece of 12-inch-by-24-inch plywood works great as a stove board. (If you’re carrying a sled, cut your stove board to fit inside your rig.) Though you probably won’t lug it up to higher camps, for basecamp cooking it makes a world of difference. I often use this board to pair up two stoves underneath one pot to quickly melt snow.
The efficiency kitchen. If cooking in the vestibule is your style, your shovel can make for a better all-around experience. Dig a two-foot-deep pit that’s inset from the perimeter of your vestibule by six inches. This will allow you to sit comfortably with your feet hanging into the pit — perfect for cooking and boot removal. (If you have the option, choose the larger of your vestibules for your kitchen.) If you’re using a stove board, keep your vestibule pit narrow enough so that the board can bridge the gap. This also gives you extra storage space underneath for food and boots.
Ventilation. No matter which kitchen setup you choose, ventilation is critical to your health. Keep the doors on your floorless shelter or vestibule open when you cook. Cross ventilation is the best; when possible, open the back door, or turn up a corner of your floorless shelter.
In addition to her work as a contributing editor for Climbing, Majka Burhardt is a guide for the Colorado Mountain School, and is known for her culinary masterpieces both in and out of the mountains.