Pigs at the Trough: A Retrospective on the Grand Teton Climber's RanchClimbers are notorious for their peculiar, not to mention impecunious, eating habits. The culinary customs of the vagabonds of Camp Four in Yosemite and the riffraff of Snell's Field in Chamonix, France are well-chronicled in the climbing literature. From these specific instances, a general rule could be inferred that all climbers eat like pigs. The purpose of this essay is not to defend such a sweeping generalization. Rather, it is to report that the transients of the Grand Teton Climber's Ranch, among whose ranks I was embedded during the summer of 1996, are no exception to such a rule (if there is such a rule).
Allow me to begin the rogue's gallery tour with a wildly disheveled, middle-aged mountain man I'll call Compost Heap (to protect his identity). 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, if you will, 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. Quite simply, what made Compost Heap noteworthy for our purposes was that he ate all of the vegetable refuse destined for the landfill, were it not for his vigilant intervention. He chomped on rejected broccoli and cauliflower stocks and munched the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage. He crunched 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 summarily reprimanded the bewildered gent who had discarded it, concluding in a raised moralistic voice that it was "a perfectly good pancake" – which, to be fair to The Poet, 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, implying that The Poet had little idea, beyond what he had felt with his groping hand, what the pancake had contacted in the bowels of that garbage can. After this incident, I later saw The Poet savoring a spartan meal of plain white rice "flavored" (his word) with nothing but chopped onion. That alone was not surprising. Bland, but not surprising. What was surprising was that he was eating it directly out of a plastic grocery bag.
There are those who march to the beat of a different drummer, but they don't last. Take the tidy little introverted man I will call Can Man. Can Man did not eat out of the kind of can into which Compost Heap and The Poet intrepidly ventured, so the reader should be careful not to be confused. Quite to the contrary, Can Man only ate food from factory-sealed cans. 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." As an aside, the case of Can Man suggests the following amendment (in italics) to Yvon Chouinard's famous quip: "If you bring bivy gear or too much canned food you will bivy."
To forestall the reader's impression that all of the food consumed at the Climber's Ranch was vapid, not to mention unsanitary, allow me to introduce The Chef: a thirty-something, self-described former punk who was, to our delight, a gourmet chef by trade. On one glorious occasion, The Chef whipped up an extravagant, multi-course, authentic Italian meal for about a dozen hungry and subsequently grateful climbers. At this juncture, allow me to anticipate an objection that the careful reader is likely to mount. If there are climbers like The Chef, then what does that do to my study? At the very least, it undermines the generalization that all climbers eat like pigs. However, there is one tiny little detail I neglected to mention: The Chef was not a climber! He was a non-climbing friend of some other climbers who, I can assure you, did eat like pigs. I know this, because I gorged with them at the notorious Dornan's All-U-Can-Eat Barbecue in the nearby village of Moose.
Dornan's offered only a few items on the menu, 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, the 19th century British philosopher, to the effect that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Forget about the problems regarding the interpretation of this aphorism, let alone its truth. Our problem that night was much simpler: we were not even pigs satisfied.