I have been a professional climber for 18 years, and I also base jump and fly wingsuits (suits which allow sky divers to experience flight) in mountain environments where you need sustained energy. In 2002, I started to wonder if changing my eating habits could help with climbing performance. I chose several popular books about nutrition and dedicated three months each to four different eating styles, none of which were plant-based. I didn’t notice dramatic results from any of them. At the end of the year I did a cleansing fast, and when I started eating regular food again, I just ate what appealed to me. After a couple of weeks I realized I wasn’t eating any animal products, sugar or refined grains. For the last 12 years, I’ve followed a vegan diet, with an emphasis on whole foods and avoiding sugar, refined grains and processed food.
Back in 2002 climbers passionately believed that animal protein was necessary for climbing hard. Becoming vegan or even vegetarian was considered crazy or foolish by most in my community. I decided to go with it anyway since I was doing it naturally. I soon found that I was: climbing, running, and feeling better. For the first time, I had no trouble staying light while eating whatever and as much as I wanted. I also discovered that my food itself was now lighter and lower bulk, a real benefit on big walls and mountains when every food item adds to the weight that has to be carried up.
I use liquid fuel stoves for climbing and camping in the mountains, and I’ve learned that with low quality gas, the stoves burn poorly, use a lot of fuel, and get clogged with black carbon waste. With clean, high quality, white gas, the stoves burn hot, use much less fuel, and stay clean. It seems to work the same way with my body and the fuel I put into it. I definitely need less food and run more efficiently now than I did before. In 20 years of climbing, I have never had a climbing related overuse injury or a major illness, and this is pretty rare.
Currently there are many climbers, ultra-runners and other outdoor athletes who believe in the benefits of plant-based eating. I care a lot about performance in the now, but my biggest priority in life is health and sustainability. I hope that the long-term health benefits of my eating style will keep me climbing and flying for many more decades!
Steph Davis is the author of High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity and Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love and One Amazing Dog which describes how to start doing anything you imagine and stretch your comfort zone. Her website is www.highinfatuation.com.