Big-wall climber Chris McNamara prefers eating on summits.
When it comes to food, Chris McNamara is what he likes to call “an opportunivore.” Though the big-wall climber and ex-BASE jumper once scrounged leftover pizza from tourists at Yosemite’s Curry Village during summers, the South Lake Tahoe entrepreneur now snags leftovers from the plates of his two children, who enjoy riding shotgun on their dad’s mountain bike and flying across the kitchen on a custom-rigged zipline.
Growing up in Mill Valley, McNamara wasn’t what you’d call an adventurous eater — a trait that would serve his early lifestyle well as he devoted nearly 10 years to living simply (read: an entire summer eating canned corn and pretzels) and climbing Yosemite National’s Park’s famed El Capitan, a more-than-3,000-foot climb from the valley floor.
“My bland eating started early. I pretty much would eat spaghetti and ketchup, which, sadly, my 3-year-old daughter is now pumped on,” McNamara says with a laugh. “Luckily, our 13-month-old is a little more adventurous.”
Discovering the Climb
Slurpees, Butterfingers, and reheated Que Bueno nacho cheese from the Little League snack bar (where he started working at age 13) fueled a young McNamara, who first experienced climbing at a friend’s birthday party in eighth grade.
“I saved every single penny. All my friends were spending their money on snacks and baseball cards, and I was just obsessed with saving money,” McNamara recalls.
His frugality paid off two years later when, at 15, he met a man through his outdoor education class with a business plan for a climbing gym — Touchstone Climbing, which now has 14 gyms throughout California.
“I had this money from being a snack bar operator, and I gave my life savings to this guy I’d never met just because I wanted a free climbing-gym membership for life,” McNamara says. “He took me up to climb El Cap for the first time, and that pretty much changed the whole trajectory of my life.”
While living in Yosemite, McNamara wrote his first book on climbing El Cap, launching a career in authoring climbing guides; this would lead to his climbing website, SuperTopo, and, eventually, the launch of his gear-review companies, Outdoor GearLab and Tech GearLab. He also went on to establish the American Safe Climbing Association, which has replaced more than 60,000 bolts and 30,000 anchors on popular routes.
McNamara went on to devote more time to BASE jumping (launching from “buildings, antennae, span, or earth” with a wingsuit and parachute), but he’s long since retired from the deadly sport. Today, you can find him mountain biking at Tahoe and developing trails throughout the Sierra. His latest endeavor is helping to develop the Sierra portion of the 5,000-mile Orogenesis Trail stretching from Canada to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, purported to be, when it’s finished, the longest mountain-biking trail on earth.
Though his wife, Viktoria, is the main cook in the family now, McNamara can whip up a mean chicken marbella — a briny, sweet chicken recipe with prunes, olives, and capers — and a bagel sandwich that will keep your pedals pumping for miles of mountain biking.
But cooking on camping trips or at the summit of a long ascent is the ideal, according to McNamara.
“When you’re camping, you can eat [Top Ramen] and it tastes amazing. But if you put just a little more effort into your food when you’re camping with your best friends and you’ve done something cool that day, to me those are the most memorable meals,” he says. “I’ve eaten at some Michelin-starred restaurants, and, yes, they are amazing and cool, but, in my opinion, it’s not just about the food. It’s about who you’re with, where you are, and what you did that day.”
Claire McArthur is a firm believer that fresh air makes food taste better — as does the company with whom you eat it. Invite her to your next clifftop picnic at Clairecudahy@gmail.com.
(courtesy of Chris McNamara, owner of Outdoor GearLab and Tech GearLab in South Lake Tahoe. Adapted from The Silver Palate cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Serves 10)
½ cup olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup prunes, pitted
½ cup Spanish green olives, pitted
1 head of garlic, peeled and puréed
¼ cup dried oregano
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 whole chickens, quartered
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
¼ cup fresh, flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
In a large bowl, create a marinade of olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper. Add chicken, turning to coat, then cover bowl and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In several shallow baking dishes (depending on size), arrange chicken pieces in a single layer and pour remaining marinade over tops. Sprinkle brown sugar on chicken, then pour wine around it.
Basting regularly, bake chicken until internal temperature is 145 degrees (about 50 minutes to 1 hour). Transfer chicken and accompaniments to a serving tray with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle with parsley. Put remaining juices in another bowl or gravy boat for serving.