The Ahwahnee Brunch Retrospective (starring "Roger" & "Ed" in an eating contest of stupendous proportions)

Posted on: March 27, 2020

[This story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

It cost all of five dollars, the Ahwahnee Sunday morning brunch. That was back in the day of course—thirty-five-plus years ago, when I knew Valley climbers capable of living a whole week on five bucks. Easy. Dumpsters revealed a bounty of cans worth a nickel. Scarfing uneaten food from plates left behind on caf tables was quick and free.


So why spend such an extravagant amount on a single meal? In contrast to the filth in which my Canadian friends and I lived in Camp 4, the Ahwahnee dining hall was a dazzling palace. At the brunch, at least, the hotel staff put up with our weekly invasion. We came in wearing our best dirty rugby shirts and slightly torn-up painter pants. We wore shoes and tried not to smell. But, you know, showering once a week and wearing rock shoes all day creates issues with hygiene. Tourists shot us the hairy eyeball. Management wanted us gone. (A letter to my younger self would now include an admonition not to be too proud of being kind of gross. It's all funny until medieval diseases make a comeback.)

Nonetheless, five bucks got us into our kind of Elysium, even if just for one day. And the brunch fare was dreamy: towers of banana cream and cheese blintzes; acres of sausages and bacon; stacks of French toast delicately powdered with sugar; mounds of glistening eggs both Benedict and scrambled. There was an art to eating the Brunch: the goal was to help put back on the weight that you'd lost during the last epic. You did not simply hoover these offerings. You paced yourself, anticipating each plate slowly and carefully. Climbers argued about methods to stretch the stomach in preparation. They agreed that filler food, such as bread rolls, should be avoided in favor of expensive proteins.

Afterward, you could luxuriate in the hallowed Great Lounge digesting (or sitting doubled and trying not to barf). But by then, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the Brunch was over, and try as we (sort of) did to blend in, we couldn't. Management eventually shooed us out. We consoled ourselves with a trip to El Cap Meadow to watch the nuclear sunset and howl at the climbers above. Here, we were once more slayers of dragons and pirates of gold.

This cartoon (shown here in two parts) features Roger and Ed on an adventure at the Ahwahnee Brunch. Roger is an amalgamation of the climbers I knew at that time in Yosemite. When not on the rock, Roger is eating. When not eating, Roger is climbing. And, if asleep, perchance to dream, Roger dreams of climbing rocks and eating food.

Ed, on the other hand—Ed Spat to give his full name—was a real guy. He was over a foot taller than I am, but when we approached peaks together, he slowed his pace to match that of my little stumps, and he was way too well-mannered and considerate to swill all the whisky I'd brought. Not to mention that he always offered gas money: an ideal climbing partner. Ed was also an avid road cyclist, and he worked first as a teacher and then as a physiotherapist. He lost his life to cancer in 2010.

At a memorial gathering in Squamish, Ed's mother told the best story: in grade seven, Ed tried to make beer in his bedroom closet. He'd used two-liter plastic bottles, but he didn't anticipate the pressure his beer would impose on the structure of the bottle. As the beer fermented, the plastic bottles stre-e-e-tched. When Mum at last happened upon the closet brewery, the bottles resembled gigantic mutant hot dogs, curved and easily twice their original length. Ever so carefully, she carried the distorted bottles to the backyard and slowly untwisted the caps to relieve the pressure. Once opened, the bottles took off like rockets. One of them soared above the family home and sprayed beer over the neighborhood before it thudded back to earth.

Today, the "Ahwahnee Grand Brunch" costs $55.50 without tip and tax. Children four and under eat for free. When you adjust for inflation, five bucks from 1981 is now $14.13. Wot!? Well that's one way to get rid of an infestation of dirtbags: price'em outta the possibility. I first drew the cartoon in 1986 when I still had strong memories of the early-Eighties five-dollar Brunch. Now, provided with color to enhance memory, I wonder: How would Ed and Roger have responded to the increased cost? Would they have tried to fake one of them being under four years old? Would they have hatched some fantastical plan to sneak in?

These questions hang in the air; a sparkling air like the kind we've all known on occasion in Yosemite. A day when everything is perfect: you start up a route with an excellent friend. The rock is warm. You've brought the perfect amount of water and snacks. You top out in glorious sunshine.

Ed and I once climbed the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral on a day like that, and on the descent, as we wiggled our hips into that deep slice of a gully between Middle and Higher Cathedral, we discussed what kind of feast could best match our latest mythic adventure. Watermelon rated high on the list, as did ice cream. Beer too—of course. Our words, mingled with laughs and hoots, echoed off the great granite walls as we left behind one joy—climbing—for another—eating. Decades on, I remember yet another source of happiness, deeper and more constant, that ran through all our adventures: the magnificence of friendship.

This cartoon is dedicated to my lovely memories of Ed Spat (1961-2010), awesome friend, climbing partner and pro eater.

—Tami Knight, Vancouver, British Columbia

[Cartoon] Tami Knight[Cartoon] Tami Knight

[Cartoon] Tami Knight[Cartoon] Tami Knight

[This story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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