I've read many a mountaineering novel over the years. The exploits of Walter Bonatti, Chris Bonnington, Heinrich Harrer, Reinhold Messner, Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman, among many others, transported my mind into the realm of the some of the glory days of alpinism. The harshness and the juxtaposed romanticism of the mountains has been captured oh so eloquently by some of these high-altitude writers.
On cold, dreary winter evenings I liked to sit by the fire, post-dinner coffee in hand, reading of the hardships of the mountains and dreaming of my next adventure. I couldn't help but notice how often these European mountaineers stopped to “brew,” even in the most miserable of situations, at all times of day or night. Tea, that is.
Never much of a tea drinker myself, I still do realize of course that a hot drink high in the mountains can do wonders to rejuvenate the body and lift the spirit. But as a Pacific Northwester I've always believed that coffee does that even better. OK, so maybe it's easier to brew tea at 20,000 feet in a bivy hanging by a few strands of rope on some remote Himalayan peak (I certainly wouldn't know from experience), but for the mere mortal mountain adventurers who have the luxury of a relaxing morning coffee ritual (preferably in a cozy backcountry hut), java is where it's at.
Depending on your own dependence to the venerable coffee bean and the preferences of the caffeine addicted in your backcountry party, there are a plethora of options to suit everyone from the light and fast crowd to the espresso aficionados whose coffee tendencies take priority over alpine starts. I will not attempt to set out all options in this not-so-concise and incomplete guide to coffee in the mountains, but I will from experience provide some suggestions of what may work, and what definitely does not.
First, a way to heat water is obviously imperative. There are many stoves out there that will boil water just fine. Take your pick. In the sub-alpine if you're desperate a campfire can work as well. And in huts with wood or propane stoves you're easily covered. Jetboil, one of my water-heating weapons of choice, even has an option for an integrated coffee press to use with its system. Not a bad pick...it's light, compact and makes decent coffee.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. You can't make good coffee without, well, good coffee...as in beans. Some non-purist heathen will show up with instant coffee, but we will not even stoop to describing that abomination.
Back to beans. Grinding your favorite roast at home is a common practice, however, some pretty tricky and compact hand-cranked burr grinders will guarantee better freshness (the GSI JavaMill or the GSI JavaGrind for example) and definitely cement your reputation as a coffee snob. Either way, it sure beats one of my early backcountry coffee learning experiences (in addition to the time that I completely forgot the coffee, a sure recipe for mutiny, divorce, etc. etc.). Let's just say attempting to heat water on a campfire of green wood while smashing coffee beans with smooth rocks and then adding the coarse results to the pot to make a rather sad version of cowboy coffee is as rudimentary as it gets. But in between picking out grounds from in between your teeth, it still is the nectar of the gods.
Small stovetop espresso devices, like the GSI 1 Cup Stainless Mini Expresso (a 4-cup version is available as well), are a decent option. Some people (i.e. minimalists) may consider these be a bit on the bulky and weighty side, but they do make a fine coffee. This used to be my go-to device. I've also used various backcountry drip devices, which do work well and are light and compact.
My new personal preference, however, is the Aeropress. It's fast, it's easy (simple clean-up as well), it's fairly light, generally unbreakable, relatively compact, and most importantly it makes amazing coffee. Heat water, pour into cylinder containing finely ground coffee, give the mix a quick stir, smell the wonderful aroma, depress the plunger...and enjoy a stellar brew.
So ditch your chai wallah, experiment with various systems and become a backcountry barista who takes great pride in brewing the ultimate cup of coffee to savor in your backcountry sojourns.