28 Jul Talkin’ Sh*t about Mount Whitney. Can you handle it?
People are saying I have been talking shit too much, so I decided to write some shit down instead. Let’s think of this as my periodic colon cleanse for the mind. It ain’t pretty, but it is probably healthy. The thing is, we should all be talking about poop more. And why not? We do it daily, all 7.125 billion of us on Earth. This may be one of the more significant impacts humans have on each other on the shrinking planet we inhabit.
Alpine climbers and hikers poop more than the average pooper, and in some of the most spectacular locations on Earth. Ironically, in many places our excremental impacts have been highly destructive to the places and experiences we cherish. The international Sustainable Summits Conference, sponsored by the American Alpine Club, held two summers ago in Golden, Colorado spent a great deal of time on this issue. Great event, and there will be another held this August in New Zealand if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Such conferences help land managers to identify problems and evaluate possible solutions. We think of human waste problems as endemic to high mountains in developing nations, but poop happens in the “wild” mountains of the U.S. too. “Out of sight, out of mind” management strategies are economical and low maintenance for land agencies, but when human waste becomes a noticeable or known problem, they can no longer be considered effective. The population visiting our wild places is increasing exponentially and it is becoming more of a problem every year. By the time the problem can no longer be ignored, it can be very difficult to remedy.
Consider a recent study done by Dr. Michael Loso and his colleagues from Alaska Pacific University in Denali National Park. They used an estimated average poop weight of 106 g (3.7 oz) per climber per day to estimate the amount of climber excrement currently on the Kahiltna Glacier. The average trip length on Denali is 18 days, and typically just over 1000 climbers per year visit the mountain to climb via the West Buttress and routes that share the same glaciated approach. That gives an average of around 2000 kg (4400 lbs) of poop per year on the mountain. Most of this poop has historically been deposited into garbage bags and tossed into crevasses on the Kahiltna Glacier. It is estimated by these numbers that 69 metric tons (152,118 lbs) of fecal waste has been deposited on the glacier since the Washburn expedition in 1951 through 2012. That is a load of crap – but it is also true! These numbers address the ecological and aesthetic realities of the impact of climbing on this remote, yet popular mountain – also the highest and most majestic in our country.
Surprisingly, human fecal particles have already been discovered in the Kahiltna River below the toe of the glacier. Glaciers move more rapidly than they appear. The Kahiltna Glacier moves more than 100 yards in a single year. The first emergence of waste deposited in the glacier is conservatively expected 71 years after first deposition. That means historic basecamp poop should begin to emerge around 2025 (based on first use of that airstrip in 1954). This may not pose much of a human health risk due to the remote nature of the mountain and the viability of the glacial river as a water source for anyone, but it does seem like a pretty serious and imminent predicament.
“That is a load of crap – but it is also true!”
The Denali National Park is trying to figure out how to handle the problem, and they are weighing the options. And some of the options involve literally handling the problem. Denali National Park, lead by Ranger Roger Robinson, has been on the forefront of experimentation and regulation for dealing with human waste on a popular climbing mountain. Denali currently uses a “pack out your poop” program using what has been called the “Clean Mountain Canister.” This essentially a hard plastic canister (like a bear canister) with straps affixed to it. With volume for 1.88 gallons of human waste, each can is good for 10-14 uses. So to pack out all of one’s poop for a Denali climb, each climber must carry 2 canisters. Canisters are 11 inches tall with an 8 inch diameter opening, and they weigh 2.4 pounds each. To bring 2 filled canisters down a climber would expect to be carrying a significant additional load, weighing as much as 14 lbs per climber. Right now the Park only requires that climbers pack out from high camp (17,200 feet), which makes the prospect much less daunting, but they are trying to determine the options for managing human waste elsewhere on the mountain, and one of them is to require all climbers to pack all of it out.
“The Denali National Park is trying to figure out how to handle the problem, and they are weighing the options. And some of the options involve literally handling the problem.”
This consideration represents a very interesting shift in mentality we are witnessing from land management agencies on some of the more popular climbing mountains in the US. Due to increasing pressures to reduce costs and budgetary constraints associated with land management, agencies are more often requiring recreational users to bear the cost, or the burden, that they themselves have historically been responsible for, paid for by our tax dollars. Recreational users have to pay additionally to use trailheads in many places. We pay to enter National Parks. Denali requires a $365/person mountaineering fee for climbers and there are per climber permit fees for Mt. Whitney and other places. The added fees are not totally unreasonable considering the cost of infrastructure for managing climbing activities in places like Denali. The question is: should salaries and/or added fees help land agencies manage any human waste issues that arise from the allowing access to concentrated areas, or should climbers themselves be collectively responsible? Or should it be a combination of both?
It is often ineffective to apply one solution for all mountain venues because each location is unique and demands a case by case approach. On Denali, it could work to require recreationists to pack out all their poop. Right now they already go as far as inspecting trash after a trip to ensure that none was left on the mountain. Most everyone passes the same way and it is fairly easy for rangers to set up checkpoints to enforce regulations. In other places this is impossible.
Consider Mount Whitney in our Sierra Nevada home range. In 2004 the Inyo National Forest removed the solar dehydrating/composting toilets at two different camp locations on the Mount Whitney Trail. The reasoning was that they were not working properly without regular maintenance. Maintenance requires Forest Service personnel, and regular use of helicopters in wilderness. In 2007, the pit toilet at the summit of Mount Whitney was removed by Sequoia National Park. Forest Service staff was required to help clean and maintain these toilets. Helicopters were required to regularly fly in to remove the waste, a big deal in federally designated wilderness.
According to the USFS Inyo National Forest website, over 20,000 people visit Mount Whitney each year. It would not be unreasonable, and probably an underestimation, to speculate that each person ejects 1 poo somewhere on the mountain. Some day hikers may not have any after leaving Whitney Portal, but multiday climbers often produce 2 or 3. So let’s just say conservatively the average is 1.5. This equates to 30,000 poops with a mass of 3180 kg (7011 lbs) per year! But that does not include all of the hiking visitors that approach via Sequoia National Park which includes thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Trail, and other backpacking/peakbagging itineraries. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the number of thru hikers increased to over 1000 in 2014, from the 700-800 average in 2013, and in 2015 there were 2700 permits pulled – a PCT record. Those numbers don’t include hundreds
not hiking the full PCT but planning to hike 500+ miles. It has been speculated that more than 3000 PCT thru-hiker permits were pulled for this season. Many speculate this is due to the effect of the book and movie entitled “Wild.” We can probably assume the number of hikers of the JMT, sections thereof, and other Whitney inclusive itineraries are growing at a significant rate as well. Accessing Mount Whitney from the east this season, via its most popular routes, is inconvenienced by construction on the Whitney Portal Road. This did not deter a record number of Whitney day hike permit applicants (64,939 hikers, an increase of 17% in a year) from applying for permit access. Of those, 18,000 people are currently allowed on Whitney from the Portal each year within the 6 month quota period.
Without working toilets in poop-ular places like Mount Whitney, regular campsites can literally become shitholes. We see this in many climbing venues worldwide, so we know what can happen. The “pack it out” program was put into regulation in 2006 for the Whitney zone by a collaborative effort between the USFS and the NPS. This was implemented more than 2 years after the solar composting toilets on the Whitney Trail were dismantled and burned by the USFS. Why did they remove the toilets? From the report by Gary Oye and Brian Spitek at the Inyo National Forest:
“Despite countless renovations and retro-fits, the toilets never functioned very well. A helicopter was needed to fly 4,000 pounds of human waste out each year.”
And on the USFS website:
“There are public toilets are at the trailhead, but not along the trails. In the past, toilets were located along the Mt. Whintey Trail. Despite numerous renovations and retrofits, they never functioned properly and were overwhelmed with waste. Sometimes the toilets and related cesspools overflowed.”
Why didn’t the toilets work? Some assume it’s the high elevation. But in Rocky Mountain National Park they have had the same solar dehydrating toilets on Longs Peak since 1983. The toilets are at 13,000′ and the mountain sees 40,000 people per year. The Sustainable Summits conference had a good presentation by Joe Arnold from RMNP on the realities of what it takes to properly manage these toilets. What they don’t tell you about the toilets on Mt. Whitney is that they did not function properly for two simple reasons: 1) the Forest Service did not have enough of them, and 2) they did not have necessary level of commitment to maintain them. The maintenance included some stirring, shoveling, and transporting of human waste on a regular schedule. It involved the removal of desiccated waste. There are legitimate concerns that the Forest cited regarding the challenges of authorizing helicopter use in designated wilderness, and the costs/risks of flying. They could have considered using pack animals though. RMNP uses llamas. Instead of dealing with the human waste problem the Inyo spent a quarter million dollars on trail maintenance in 2015 on the Whitney Trail. (That’s right, they made it easier for people to get themselves up the mountain to poop on it, without first addressing the existing waste problem.) It came down to an internal decision that the agency could save money and significant effort to tell the public the story that the toilets “never functioned properly” and replace them with a voluntary pack it out program. In 2008, they declared the “pack it out” program successful and, like the old mule trains up the 99 switchbacks on the Whitney Trail, the toilets became relics of history.
In the last few years the voluntary pack it out program became mandatory, which is a good thing, but if we examine the realities of this policy we will find an inadequate and unsustainable solution. The problem is that people do not comply, and the Park/Forest does not, and cannot, enforce.
WAG bags (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) are individual kits designed to make it cleaner and easier for an individual to pack out their own human waste from the backcountry. They take some education and practice to use cleanly and effectively. Generally 1 WAG bag can work for 1-2 poops, but it is pretty rough to re-open a bag to use it a second time so most people don’t do that, understandably. The toilet paper included in WAG bags is usually inadequate in size, quantity, and thickness so it is advisable to bring your own to supplement, and sometimes there is an antibacterial wet nap in there, but additional hand sanitizer is also a good idea. People don’t intuitively know all of this, and they are left to their own devices to figure it out on top of the overwhelming challenge for most of spending a day or more climbing the highest mountain in the contiguous US. For most Whitney day hikers this complete kit takes up about 10-15% of total pack volume, and potentially >20% after use. We have to weigh the costs and benefits of this program, and be realistic.
Check out these photos from a single day, on one route transect that I did above 12,000 feet on Mount Whitney in late July of 2014 (put down your food first). Keep in mind this is just what I could easily notice from the trail:
I average around 10-15 days on Whitney each season these days and can report having personally seen dozens of WAG bags left on Mount Whitney each year. Last year, out of curiosity, I decided to walk a short 20 yard radius around a popular campsite at Upper Boy Scout Lake and found several abandoned WAG bags, shallowly buried poop, poop under obvious rocks, poop buried in a ziplock bag, poop out in the open, and mangled toilet paper that was likely turned up from a burial spot by an animal. Here are the disturbing results of that study:
One day later, I guided a fellow up to the summit of Whitney and on the way down we stopped at Iceberg Lake to chat with a friend who was a Inyo National Forest ranger at the time. I told her of my study, showed her the photos, and indicated where our camp was located. She said she would start down to go clean it up. As we descended the final few hundred feet to camp for the night, we saw the ranger leaving the area with a giant, full white trash bag. What a relief, it’s clean. To our shock and dismay though, the waste in the photos above was all still there. The ranger had discovered an entire trash bag full nearby that did not even include what I had told her about.
In several casual interviews with PCT and JMT thru-hikers in the past two seasons, all of them freely admitted that they did not actually pack out their poop from the Whitney zone as required from places like Guitar Lake or elsewhere on the mountain. None of them knew of even one other individual on the trail that complied with this regulation. The idea of carrying poop around for days before putting it in a trash bin somewhere is unpalatable at best.
There are some problems with the pack it out program that we need to understand:
- Group Hygiene – It is estimated that much of the wilderness acquired giardia and other bugs in the Sierra comes from inadequate hygiene within the group and food/water contamination. An estimated 1 out of 3 people in the US have or carry giardia already, and even a higher amount among the outdoor recreational public. Using WAG bags involves manipulating and handling feces, and requires a degree of skill. This skill generally requires practice for true effectiveness, which people, Americans or otherwise, never have the opportunity for in any place or time in life. At altitude, many climbers and hikers experience poor digestion and increased gastrointestinal distress. Loose and/or explosive (sorry) stools are more difficult to manage cleanly with WAG bags. Feces on the hands can lead to transmission of illness, and an antibacterial wet nap is not always adequate to address this.
- Storage Challenges – One thing that they don’t tell you is that once you poop in a bag, you have to do something with it to prevent animals from getting into it. If you are using a bear canister, that means figuring out a way to store poop with food or bringing a separate poop storage canister. Otherwise, poop bags must be hung. Many critters like mice and marmots like to eat poorly digested human feces. I have seen numerous WAG bags, improperly stored, chewed into by animals. This is really a worst case scenario, as a normal cathole is a far better solution overall than a WAG bag that has been left out and breached.
- Horrific Odor – Unless you have the perfect shaded spot to hang used WAG bags or the temperatures are sub-freezing, WAG bags get sun and warmth on them in the Sierra. Then they begin to wreak. I have tried a lot of methods, including drybags, “odor proof” Op-sacs, many layers of ziplocs, etc. but I am convinced that there is no packable container on Earth that can fully suppress the smell of sun-warmed human crap in a bag. When people pack their poop out they typically do so, (myself included) securely on the outside of the pack, so as not to infuse the inner contents of the pack with poo vapors. I have seen poorly secured poop bags literally in the creek, presumably grabbed off of the pack by a tree branch. If it stays on the pack, it means that the poop in the bag continues to warm in the sun and the wafting smell follows the group all the way down the mountain. It is hard to know for certain whose poop you are smelling at any given time. I just try not to think about the fact that when you smell someone else’s poop, tiny particles of their excrement have become bound to the nerve cells in your own body.
- Inadequate Education – This program has perhaps been put into place prematurely and without enough public outreach. Many well-intentioned people don’t understand the nuances and are overwhelmed with the prospect of packing out their poop. Before a program like this can work there has to be a broader cultural shift and an effective educational program. I have seen too many used WAG bags strewn around the mountain and on the summit. Many people try to do the right thing, then they just can’t bear to carry it out. Some of them pull the city park maneuver where they leave the poop to retrieve on the way back. Sometimes animals get into the bags by then. Sometimes people conveniently forget about them.
- Threat to Wilderness Preservation – For many, the prolonged experience of handling and carrying human feces may so significantly impact the enjoyment of experiencing these wild places that it interferes with their desire to visit them. It is well understood in the field of wilderness preservation that people must connect to wild places in order to care about them. Many people do not go to the wild for fears about how they will be able to go to the bathroom. The prospect of handling feces on a daily basis a serious consideration for many that causes those people to choose and come to value other forms of more civilized recreation. This may have unintended and undesirable long-term ramifications for wilderness land preservation in the future.
Human waste is a major problem and dealing with it raises complex issues. The law of the wilderness, The Wilderness Act of 1964, is vague and subject to interpretation.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Often there are contradictions in management decisions. There were toilets on Mount Whitney in the past, even though these would appear to be counter to what was intended for designated wilderness. There are also many structures, signs, trails, bridges, camps, and even luxurious lodgings in the wild Sierra. There are toilets in some wilderness areas, like at Pear Lake near Mount Whitney and throughout wildernesses in other National Parks and Forests. Why are some of these acceptable and others not? What does it mean to dominate the landscape? What does untrammeled really mean? The Wilderness Act also states that wilderness is for the:
“use and enjoyment of the American people”
Perhaps it was not well thought out that we can easily use and enjoy our pristine and wild places to their own demise, even if all we do is go there in the most primitive and minimally impactful way. WAG bags up the ante a bit by attempting to remediate the impacts of human waste by putting the task in the hands of the visitor. The problem is, it just isn’t working.
It is hard for Americans to do this, but sometimes it is good to take a lesson from other countries that also celebrate and wish to protect their mountains for recreational use. In the Alps the popularity of going to the mountains for recreation has been great for a very long time, more than 150 years. Though most of these places are not what we define as wilderness in character, the management methods have been for the most part realistic, practical, and adaptive in the face of increasing popularity and what they consider to be negative impacts. On Denali, it might make most sense for climbers to carry their waste down from high camp in CMC’s, but maybe the Park could then offer to remove the waste from 14,000 camp or an alternate site on the mountain? They already fly in and out with personnel and supplies regularly. Maybe they could set up maintained seasonal toilets or WAG bag receptacles that could be hauled off by the Park. It would be nice if they could use their resources partner with climbers rather than use climbers to do all the work for the public good. I am sure that climbers would be willing to pay a bit more for these services. On Mt. Whitney, land management needs to be aware that the current waste management program is not working. One option for them is to increase the presence of rangers for oversight and enforcement. Due to the geography and landscape, this is just not a resource efficient option. Toilet technology is improving. Rocky Mountain National Park has shown one way. Most Americans would probably agree that an occasional helicopter fly-over and landing has less impact on their wilderness experience than carrying human waste for miles. Military fighter jets already buzz the mountain wilderness many days, sometimes flying low into canyons. Helicopters and/or mules could help to service toilets and/or WAG bag depositories in wilderness locations. This would help to prevent the orphaning of WAG bags and ameliorate the proliferation of rogue (and generally inadequate) catholes. We should realize that the carbon footprint and costs of providing WAG bags, finding and cleaning used ones off of the mountain, and subsequent disposal are also not insignificant. Had legislators been anticipating the problem we have now, I imagine they would have exempted facilities for dealing with human waste as deemed necessary in the Wilderness Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act actually exempts dams!? Go figure.
In the meantime, Sierra Mountain Guides, as well as every other Mt. Whitney guide service I know of, packs out our poop on all Mount Whitney programs. We have done so since we started guiding on the mountain in 1996 and it was voluntary. We will continue to do so until a better solution is implemented, because it is the best thing we have going. We implore you to please prepare to pack it out, physically and mentally, and then do it.
Let’s acknowledge something though and be honest. It is a naive and idealistic notion that enough unguided Whitney climbers and hikers will comply with the unenforceable pack it out program on Mount Whitney. Something else must be done.