Poop on Denali (Mount McKinley) is in the news. And why not? Experts are figuring the Big One is hosting a Big Pile, that is, the mountain is boasting about 138,000 pounds of human digestive results (estimated amount since 1951).
Check out our 2010 video about first person experience with this issue:
Taking the Chicken Little slant, most writers will probably portray this as some kind of potential environmental disaster (bowing to the doctrine of preemptive caution), as in this article. This view is based on the fact that the poo is already there, and being carried down the mountain frozen in the conveyor belt glacier, to eventually melt out and cause havoc. I agree that’s going to happen, but feel the results will be inconsequential — not an apocalypse of poo.
If you’ve ever flown over or walked on the Kahiltna Glacier (where most of the dark matter resides due to this being the standard and mobbed climbing route) you’ll be utterly amazed at how vast that place is. The lower glacier (where the stuff will eventually melt out) is probably about 20 miles long, several miles wide and thousands of feet thick. Enormous.
138,000 pounds is to the Kahiltna Glacier as one sand grain is to Hawaii. And it’s not going to melt out all at once. Instead, it’ll come out over the space of decades since the early climbers of the 1950s began leaving their leavings on the glacier. That’s something around 2,300 pounds a year of a substance that’s about 70 percent water, meaning the glacier will reveal an average of say 600 pounds of waste solids a year, the equivalent in mass of one medium size rock sitting on the surface in, say, 100 square miles. Trivial, simply, trivial.
More, considering the wet environment and wet weather in the area of the Kahiltna Glacier terminus, any scat that does end up on the surface is sure to readily degrade and distribute before it’s ever a problem.
While modern municipal waste processing is no doubt the best solution for human bathroom products, in many cases “dilution is the solution to pollution,” as one scientific dictum states. In other words, nearly any substance is harmless when rendered to small enough percentages of the total environment. This is true of human waste (essentially, chewed up food), which is why we can still go with impunity in our wilderness cat-holes — unless we’re in a crowded area where pathogens from the waste can reach unacceptable levels, or pure aesthetics are violated (e.g., yikes, it’s under every rock!.
Thus, again this is not a situation to panic over. We are not burying Denali in turds.
At the 14,200 foot camp on Denali a fairly large pit toilet dug in the snow is the method that’s causing most of the modern accumulation. These pits are covered up with snow as they fill, then allowed to creep downhill as the glacier descends.
Waste is already flown out from the 17,000 foot camp on the standard climbing route, and climbers staying at the Kahiltna base camp before and after their trips are expected to use their CMC cans (see below) and much of the waste stored in those cans ends up being flown out and disposed of in civilization.
Climbers not in one of the “organized pooping” camps with Park Service privies use a simple device called a CMC (Clean Mountain Can). This is basically a plastic bucket that allows the contamination-free storage of biodegradable plastic poo bags, which are subsequently tossed into crevasses where possible (and sometimes flown out, as from Kahiltna Base Camp).
The theory of the CMC system is to totally eliminate pooping on the glacier surface, a problem that became famously out of hand when in years past much of the standard route was covered with melted-out or frozen turds, which in turn distributed particles out into the snowpack and necessitated purification of all your melted snow water. But yes, the CMC system does result in much feces being thrown in crevasses and thus being carried down to eventually emerge at the glacier terminus (again, in my view, a trivial concern).
You doubt and want to improve the situation? Mitigation is easy. First, Denali climbers pay the park service a small fortune each time they climb the peak. In a nod to preemptive caution, the amount of waste left on the glacier could be significantly reduced by using a part of that money to fly out even more of the waste that that park users deposit. Add one more collection location where waste is flown out of instead of left buried in the glacier, and the possible problem would in my view become what any rational person would view as a non-issue.
Beyond simply flying out the man-scat, the Park Service could do one other improvement. The waste bags we use for our bathroom system at our backcountry cabin in Colorado include an enzyme powder that’s designed to break down the waste faster, and thus assist in natural decomposition once the bag is disposed of at a landfill or wherever. Park service could include this sort of thing in their CMC system if they need to insure the breakdown of waste once it surfaces at the glacier terminus.
From what I saw on Denali in 2010, when the present waste disposal systems are adhered to they’re quite good. A few tweaks and I’d imagine nearly anyone would deem them sustainable.
Of bigger concern is enforcement, as they still have a problem on Denali with climbers who ignore the CMC can system and just poop on the snow surface, especially during storms or when they’re ill. We encountered some of that when digging camp at 14,200 feet, and realized that even with all the Park Service efforts, we still had to boil purify all our snow melt water. Thus, as frequently happens in these situations, compliance and enforcement fall short of the well intentioned rules.
Be all that as it may, scientists are saying we’ll know the answers in as soon as 15 years, when the first scat troves begin to surface at the melt zone of the Kahiltna.
The article referenced above was based on a more complete article in AnchoragePress dot com (defunct link removed 2015) which I found less sensationalistic though still quite pessimistic.
Note: Design and engineering outfits such as LEAP in Italy have already come up with solar heated composting toilets designed for alpine environments, that at the least will dehydrate human waste to the point where flying it out is much more affordable due to reduced weight. At best, such rigs completely degrade the poo to the point where it’s virtually gone. I’d predict that ultimately, such things will be the final solution for bathroom duty in alpine recreation environments worldwide.