Denali Poo Pile — Still an Issue?

Post by blogger | July 4, 2012      

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.

Previous post about the bathrooms of Denali.

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.


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7 Responses to “Denali Poo Pile — Still an Issue?”

  1. Chris Simmons July 4th, 2012 2:26 pm

    Lou, does the enzyme powder you use at your cabin require above freezing temps to function? That was my understanding of its limitations – that it couldn’t break down frozen waste.

  2. Charles Miske July 4th, 2012 5:00 pm

    Yeah, having been there as part of my Seven Summits quest last year (2011) and seeing the general compliance with the CMC system, I figured the other writers were pretty extreme doomsayers. And you’re right – that glacier is freaking huge!

  3. Lou July 4th, 2012 10:50 pm

    Chris, sure, any frozen organic matter is pretty much inert when it comes to bacteria and enzymes. When that stuff would work is when first applied, or else once the scat melts out of the glacier. Keep in mind that the temperatures inside a glacier are around the freezing point, so it doesn’t take much to get things above that.

    The best solution to this whole thing, in my view, are the modular type of solar powered composting toilets I saw LEAP Factory working on in Italy, for use in the Alps. When they work, those things are amazing. But again, temperature is the crux. The LEAP guys told me that with the correct insulation and enough solar panels, they’ would probably work incredibly well in Alaska during summer. Imagine, a warm heated bathroom on Denali! Now that’s what I’d call using our climbing fee for something useful!

  4. Wookie1974 July 5th, 2012 12:52 am

    Lou –

    do you have a link or information on those toilets you saw in Italy? I’d like to learn more.
    The problem of disposing of human waste is a huge issue worldwide, and I suspect that some of the “toilets of the future” will be developed first for places like remote alpine environments – but will eventually make their way into our homes.
    Solid waste is really not the worst problem, at least in developed regions. It is easy to filter out and take care of. Urine and other liquid waste is difficult to get out of the water once in….so it’s the focus of a lot of new toilet designs people are working on.
    I think in the future, we may all have some kind of composting toilet, and we’ll have two separate systems: one for number 1, one for number 2 – and the waste from each will be processed separately.

    The takeaway: buy stock in bathroom cleaning supply companies. Their market is going to double. 🙂

  5. Lou July 5th, 2012 9:03 am

    Wookie, one of my blog posts about visiting LEAP last winter has some words about their composters:

    Composting toilets are indeed coming on strong, the guys at LEAP told me the problem is it’s critical that they keep the correct temperature, ventalation, etc., so operating them in cold alpine environments with little maintenance is the crux. Their idea is a very unitized structure, fully solar powered, portable by helicopter, installed in minutes. Seems like the biggest problem with these is that if they’re just dropped by helicopter in some remote location, who keeps an eye on it to make sure it’s working? I can see these things just filling up with crap, malfing, and just becoming an expensive eyesore. They’d need to be super reliable. Even theft of components could be a problem in many parts of the world.

    But for places like Denali Park, the high tech composting toilet would seem to be the solution since our tax money and climber fees pay for people to watch over this sort of thing. As for liquid, I don’t see any problem with the dilution solution when it comes to Kahiltna Glacier. We’d have to have hundreds or even thousands of times more climbers up there over the summers before that ever became an issue. And as I wrote in the post, really, the solid waste is probably not a big deal. Most people simply do not get the scale of the Kahiltna Glacier, in comparison to the yearly poo pile. Once the stuff does start to melt out, I’d be surprised if researchers can even find much of it without lots of time and helicopter money. Again, the glacier terminus is huge, covered with rocks, mud, dirt, and lower down a carpet of moss and organic matter (according to a guy I know who’s walked out the whole length several times.)

    By way of clarification, poo researchers ascertain contamination by measurement of coliform bacteria. But that’s tricky, since most mammals deposit coliform when they crap. So the researchers have to look for coliform types unique to humans, and so on. (According to web research I did yesterday). Regular coliform is relativly harmeless, only causing brief digestive distress when different strains conflict. Instead, reseaerchers figure that if they find much human coliform, the chance of other more harmefull pathogens is a concern.

    Problem with the Denali situation is they still have 15 years or so before it’ll be worth fiddling around with testing the Kahiltna melt for human coliform, and meanwhile the poo pile continues. Thus, I can see the justification for preemptive caution. But again, the dilution factor is simply so extreme, it seems like the gradual introduction of more waste removal by aircraft, along with composting toilets, will be all it takes to make this a non issue.

  6. K Goodwin July 6th, 2012 3:58 pm

    I appreciate everyone’s additional insight into this issue. I am one of the “famed scientist” who gave the ‘doomsday predictions’. I just wanted to state that I agree it has gotten blown out of proportion from our original research; once the media grabbed it and ran with it. Our intention was not to claim that Denali is being buried in poo. I personally have a long period of time on the entire length of the Kahiltna Glacier and do not underestimate its mass and power.

    We simply did a study looking at glacial velocities and the amount of potential contamination in the mountain as a management tool for the NPS so they can be proactive in future management.

    As for the use of fecal coliform and E.coli, these are EPA standard reference indicators of fecal contamination in water, which at high concentrations indicate a potential for other harmful bacteria and protozoa to be present. There is a DNA marker for human fecal coliform, however you have to have a rather high level of FC to begin with for the DNA analysis to work. You can do a second comparison of fecal coliform to fecal streptococci, which based on ratio levels,(greater than 4:1) is a strong indicator of human origin.

    As far as urine goes, while there is a lot of it, it is essentially a sterile liquid, and the only thing it leaves behind is sodium ions, and therefore is not a environmental or human health risk.

    I would like you to know we have recently had our research accepted for publication in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research, I would urge you to check out the full story, not the media’s sensationalized version.

  7. Steve July 8th, 2012 12:42 am

    The media and their distortions. Having been up Denali three times since 2005, I totally agree Lou. The mainstream media LOVES to play up the enviro impacts, and the ‘willing to scramble over dead body’ attitude of climbers. A gross oversupply of pop MSM has resulted in an industry addicted to scandals of the hour, and reader/viewer outrage that generates comment board ‘community’. But Clean Mountain Cans are mandatory everywhere except 14,000-foot camp, where there are deeply dug toilets (and summit day, where a few careless climbers could care less). But a century in the anaerobic conditions at the bottom of a glacier results in?…Compost, not bacteria.

    On all three of my trips I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how clean Denali is — And unpleasantly surprised at how lackadaisical Denali’s oft-volunteer climbing rangers are (unlike the pros and Talkeetna staff). It’s not the mountain, or the poo; It’s the fugging media and its distortions–Specifically editors and ‘buzz hungry’ publishers who care little about accuracy, but absolutely worship drama, editorial ‘conceit’, listsicles, and overblown scandals. That is the big reason why -after 30 years as a full-time professional outdoor writer- I’ve quit media altogether. The MSM, and the outdoor media too, have become little better than cable TV with its aliens, bigfoot hunters, worship of ‘sexy’ athelte pictorials, and ‘survival’ reality TV shows.

    Note how one of the original researchers has weighed in above. Old story. Headline whoring results in an intellectual wasteland for modern media.

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