Friday, August 1, 2008

Human Waste Disposal in the Alpine

It's a beautiful day on Mt. Baker.  Your party is setting up their camp on the Hogsback with the hopes of attaining the summit early the next day.

As you put up your tent, you notice something.  Decaying toilet paper.  You move your camp to a different location and find more decaying toilet paper.  Yet another location; nope, there's new toilet paper and a bit of human waste there.  Wherever you go, the ugly remnants of angry bowels are there to greet you...

As more and more people visit the backcountry, the evidence of their presence is everywhere.  Not in fire pits or in candy wrappers, but in human waste.  There is fecal material everywhere.  There is toilet paper everywhere.

The classiest of backcountry users and the savviest of climbers are aware of their impact.  They are aware that they are not the only ones to use a particular location.  They are aware that what they do will have a lasting impact on other visitors.  They know how to properly dispose of their waste and they do it. Every person can make a difference.  Every person can have a positive impact.  Indeed, every person can make it better.

First and foremost, one's goal in the backcountry should be to make sure no one knows that anyone has ever visited before.  This means following certain rules when dealing with human waste management.  In other words, if someone comes across the place where you had to use the bathroom, there should be no evidence that you were ever there.

The principals of Leave No Trace, which were designed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, have a strong emphasis on human waste disposal.  The Center for Outdoor Ethics has studied a number of different methods and feels that some work better than others.  In the high environments where climbers spend most of their time, there are four techniques that are commonly used.  They are Bury, Toss, Smear, and WAG.

1)  Bury:  When below treeline, one may bury waste in a cathole.  This should be at least six inches deep and at least two hundred feet from any water source.  Toilet paper should always be packed out.  The Center for Outdoor Ethics believes this to be one of the better techniques used.

2)  Toss:  The toss method is preferable only on low use alpine climbs.  Obscure mountains with obscure glaciers are ideal for this method.  The idea behind this technique is to go on a rock on a moraine.  After you’ve finished your business, throw the rock down the moraine.  The waste will scatter all over the place, bake in the sun and blow away.  Pack out all toilet paper.

A similar technique involves using the bathroom next to a crevasse and then tossing it in.  Once complete, it is always possible use snow instead of toilet paper.  Obviously if you prefer toilet paper it is important to pack it out.  These methods should only be employed on low use glaciers.

3)  Smear:  In this method, one smears human waste in a thin layer on a large boulder that is directly in the sun.  Over a period of days the waste will bake and blow away.  All toilet paper should be packed out.  This method should not be used on popular routes or in popular campsites.

Climbers on multi-pitch rock climbs often use this technique to deal with their waste.  If you are in a situation where you are required to do this, make sure that the waste is smeared far from any belay stations or holds on the route.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics found that many individuals do not smear their waste in a thin enough layer for it to break down quickly.  If this technique is employed, it is very important to spread the waste as thinly as possible.

4)  WAG:  The best all around method for dealing with human waste is to pack it all out.  This method (often referred to as the blue-bag method) has been employed for years on Mt. Rainier and in other locations, but is slowly becoming popular throughout the mountains.  In this method, a climber essentially goes to the bathroom in a special bag, which then can be easily carried out.  WAG bags are available at many ranger stations free of charge.

Perhaps the greatest challenge currently facing climbers everywhere is ignorance concerning backcountry waste disposal.  This single problem is a major contributor to the plethora of proposals for limiting the number of climbers in many areas.  It is our responsibility as a climbing community to police this problem and make sure that the people in our user group are doing everything that they can to minimize the human impact on the fragile alpine environments that we all love.

--Jason D. Martin

1 comment:

  1. If you are looking for a good company to find "WAG bags" I would check out a company in Montana known as cleanwaste. Their products are fully biodegradable and very useful for just about any outdoor activity. Their website is . Check them out!


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