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Making Denali Feces-Free

Rangers at North America’s tallest mountain tackle a major mess.
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Flying over Denali National Park.  (Photo: Robot Brainz/Flickr)

Flying over Denali National Park. (Photo: Robot Brainz/Flickr)

Two years ago, I visited Denali—the tallest mountain in North America, also called Mount McKinley—during the peak of the spring climbing season. I drove to Talkeetna, a small town a couple of hours north of Anchorage, on the edge of Denali National Park, and checked in with the rangers at the station there. When I left to head to the town’s small airstrip for a ski-plane flight into base camp, at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier, I’d added one more piece of equipment to my gear: a small round bucket made of green plastic, with a screw-top lid and a couple of compostable liner bags stuffed inside.

This was my ranger-issued Clean Mountain Can, a homegrown innovation of Denali National Park. The cans are issued to every party that heads up the mountain, with the goal of reducing—and, eventually, maybe eliminating entirely—the volume of human waste that gets left behind on its slopes.

Mountaineering ranger Roger Robinson pioneered the CMC program, which launched in 2001. Robinson has been working as a ranger at Denali for 35 years: he’s been to the summit five times, and has worked on patrols above 17,000 feet, just below the peak itself (Denali clocks in at just over 20,000 feet) so often he’s lost track of the exact count—maybe 25 times, he figures. He remembers the days when climbers on the mountain were totally careless about their trash.

Research has shown that E. coli can survive and remain active even in a frigid glacial environment—and as the glacier melts, eventually the bacteria can escape their encasement and wind up in the surrounding rivers and lakes.

“Years ago, pretty much everyone left everything,” Robinson says. “Including their tents. Even as of two years ago I was on a clean-up climb—we did a sweep of the Muldrow [a glacier that offers one approach to Denali] with a bunch of park people, including our ranger staff, and found all kinds of stuff that had been left for the past, maybe 50 years.”

These days, though, most mountaineers are more conscientious. “You see very little trash on the mountain anymore,” Robinson says. Human waste, though, remains a problem. It doesn’t break down in Denali’s frozen climate, whether it’s been flung into a crevasse out of sight or left on the surface, exposed to the ice and snow. “The breakdown is very minimal,” Robinson says. “There’s none in the ice. When it’s in the glacier itself there’s none; there’s none up high where it’s cold. We’ve collected waste that’s been left out on the surface, higher on Denali, that’s been out for a year or two and there was no breakdown.”

That’s not just unsightly; it’s also potentially unhygienic. Research done on Denali has shown that E. coli and other fecal bacteria can survive and remain active even in a frigid glacial environment—and as the glacier melts, eventually the bacteria can escape their encasement and wind up in the surrounding rivers and lakes.

Keep Denali Clean.jpg

Hence the Clean Mountain Cans. Robinson took some inspiration from Mount Rainier, which has a long-standing program that offers climbers single-use bags to remove their day’s waste. But Denali, with climbing expeditions lasting for weeks, needed something a little different. “This was essentially a direct copy from what river people were doing for 20 years before: ammo cans,” Robinson says. River guides have traditionally brought along the big, boxy containers to allow their clients to leave no trace. “River people essentially invented this type of system, and all we did was copy that, and make a different-shaped container for the mountains here,” Robinson says.

Since the CMCs were rolled out 14 years ago, the park has gradually expanded their use. This year, the requirements have grown again: Now, climbers must collect all their waste from the highest camp, at 17,000 feet, and bring it down with them to the camp at 14,000 feet—where they’re permitted to dispose of it designated waste crevasses. The crevasse policy goes for the camps between 7,800 and 14,000 feet, too: Climbers can use their CMCs as portable toilets and then throw the compostable bag liners, filled only with toilet paper and feces, into marked crevasses nearby. At the main base camp, and other lower mountain camps from which climbers fly directly to or from Talkeetna, they’re required to bring their CMCs out full, rather than crevassing the contents.

“We’re getting a very good compliance,” Robinson says. Some of the major guiding companies aren’t necessarily thrilled about the idea of the program expanding further, eventually requiring them to carry numerous full CMCs all the way down the mountain with them rather than crevassing as they go. (Robinson figures a total ban on crevassing waste would require each climber to bring three full CMCs down with them, a not-insubstantial amount of extra weight.) But others have voluntarily done entire expeditions without leaving any waste behind. “I think it’s just going to be a matter of time,” Robinson says.

There are a lot of logistics that would need to be worked out before the park could go that far, though—they’d need a lot more cans, to start with, and the guiding companies that take large groups of clients up the mountain would need to alter their planning accordingly.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the program—it’s caught the attention of mountaineering authorities in other regions. “We’ve been able to network with a lot of the big mountain areas in the world, and especially with the Everest folks and the Nepalese,” Robinson says, “and they’re looking closely at how we do things here.”

There’s more work to be done to find a permanent solution to the accumulation of human waste on the mountain. In 2014, Robinson conducted research into the viability of using earthworms to turn the mountaineers’ waste into safe, usable compost. The results were encouraging.

“Denali is definitely a good example of a park in the process of cleaning up the environment,” Robinson says. “We still have a little ways further to go, but we have created a system that’s working here.”

Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.