01 Mar Cleaning the Crap, Literally, From Denali National Park
When we answer the call of the wild – whether trekking the Mojave, crossing the Atlantic by sail, or climbing Everest – nature will, inevitably, also call in the sense that we will, somehow, have to relieve ourselves. In extreme wilderness environments, this becomes a big problem. Everest, for instance, has become an infamous, giant garbage dump, including the corpses of climbers whose fate it was to die on the mountain. So: it’s with deep research and vast consideration that the National Park Service has been attempting, with success, to attack the many problems of scooping the poop left by climbers on North America’s treasured tallest peak, Denali, the captain of the Alaska Range.
The news is this: in extremely cold glacial environments, such as that of the West Buttress (no pun intended) High Camp at 17,000 feet, a staging area for Denali, glacier scientists have found that human feces doesn’t properly biodegrade, or does so very slowly. Traditionally, climbers have ‘crevassed’ their offal, and they still do that, tossing it off the cliffs in biodegradable plastic bags. But, confronted with the problem of the stuff never going away, a revolutionary Denali expedition of U.S. Park Rangers led to the development of what’s called the Clean Mountain Can, a short, light, tough 2-gallon plastic tub that the mountaineers can pack out after their time in the park. True to its name, the Clean Mountain Can serves as the crapper. It’s built for sitting, in other words, speaking from experience, an uncommonly civilized, and civilizing, posture for doing business in the wild.
It’s in the enlightened self-interest of the mountaineers to embrace the Clean Mountain Can. First, as we know, extreme-mountain mountaineers do not waste space in their packs or energy by carrying their water, rather, they melt the snow and ice with which they are surrounded, and drink that. In heavily contaminated areas such as Denali’s West Buttress camp, the unbroken-down feces meant that the dangerous e-coli were quite lively, causing extremely debilitating infections at altitude from drinking contaminated snow.
To give us a sense of the volume of unbroken-down feces on Denali, one glacier geologist reckoned that the (approximate) 136,000 mountaineers climbing Denali between 1951 and 2012 left behind 215,000 pounds of….crap. That is considerable tonnage, 107.5 tons, in point of fact. Most of which has broken down, but the scientist, Michael Loso, also found on his expedition to Denali unbroken-down feces that was a year old. The tradition of crevassing the crap is, also, not working, Loso found. It never reaches the bottom of the glacier and will, he argues, appear downstream, in the water.
Time for a hero. Yes, even in the finer arts of wilderness toiletry, there are heroes. Intrepid Park Service ranger Roger Robinson led a 24-day ranger expedition in 2000 that proved the logistical challenges of packing out one’s waste from Denali were surmountable. Out of that expedition, the Clean Mountain Can, now standard equipment, was designed and born. Large-scale trials of Robinson’s invention didn’t begin until the early Aughts, but the fact remains: the crapper worked, and Denali and its climbers are much the better for it. Climbers were immensely pleased, and the hygenic safety of the base camps improved greatly. Today, there are over a thousand Clean Mountain Cans in the Park Service’s program.
Naturally, as a piece of equipment suited for intense extremes, the Clean Mountain Can is built to take the brunt. The National Park Service notes that the 11-inch-tall green polyethelene can, ringed with burly webbing for strapping onto packs and sleds, can hold about two gallons of waste. In the ultimate stress test, dropped accidentally off the West Buttress, the cans tumbled some 2000 feet and suffered no damage, setting the benchmark for a fine wilderness crapper.
Kudos, then, to national hero Ranger Robinson, who still works for the Park Service advising climbers and other visitors to Denali’s six million acres, and who, we think, should be personally congratulated ad infinitum for services to nature and to man at Denali’s Park Service station.