Roundup: Geopolitics in South Asia, “Last Chance Tourism,” and Antarctic Fjords

Glacier Geopolitics In South Asia

From the Daily Times: “India threatens Pakistan to stop its water flow from the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej [Rivers] to Pakistan. In response Pakistan said that they are not concerned if New Delhi diverts its water from eastern rivers. India has already withdrawn the most favored nation (MFN) status to Pakistan and increased the duty import up to 200 percent. This all is due to the Pulwama attacks in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK), where a suicide bomber killed more then 40 CRPF troops on 14th of February.”

Read more about the geopolitical dispute here.

“Last Chance Tourism”

From the Annals of Tourism Research: “With reference to virtue ethics and ethics of care, this paper discusses ethical challenges of tourism consumption and the last chance tourism marketplace … findings extend current discourses on last chance tourism by situating visitors’ lack of care for climate threatened destinations as a response to a tourism market that normalizes the consumption of socio-ecological decline.”

Read more about “last chance tourism” in the research article “Place stewardship among last chance tourists” here.

Paradise Bay, Antarctica (Source: Michael Morris, Flickr)

Biological and Optical Properties of Glacial Meltwater in Antarctic Fjord System

From Plos One: “As the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) region responds to a warmer climate, the impacts of glacial meltwater on the Southern Ocean are expected to intensify. The Antarctic Peninsula fjord system offers an ideal system to understand meltwater’s properties, providing an extreme in the meltwater’s spatial gradient from the glacio-marine boundary to the WAP continental shelf. Glacial meltwater discharge in Arctic and Greenland fjords is typically characterized as relatively lower temperature, fresh and with high turbidity.”

Learn more about Antarctic fjord systems and the associated biological and optical properties here.

Hovgaard Island, Antarctica (Source: Steven-ch, Flickr)

 

Read More on GlacierHub:

Glacier Countries Condemn Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

An Impossible First: Colin O’Brady Completes Solo Trek Across Antarctica

Large Populations of Jellyfish Found in West Antarctic Fjords

 

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A Cap on Climbers at Mont Blanc

As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.

Pointing at the 3842m height of Mont Blanc (Source: Masin/Flickr).

As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.

Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.

Arnaud Temme climbs Mont Blanc from a harder route to avoid the “traffic jam” on the overcrowded Royal Route (Source: Arnaud Temme).

“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”

One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.

The Mer De Glace has retreated at least 80 meters in depth over the years. Climbers now have to ascend steep ladders to reach the icy areas (Source: Theodore/Flickr).

As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.

According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.

“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.

It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.

Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.

Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”

The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.

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Still Unresolved, Saga of Jumbo Glacier Resort Heads Back to Canadian Court

Jumbo Glacier on Canada Day (Source: Lucas Jmieff/ Facebook Wildsight).

Ever since it was first proposed in 1991, the development of the Jumbo Glacier Resort in British Columbia, Canada, has drawn fierce opposition for its threat to the surrounding ecosystem and indigenous population. Now a recent move by developers in the glacier-rich region has added a new twist to the ongoing saga. Following a three-year hiatus, the developers have decided to take the case back to court to overturn the government’s 2015 decision not to renew their environmental assessment certificate, a decision that effectively put the project on ice.

The idea for a mega-resort at Jumbo Glacier was originally launched by Oberto Oberti, an Italian-born, Vancouver-based architect, and Grant Costello, a Canadian ski coach. Costello had long dreamed of opening a year-round, high-altitude ski training center in North America to rival those in Europe. The remote land along the east Kootenay Mountains in southeastern B.C. seems like a prime location, covered in 400 inches of cold snow every winter and boasting glaciers and spectacular landscapes. However, it also serves as a critical grizzly bear habitat and is considered sacred to the Ktunaxa First Nation.

The construction of the proposed resort includes a 3,419-meter high lift service, 6,000-bed lodge, and roads to make Jumbo Glacier accessible to tourists. The developers promised the mega-resort would serve as an economic source to the local communities, but the project has faced ongoing resistance from environmental groups like Wildsight concerned about the region’s wildlife habitat, as well as locals who feel there are already several ski hills in the area.

There has been an intense debate since 1991 within the provincial government on whether commercial activities should be allowed at Jumbo Glacier. By the end of 1994, the provincial government made a decision, designating the area as a special management area, a designation which generally would not allow commercial development such as a ski resort. However, the decision did in fact make a provision for the proposed resort subject to the provincial Environmental Assessment Act. The law meant any major project of large scale like the Jumbo Glacier Resort would need to pass an environmental impact assessment conducted by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in order to gain an Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC) and conduct actual construction activities.

It took the EAO nine years to proceed with their assessment and exhaustive consultations. Withstanding environmental campaigns against the resort and protracted court battles between resort proponents and opponents, the EAO of the B.C. government finally granted a certificate in 2005 with 195 conditions to mitigate the negative impact of the project on the environment. However, by 2015, only two concrete pads had been built on the site. Thus, the B.C. government considered the project to have “not substantially started” and the certificate was set to expire.

“Jumbo Wild for our children and their children and their children!” (Source: Patty Kolesnichenko/Facebook Wildsight).

But the controversy is far from over. As Robyn Duncan, executive director of Wildsight and the lead of the two-decade environmental campaign against the resort, Jumbo Wild, wrote to GlacierHub, “The developers remain committed to trying to push forward this ill-proposed resort. Challenging the decision that canceled their environmental certificate was one of the only avenues to continue the fight.”

In the developers’ 2017 petition to overturn the government’s 2015 decision, they argue that the construction delays were derived from various factors outside of their control, such as blockades by environmentalists and political concerns from then provincial Environment Minister Mary Polak. The current minister, George Heyman, is expected to defend the government’s 2015 decision in court.

Wildsight and the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society were granted intervenor status in the case in May, which allows the organizations to join the ongoing litigation without permission from the original litigants. “If built, the Jumbo Glacier Resort would fragment a critical section of one of North America’s most important wildlife corridors. Grizzlies depend on this connected habitat to maintain healthy populations regionally and even continentally,” Duncan said.

The law firm that represents them, Ecojustice, said in an interview, “This assessment [2005] that it’s based on is now ten years out of date. Things have moved on, scientific understanding of the impacts that this project would have on grizzly bears, for example, has moved on. That’s why it’s really important that the courts uphold the law and prevent this project from going ahead based on outdated information.”

The case was heard during the last week of June by the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, but it could take months for the court to reach a decision. Several legal scholars in Canada told GlacierHub they prefer not to speak on the case until the matter has concluded in court.

In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with developers on a separate but relevant case in which the Ktunaxa First Nation claimed a land use change would infringe on their right to freedom of religion. The ruling concluded that the Ktunaxa have a right to their belief that the Grizzly Bear Spirit inhabits Jumbo Glacier and that the spirit would be driven away in the event of permanent development, but that the government is “not required to protect the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit itself in order to preserve the right to freedom of religion.” There were divided opinions among the judges in the case. Seven judges thought the Ktunaxa did not sufficiently establish that the area is a sacred site to them and that the land should be at the public disposal instead of indigenous territory. Two other justices found that constitutional religious rights could be reasonably infringed in the public interest and that the Ktunaxa should not be granted exclusive ownership over the land. The developers may use this recent court decision in their future legal arguments to justify the legality of the resort.

Meanwhile, Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, an administrative jurisdiction established in 2012 for the planned resort, remains business as usual, releasing its annual report in late June. The municipality, with no development, population or tax revenues, has received a $855,299 grant from the B.C. government. The possible re-appointment of the municipality major, without a vote, has also gained harsh critics for being undemocratic.

Despite some negative signs in favor of the resort, Duncan told GlacierHub that she remains hopeful. “The Jumbo Wild campaign has been going strong for 26 years. There have been many ups and downs within those years, and I am confident that whatever comes our way, the people of the Kootenays will continue to rally against this ill-proposed resort that threatens grizzly bear habitat and the sacred territory of the Ktunaxa Nation,” she said.

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Photo Friday: Mer de Glace, a “Sea of Ice”

The French Alps lie just about an hour and thirty minutes away from the heart of Geneva. I thought of visiting Chamonix, home of the famous Mont Blanc, after a conference at the United Nations. Though, what I didn’t know was that I could visit the equally majestic Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice” in English, a valley glacier on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif.

I was lucky enough to visit Mer de Glace in the winter outside of peak season. That meant the cable car heading up the slopes actually had seats available. It also meant that I could take breathtaking photos of this winter wonderland without being disturbed. I was in such awe of Mer de Glace that I completely forgot to put my gloves on! I was too focused on capturing the moment. As my hands fell numb, I ran inside the gift shop and waited for the cable car to return. On the way down, I couldn’t help but wonder how long such a magnificent glacier would last. I had suddenly remembered the tour guide explaining earlier that the glacier has been melting and that we were lucky to have seen so much snow.

Upon researching, I came to realize that the glacier was in fact disappearing. The ice has melted so quickly over the past 30 years that it now takes around 370 steps to get down to the ice. In 1988 it took only three steps. Between 2014 and 2015 alone Mer de Glace has lost 3.61 meters of ice. To make matters worse, reports have indicated 40 percent less snowfall over the past 50 years in the region. All over the world glaciers are melting as a result of changing climate. Tourists like myself are left wondering how many more generations will be able to witness the majesty of the French Alps. Will my generation be the last?

This Photo Friday, join me on an eye-opening journey through the snowy mountainside of Mont Blanc.

The quiet town of Chamonix, France (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

At the heart of the town of Chamonix, you’ll find a statue of Michel Paccard. Paccard was a doctor and mountain climber. This monument is dedicated to his ascent of Mont Blanc alongside Jaque Balmat in 1786 (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The author standing on the bridge to the cable car leading up to Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The mountain landscape through which Mer de Glace flows (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

Click here to find out more about the tour I booked in Chamonix.

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Villagers in Bhilangana Valley Satisfied with High Tourism Rates

New research in a section of the Himalayas popular with tourists shows that villages are generally more satisfied with their visitors than was thought. The paper by R.K. Dhodi and Shivam Prakash Bhartiya, published in the South Asian Journal for Tourism and Heritage, describes the positive impacts of tourism on the villages of the Bhilangana Valley, and the satisfaction of the villagers. Both Dhodi and Bhartiya belong to the Centre of Mountain Tourism and Hospitality Studies in Gharwal Central University in Northern India and have conducted extensive research on the impacts of tourism-related activities in the region.
Hikers on Khatling Glacier (Source: travelroach.com/Pinterest).

The Bhilangana Valley, located within the Gharwal Region of Uttarakhand in India, is part of the Northern Himalayan chain, with some of the highest mountain peaks in the world including Kairi, Draupadi-ka-Danda and Janoli, all over 5500 m. The region draws many adventurous hikers who seek to traverse the valley to reach the spectacular Khatling glacier. Despite being a rather pristine valley, the Bhilangana draws a steady stream of tourists annually. In 2012, the region was visited by 56.7 million domestic tourists (mostly pilgrims) and 1.6 million foreigners.

From the base camp, Guttu, there are villages interspersed throughout the 42 km glacier hike. These communities rely and invest in nature-based tourism as they believe in the economic and social benefits it begets. “Locals are involved in eateries, restaurants, and tea stall businesses through which they can provide the taste of local cuisine to the tourists. Transport, guiding, and porting services are also provided by the host community members including the facility of homestays, hotels, and guest houses,” Dhodi explains. “Besides, rural areas are rich in natural and socio-cultural resources as they have large diversities of flora and fauna, pilgrimage places, fairs and festivals, and traditional agricultural practices which they can showcase to the tourists.”

Hikers gather around a fireplace in a village hut to dry their shoes (Source: bikeadventures.com/Pinterest).

Hiker Tejas Damle, who participated in the glacier hike in May 2011, told GlacierHub, “The local homes were basically furnished with all essentials from a hiker’s perspective – food, firewood, water and a good place to sleep. Locals of the villages were totally friendly and very interactive. Little kids would gather around saying ‘namaste mithai’ and the happiness they displayed is priceless.”

In fact, this satisfaction goes both ways. Based on 500 surveys conducted by the authors, all of the communities were reportedly very satisfied with their villages’ current level of engagement in tourism-related activities. The top three perceived positive impacts were an increase in employment opportunities, improvement in living utilities and infrastructure, and enhanced preservation of the physical environment.

Yet, Dhodi also warns that “tourism development should only be taken as a tool for community development but not as a goal,” implying that communities should not aim to solely rely on tourism for social and economic progress. While nature is used as a major selling point in nature-based tourism, it is also its greatest threat. Communities are vulnerable to changes in climate which are beyond their control. Currently, a rapid warming trend that surpasses global averages plagues the Himalaya mountain region. Glacier retreat, glacier lake expansion and halving of glacier depth were observed in the region.

View of some Himalayan Peaks during the glacier hike (Source: Instagram via @traveller_ted).

Apart from the slow disappearance of their main tourist attraction – the Khatling Glacier – the villages of the valley may also need to deal with other hazards associated with high mountain living such as flash floods, landslides and debris flow. This raises questions about the sustainability of relying on nature-based tourism. An occurrence of a single disaster is enough to turn tourists off. 

As Michal Apollo from the Department of Tourism and Regional Studies of the Pedagogical University of Krakow told GlacierHub, “The effects of climate change in the Himalaya have been shown by many scholars and may have significant impact on mountaineering in the future. Climate change is already affecting the length of the climbing and trekking season. Although some areas are responding positively to climate change and are becoming easier to traverse, the changing climate also makes some routes unpassable, especially those requiring glacier travel on the way to the summit.”

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First-time Visits to an Alaskan Glacier Just Got More Expensive

A view of the snout of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Frank K./Creative Commons).

The thought of being able to drive right up to a glacier seems strange to most people. However, that is how visitors have accessed Matanuska Glacier in Alaska thanks to a privately-owned road that leads to a parking area near the glacier’s debris-covered section.

For years, visitors with various experiences and interests have been able to enjoy first-hand the majesty of Alaska’s largest glacier, measuring 26 miles in length. Yet, the company that owns the road and runs one of twelve independent enterprises that offer tours of Matanuska recently required that all first-time visitors pay a $100 fee for a guided tour if they want any first-time access to the glacier.

A view of a visitor to Matanuska (Source: Alaska Dispatch News/Twitter).

This new requirement has some locals and tourists up in arms. While the company Matanuska Glacier Park LLC cites safety issues as the main reason for this new requirement, some visitors remain unhappy that the $100 guided tour is now the only option offered to first-timers. After their first visit, guided tours are no longer necessary, and visitors have the option of buying a ticket for $20.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bill Stevenson, the owner of Matanuska Glacier Park LLC, which operates Matanuska Glacier Adventures, explained that the three-hour guided tour has been $100 for quite some time, despite more recent controversy.

He acknowledged that the new requirement that first-time visitors must pay for the guided tour is one that upsets visitors. However, there are many admission options, he says, including $20 tickets. He maintains that the guided tour with an experienced guide provides a lot of information about a “fascinating part of nature” for first-time visitors. He describes the glacier as “very user-friendly” and the sloping toe of the glacier as very gradual, making it easy to walk around.

However, not all visitors and locals are convinced the steep fee for first-timers is the right course of action. “One of the most special things about living in Alaska is having incredible access to nature,” Alaskan resident Rachel Kaplan explained to GlacierHub. “Putting a high fee on that access limits who can visit.” While she does understand the potential safety concerns, she went on to say that “having a high fee to access the glacier really bothers me.”

Ice climbing on Matanuska Glacier (Source: BD/Twitter).

Stevenson made it clear to GlacierHub that the tour company is not the sole source of income for his company. As the leaseholder for the road, he plays many roles. His company has chosen to share the glacier with 11 other independent tour companies in the area, he noted, providing more than enough business to go around with 20,000 annual visitors to the glacier.

The fees for guided tours at other tour companies in the area also vary for visitors, including those for first-time visitors. While fees at Matanuska Glacier Adventures is on the expensive side, some of the other tour companies are charging higher fees for access.

Climate change further complicates matters. Stevenson told GlacierHub, “No question, we’ve had a decline in the mass of ice.” He estimates that Matanuska loses about 30 feet per year in length. Perhaps, as glacier recession continues, a $100 price tag for admission to one of the world’s disappearing resources will seem less significant. The drive-up location itself may be worth the fee.

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For New Zealand Visitors, Helicopters Offer Only Way Onto Two Glaciers

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The Franz Joseph Glacier. (Photo: G Morel via Flickr)

The only way for visitors to walk on two iconic glaciers in New Zealand, the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, is by taking a helicopter ride— a situation that probably won’t change in the foreseeable future, a spokesperson for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has told GlacierHub.

The Associated Press reported in March, under the headline “Hiking on New Zealand glaciers banned because of rapid melting,” that it had become impossible for visitors to hike up onto these glaciers because of the dangers posed by their quick recession. It also noted that the number of people who could walk on the glaciers had been cut in half now that helicopters have become the only way to venture onto them, compared to before when people could hike up onto them.

Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)
Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)

Jose Watson, a communications adviser for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, explained the situation in an email to GlacierHub:

There are rivers that come out of the terminal face (front) of the glacier and these rivers often change course meaning that tracks, bridges and viewing points are regularly moved. The glacier is receding, and has reached a point where it is no longer possible to access on foot, so if people want to walk on the glacier they can do so by booking a helihike with one of the guiding companies. A helihike takes people up onto a safe spot on the glacier and walk goes from there. Walking access has not been “banned” as such, but it’s not possible, or safe at the moment, and this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

While helicopters might be a quick and exciting way for tourists to see the glaciers, they are not without their risks— last year, a Squirrel helicopter crashed on the Fox Glacier, claiming the lives of seven people. That deadly event was one of seven accidents involving aircraft and glaciers in New Zealand since 2008.

Almost one million people traveled to see New Zealand’s glaciers in 2015, the Associated Press reported. The beautiful glaciers and striking scenery are part of what lures people to the country.

“It’s the uniqueness, the rawness of the environment,” Rob Jewell, chairman of the Glacier Country Tourism Group, told the AP.  

And for now, unfortunately, helicopters are the only way to experience that raw environment on these two shrinking glaciers.

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Mountains Turning into Frozen Human-waste Lands

Dealing with tourists’ waste is always a problem; they usually have a lot of disposable goods and aren’t necessarily invested in the area they’re visiting. The problem doesn’t start and stop with trash, however. Where to put tourists’ natural waste is an important matter for local governments and planners. This issue becomes especially important in higher altitudes where organic material does not break down easily, or quickly, on account of the cold, low-oxygen environment that typifies higher elevations.

On glaciers the issue is complicated further. Though burying human waste in soil is often the official leave-no-trace procedure, burying bodily waste in ice only preserves it–when the ice melts, it’s still there. As glaciers retreat, more and more human waste is becoming uncovered.

Sign reads, "PACK IT IN PACK IT OUT: NO GARBAGE COLLECTION IN THIS AREA
Pack it in pack it out sign. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

This problem is occurring worldwide, as adventure travel and glacial retreat are both increasing. On Everest, for example, the popularity of the climb has resulted in severe impacts to the mountain’s ecology. And on Mt. McKinley, “climbers generate over two metric tons of human waste annually,” according to a paper by Katelyn Goodwin, Michael G. Loso and Matthias Braun. Most of this waste gets deposited into crevasses. When waste is deposited into a crevasse, the natural movement of the glacier will ultimately force the waste to the glacier’s edge, where it remains preserved. These same problems plague the Americas’ tallest peak, Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, where the regional park has recently invested more substantially in solving their human waste problem.

Since 2005, visitors to the Mt. Aconcagua Park in the Argentine Andes have been told to pack out their own waste, usually back to base camp. However, getting it out of the park is not easy. The procedure involves substantial logistical efforts and expense, since waste is removed from base camp by helicopter. In addition, conservationists are concerned that a lack of rangers present to enforce these policies is causing ongoing pollution into glacial lakes and rivers, many of which feed downstream into water systems actively used by human populations.

According to a paper by Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros, Human Waste Management in Aconcagua Provincial Park: Description and Main Limitations, “Each summer more than 30,000 people visit Aconcagua for sightseeing and 7,000 for mountaineering and trekking.”

An x,y graph showing increasing visitors to the park every year since 1990.
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by year from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

And because the Mt. Aconcagua peak is the highest in the Western and Southern Hemispheres, every year the park draws larger and larger crowds. According to the paper, “The number of visitors has had a regular increase of 10% annually since the year 2000.” For this reason, a major campaign has been launched to address the waste problem. At the same time, similar campaigns are underway at high elevation peaks around the world, including on Mt. Everest.

An image of an ice ax with a roll of toilet paper around the handle
American Alpine Club Exit Strategies Human Waste Cleanup Campaign Logo

The Mt. Aconcagua Park includes several camp sites at various elevations. Though basic pit latrines in lower camp sites were slowly replaced with full septic systems in the early 2000’s, park mangers recently found that the newly installed septic systems are not working as expected due to frigid temperatures preventing the natural breakdown of organic waste.

So far there is nothing the park authorities can do about the septic tanks which are already installed. Even if they wanted to remove the tanks, they are now too heavy to be carried out by helicopter, which is the only way into or out of base camp.

In addition, there have been growing problems in higher elevations where septic is impossible. There, the park mangers must rely on pack out polices that are never 100% effective because they are hard to enforce.

Though there are rangers present in the park, mangers worry there are too few to enforce the waste polices. Trekking guides can be another good source of enforcement and do follow proper polices, however many individuals visit the park without guides, and may never see a ranger. Getting these individuals to follow proper waste disposal policy is an ongoing problem.

Compounding the problem, visitors often stay in the park for 1-2 weeks at a time, meaning the number of bathroom breaks per day is exponentially higher than the 37,000 or more visits per year. Mules, often employed by trekkers for hauling gear, also leave their waste behind.

Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros's 2010 Powerpoint titled, "Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild"
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint titled, “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

Because the majority of visits to the park take place over only four months in the summer, the park has to absorb all this waste over relatively few days, leaving even less time for decomposition in an already less-than-ideal environment for its natural breakdown.

As far as solutions go, new dry toilets are currently being installed in the park. So far these small self-contained latrines are mostly in lower elevations, but there is a possibility they could be used in higher elevations in the future. The dry toilets use small containers about the size of an oil drum to store waste. The small size of the drum allows them to be carried out by helicopter when they are full.

An image of a rusty Latrine on rocks on a mountain
A latrine in Mt. Aconcagua Park by Daniel Maldonado Source: Flicker

Though the park is finding some success with dry toilets and pack-out polices, there is still concern over the pollution of glacial lakes from currently unregulated mule and human urine, as well as concern over the enforcement of existing waste removal policy. It will be important to pay attention to these issues, in Aconcagua and around the world, as more and more people travel to remote locations for adventure vacations every year.

 

 

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