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.

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.