Roll Model: Clean Climbing for Denali’s Centennial

In 2017, climbers who pack out all their waste receive a commemorative flag (Source: NPS).

Denali is widely romanticized as pristine wilderness, yet over a thousand people attempt to reach its summit every year, generating waste that is sometimes left on the mountain— lost caches of food and supplies, coffee grounds and uneaten food, and of course, human waste— over two metric tons per year. This climbing season, Denali National Park is celebrating its 100th year by launching the “2017 Birthday Pack-Out Initiative,” in which climbers on the popular West Rib and West Buttress routes are encouraged to carry out all the waste they generate.

“The issue of waste and pollution in mountains is a chronic problem,” Carolina Adler, president of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation’s (UIAA) Mountain Protection Commission, said in a recent interview. “As mountaineers, it is in our interest – and our responsibility as mountain ‘stewards’ – to make sure that mountains not only continue to be safeguarded for all, but also for them to be able to continue to fulfill a crucial and healthy ecological function,” she said.

For the last decade, the National Park Service has required that climbers tote down all waste at Denali from above the high camp at 17,200 feet, but waste generated below 14,000 feet can be “crevassed”— that is, literally thrown into a crevasse. That’s the fate of 90 percent of human waste generated in the park, and research has proven that this waste is making its way out of crevasses via the hydraulic system of the glacier, into the rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Out of sight may be out of mind for now, but it’s certainly not out of the ecosystem— as the glacier flows down the mountain, researchers expect that buried human waste will surface after about 70 years.

Roger Robinson, a park ranger in Denali National Park and Preserve, is the head of the Clean Climbing Initiative, and has been working on the issue of human waste on Denali for over forty years. “Garbage isn’t something to be abandoned in the mountains, or anywhere. For the next thousand years, we’ll be contributing to E. coli in the outwash that comes out of the Kahiltna Glacier. The only thing to do is to start now and try to mitigate,” he said.

The key to pollution mitigation is education, Robinson says. “Denali is an international mountain with people from all over the world wanting to get up the thing,” he told GlacierHub in an interview. “Every year, climbers from thirty to forty nationalities attempt the mountain, and everyone has a different philosophy on what’s garbage and what’s sustainable. We have to drive home the fact that the mountain belongs to everybody in the U.S. and the world, and we want to leave it clean. We have to drive home that ideology.”

Toward the goal of maintaining “healthy ecological function” in Denali, the park service will ultimately require climbers to carry 100 percent of the waste they make off the mountain, a standard more stringent than most peaks in the National Park system, and most major peaks in the world, according to Robinson. In the first year of the Pack-Out Initiative, climbers are tempted to participate with a special “Sustainable Summits Denali” commemorative flag, a “Denali Pro pin,” and a “Clean Mountain Can,” a portable toilet developed by the American Alpine Club, to pack out their waste.

One of the first guided parties to volunteer for the Clean Climbing Initiative poses with their Clean Mountain Cans (Source: Roger Robinson).

But Alaskan mountaineer Jason Stuckey, who is training to climb Denali after having summited several other peaks in the Alaska Range, isn’t convinced. “It’s a lot of poop to be carrying around. The clean canteens aren’t that big, and carrying around more than one would definitely be a chore,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub from Toolik Field Station, north of the Brooks Range. “Speaking from experience, making over a dozen trips and using those for weeks at a time, I would imagine those are going to fill up.”

Filling up cans is preferable to filling up crevasses; however, in December 2016, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled “Waste Management Outlook for Mountain Regions – Sources and Solutions,” which focuses on mitigating problems created by urban sprawl, mining, and tourism, including mountaineering. The report points to human waste as “the most cited waste problem associated with mountaineering,” as alpine climates slow decomposition, and pathogens can sicken mountaineers and those downstream, who use meltwater streams. The broadly-circulated executive summary of the report calls improper waste disposal in mountain regions, “an issue of global concern.”

Adler believes that the Clean Climbing Initiative takes a strong step toward tackling what she called “one of the most urgent issues for mountain protection that is entirely within our control to manage.” She added, “What is particularly great about this initiative is the concerted effort, concern, support and commitment that the park administration has shown over the years to continue with this initiative and persist in its implementation.”

Mountaineers bear huge responsibility to the environment, according to Adler. “It is entirely in our interest as a community to be proactive in upholding that responsibility as well. However, this has to be seen and enacted as a collaboration between and within other communities as well,” she said.

Crevasses like this one on Denali will no longer be waste repositories (Source: NPS).

Collaboration between international communities is flourishing, and brings hope for the future of the world’s major summits. With the American Alpine Club, Robinson helps organize the Sustainable Summits conference, and he says the clean climbing best practices developed on Denali are likely to spread globally. “Denali is one of the mountains in the world other people look at as a role model for what they want to achieve. A lot of people watch closely here and take aspects home to their own mountain areas,” he said.

With the world’s eyes on Denali, and the initiative’s success so far— at least a third of climbers have volunteered to participate this season— cleaner mountains and downstream communities may be in the future.

Enduring Benefits of Endurance Races

A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).
A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).

Sporting events, both major and minor, can have significant impacts on host communities. A recent study published by Stefano Duglio and Riccardo Beltramo in the journal Sustainability examines the social and economic impacts of CollonTrek, a mountain endurance race in the Italian and Swiss Alps. The results reveal that this minor event generates significant economic benefits for the host communities and the wider area, while indirect benefits include the extension of the summer tourist season.

CollonTrek is held bi-annually on the first weekend of September. The last race occurred in 2015, and the next will be held on September 8-9th of this year. Participants compete in pairs (they register in pairs and both participants have to cross the finish line), traversing 22 km on foot between Valpelline in Italy, and the Val D’Herens in Switzerland. The trail follows a centuries-old path through the Pennine Alps used by smugglers, ending in the municipality of Arolla in Switzerland.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains, from mountain paths, hiking paths, roads, and the Arolla Glacier. The path across the glacier accounts for about one-sixth of the race, making the CollonTrek more challenging. Participants require special equipment such as crampons— metal plates with spikes fixed to a boot for walking on ice— to cross the glacier.

Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW / Creative Commons).
Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW/Creative Commons).

Events like CollonTrek are considered minor events, as they generate relatively little media interest, limited economic activity (compared to major events like the Olympics or tennis grand slam tournaments), and do not attract large crowds of spectators. Spectators do not pay to watch the race, but economic benefits accrue to host communities due to expenditure on accommodation, food and fuel.

The researchers used a combination of official data from the CollonTrek organization and a survey of 180 athletes who took part in the 2015 race to evaluate the economic and social impacts of the race. The data revealed that €11,000 (about $11,637) of public funds invested by the host municipalities generated revenue of about €200,000 (about $214,000). Around a third of this amount accrued directly to host communities.

Indirect economic benefits arise because of increased visibility of the host regions. For example, foreign participants who made up more than two-thirds of the participants surveyed expressed a desire to return to the area for tourism in the future. This event also extends the summer tourist season into September, generating more tourist revenue.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).
The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).

In conversation with GlacierHub, Duglio explained that this increase in tourism activity also helps to sustain the livelihoods of these communities, reducing depopulation of the mountain regions and helping to maintain their way of life. The race also had the effect of improving community pride, as reported by local athletes who constituted nearly a third of participants surveyed.

Climate change could affect certain segments of the race, particularly as Arolla Glacier has been retreating over the past century. “Climate change will not have much influence on the [rest of the] race, even if the passage on the glacier gives a very particular attraction to this race,” said Christian, a member of the organizing committee. “This race segment will simply be reduced if the glacier shrinks.”

Duglio also stated, “The most important aspect [of climate change] that the organizing committee will have to take into account for the future is related to the participants’ safety both in terms of mountain paths and weather conditions. We do not think, however, that climate change will bring these kind of races to a stop, at least not in the coming years.”

The research, though limited to a specific event, suggests that minor sporting events represent a form of economically and socially sustainable sports tourism activity.

Registration for the race opened last Saturday, and as Christian informed GlacierHub, “The best way to understand the race is to participate. It is an extraordinary adventure.” Check out CollonTrek’s Facebook page for more information.