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.
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.
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.