Everybody Does It…Even on the Mountain

by Phillip Manning

In every year since 1992, at least one thousand climbers attempted to summit Denali.  While they do bring additional business to a variety of local establishments, recent research has focused more on what they leave behind.

Dr. Michael Loso, a glaciologist from Alaska Pacific University, and his team have been gathering data on the potential impact of over a half-century worth of human waste and trash discarded on the Kahiltna glacier by climbers. His initial findings were shared at a presentation at the Talkeetna Ranger Station on September 11th.  According to Dr. Loso’s estimates, over two metric tons of human waste is produced each year by climbing expeditions on Denali.  While the Clean Mountain Can program instituted by Park Service does cut down somewhat on the waste left on the glacier, burying or crevassing human waste is a common and accepted practice for much of the West Buttress route.

The eventual concern that arises from the accumulation of human byproducts on the Kahiltna Glacier arises from the very nature of a glacier.  Just as snow is compacted to ice and makes its way down-glacier, so will anything else that is deposited inside the ice flow.  Dr. Loso claims that research into the characteristics of the Kahiltna glacier could result in the first instances of waste deposited on the West Buttress route surfacing within the next ten years.  Initial results indicate that waste deposited at Base Camp will take approximately seventy-one years to surface after traveling approximately twenty-eight kilometers under the ice near the Great Icefall.  Dr. Loso also indicated that warming of the Kahiltna, such as from global climate change, could significantly speed up the timeframe.

The study also focused on the impact of glacial conditions on human waste and how those conditions impacted the biological activity within that waste.  According to Dr. Loso, since glacial temperatures stay at or near the freezing point of water, most deposits will not freeze, and experiments involving the burying and exhuming of human waste after one year under the ice showed that the sample was still biologically active, with high amounts of E. coli and fecal coliform.

While it is as-yet unknown whether a sample of seventy-one year old waste would yield the same results, more recent deposits may already be having an effect on the Kahiltna River.  Dr. Loso’s team conducted tests along multiple tributary watersheds leading into the Kahiltna, and then on the terminus of the glacier itself.  The team discovered that the river was indeed already testing positive for the presence of E. coli.   Dr. Loso described the concentration as being more than is allowable for drinking water, but little enough that it could still be classed as recreational water.

Given that the Kahiltna River is not currently used as a major drinking water source, Dr. Loso claims the greatest immediate impact will be largely aesthetic.  Trash and deformed waste will begin to emerge onto the surface of the glacier in increasing amounts.  This process is already underway, and any action taken to change practices cannot halt what has already been set in motion.  He did offer prospective alternatives to burying future waste, including expanding the Clean Mountain Can program to allow climbers to periodically trade out full cans for clean ones and the possibility of a complete pack-out program.  Both of these programs would see most of the waste flown off of the Kahiltna, either by Park Service helicopter or commercial air service in the case of the pack-out.  Dr. Loso freely admits that these alternatives incur substantial cost and effort, and that it must ultimately be up to the National Park Service to decide what to do with all the poo.

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