With climbing season over, mountaineering rangers in Denali National Park have turned some of their attention to conservation. A team just returned from the Muldrow Glacier after spending two days picking up deades-old trash from climbers that has begun melting out of the ice. Trash and other items left on Denali by climbers can turn up again decades later. This summer, Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson and a team of about a dozen park rangers and volunteers flew onto the Muldrow Glacier to clean up the surfacing trash, some of which has been there for more than sixty years. He has been part of three cleanups since 1982, and is known as an advocate of keeping the mountain clean. Robinson says the trash comes from a time when a clean mountain wasn’t as much of a concern for climbers.
“Climbers used to abandon everything when they climbed, and there wasn’t even a thought about bringing out anything. You just climbed, and then you walked away from your camps.”
When climbers leave their caches and camps behind, the gear and trash gets carried down the glacier and eventually resurfaces during summer melts. During the two day cleanup, Robinson says that the team collected hundreds of pounds of debris that had been left in old caches, including items belonging to Bradford Washburn, one of the best-known names in the Denali climbing community.
“We found a camp, essentially–probably an abandoned camp–from the 1947 expedition. It was called the White Tower Expedition. We definitely found their camp, because we found a box with their name on it. There were sleeping bags…remains of everything from a camp.”
Some of the Washburns’ items, including boots and other small artifacts, were removed, but some of it will remain on the glacier as part of the mountain’s history. Robinson says that if someone knew exactly when and where to look, that they might be able to find gear from the earliest expeditions on Denali, but that it would involve a lot of luck.
Robinson says that trash melting out on the north side of Denali may start tapering off in a couple of decades, since most climbers began using Washburn’s West Buttress Route on the south side of the mountain in the 1960’s. That means that the cleanup efforts won’t be over, they’ll just probably move. That, too, will eventually taper off, Robinson says, as climbers became more environmentally conscious in the ’70s and started packing out more of their trash.
The bulk of the trash collected this year was too heavy to be flown out with the team, and was left on the glacier in bags. To bring the garbage out, the National Park Service plans to use a very Alaskan method of transport.
“They’ll be brought out by the Park dogs. It’s a great mission for them. We had Jen Raffaeli, who is the Park dog handler. She was with us in the cleanup with her husband, so she knows exactly where to go and how to be safe to go up to get those. It’s a pretty neat project for the Park dogs to go up and bring that garbage down.”
Robinson has spent more time on the mountain than nearly anyone else, and he says that the cleanups on the Muldrow have highlighted how the glacial landscape is changing.
“The glacier is actually getting quite rough in that area, and it is from melt. It used to be fairly flat, and now it’s fairly arduous to walk across the glacier, there. It wasn’t that way thirty years ago. It was quite flat, and I think the ice is melting very roughly. Every year it seems like, as we come out of that mini ice-age, we’ve been losing ice for the last hundred years. It’s increased in loss in the past, maybe, fifteen years.”
The increased melting could lead to more caches and camps melting out sooner than they would have otherwise, as well as making glaciers throughout the Alaska Range harder to safely navigate. Robinson and the other park rangers will be keeping a careful eye on the glacier retreat, and any other items that are unearthed.