On Mt. Everest, as the climate warms and the ice fields begin to recede, bodies of climbers are being exposed. On Alaska’s Denali, which is also seeing warmer temperatures than usual, the worry is that frozen human waste, some decades old, will begin to thaw and foul the mountain’s slopes.
According to the National Park Service, people climbing or hiking on Denali generate about 2 metric tons of human waste each year. Add that up historically, and, well, it’s a whole lot of crap. The NPS estimates that from 1951 to 2012, people have left behind at least 152,000 pounds of waste in the Kahiltna Glacier, along the typical route climbers take to summit Denali.
Since 2007, climbers have been asked to use Clean Mountain Cans, cylinders that resemble bear cans lined with plastic bags, to collect their waste, which most people simply pitch into crevasses. The bags, that is, not the cans. The idea has been that the glacier’s flowing action would help break up and decompose the frozen poop.
Studies have since shown, however, that not only is the waste not decomposing, the bacteria it contains is surviving the ice. Temperatures don’t necessarily get cold enough to kill off the bacteria, and there isn’t enough exposure to UV light to kill it that way either. So there is sits, 150,000-some pounds of waste entombed in the ice.
This waste is already making its way down the mountain as the glacier flows, and as temperatures warm, starting from the lower elevations, more and more waste will begin to emerge from the ice. What’s also alarming is that it has the potential to enter the Kahiltna watershed.
Samples of the Kahiltna river takin in 2011 and in 2012 showed the presence of fecal bacteria. Though the levels were considered within Alaska’s water quality standards, as more of the waste begins to melt out of the glacier, it’s possible those levels will reach high enough to contaminate the river.
It’s only been in the past year that climbers have been required to pack out their waste below 14,000 feet in elevation. Above 14,000 feet, people can toss their waste into one particular crevasse, though most guide companies already practice leave no trace ethics, and their climbing clients pack out their waste, adding some 20 pounds or so to their already heavy packs.
“You’re already carrying 100 pounds and then you’re adding another 20 pounds of feces. But it’s the right thing to do,” said Todd Burleson, Alpine Ascents International’s president.
Photo: Paul Van Lake