Rangers explore removing human waste from Mount McKinley

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Some people might say the job of finding a way to keep human waste from piling up on the slopes of Mount McKinley stinks, but Roger Robinson has taken it on willingly.

More than 25 years after coming north to help pick up litter along the West Buttress route to the summit of North America's tallest peak, Robinson has found himself in the business of designing and distributing CMCs, a technical-sounding acronym for what the National Park Service is calling a Clean Mountain Can.

Robinson, who has gone from green-minded college student of the 1970s to park ranger in the new millennium, doesn't know if the cans are necessary, but he figures there's no real downside to hauling human waste off the mountain.

If climbers have the energy to haul up more than two pounds of fuel they burn in their internal engines everyday, he figures, they ought to be able to pack down the half-pound of waste that emerges from the process.

''It's a task that I've been trying to do for a long time,'' Robinson said. ''I heard that one of the early (litter) cleanup expeditions had removed their waste back in the early 1970s. I think there was a group that actually had their turds flown off. They flew with (the late) Don Sheldon (a famous Alaska Bush pilot). The story is they didn't tell Don Sheldon.

''In the back of my mind, though, it was always a possibility it could be done.''

Last year, Robinson found enough spare money in the McKinley climbing budget to start working seriously on the project.

''I thought, what the heck, let's start research on how we can remove human waste,'' he said.

His first test subjects were other McKinley rangers. Robinson obtained some of the human-waste-removal containers now required of boaters in the Grand Canyon and on other Western rivers.

He took those on a ranger patrol of the mountain. The cans worked, but not all that well. The large, metal boxes were awkward, and the human waste in them had a bad tendency to freeze into a pyramid shape, rendering the boxes difficult to fill.

''I brought a tremendous load of human waste back down from 14,000 (feet) in these ammo cans on a sled (last year),'' Robinson said. ''It was a little bit of extra work. It was a little unwieldy. (But) it worked fine. And from 11,000, it's a piece of cake to sled things down'' to base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,000 feet. Helicopters and airplanes make regular pickups from there.

''It got me thinking over the winter, 'How could we incorporate this into an ongoing campaign?''' Robinson said.

One thing led to another until Robinson found himself talking to the manufacturer of the river-potty cans. Together they came up with a mountain potty -- smaller, lighter and shaped like a cylinder to distribute the deposits within.

Climbers heading up the mountain this year are being offered the chance to test the two-and-a-quarter-pound Clean Mountain Can.

''They're just a preliminary design,'' Robinson said. ''They look just like a bear (proof) can, the same size and shape. Some climbers turn their noses up at it, and some are embracing it 100 percent: 'Give me the can!'

''Four cans have come off (the mountain) so far, and we have another dozen that are being used right now.''

The American Alpine Club provided $2,400 to manufacture 50 of the cans. Robinson said several will be shipped to 14,000 feet on the mountain for use between there and the McKinley high camp at 17,000 feet. That has been one of the most difficult places to figure out how to deal with human waste.

There is an outhouse near 17,000, but it is hard to maintain. During the peak of the climbing season, rangers need to change the bag of outhouse deposits daily, then haul the full bag about a quarter-mile away to dump it in a crevasse from which it isn't expected to emerge for centuries.

''Practically nobody wants to change this thing,'' Robinson said. ''The whole situation is bad. It's a very difficult environment.''

If the outhouse bag overflows, climbers usually make deposits in a nearby band of rock. The wind dries that excrement and breaks it down. The particles are blown around and end up mixed with nearby snow. Climbers come along and melt this snow for water. The water is laden with almost invisible particles of human waste.

Ideally, someone would come up with an easy way to remove this waste, Robinson said. Less ideally, climbers will make deposits in cans they can haul up and down the mountain, or plastic bags they can dump in crevasses.

For climbers reluctant to go to the can in a can, Robinson is this year handing out biodegradable bags in which to collect human waste for crevasse deposit.

''They're made out of corn starch, and they do break down quite rapidly,'' he said. ''Any sort of organic matter that touches the bag starts eating the bag.''

Because of that, climbers are being warned not to carry the bags around for more than a day or two without tossing them in a crevasse. The bags could suffer an accident, a problem that is only compounded by the thinness of the bags themselves.

''They're only 0.9 mils,'' Robinson said. He wanted a bag about 2 mils thick for durability, but the Florida company that makes the corn starch bags only sells the 2-mil bags in case lots of 100.

The bags manufactured in Florida are primarily for markets in Norway and Sweden, which ban plastic bags from their landfills, Robinson said. Eliminating slow-to-degrade plastic from the glaciers on McKinley probably makes as much sense as keeping it out of Scandinavian dumps.

But human waste -- a truly natural product -- is another matter. It might be a problem; then again it might not. Even the highest estimates of the volume of human waste left on McKinley are a fly speck compared to the volume of the mountain's glaciers.

Hauling human waste off the mountain sounds like the thing to do, but even Robinson wonders:

''Do we really need to do this?''

There might be an answer in the future. Preliminary studies of waste movement in the glaciers are under way.

''From this year on,'' Robinson said, ''we're going to try to do some monitoring of our pit-toilet holes (at Kahiltna). It'll be really fascinating. I know they are going to try to figure out the rate of speed some of that stuff is moving.''

The hopeful thought is that the waste goes deeper and deeper into the glacier until it is compressed and ground into nothingness as the glacier slowly moves toward the Susitna Valley. But there is a possibility that as the glacier bends its way down the mountain, human waste deposits could come popping out at the corners.

That would not be a good thing.

''There is a reasonable chance the stuff could be exposed sooner than we think,'' Robinson said. ''I don't know. It could be right on the surface.'' --------

(Distributed by The Associated Press) ----

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