Waste Not, Want Not: Denali and Preserving Our Wild Spaces
The wilderness areas that we look to for solitude, tranquility and adventure are a finite, dwindling resource in the modern age. We can preserve them – which takes hard work – or we can look back on them wistfully in the coming decades.
- writing and photos by Iain Kuo
The High One
The view through the open front door of my golden-yellow tent, flapping in the occasional breeze, is striking. The Sultana Ridge on distant Mount Foraker makes a direct line to the conical summit, rising high above the sea of clouds that blanket the Kahiltna Glacier some thousands of feet beneath me. From the bustling camp here on the snow-white mountainside, I watch as small groups of climbers trudge up and down the slope just below. They’re ferrying loads of human waste, accumulated over the days and weeks spent amidst the ice and wind of the Alaska Range, far from anywhere. With each toss, a biodegradable plastic bag full of feces is deposited into the depths of the glacier via a gaping crevasse, just a few hundred yards from our tents.
Despite the unpleasant (and rather smelly) business going on nearby, the atmosphere in this incredible place – the throne room of North America’s highest peak – is nearly beyond comparison. The great wild that is Alaska stretches in all directions, as far as the eye can see. The harsh beauty of the mountain landscape is unmarred by the sounds of motorized traffic or the pollutants of the industrialized age. There is something pure in simply being here, being present, disconnected from the outside world. The road to 14,200 feet in this tent in the middle of nowhere is long and arduous – and yet, it’s no wonder that over a thousand climbers each year gather here on the slopes of Denali, the High One.
Joey Sackett arcs a turn in the pristine wilderness that is Denali National Park and Preserve.
The large number of climbing groups that can be found on Denali’s West Buttress each spring is one of many factors that drew our team of four to attempt an independent summit and ski descent of the peak. Sophia Schwartz, Joey Sackett, Marika Feduschak and I landed at Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,200 feet, just outside the borders of Denali National Park, via bush plane on May 25th, 2021. The popularity of the mountain – which can be attributed to the low technical difficulty of the standard West Buttress route, and Denali’s standing as one of the Seven Summits – made it attractive to a group of experienced ski mountaineers looking to self-plan and execute their first major expedition to a high altitude peak, without a guide. Even though our team was prepared to be self-sufficient, we would be far from alone out there if we needed a little advice or a helping hand.
Dozens of climbers ascend from the campsite at 14,200 feet on Denali.
Nonetheless, any Denali climber will be quick to tell you about the challenges presented by what is commonly considered a formidable mountain. An expedition to Denali’s summit and back typically takes about 3 weeks from the time the plane leaves you to fend for yourself on the Kahiltna Glacier. Hauling enough food and fuel to last the trip, on top of the warm clothing, climbing gear, ski gear, tents, and other camping and cooking gear required, means each team member is usually pulling in excess of 100 pounds up the mountainside. At 63 degrees north of the equator, Denali is the northernmost mountain on Earth that stands above 6,000 meters, and not surprisingly is known for extreme, freezing cold weather. Last but not least, to reach the top you must adjust to and withstand the dramatically diminishing oxygen on the way to the summit at 20,310 feet.
Disembarking from the plane with our gear at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.
And yet, despite frequent discussions around the extreme danger inherent in climbing such a mountain, or oft-repeated lamentations of the great physical suffering that must be endured, the simple fact remains that each climber carries their heavy pack up the peak voluntarily. Each of us who arrives at Kahiltna Base Camp chooses to live in the freezing cold snow and navigate the icy, crevasse-riddled slopes willingly. Some of us are drawn by the great natural beauty and quiet solitude; others are looking to challenge their physical and mental limitations, perhaps striving to achieve what they once thought impossible. At the heart of it all is a stunning mountain environment that stretches the imagination, that draws dreamers from around the world to answer the call of the wild. Climbers on Denali are willing to undertake dramatic efforts in order to reach dramatic heights, and to reap the personal rewards. And all too often, efforts on behalf of the very environment that offers this once in a lifetime experience fall by the wayside.
The team ascending fixed lines over blue ice, near 16,000 feet on Denali.
The Waste Problem
Despite a reasonable cap on the number of climbers allowed to set foot on the peak each year, Denali suffers from the classic overcrowding problem that has become common in so many of our once-pristine wilderness areas. When over a thousand climbers per year occupy a mountainside where the natural human population is zero, that human presence engenders change. Airplane tracks appear on the glacier; manmade ropes and climbing equipment is frozen into the mountainside from seasons past. And year after year on the side of Denali, hundreds of climbers must find (or more often, dig) a place to go to the bathroom. In the 60 years after Bradford Washburn’s first ascent of the West Buttress in 1951, the National Park Service estimates that by 2012 Denali climbers had left over 70 metric tons (more than 150,000 pounds) of human feces in the Kahiltna Glacier. And that estimate is already nearly a decade old.
Joey Sackett uses the bathroom our team dug near camp on the glacier.
For climbers on Denali, this community issue can become quickly and unpleasantly personal. On the frozen glacier, drinking water is available only from melted snow. A 2002 survey of climbers who returned to base camp revealed that nearly a third of those interviewed reported experiencing acute gastroenteritis (diarrhea) during their time on the mountain, likely a result of fecal contamination in the snow that went into their cookpots. But the tens of thousands of pounds of human waste slowly moving downhill with the glacier, towards the freshwater rivers and streams fed by the Alaskan ice, also present a longer term problem. A 2012 research study by Dr. Michael Loso and colleagues from Alaska Pacific University found fecal contamination in the Kahiltna River that is fed by Denali’s glaciers. The study concludes that in the coming years, the human waste that has been steadily deposited into the glacier will begin to melt out at its terminus, intact. Over time and with persistence, climbers have created a phenomenon that will substantially impact the wilderness of Denali National Park.
Unfortunately, convincing not only the general public but even the community of climbers who frequent popular peaks like Denali that this serious issue deserves our attention (and action!) has been a battle for the passionate few. Fortunately for the rest of us, those few do exist. Shortly after arriving in the small town of Talkeetna, the launchpad for most Alaska Range climbing forays, our team heard about a recently retired mountaineering ranger named Roger Robinson. A leader in clean climbing practices, Robinson has spent decades climbing on, and removing other people’s waste from, Denali and peaks across the Alaska Range. He was instrumental in creating and implementing Denali’s modern day human waste management system, the Clean Mountain Can (or CMC for short). After demonstrating on a ranger patrol in 2000 that it was possible to completely remove an expedition’s human waste from the mountain, in subsequent years Robinson worked with the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund to develop and supply climbers with a portable toilet that would store waste effectively in the cold, high altitude environment of Denali.
Sophia Schwartz enjoys the world’s greatest bathroom view from one of our team’s CMCs.
Years of testing and trial runs with volunteer climbing parties eventually convinced the National Park Service, and in 2007 the Park implemented an official rule requiring all human waste to be removed from Denali’s high camp at 17,200 feet (where the problem had historically been worst) with CMCs. Today, all solid human waste on the West Buttress route must be collected in a CMC, and all such waste below the 14,200-foot camp must be removed from the mountain and returned to the ranger station in Talkeetna. However, the National Park Service still allows for waste from the upper mountain to be disposed of in a designated crevasse just below the camp at 14,200 feet on Denali, and many climbers continue to do so. On all other Denali routes besides the West Buttress, CMCs are not required. Robinson’s work has been significant and successful – but his ideas need community support in order to become universal on Denali, and perhaps even more importantly, widespread across heavily trafficked peaks and routes around the world.
A climber tosses a bag of human waste into the designated crevasse near 14,200 foot camp. Photo by Joey Sackett.
The Larger Problem
The fact that this problem has historically been – and still to this day remains – largely ignored by the greater outdoors community is a microcosm of the greater climate change problem we have created on our planet. After all, if you decide to defecate on the mountain, you can simply bury it in the snow (or on Denali, toss it in a crevasse) and walk away. It feels as though you will never see that pile of poop again, nor deal with any personal consequences from leaving your waste behind. When everyone else climbing the same mountain takes the same approach, the piles of poop really start to add up, until it’s no longer the invigorating nature experience that it once was. We take a similar lack of responsibility for the carbon emissions from our cars and the heaps of trash that we regularly dump into the ocean. By not cleaning up after ourselves, we are feeding into a massive, escalating issue in our public lands, wilderness areas, and the outdoors at large: while we are afforded the privilege to access and enjoy these places, we often are not willing to expend the effort required to maintain them.
Joey Sackett wrangles 2 of our sleds on the descent from Denali. Careful not to lose the buckets full of poop!
Those of us who spend time in the great outdoors know that the human waste issue on Denali is not an isolated example of heavy human traffic adversely affecting the wild places that we cherish. It’s likely not the worst example either. A mere thousand people per year created the waste problem on Denali. Places like Yellowstone National Park are seeing more than a million visitors per month nowadays. I have seen people – recently – throw trash on the ground and leave it behind in the Himalayas of Nepal, half a world away. I have skirted piles of human feces on popular hiking and climbing routes in Grand Teton National Park, just down the road from home. And most of us, including me, can admit that we’ve left our waste or trash where we shouldn’t, when it was just too inconvenient to clean it up. It’s easy to write it off – it was just one time! Until you consider how many other people are figuring the exact same thing.
The team unpacks and digs in at Kahiltna Base Camp, Mount Hunter in the background.
The bottom line is that without a change in our habits and practices, there will come a time in the future when we just won’t be able to go to these places any more and enjoy that feeling of freedom, that sense of grand adventure. If you live in the American West, you know that in peak season most parking lots are full and most trails are crowded. And most of us can accept that reality; everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy our public lands and wild spaces. But can you accept those areas being crowded with trash and human waste, too? Our wilderness areas are often visited for rest, for relaxation, and for time away from the myriad concerns of the modern world we live in. But the same sense of carefree wonder and happiness engendered by our public lands should also instill a sense of responsibility to preserve those places, even if we can’t always see them deteriorating right before our eyes.
Joey Sackett, Roger Robinson, and Sophia Schwartz hold our team’s Sustainable Summits flag, received from the National Park Service for removing all of our waste from the mountain.
Our team was incredibly fortunate to spend nearly 3 weeks climbing, skiing and camping in the breathtaking wilderness of Denali National Park. After 11 days of hauling those heavy packs and sitting on a cold plastic bucket in the snow to use the bathroom, good weather allowed us to ski directly off the summit, North America’s highest point. And when a multi-day storm blew in and trapped us on the mountain during our descent, we were happy to stick around and embrace the wilderness experience, even if it meant more poop to carry off the mountain. After all, without more sustainable practices, there is a looming question around how long such an experience will be available to any of us.
From left to right: Iain Kuo, Marika Feduschak, Joey Sackett, and Sophia Schwartz on the summit of Denali.
Looking to preserve the wilderness experience for yourself and others, today and in the future?
Here are some resources to check out:
- How to Leave No Trace - The 7 Principles
- How to Use a WAG Bag
- Buy a WAG Bag
- The Sustainable Summits Initiative, co-founded by Rodger Robinson
Turtle Fur is committed to environmental sustainability. Here are some of the company’s recent initiatives: