Waste Not, Want Not

Where humans wander, excreta stays behind. And in high-alpine regions, it adds up to a heap of trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
mud falcon n (ca. 1998): A paper bag filled with a climber's feces, and sometimes kitty litter, flung from the face of a multipitch route. See also: falling bag of poop. {"The human body can do little but shit. It's up to people to shit however they can. In remote areas, for the purposes of shitting and not smearing it all over the cliff and the poor saps below you, climbers fly mud falcons and throw them with accuracy." —GREG CHILD, CLIMBER.}

SINCE THE FIRST alpinists visited the Cirque of the Unclimbables in 1955, the dozen or so 2,000-foot tusks of weathered granite in Canada's Northwest Territories have emerged within the climbing community as a kind of pristine Yosemite Valley–north. Well, almost pristine: Behind base camp lurks roughly a half-century's accumulation of human feces. "The place is getting trashed," says climber Jim McCarthy, who made the first ascent of the most famous route in the Cirque, Lotus Flower Tower. "I think we should station someone up there with a fuckin' rifle."

In an effort to address the issue sans firearms, a group sponsored by the American Alpine Club and its northern counterpart, the Alpine Club of Canada, kicks off the Cirque 2000 Project this month. In addition to setting up a kiosk with "Leave No Trace" suggestions, the groups will build a wood-and-stone pit toilet at the on-second-thought-perhaps-inappropriately-named base camp area, Fairy Meadows. Though the latrine will unquestionably put a lid on threats of hepatitis and typhoid—both transmitted through fecal contamination—the arctic porta-potty has become something of a lightning rod for a larger debate about how best to deal with waste in alpine environments, where it is often too cold for bacteria to grow and break down excreta.

For now, the Cirque controversy is primarily aesthetic; climbers haven't complained of health problems. Yet. But for some, the three-foot-square toilet and shoulder-high privacy screens are more unsightly than the turds. "The Cirque is one of the wildest, most beautiful places on the planet precisely because there are no human structures," says alpine photographer Galen Rowell, who fears a build-it, improve-it approach will only lead to more development, and suggests visitors simply dig holes to hide their respective messes. In British Columbia's once-remote Bugaboos, Rowell notes, toilets eventually paved the way for full-scale lodges. But above the treeline, there just aren't many options: In high season on Mount Rainier, for example, helicopters airlift waste off the mountain almost daily. And at Everest base camp, mountaineers pay "shit Sherpas" 75 cents a kilo to haul fecal matter below the moraine and bury it.

Compared to Rainier, the Cirque's roughly one-ton-per-year accumulation is (sorry) nary a drop in the bucket. Nonetheless, Cirque 2000 project leader John Young believes the toilet is a necessary long-term solution and an important symbol of responsibility and stewardship. "The thrust of this entire project is to set an example of climbers taking care of their own," says Young. "We're not going to sit around and wait for this problem to get out of control."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!