Denali National Park plans to adjust poop haul-out rules

Researcher Michael Loso searches a pit at the Denali base camp in 2012. In 2011 researchers buried fresh human poop in a 6 foot pit. The next year they recovered the poop and found what they suspected. It still smelled bad and had very high concentrations of fecal bacteria. Buried under the snow, it was dark and not much colder than the freezing point of water, both of which are good for bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Michael Loso)

Denali National Park plans to toughen poop hauling requirements for climbers on the popular West Buttress route up North America’s tallest peak. The rules are based on research that indicates the Kahiltna Glacier is working more like a slow-moving poop conveyer belt and less like a natural toilet than previously believed.

More than 1,000 mountaineers per year have tried to climb Denali in recent years, most of them on the West Buttress route, which begins on the Kahiltna Glacier. By a conservative Park Service estimate, they have left more than 150,000 pounds of poop in crevasses on the Kahiltna Glacier since Bradford Washburn pioneered the West Buttress route in 1951.

Under the proposed rule changes up for public comment through February 15, mountaineers on the West Buttress below Camp 4 (14,200 feet) will be required to cache their poop in biodegradable bags, haul it back to base camp on their descent and fly it back to Talkeetna. Higher on the mountain, they’ll still be allowed to dispose of feces in a crevasse. The Park Service will mark a crevasse near Camp 4 that will be used for human waste disposal on the upper mountain.

Since 2007, climbers have been required to collect their poop in biodegradable bags, but much of it has been thrown into crevasses on the lower mountain.

People previously believed that the glacier would grind up the human waste. This belief was based on misconceptions about glaciers, said Michael Loso who has been studying poop on the West Buttress route since 2007, when he was a professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. He now works for Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve and is still studying feces on the Kahiltna.

The powerful grinding force of a glacier doesn’t act on human waste dropped in a crevasse because the poop doesn’t fall between the glacier ice and the underlying rock.

“They’re grinding, but they’re grinding at the bed, and the poop is at the surface, and then it’s shallowly buried a few feet from the surface. So there’s nothing to grind it,” he said.

“It’s the same thing as when your dog poops in the yard all winter,” he said. “And I may not scientifically think it has all gone away, but, nonetheless, I’m always surprised in the spring when the poop is still there.”

Glaciers move slowly, but parts of the lower Kahiltna are moving as fast as a quarter mile a year. Loso estimates that in the next decade poop from early mountaineers will resurface on the Kahiltna Glacier about 7 miles below Denali basecamp in a region where the glacier’s snow is melting faster than it is accumulating.

In addition to estimating the speed human waste is traveling down the glacier, Loso and his colleagues are studying whether bacteria in feces can survive the long ride down a glacier. To do this, they buried mountain climber feces in the glacier and found bacteria survived exposure to the cold for at least a year. The team has also detected E. coli bacteria in the Kahiltna River downstream of the glacier, but it’s not clear whether it’s from meltwater flowing through mountain climber feces or animal poop in tributary streams.

In an interview this week, Loso emphasized that while he wanted to bring this issue the attention of the Park Service, he doesn’t have an opinion on whether the Park Service should do anything about it. He said the E. coli in the river isn’t a public health concern, and that the biggest consequence of the climber poop moving through the glacier may be aesthetic, an ugly brown mess emerging from the glacier.

“The amount of E. coli is very low. It’s not like if you go swimming in the Kahiltna you’re going to get sick. Not to mention that no one does go swimming in the Kahiltna,” he said. “It’s more just kind of astonishing. That’s got to be a lot of poop to make a huge glacier river like that show signs of it.”

Asked about the new rules last week, Denali mountaineering ranger Chris Erickson said the proposals reflect practices that mountaineering rangers had already been asking climbers to follow voluntarily.

“The climbers who come here are just as concerned with human waste management as we are, generally speaking,” he said. “There have been several times we’ve been considering some changes, and we’ll pitch it to climbers as optional, and almost every time they’ll do it.”

Nonetheless, the rules represent a significant additional weight for climbers. The average climber produces between a third and half a pound of poop per day and spends about three weeks on the mountain. Erickson said the new rule will still allow the use of the Camp 4-area crevasse for the upper mountain because the route gets harder above Camp 4 and it would be impractical for climbers to pack their poop from this elevation all the way back to base camp. Also, the Park Service hopes the topography of the designated crevasse means it will do a better job grinding the poop than the crevasses lower on the mountain.

“Below 14,000 feet there’s a gigantic ice fall that goes down seven- or eight-thousand feet,” he said. “Our hope is that in the process of going through that ice fall, the snow, ice and human waste will get pulverized and basically spread out and the UV (ultraviolet light from the sun) will decontaminate it by the time it goes into Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.”

The rules changes for mountain climber waste are part of this year’s compendium, a list of rules changes recommended every year by the park superintendent.

In addition to reworking Denali’s human waste rules for West Buttress climbers, this year’s compendium also prohibits fishing from the Savage River Bridge on the Denali Park Road because of traffic congestion concerns. The compendium also revises the rules for protesting and leafleting in the park, designating areas where these activities can take place. For more information, including a list of all the rules changes at other Alaska parks, go to bit.ly/2EjSitA.

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