Trash Dumped on Popular Peak : McKinley’s Mountainous Problem: Climbers’ Litter
Mt. McKinley glitters white and ice-blue in the sun, soaring above the tundra.
But despite its pristine splendor, North America’s highest peak has a mundane problem--litter.
In the seven decades since American explorer Hudson Stuck made the first successful ascent of the 20,320-foot McKinley in 1913, the mountain has become increasingly popular with climbers.
Now it is besieged by hundreds of persons each year, and the trend has left McKinley with a mountainous trash problem.
Few Early Attempts
From the early 1900s to the 1960s, climbers who challenged McKinley were mostly seasoned mountaineers. Jon Waterman, a mountaineering ranger based in Talkeetna, notes that from 1903 to 1969, only 638 summit attempts were made.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, “There was a tremendous boom,” Waterman said, and in the 1976 Bicentennial year, climbing McKinley became a “very American” thing to do.
With the boom of the 1970s, the trash problem exploded. Mountaineers and mountain rangers of Denali National Park have been working since then to foster an anti-litter campaign.
Robert Seibert, supervisor of rangers in the park’s south district, said other mountains around the world face similar problems, and the “leave everything behind” days of mountain climbing must end.
In 1973, a group from the University of Oregon ended its expedition by removing all its trash from the mountain. Called the “Denali Environmental Project,” it was the first time that any McKinley expedition had cleaned up after itself.
In 1975 and 1976, the Oregon group expanded its project by removing hundreds of pounds of garbage left by other climbers.
The trash problem is particularly acute on the West Buttress, considered the “easiest and least technical” way to the top. Of 695 climbers who tried to reach the summit last year, 552, nearly 80%, used the West Buttress route.
All who wish to climb the mountain are required to check in with the Park Service both before and after their climb. The rangers discuss the how-tos and whys of clean climbing.
The emphasis is on both trash and gear and on sanitation.
“With hundreds of climbers on the mountain, it (poor sanitation) can present a real health hazard,” said Waterman, author of the book, “Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mt. McKinley, 1910-1982.”
The three rangers cannot begin to police the entire mountain, so sanitation efforts are largely voluntary.
Human waste control is vital, Waterman said.
Latrines or “communal spit toilets” are available to the large majority of climbers at only two points.
The first is the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,000 feet, starting point for most expeditions. The other is at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress, where the state maintains a medical camp whose facilities are shared by rangers in policing and rescue work.
Told to Dig Deep
Climbers are instructed to dig deep latrines or share those already existing with other parties and to collect feces in plastic bags and dump them in a deep crevasse.
Climbers also are warned about melting snow for water because it may be contaminated near camps.
Rules are neglected, especially above 14,000 feet, Waterman said. “At 17,000 or above, people are so tired and worn out that they just don’t follow the instructions. It’s a real problem.”
There are now about 300 persons on the mountain, with more expected as the summer climbing season peaks. The rangers expect that more than 600 climbers will have been on the mountain in mid-July, when climbing conditions are least good, crevasses begin to open and avalanches are frequent.
Already, this year’s climbers report that sanitation problems are rife at higher elevations.
“It’s bad both for health and aesthetically,” one returnee said in disgust.
To protect McKinley, Waterman said climbers should:
- Carry all litter and garbage off the mountain.
- Leave no permanent food or supply caches because they rarely serve their intended purpose and nearly always contribute to the litter problem.
- Remove fixed climbing lines on descent.
- Protect temporary food caches against scavenging by ravens, bears and wolverines.