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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Human Waste in the Wild

Air Date: Week of

In the country's remotest, rockiest reaches it can be tough to find a place to go to the bathroom. That's a problem in some popular parks, and in places, rangers require you pack it up and take it out. Jason Albert reports on some successes and failures, and how rangers try to bring climbers around by talking face to face.


GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

No motors, no buildings, no trace of human endeavor. Wild. That's what designated wilderness in the United States is supposed to be. But millions of people visit wilderness sites each year, and when they gotta go they sometimes leave their waste behind. Jason Albert reports from California’s Yosemite Valley.


ALBERT: Jesse McGahey, dressed in a white haz-mat suit, hangs by a thread and looks down 3,000 feet. He’s just been lowered over the cliff edge of El Capitan, Yosemite’s iconic rock face.


ALBERT: McGahey, 32, is Yosemite Park Climbing manager. He’s about to descend into Camp Six, a high altitude rock campsite wedged like a flat table into an open book.

McGAHEY: Approaching Camp Six. There it is. Nicest bivy on The Nose. Yet, full of s***. We are going to try to change that right now.

ALBERT: This vertical climbing route is called the Nose, and McGahey is calling this mission the Nose Wipe. He and a partner are here to retrieve decade’s worth of refuse left by climbers. They fill two bags with over one hundred pounds of garbage, climbing gear, even solid human waste.


Albert: A waiting helicopter sling-loads the cargo away. And gets a warning about the contents.

[RADIO SOUNDS: McGAHEY: …It’s got some bio hazard in it, so folks should be careful handling it. PILOT: Roger that]

ALBERT: Far down below in El Capitan Meadow, Ken Yager recounts how it came to this. He first climbed The Nose more than 30 years ago. Now he organizes the Yosemite ‘facelift’ an annual park clean up.

YAGER: Back then, it was very rare to even have another party on El Capitan so you didn’t have the problems that you run into nowadays.

ALBERT: Climbing routes are vertical trails. Deviating from the path is risky. Yet the climbers in the 1970s managed to relieve themselves using an area of the wall away from the main climbing route.

YAGER: Ah 1980’s- that’s when a lot more people started going up on El Capitan and so you’d poop in a paper bag, and then they’d try to toss ’em as far off the cliff as they can. And the idea being that you’d drop to the base and pick these up after the climb.

ALBERT: As climbing use on El Capitan increased, so did waste at the wall’s base. Picking up other climbers’ food garbage was one thing; handling anonymous biological waste was another.

YAGER: It became pretty ugly for awhile.

ALBERT: The Park Service mandated climbers pack out their waste. And Yosemite climbing manager Jesse McGahey says the great majority do.

McGAHEY: There is a strong ethic from the climbing community, and they’re more self-policing than I am. They started packing out their human waste before we mandated it.

ALBERT: It’s just that in a rock environment like Camp 6, every individual can have a major impact.

McGAHEY: You couldn’t pick a more beautiful spot to spend an evening on El Cap. And unfortunately, out of the whole park for a campsite, that is the closest thing we have to a garbage dump in wilderness.

ALBERT: Part of it is, inexperienced groups come here and get exhausted. Also, no permit is required to climb on El Capitan. So rangers don’t really know who’s spending the night on the rock.


ALBERT: So it’s the daily work of Yosemite rangers like Eric Bissel to find climbers in technical terrain and get the word out.


BISSEL: We’re just going to head up today to check out for trash. And there’s a couple of parties on the route so we’ll talk to them as we’re going and make sure that they have proper waste management equipment with them.

ALBERT: A stark contrast lies about 200 miles south - Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Diana Pietrasanta is now a deputy district ranger on the Inyo National Forest. She began as a Mt. Whitney ranger. Back then, one of her responsibilities was maintaining the two solar toilets on the flanks of the mountain.

PIETRASANTA: I sort of went into the job with my eyes wide open knowing that there were these two toilets along the Whitney trail and it would be my responsibility to take care of them, or maintain them. But I didn’t realize that it was probably the major component of the job at the time. Out of a week, I would probably spend probably half my time dealing directly with the toilets.

ALBERT: Mt. Whitney managers used a progression of toilet designs - all with the same result. Rangers became de-facto backcountry sanitation workers. And the human footprint proved massive. A helicopter spent three days every summer season ferrying loads out of the Wilderness.

PIETRASANTA: Its kind of like if you have a campfire, you don’t have a campfire- people will cluster around the campfire. And the toilets were the campfire of the Whitney Trail. So both from a visual and sensory aspect, you know, it is not what you would normally consider a wilderness experience.

ALBERT: So in 2004, at the base of the mountaineer’s route to Whitney’s summit, the Forest Service set out a dispenser for free Wag Bags, specially designed bags for when you have to go. And people used them. Three years ago Whitney managers were able to take out the last toilets and mandate a pack-it-out policy for the zone’s 23,000 climbers and hikers.

RANGER INFO TALK:KIRK: Okay. Have you done the Whitney Trail before?
HIKER: Yes Sir.
KIRK: Day Hike?

ALBERT: Unlike at Yosemite, every climber here at Mt Whitney has to get a permit, and to get a permit, they have to have a face to face meeting with a wilderness ranger, like Dave Kirk.

KIRK: Don’t leave anything in the wilderness, don’t leave any litter, clothing, stuff like that. There’s the tags. Ah this is the permit. That’s an important document so just keep that with you…

And then human waste disposal so…wag bags. And yeah do help us out with this, um you know last year hikers individually packed out six thousand five hundred pounds off the mountain that would otherwise be under rocks up there. So just let everyone know they’re really doing their part to protect the wilderness when they use this.


ALBERT: Veteran witnesses at Mt. Whitney say it has to be this way. Doug Thompson runs the Whitney Portal store, at 8,000 feet elevation, it’s been a climber’s last chance for supplies since 1935.

THOMPSON: This is the best balance. It just seems to me the best overall solution. You can’t have the rangers handle it, you can’t expect somebody else to carry out your waste. So this puts the responsibility back on the individual. And you always have that choice, of…there’s a lot of places you don’t need a wag bag.


ALBERT: And for climbers the risks of improper disposal of human waste continues to be real. Ivan Valenta, a climber from Sydney, Australia and his wife attempted to climb The Nose.

VALENTA: She actually picked up a wall-bug because people do their business on the ledges and stuff like that. I spent the next two days holding a garbage bag under her backside till we could get off. Memorable moment for me.

ALBERT: Yet even Valenta’s closeup with dysentery didn’t cloud his enthusiasm for Yosemite climbing.

VALENTA: You don’t want it to be stopped and we’re not allowed to use it anymore because we’re trashing it. So, you know, look after what you’ve got and you’ll be able to come back many times to enjoy it.

ALBERT: So next time you head out into the remote beyond, don’t be afraid when you find a wag bag dispenser at the trailhead.

[SOUND OF CLIMBER CROSSTALK: Can I come up? No, just a minute…]

ALBERT: For Living On Earth, I’m Jason Albert in Yosemite Valley, California.



Watch a movie about recovering human waste in Yosemite

Leave No Trace is a group promoting a ‘leave no trace’ ethic.

A conference about human waste management in the backcountry

Ken Yager organizes the Yosemite Facelift.


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