The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 62: The Poop on Mount Whitney, part 1

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

You can help save a very popular trail by taking leave no trace a little bit futher. This week on The WildeBeat, part one of The Poop on Mount Whitney.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number sixty two.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: I'm at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, California. I'm about to get a wilderness permit to climb Mount Whitney.

STEVE: So I'd like a permit to head up to Outpost Camp for the night.

CAROL PURYEAR: Do you have a bear canister?

STEVE: I do. I have a Bearikade.

CAROL PURYEAR: OK. And the other issue that we have on this mountain is our solid human waste. So we require that you take a solid human waste bag with you on your trip... They're simple and straight-forward to use. There are two bags in this kit right here. The inner bag contains a substance that's got -- it's kind of gritty. If you add water or urine to it, it's going to create a gel and it's going to help with odor and decomposition. A couple of secrets about the bag is don't tie a real tight knot in the top because you're going to have to use it again. Do several tight twists, put a loose knot in it, and place it in the sealable bag and make sure you get air out of both of the bags. That will help prevent ripping of the bag or popping of the closure here.

STEVE: Is this going to come open on me?

CAROL PURYEAR: It's possible. So that's real important that you get all the air out because when you ascend air happens to expand sometimes, and sometimes this seal come open sometimes if it's not correctly sealed all the way across.

STEVE: OK. So what do I do when I come back out?

CAROL PURYEAR: When you come back out at the trailhead, there's a receptacle, and it says "solid human waste" on it. You can place the used bags there. If for some reason you don't need the bag, we'd appreciate you returning it to Whitney Portal Store or back here.

STEVE: Apparently, Mount Whitney has a waste problem. Before I drove up to the trailhead, I stopped by the main ranger station and talked to Margaret Wood. I wanted to hear the story behind this rule. Margaret is the Deputy District Ranger for the Mount Whitney ranger station.

MARGARET WOOD: We have been , oh gosh, since the seventies trying different technologies to address the human waste issue up there. In fact in the late seventies the regional office suggested that we were not in keeping with the Wilderness Act, and that toilets should be removed. And we did that for, I think, for two years. And the human waste problem in just two seasons became so bad that they decided that's not going to work. We're going to have to make an exception for right now and put a toilet up there...

STEVE: So in nineteen eighty five, they built the two outhouses that remain at the campsites today.

MARGARET WOOD: But anyway, in two thousand one or two thousand two, we did an inspection on the buildings and determined that their condition was deteriorating such, we knew we were going to have to do something different... So we decided, rather than make any decision at that point, we would try this voluntary program.

STEVE: So there was some resistance to the pack-out program, but how did that get initiated?

MARGARET WOOD: ...It got initiated when Brian Spitek, our wilderness ranger, started working here, and he'd been from the Northwest, where he was more familiar with pack-out programs, and he did a little research, found a wag bag kit that seemed to be the best... So two thousand four, we offered them to visitors, asked them to use them. Two thousand four, two thousand five, and then this year, and uh, ... People have been really receptive. Brian's been monitoring the amount of waste that we fly out and that we pack out, of the containers, and we're getting really close to the numbers, the weight that we used to fly out after a season, so I think it's working really well.

STEVE: Can you put any kind of number on the cost, let's say per year, of managing this problem?

MARGARET WOOD: We used to fly waste out of there twice a month... plus the cleaning of the toilets. I mean it's hard to calculate it all out right now, but I'd say, ... the program cost us about ... seventy thousand a year.

STEVE: How many people were involved in that effort?

MARGARET WOOD: A helitac crew of five, the helicopter itself, two or three wilderness rangers, the rangers on Whitney used to have to clean the toilets daily, manage the waste daily, handling it, with the hazmat suits.

STEVE: What else are these people supposed to be doing if they're not cleaning toilets? I mean, is that why people get into being a forest ranger?

MARGARET WOOD: No, in fact, that's the hardest job, I think. The Whitney ranger is the hardest ranger job. ...What the job is designed to do is to be stewards. Education. Monitor the wilderness condition. Provide information to the visitors as they come up the trail. And clean it up when necessary, but be the stewards and public contact. And our rangers on Whitney, by and large, were really managing waste.

STEVE: We're taught... that if you bury your waste, maybe six inches down, it'll go away on its own. Why is that not the case along this corridor?

BRIAN SPITEK: Well you know, that's true. Everybody poops. Animals poop, people poop, we all poop, and the natural world has a certain capacity to absorb that poop and decompose it.

STEVE: Brian Spitek is the Wilderness Manager for the Mount Whitney Ranger District.

BRIAN SPITEK: The start of the trail is in forest. There are a lot of big Jeffery Pines, a lot of White Firs, there's actually some lower elevation trees, like pinions. There's cactus at the start of the trail. Three or four miles up the trail, all of that kind of disappears, and for the bulk of the route to the summit, you're above timberline, traveling over granite slabs, there's not a lot of soil, where there is it's very shallow, very coarse soil, very austere environment. Down a little lower, where there is vegetation, it's really just confined to a narrow corridor at the bottom of a canyon. And that affects some of the issues that we have on the Mount Whitney Trail. All the people, all the trees, all the water, all the wildlife is really condensed into a narrow corridor, and all the impacts of those people are also kind of condensed in a narrow corridor. It's pretty steep in there, it's a relentless uphill, and there are a lot of places to camp, however most of the good campsites are concentrated in two areas. One's called Outpost Camp. That's really a lovely place. It's forested there, there's a big meadow, it's about ten thousand three hundred feet above sea level. The higher camp is probably more popular, it's called Trail Camp. It's at about twelve thousand feet, and I would guess about two thirds of the overnight visitors camp at Trail Camp. Trail Camp, in that area, it's mostly just solid granite. These big granite outcrops. Where there is soil again it's very shallow, very coarse. For a lot of the year, the meadows up there are kind of saturated; they're very muddy and wet. However, up at a place like Trail Camp, for example, the amount of human waste that would accumulate there in the course of a single year is huge. The area simply can't absorb it without there being some adverse affects. For example, on water quality. There's a real shallow water table up at Trail Camp, and there aren't a lot of places to bury poop to kind of isolate it... There were times with the various toilet schemes we had, there were years when when thousands and thousands of pounds of poop was flown out every year, just to get it out of that river corridor.

STEVE: I've always thought that being a wilderness ranger was one of those dream jobs. But now I'm not so sure. It sounds like they're spending most of their time cleaning up after us. Then I found out, it's actually even worse than it sounds. In part two, we'll hear more about the job of the Whitney rangers, and get public reaction to the pack-out policy.

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Next time -- part two of The Poop on Mount Whitney.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to comments at wildebeat dot net, or leave a message on our toll-free line at 866-590-7373. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number sixty two. Thank you for listening.

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