The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 63: The Poop on Mount Whitney, part 2

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 littte more seriously. This week on The WildeBeat, part two 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 three.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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ERIKA JOSTAD: I think that the rangers that work in the wilderness dreamed of the more romantic cabin in the woods: Patrolling, saving lives, that sort of thing. And fairly low down on their list if it made it at all was doing things like toilet maintenance.

STEVE: That was Erika Jostad, wilderness manager for Sequoia National Park. Last time, we heard that the Forest Service is issuing kits to Mount Whitney hikers and climbers for packing out their own human waste. Brian Spitek, the Wilderness Manager for Mount Whitney, has had to deal with this issue hands-on.

BRIAN SPITEK: ...I've been here about four years. My first poop run, as we call it, that's when we have a helicopter mission to remove the poop. The first one was really quite horrific... And we have people who camp up there for days on end who also deal with this stuff. They don't have proper facilities to wash themselves, they don't have an eye wash, they don't have a shower in case something bad happens. They really have none of the safety features that you might find down at a sewage treatment plant after something like that.

MIKE MIELE: It all starts by putting on a little monkey suit, the HAZMAT suit...

STEVE: Mike Miele is a backcountry ranger on the Mount Whitney trail.

MIKE MIELE: all the way from the booties, to the gloves, to the face mask, to the protective head gear -- the whole nine yards -- eye-wear. And then you're dealing with up to four hundred pounds of solid human waste. That's always good times I guess. And so what you do is you hoist it out of the toilet with this mesh, like bag type deal, hoist that out, weight it, make sure it's all sealed up real good so the helicopter doesn't drop it... and then that could take anywhere from half a day to a two-day project to get it all done. And then afterwards, you're taking off your little monkey suit, and you feel like you've been swimming in solid waste for about two hours. So it's not a good feeling, especially if you do it in the beginning of your tour, on a five day tour. You're up there just feeling grungy the whole time.

BRIAN SPITEK: ...invariably you get it on yourself, and then you've got to crawl in your sleeping bag. You know you don't have hot water to wash yourself. I just find this totally unacceptable...

STEVE: Not only is this job dirty, but it's also dangerous. Dave Mettam manages the helicopter crews for the Inyo National Forest.

DAVE METTAM: You're putting a pilot in a hovering situation. What we call, I hate to say it, but dead man's curve. There's a height/velocity diagram in the charts for the aircraft where if you're below a certain altitude and below a certain speed, the safe auto-rotation in case you're aircraft has a failure is not achievable... So the risk is fairly high when you're doing these missions.

BRIAN SPITEK: I try to put the fabric bag on a piece of plastic or something, but basically it goes into a helicopter cargo net. It's a net probably ten or fifteen feet in diameter. And it gets cinched up, and it basically hooked onto the long line beneath the helicopter... so if you're ever up at Trail Camp and you see a helicopter go by with big long cable and at the end of it is a big, black bundle, that's probably one of my packages of joy being flown down to the Owens Valley.

MIKE MIELE: The helicopter lift was pretty early in the morning so we woke up Outpost Camp and Trail Camp, so we had, I don't know, at that airlift, there was probably about 15 people standing in that vicinity, watching the helicopters.

STEVE: What was their reaction?

MIKE MIELE: They were wondering what we were doing... When they found out, it was all about poo, they were pretty baffled about the idea that there's that much solid waste being pulled off Whitney.

STEVE: You just told them your tax dollars at work?

MIKE MIELE: Yeah, pretty much. We told them, yeah, this is what you're paying for, you know. Please use the bags, you know, make our lives a lot easier. And then we inform the people that it is risky to fly helicopters at high altitude because of the air, such thin air quality, so... The helicopter people are putting their lives at risk...

STEVE: Seems like it's hardly worth something to die for, doesn't it?

MIKE MIELE: That's right. Why die for someone else's poo? You know, it's not a good way to go out. But they say if it ever happens, what they'll do is just cut the line.

STEVE: I follow Brian from Lone Pine up to Whitney Portal. Brian takes a plastic barrel out of his truck, and puts it beside a bear-proof trash receptacle marked "Solid Human Waste". He puts on surgical gloves, and starts transferring dark green waste bags into the barrel. The trailhead is bustling with tourists, as well as hikers and climbers starting out and coming off the Mount Whitney Trail. I got a couple of hikers to tell me what they thought of the pack out system. David Ramerez from Palmdale, California, is heading up the trail to summit Mount Whitney for his twentieth time.

DAVID RAMIEREZ: But you know if that's what you gotta do, that's what you gotta do. I understand their reasoning, there's a lot of people that come up here. There's a lot of waste that has to be taken care of... I don't mind, you know, it's only mine.

STEVE: Sam Unger from Agora Hills, California did a day hike, turning around before the summit.

SAM UNGAR: They should be requiring wag bags, without a doubt. It's the only way to keep the trail clean.

STEVE: In fact, other peaks like Mount Ranier and Mount Shasta require pack-out kits in some areas. Eventually, they'll probably be required in other high-use wilderness areas as well. For example, Yosemite is considering them for the Half Dome Trail.

ERIKA JOSTAD: I'm Erika Jostad. I'm the Wilderness Supervisor in Sequoia National Park... We have in the past had a spectacular toilet on the summit of Mount Whitney. It no longer exists, as of this year. Two thousand and six we removed that toilet from the summit... I'd say what's spectacular about the toilet on the summit of Mount Whitney in large part is the incredible view that you have. You can look to the north and see all the way to Yosemite. Peaks like Lyell, and you're seeing the entire range of the high Sierra and over to the White Mountains. And people knew about this toilet and in some ways sought it out when the climbed to the summit of the highest mountain in the lower forty eight states.

STEVE: So going forward, what is your policy going to be, and how are hikers on Whitney going to have to deal with their waste?

ERIKA JOSTAD: ...on the summit and both at Guitar Lake we've moved towards having a pack-out system. So that wilderness users who come to the area are issued a wag bag... and then they use that for their waste and then pack it out to the trailhead.

BRIAN SPITEK: Will people do it? And what does it take to make them do it? ...They are doing it now, and I don't think it'll be too hard to get them to do it even more in the future. What I want people to know is that if you're visiting Mount Whitney, you're choosing to visit a very busy area that has so much use that the area cannot absorb all of this poop. So if you're going to choose to go there you're going to have to also choose to leave the place as good or better than you found it. And part of that is packing out your poop. And I know that most Mount Whitney users, the vast majority totally get it, and will be more than willing to pack their poop out.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your thoughts about pack-out systems, or your experiences on Mount Whitney. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to more information about waste pack out systems, pictures from a waste fly-out, bonus audio, and a combined version of both editions of this show, on our web site.

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Next time -- meal planning.

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 make possible future editions of this free service. 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 three. Thank you for listening.

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