The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 62 & 63: The Poop on Mount Whitney

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 edition of The WildeBeat, The Poop on Mount Whitney.

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

This is a combined version of programs sixty two and sixty three.

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. Erika Jostad is the wilderness manager for Sequoia National Park.

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: Brian Spitek has had to deal with this issue hands-on.

BRIAN SPITEK: [@29:51] ...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, combined program numbers sixty two and sixty three. Thank you for listening.

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