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Experts Ask: Are We Loving Our Mountains to Death?

The audience leans in, 2014 Sustainable Summits Conference, put on by the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colorado, last month. “We do have an impact on the places we visit,” conference co-organizer Ellen Lapham argues. “We’ve lost that in the belief that we’re one person in the wilderness and our impact is small.” Click here to access a video recording of the conference, available until September 8. [Photo] Brad Rassler

How to put this delicately?

The human waste deposited by the Washburn Expedition at their Kahiltna base camp during their 1951 climb of the West Buttress of Denali will surface on the glacier in about 11 years. When it does, it will retain much of the original perfume coming out as it did going in–as well as pathogens calved from the digestive tract of the expedition’s members.

Climbers dump nearly two metric tons of the stuff into the crevasses of the Kahiltna every climbing season, and it’s still down there–moving on down the road, awaiting its big reveal. This is according to findings of a study published in Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research in November 2012. The study’s meta-message? What was commonly understood as a Leave No Trace practice is anything but.

Like death and taxes, there’s no avoiding it; on Denali, or on any other frequently visited mountain, shit happens. But is our collective yen for high and wild terrain placing an undue burden on inherently fragile summits? If so, how to best preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations? Those questions lay at the core of a conference hosted by the American Alpine Club that drew nearly 100 scientists, climbers, business experts, social entrepreneurs, recreation consultants, land managers and guides hailing from 13 countries and all seven continents to Golden, Colorado, July 20-24.

“I don’t think there has ever been such a convocation of mountain experts,” said the AAC’s honorary president, Jim McCarthy. “This is exactly what we need: the knowledge of you experts to preserve our precious mountains.”

Precious peaks indeed, and increasingly enjoyed by a growing number of non-motorized recreationalists. Co-chairs Roger Robinson, a longtime Denali mountaineering ranger and Ellen Lapham, a former board member of the AAC, organized the 2014 Sustainable Summits Conference to discuss the broader social, environmental and economic contexts of recreating in the alpine realm. (Their 2010 “Exit Strategies” Conference at AAC headquarters also examined methods for managing human waste in the wild.)

“We do have an impact on the places we visit,” said Lapham. “We’ve lost that in the belief that we’re one person in the wilderness and our impact is small.”

All told, the 35 or so presenters painted a picture of accelerating participation in human powered sports the world over. (According the Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Participation Report on the 2012 calendar year, 6.8 million people participated in some form of climbing in the US alone.) Recreationists take to the crags and peaks, and use is concentrated in the most convenient or desirable locales, the carrying capacity of those areas is challenged or overwhelmed.

Pioneering climber and Honorary President of the AAC Jim McCarthy speaks with Ellen Lapham, the co-chair of the Sustainable Summits Conference. [Photo] Brad Rassler

Instituting or reforming land management practices is critical, presenters said. They advocated for change guided by the physical and behavioral sciences, factoring in national culture, the rights and economic vitality of local populations, user safety and the quality of a visitor’s experience.

Doug Whittaker, an expert in recreational use patterns on rivers, suggested placing limits on mountains similar to those used for on popular waterways like the Colorado River. “Deciding [what numbers] you want for your river or mountain is tricky, to say the least,” Whittaker said. “The earlier you do it, the better, because you will have more choices; you can almost never turn back the clock.”

Impact affects locales large and small, but the process for managing use is similar: determining behavioral and ecosystem indicators and drafting a plan with public input. And land managers made clear that the process is iterative.

Paul Anderson, the former Superintendent of Denali National Park, recounted the drafting of the park’s first Backcountry Management Plan, stressing the importance of public outreach. “We received over 9,370 public comments on the draft plan,” he said. “The most significant comment we received was from the Alaska State legislature…it blasted the Park Service and the plan.” Anderson and his team were forced back to the drawing board, where they expanded public outreach, included fewer proscriptions on use and incorporated a the quality of a park visitor’s experience in their metrics. “After those years of trials and tribulations [it] turned out to be a pretty good plan,” he says. “After all of those years of public participation, in the end we had less than 100 comments.”

On a more granular level, Erik Murdock and Ty Tyler of the Access Fund talked about climbing management plans as a best practice to facilitate dialogue among a climbing area’s constituents and a method for establishing minimum critical requirements to protect resources. Tyler described a typical plan as addressing each element of a climber’s interaction with the land, from parking to the approach to the climb and the descent.

Mark Kougl, an engineer at Rocky Mountain National Park, explains the ins and outs of Gem Lake Trail’s solar dehydrating toilet. Liquids are diverted to a tray evaporator and the dried solids are packed out weekly by llamas. Increasing visitation in the park is overwhelming the capacity of the solar dehydrating toilets located on the approach to Longs Peak. [Photo] Brad Rassler

Education and advocacy were also common themes. The heads of the IFMGA, AMGA and Leave No Trace emphasized how mountain guides are de facto environmental educators both by modeling respect for the mountains and integrating environmental standards into their procedures. Blaise Agresti, a Chamonix guide and a colonel in the Peloton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne, Chamonix’s rescue service, spoke about the increasing rate of rockfall and mountain traffic that is resulting an increase of climber injuries on Mt. Blanc’s popular Gouter Route. The hazard has become significant enough that the government has studied the feasibility of tunneling under the Grand Couloir, the route’s rockfall-prone choke point and site of most of the injuries. Everest’s tragedy this spring stemmed from similar exposure to objective hazard, and Phunuru Sherpa, director of the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), spoke about his organization’s efforts to provide training to local Sherpa guides to increase their safety and rescue skills.

Sustainable Summits co-chair Roger Robinson shows off one of his plastic Clean Mountain Cans, an integral component of Denali National Park’s Clean Climb Program. Climbers use these cans at High Camp on Denali’s West Buttress route, and carry them down to Base Camp, where the contents are either disposed of in crevasses or flown to Talkeetna. Clean Mountain Cans have survived 2,000-foot tumbles without spilling their contents. [Photo] Brad Rassler

Human waste represented one of the conference’s weightier topics, and representatives from Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Bolivia, the Karakorum, Everest, Mt. Vinson and Denali had plenty to say about the issue. So did managers of front country locales in the United States and Canada, some of whom employ next-generation urine-diverting composting and vermicomposting toilets to decrease the weight of loads that for now must be packed or flown to dumping stations. The consensus was that education, structure and regulations dictate new behaviors that save the landscape.

In what was the conference’s most notable case study on the subject, Dr. Tetsuya Hanamura spoke about the decades-long cleanup campaign on Mt. Fuji to handle waste generated by 300,000 climbers who make a pilgrimage to the mountain in July and August each year. Prior to a cooperative cleanup effort campaign, raw sewage from the mountain’s few toilets ran downslope in open runnels, and garbage littered the trails. Today a privatized hut system, modern bio toilets, government regulation and an extensive education campaign that leveraged Japan’s “shame culture,” Dr. Hanamura said, tipped the peak into World Heritage status–a designation denied the mountain before the government intervened.

On Denali, Roger Robinson’s Clean Mountain Can program combines a trash-in, trash-out system (each expedition’s garbage is weighed when it comes off the mountain) and centralized toilets lower on the mountain. Today climbers accept the park’s rules as standard operating procedure for climbing the West Buttress. Robinson gives credit to his fellow rangers, guides and volunteers, and his system is being adopted on other high-traffic routes, such as Mt. Everest’s South Col.

Moderator Mike Gauthier, Yosemite National Park’s chief of staff, addresses “Everest Knot” panelists Conrad Anker, Melissa Arnot, Markus Hallgren, John Harlin and Dawa Steven Sherpa. The panel convened to discuss the social, economic and environmental challenges on Everest and other Himalayan peaks. [Photo] Brad Rassler

In fact, Everest acted as an isomorph for many of the conversational threads that took place in Golden last month. In a special panel discussion, “The Everest Knot,” climbers Conrad Anker, Melissa Arnot, John Harlin and Dawa Steven Sherpa were joined by management professor Markus Hallgren to discuss the concatenation of sociopolitical, economic and environmental issues surrounding the mountain.

“I think the biggest problem we have right now is that there’s nothing being done to manage the mountain,” said Dawa Steven, a climber, social entrepreneur and the chair of the Nepal Mountaineering Association’s Environmental Protection Committee. “We are following rules and a system that was suitable 40 years ago perhaps, but it’s not anymore.”

“What is the vision of Nepalis?” he asked, Dawa Steven’s work on the ground in his country led some attendees to call him “the story of the conference” and a future leader of Nepal. “What does the mountain mean to them? It’s not what does the mountain mean to you guys here,” he said, motioning to the audience. “It’s more important what the mountain means to us in Nepal.”

Phunuru Sherpa and Ang Tshering Lama of the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC) listen as their colleagues attempt to untangle Everest’s knot of issues. The two climbers participate in an exchange program between Denali National Park and the KCC. [Photo] Brad Rassler

Though the Sustainable Summits colloquium at times surfaced more questions than it answered–indeed, little discussion took place about the toll of climate change on glaciers or the carbon footprint of adventure travel–it succeeded in bringing together an international community of seasoned problem solvers who offered solutions to thorny issues.

“I’m struck by the fact that we debate hard and even fight on the issues that matter most to us in mountain conservation,” said AAC Executive Director Phil Powers. “Those fights are just about finding the best result for us as recreators and [for] the mountains themselves.”

Video from the 2014 Sustainable Summits Conference can be viewed until September 8 on
the AAC’s Livestream site, located here.

Sources: Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 2013 Outdoor Participation Report