Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Here We Go: Mount Whitney

(Sorry… couldn’t resist. See the title of my previous post if you want to understand a bit more about how my mind works.)

From the New York Times:

No More Privies, So Hikers Add a Carry-Along. More park stewards in the West are removing outhouses from trails and asking hikers to pack out their own waste. By FELICITY BARRINGER. [NYT > Home Page]

(You may need to sign up for a “free subscription” to read the article. Probably worth it for the lovely photograph of the Whitney trail during thunderstorm weather that sits above the article.)


So from the granite immensity of Mount Whitney in California to Mount Rainier in Washington to Zion National Park in Utah, a new wilderness ethic is beginning to take hold: You can take it with you. In fact, you must.

If you haven’t already clicked the NY Times link or otherwise figured it out, the article is about “human waste disposal” on Mount Whitney, California’s and the lower 48 states’ highest point and the object of many eastern Sierra pack trips. OK, I’ll say it: “poop bags.”

On my Horseshoe Meadow to Symmes Creek pack trip this summer we passed through the Crabtree Meadow area, through which almost all west side approaches to the summit of Whitney are made. As we left the relatively unpopulated route we arrived on (coming in via New Army and Crabtree passes) and turned north here onto the John Muir Trail we noticed a large plastic tub sitting by the trail marker. (We also noticed a 27-person Sierra Club party arriving, followed by about another 50+ people over the next couple miles of trail, but I digress.) The tub was filled with “WAGbags” – to be used for carrying out what you used to leave behind in a six-inch hole.

I first encountered these “double-sealed sanitation kits” a few years ago on Mt. Shasta, where they have been required on the popular Avalanche Gulch route for some years. The problem on this Shasta route is very real; the most popular “base camp” on this route is Helen Lake. During the best climbing times, the entire Helen Lake site (where you usually cannot actually find a lake) is covered with snow. Climbers must melt snow to obtain drinking and cooking water. Guess what was ending up in the snow? Sometimes in large quantities?

So, the use of “poop bags” was required. I’ll leave a few things to your imagination, but here’s the basic deal. You pick up one or more of them in plastic packages at the trailhead. When nature calls you do your business onto a big sheet of paper, thoughtfully marked with a large target. You toss in a bit of sawdust from the “kit,” fold up the paper (yeah, fun…) and put it into a ziploc bag. You put this inside another plastic bag. Since you believed the people who suggested that this could just be placed in your pack and carried out you try this. Your pack smells like shit. You remove the bag and place it on the outside of your pack. Your pack still smells like shit. You put the whole thing inside another plastic bag or two or three. The smell diminishes but does not disappear. You hope for a head wind… and avoid hiking too close to the person in front of you. You remind yourself that this is keeping your snowmelt drinking water a bit cleaner. You wonder how in heaven’s name anyone will be able to backpack if some misguided bureaucrat ever tries to extend this beyond the few high use areas where it is arguably a necessary evil.

So, what about Mt. Whitney? I don’t like the idea, but having “done Whitney” a couple times I do understand the need for this. And the summit isn’t the only problem. Since I’ve approached Whitney from the west both times, I’m not real familiar with the problems at the semi-urban “trail camp” on the east side, but I can imagine they are real. I base-camped at Guitar Lake before ascending to trail crest and then the summit, and I know that Guitar Lake, despite being located in a lovely alpine setting, is overrun by backpackers on their way to Whitney – and here the value of the “carry it out” approach is probably going to make a difference.

While I understand the reasoning in places like Mt. Whitney, what about trying to regulate this elsewhere in the Sierra? There would be a whole bunch of problems with this. I have to say that in almost 40 years of backpacking I’ve almost never encountered any messes left behind by other backpackers. Most folks to follow good practices: walk a long ways from camp, dig a good hole, stay away from water, cover and disguise the site, and so forth. There are practical issues as well. While carrying a “WAGbag” for a day is something that anyone can put up with, carrying a half dozen of them for a week (or more!) is clearly not going to work – for sanitary and weight reasons. Finally, enforcement would be just about impossible – and, I believe, unnecessary and onerous for everyone.

Dan and Brandon Mitchell. Mt. Whitney Summit, California. August, 2000. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell.

For my part, I think I’m done with Mount Whitney – unless I have the opportunity to approach from one of the back-country routes. I’ve been there a couple of times, so I don’t have much to prove by climbing it any more. And, frankly, it isn’t the most spectacular place in the Sierra Nevada. There are many places – many of them not even mountain summits – that have made a far greater impression on me, and I prefer to return to those spots. Without a WAGbag.


September 5, 2007 - Posted by | Commentary

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