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trash Talking Trash

There are a lot of dangers when climbing a mountain, but there's one danger that is sometimes not taken seriously: trash on the mountain. NOVA recently corresponded with Denali Park Ranger Daryl Miller to find out more.

NOVA: What kind of garbage is on Denali?

Miller: It's usually a mixture of food wrappers, food not eaten, and fuel cans that were lost or left in caches buried in the snow. During July, the glacier warms up and the once-buried caches that were lost or left on purpose by climbers become visible. Ravens also find the caches and pick through the leftover food and scatter the garbage, which is blown all over the glacier. Human waste is also a terrible problem, with piles of poop not properly taken care of. Frozen human waste piles stay for years. They only disappear when routinely picked up.

NOVA: Are we talking a LOT of trash? How much?

Miller: Typically, it has been between 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of trash a year.

NOVA: How will it all get cleaned up?

Miller: Well, rangers and volunteers pick garbage up when they come across it on patrol. Guides that are climbing the mountain also help in hauling it out.

NOVA: If human waste is a problem, do you have portable potties at any of the camps?

Miller: Yes, at the base camp at 7,200 feet, the ranger camp at 14,200 feet, and also at the last camp at 17,200 feet.

trash NOVA: Are climbers supposed to haul out EVERY bit of garbage they make?

Miller: YES, they are required to carry OUT all the garbage and gear they haul in. Most do, but because of caches that are lost during storms, or because some climbers become stricken with altitude sickness, they either can't or just decide not to haul their trash out.

NOVA: If poop is something natural that disintegrates, why is it bad?

Miller: The piles are very visible and pose a health hazard if not correctly put into bags and thrown into the deep glacial crevasses or into the wooden "mountain thrones" (portable potties) that are placed near the trail at 7,200 feet, 14,200 feet and at 17,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. These "mountain thrones" are flown onto the glacier in late April and then flown off in July after the climbing season.

Poop on the trail is a very unpleasant sight and a possible disease problem for people needing water along the route. Climbers must melt snow for their water needs and most drink about 4 quarts a day, which requires four times that much snow to melt. You can just imagine the problem of trying to get clean snow if everyone leaves poop piles everywhere.

Climbers must understand that Denali is not just the highest point to conquer in North America. It is first and foremost a National Park, located inside a National Wilderness. Humans should try to leave no trace of themselves there.

What else do YOU want to know?

Now that you've learned the "trashy" stuff about Denali, what else do you want to know?

  • What things do Rangers do on the mountain? What's your favorite part of the job?
  • Do you live on the mountain year-round?
  • Have you been to the summit of Denali? What's it like on top?
  • What kinds of animals live in the Park? Are there grizzlies?
  • How does someone get to work for the National Park Service?
You can write the Denali National Park Headquarters requesting the free Urban Junior Ranger Alaska Parks newspaper. The address is:
Denali National Park and Preserve
P.O. Box #9
Denali Park, Alaska 99755

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Photos: (1-2) Daryl Miller.

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