Holy crap. I promise this will not be a visually detailed post. For reasons, at this point, that might be self-evident. Here’s a warning for those particular about this: this story is about crap, poop, shit. Actually, the story is about more than that, but it involves potty things like crap, poop, shit.
There’s the disclaimer.
Today, I went into the time machine and revisited a public radio story I worked on in 2010, “Human Waste in the Wild.” It was my initiation into learning about backcountry etiquette and human waste, which is just nice talk for crapping in the woods best practices. The idea for the story came from an American Alpine Club conference I attended titled; you’ll like this, “Exit Strategies.” (Along with a dark side, we are, in fact, an amusing species with a knack for puns.) “Exit Strategies” highlighted the issues around unmitigated human waste in the backcountry. An extreme example at the time was Mt. Everest.
For my “Human Waste in the Wild” story, I visited Yosemite, which began to educate wall climbers to take a contained deuce in the vertical and haul it out on objectives like El Captian. As many readers know, the old-school etiquette, or lack thereof, for years was jettisoning poop in brown paper bags off the wall. Talk about objective hazards.
At the time, there were also incipient carry-your-poop-out programs on Denali, Mt. Shasta, and Mount Whitney, as well as other success stories.
Success is great; it paves the way for solutions-based initiatives. But it also sheds light on glaring failures. I’m thinking of the non-winter time human waste at high-impact sites in our local wilderness area. We’re behind the curve here considering WAG-bag use and packing it out or any fundamental understanding of Leave No Trace (LNT) principles around human waste. I digress.
If you’re new to all this, at least the pack-it-out part, it’s pretty basic. The term WAG-bag is a specific type of human waste containment product. At least for me, Wag-bag is like Kleenex, a trademarked term that becomes generic. These “bags” are like small kitty-liter systems that contain the waste, have additives to solidify liquid, and then seal up to prevent contamination. (Bring extra hand sanitizer.) Those are the basics.
Places with lots of snow and ice are prone to snow blemishes and potential health hazards due to poo melting out. Yet, some areas, thankfully, that folks frequent for ski mountaineering ask that you carry out your poop. Rainer has their classy blue bags, and during summer, those heading towards the Lower Saddle in Grand Teton National Park are asked to carry a personal pack-your-poo-out bag. The list could go on, and we salute initiatives providing some sort of WAG-bag, and fostering a carry-it-out ethic. If it is the law of the land to pack it out, please do so. Either way, I like this statement on the Grand Teton National Park climbing and mountaineering page, “Accept responsibility for yourself and others. ‘Leave No Trace’ depends more on attitude and awareness than on regulations.”
Many of us are like-minded in that we backcountry ski for some well-earned solitude with a core group of partners. In other words, we seek out sparsely populated zones for the skiing goods. I’m guessing the haunts we all prefer lack proper bathrooms, outhouses, etc. In that case, LNT has some basic wintertime pooing recommendations. Primarily, if you can, “Go before you go.” LNT also suggests using a WAG-bag and properly disposing of it when returning to the frontcountry.
If it is hitting the fan so to speak, LNT states, “if none of these options are available to you, there is a last resort. Get 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from water sources (even frozen or buried ones), travel paths, and campsites, and disguise your waste in deep snow. Without the microbes present in soil to break it down, our waste will still be there come spring, making it extra important we keep it away from water sources and other visitors.”
Let’s channel my friend Kelly for a second: “not all heroes wear a cape,” he says when I explain how I’m the king dog poop picker-upper at the dog park. By extension, if you’re one of the heroes who doesn’t wear a cape and routinely packs it out, then good on you. I’m imperfect, though, and by default, not a hero with or without a cape when it comes to always packing it out. I’m starting to reassess, I’ll likely begin stowing a spare WAG-bag in my backcountry ski kit just in case. And what about those Wind River traverse plans? Maybe we’ll haul a scaled-down big-wall style PVC poop tube for that outing.
Keep it clean here in the comments, but I’m curious what protocols backcountry skiers/riders in North America or globally are considering when it comes to packing out the poo. Or is this all much a doo about nothing?
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.