Shoes. Check. Harness. Check. Food. Check. Wag bags. Check.
And so it began, the long and arduous hike up to Iceberg Lake where we’d set up our base camp to climb Mt. Whitney and surrounding peaks. The relatively flat highway of the Whitney trail began to fade in our memory as we crossed streams, dodged tree limbs, and scrambled ledges to start our cross-country adventure toward the largest peak in the lower-48. The Sierra backcountry, with its cool, crisp air, granite mazes, and wide vistas, always pulls me in close, tugging on my heart, telling me this is where I want to be and what I want to do.
We climbed the talus strewn fields, walked up seemingly-miles of slab, and skirted the rim of a ravine to find the Keeler Needle, a long, thin prominent spire to the left of Whitney—a mini Shipton Spire. Whitney, itself, was broad with many buttresses and some steep faces. I threw my pack down and headed to the lake. Iceberg Lake had a sandy bottom, and the clearest blue water I’ve seen. It looked like it should have been in a tropical paradise. I sat on a broad, flat boulder in the outskirts of the water and enjoyed the sweet silence of this foreign area. The wind kicked up, tousling my hair, and as I was soaking in the clean alpine setting, I smelled something and it was foul, very foul.
“Aaaaaah!” I squirmed at the sight of toilet paper strewn between the boulders and even one of those bags the rangers give you to pack your shit out. Infuriated, I cursed out loud.
We’re destroying our home.
It’s not just Whitney, it’s not just hikers or city-goers or noobs that don’t know how to deal with their fecal matter—it’s us, too, us climbers.
I lived in the Buttermilks of Bishop, CA for over a month during the winter. From my campsite, I could walk 20 ft to find toilet paper tangled in the thorny, cactus brush of the desert. It wasn’t just a piece here or a piece there—it was everywhere.
In Tuolumne, when we hiked to climb around Cathedral Peak and East Cottage Dome, we were also unpleasantly surprised with toilet paper and human waste. A few weeks ago, I brought this subject up at Climber Coffee in Tuolumne.
“Anyone else have something to say?” climbing ranger, Ben, said enthusiastically.
“Yes. What about pooping?” I spoke up, slightly embarrassed with flush cheeks. “Either people are just plain lazy or they don’t know how to handle fecal matter in the backcountry.”
“Good point.” Kristin replied. “It’s hard to track down the owner of toilet paper.” She chuckled. “Can anyone tell us what we should do if we’re not near a bathroom?”
“Dig a hole, at least a foot deep, dispose of your waste in that.” Daniel began to use hand gestures to help with the explanation. He started to stir a pot with his hand. “If you can’t pack your toilet paper out, put it in your poo, and stir it in with a stick.” People were laughing now. “If you do this, it probably won’t resurface.” “Shovel the rest of the dirt back into the hole until it’s completely filled.” He stamped his foot hard on the ground. “And there you go, no trace to be found.”
In Yosemite, what Daniel described is common practice. But in places like Whitney where volume in certain areas are significantly higher, WAG bags or portable waste disposal bags are encouraged (and free) at the permit center. In dry, arid deserts like Bishop or Indian Creek or Joshua Tree, avoid digging holes as much as possible. Try to use bathrooms if available and if not, pack it out. Stock up on your store bought wag bags which you can purchase online or in outdoors stores, or make your own.
You don’t want your experience in the wild to smell like shit, do you?
Poop biodegrades very slowly in the desert, unless you smear it on a rock very thinly, let the sun kill the pathogens and dry it out, and eventually it will blow away. BUT, this rarely gets done properly and doesn’t follow the cardinal “leave no trace” rule. In short, when in doubt, pack it out and be responsible for your waste. Think ahead and prepare for the situation.