Improving Sustainability of Climbing – An Experience on Denali

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Guest post by CMC Member Julie Smith

As passionate outdoor enthusiasts, my husband, Hilary, and I love to hike, backpack and climb in the wilderness. But, at the same time, we know our planet is in trouble. Serious trouble. Our runaway carbon consumption is causing global warming, and our trash is making it worse, polluting land and water, increasing wildfires, and killing wildlife. In just the past 50 years, we’ve managed to decimate more than 50% of the wildlife on this planet.

So, what is the true cost of adventure to our planet? Are we killing our planet and wildlife that we love even as we revel in its magnificence? Should we simply stop travelling, stay close to home and walk everywhere? That would arguably be the fastest and most effective way to mitigate our footprint. We needed to either stop travelling, or figure out ways to mitigate it. Feeling guilty when we climb can take the joy out of it.

With most adventures, the main environmental problems are single-use plastic and other trash, and the travel itself. Many of us follow “Leave no Trace” ethics, but then, what happens to the trash after we pack it out? Do we simply dump it in the nearest landfill? At least we haven’t littered, but aren’t we still adding to environmental problems? After all, we’re taking up landfill space, and creating demand for yet more fossil fuels and mined resources to replace what we just discarded. We’re adding to the never-ending masses of land and water spoiled by mining and drilling. The travel part is fairly obvious, as travel is about 28% of our carbon footprint in the U.S., which, by the way, has one of the largest per-capita carbon footprints in the world, an obscene 19.8 tonnes/year, compared to the global average of 4.8 tonnes/year. Manufacturing of single-use plastic from fossil fuels is about 1.75% of our carbon footprint. When metal fuel canisters are landfilled, it takes at least 20 times more energy to make new metal cans from raw mined ore, compared to recycling them.

So, what’s a climber to do? We’ve had our eye on Denali for years, and we finally had a chance to go in 2021. We were on a team of nine climbers and, knowing my passion for zero waste, our team leader, Dave Covill, asked me to figure out how to reduce waste on our climb. Dumping a bunch of trash in the local landfills wouldn’t exactly speak to good outdoor environmental ethics.

It turned out to be pretty simple. I knew that most of the waste would be plastic, since it’s light-weight and preferred for backpacking. I also knew that most of the plastic would be in the form of meal pouches, zip locks and snack bar wrappers. These kinds of plastic wrappers cannot be recycled in a single stream, but they can be recycled in a Terracycle box. Terracycle is a company in New Jersey that recycles a variety of different kinds of plastics. The box comes with a pre-paid shipping label. I ordered a Terracycle box on-line, and had it shipped directly to a friend, Sharmon, in Anchorage.

The plastic must be clean and dry to be accepted, so I asked our team members to keep their plastic waste separate from landfill waste, such as sanitary wipes and such. I also asked them to clean out their food pouches as much as possible, to make cleaning easier later. 

After the climb, Sharmon generously offered the use of her garage to sort and clean the plastic. Little did she know what she signed up for! It turned out to be quite a production. I borrowed a 5-gallon bucket, filled it with water, and rinsed all the plastic packages. Then I set everything out to dry, over every square inch of her garage. She had to tip-toe through it all just to get to her car. Sharmon has single-stream recycling service, so she let me leave all the cardboard and paper in her bin.

All the plastic fit into the Terracycle box. Not bad for a team of nine for three weeks.

While recycling is very nice, the best thing would be to wean ourselves off the plastic in the first place. Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier? It took about 10 hours to sort and clean all that waste, and most climbers would struggle with the hassle. Of the thousand or so climbers on the mountain this year, I’d be surprised if anybody else went to that kind of trouble. If we were the only ones who recycled, that’s about 1% of the plastic, which is less than the national average of about 8%. Does that make climbers less responsible than average citizens? I hope not. That would be truly sad. 

It’s definitely more of a challenge when we’re travelling than when we’re home. Personally, I treat it as part of the trip, part of what we do when we travel is deal with our waste. If we can’t do it during the trip, then we bring it home and do it. I feel a personal responsibility to handle anything I acquire from cradle to grave. After all, if we’re going to spend hundreds of hours training, planning, travelling and doing the actual climb, then is it really a whole lot to ask, to spend an extra hour or two remediating our waste? That’s probably less time than we spent buying all the food in the first place.

Hilary and I did several things to reduce the plastic on our climb.

  • Stasher Bags – Silicon plastic zip lock bags that are infinitely re-usable for boiling food, and we used them instead of single-use food pouches for several meals, purchased in bulk. We bought our Stasher bags at REI, but they are also available on-line at www.stasherbag.com.
  • We avoided plastic associated with individual snack bars by making bar cookies.
  • Dried fruit and nuts in bulk.
  • Chocolate bars in paper wrappers.
  • Tea in compostable tea bags. Many teas are in microplastic tea bags. We took Celestial Seasoning. Next time we’ll take tea in bulk and use tea balls.
  • We got instant coffee in a glass jar, and dried milk. We transferred these to – you guessed it – reused zip lock bags for the trip.
  • When we travel, we never do bottled water. We take a 1-oz dropper bottle of Clorox, and add 5 drops per liter if we need to disinfect water. On Denali, we melted water from clean sources of snow, and never needed to disinfect it.
  • For electrolytes, we never do single plastic packets. We use potassium carbonate, and dolomite, a source of calcium and magnesium, both purchased by the pound on-line. I add about 500 mg of each per liter of water. Add a little peppermint and lemon oil for some zingy flavor.
  • We never take paper towels or disposable wipes. We take a cloth napkin and small cloth for body. We have a little dish kit with soap, a scrubbie and a lightweight towel. All this weighs less than a roll of paper towels, with no waste to pack out.
  • We used Aspire tooth power instead of toothpaste. It avoids a toothpaste tube, which can’t be refilled or recycled, and it doesn’t get hard in freezing temperatures. The 2-oz container we took can be refilled from bulk. Aspire is a local company in Golden. Buy it at Bent Gate Mountaineering, or directly from Aspire’s on-line store.
  • We used Aspire deodorant. It’s bulk and refillable, and we took 2-oz spray bottles, which was enough for the trip. It’s also good for foot deodorizer and hand sanitizer, since it’s alcohol based. Also at Bent Gate.

To recycle the fuel canisters, they can be dropped at a local chemical drop-off location, such as Rooney Road Recycling in Golden.   

Finally, let’s face it, the biggest carbon footprint of our Denali climb was the travel. We took an airplane from Denver to Anchorage, a shuttle from Anchorage to Talkeetna, then finally a small plane from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier, where we began our climb. Then, after the climb, we took the same transportation all over again to return home.  That’s a lot of carbon in transportation. Specifically, for both of us, it was about 3,000 LBS, or 1.36 tonnes, not trivial.  

When we travel, we offset our carbon by addressing two important issues to help our planet.

  1. Increase Forest Cover.  We need to increase our forest cover by at least double worldwide to save our planet. Forest cover is important because trees actually absorb CO2. It turns out that it costs $1/tree to plant a tree with One Tree Planted (onetreeplanted.com) and a tree will absorb 550 LBS of CO2 in its lifetime. We donated $20 to One Tree Planted, which will absorb 11,000 LBS of CO2, more than enough to offset our travel.
  2. Reduce Population.  We have long since overrun our planet with humanity, displacing wildlife in the process. Even though we have reduced the rate of population growth to about 1%/year, that’s still an addition of about 80 million people annually, and that can’t continue indefinitely. To have any chance of saving our planet and wildlife, we need to reduce that to a negative 1% a year, or a reduction of 1% per year. This would gradually get our population back in balance with what the planet can provide. A simple way to do that is to donate to organizations that provide birth control to women who don’t want to have children, and can’t afford birth control. One example is Population Connection. It turns out that it costs $180/birth. If an average human footprint is 4.8 tonnes of CO2 per year, this works out to about $37.60/tonne of CO2. We donated $150 to Population Connection. This will prevent an additional 4 tonnes/year of CO2, more than enough to offset our travel, and the benefit to the planet, and to the women who want to control their family sizes, is forever.
  3. We hope that, by covering our footprint from both ends, increasing the carbon sink with more trees, and reducing the main source, the sheer mass of humanity, we are ultimately making a difference for the better. If everybody who travelled did this, it wouldn’t take long to get in better balance with our planet.

As we enjoy adventures on our beautiful planet, the only one we have, let’s always try to do better. We are lucky to have this amazing planet, and we want to keep it that way! It’s our ethical responsibility to share our planet with the other species who live here, who can’t speak for themselves, who play vital roles in the intricate ecosystem, the web of life on our planet, a web that we are a part of. We want to take our grandchildren hiking and spend time with them in nature, and, if we are responsible for our footprint, we’ll get to do that. And we’ll be proud of our role in keeping our planet safe and healthy for humanity and wildlife for generations to come. At least, that’s my personal hope and dream.

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