No More Privies, So Hikers Add a Carry-Along
SUMMIT OF MOUNT WHITNEY, Calif., Aug. 29 — The highest outhouse in the continental United States is no more.
High-altitude sanitation is too hazardous a business. Helicopters no longer make regular journeys up the steep-walled canyons in tricky winds while rangers in hazmat suits wait below to tie 250-pound bags or barrels of waste onto a long line dangling below the aircraft.
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.
The privy, which sat about 14,494 feet above sea level, and two other outhouses here in the Inyo National Forest — the last on the trail — have been removed within the last year. The 19,000 or so hikers who pick up Forest Service permits each year to hike the Whitney Trail are given double-sealed sanitation kits and told how to use them — just as they are told how to keep their food from the bears along the way, and how to find shelter when lightning storms rake the ridges.
The kits — the most popular model is known as a Wagbag — are becoming a fixture of camping gear. On high western trails, Wagbag is now as familiar a term as gorp (a high-energy mix of nuts, seeds, dry fruit and chocolate) or switchback (a hairpin turn in the trail).
“It’s one thing to take a risk to fly up there to pick up a sick or injured person,” said Brian Spitek, a forest ranger who works in the Inyo National Forest. “To do it to fly out a bag of poop is another.”
Other options, like burying waste, are ineffective where there is too little soil, too many people or both.
The pack-it-out ethic has long been practiced by Grand Canyon river rafters, who used old ammunition cans.
The Wagbags (WAG stands for Waste Alleviation and Gelling) are manufactured by Phillips Environmental Products in Montana and have been adopted by agencies including the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the company’s president, Bill Phillips.
Their appearance in places like the John Muir Wilderness or the Grand Canyon is one more indication that park stewards want visitors to take responsibility for themselves. For several years, the National Park Service has required visitors who need helicopter rescues to help pay for the cost of sending in the copter.
Hikers on the Mount Whitney trail, in most cases, willingly shoulder the burden of the new sanitation regimen.
“If I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to do it,” said Scott Whitten of Danville, Calif., about halfway up the trail. “I’m not a big fan of it.”
So far this year, more than 4,500 pounds of waste in Wagbags has been deposited in receptacles at the Whitney Portal trail head, all of it headed for landfills, where the bags are designed to biodegrade over six to nine months.
“I don’t mind it,” said Marilyn Nelson, 64, who had just finished her first hike to Trail Camp, at 12,000 feet the highest camp below the summit of Mount Whitney on the eastern approach. “There are so many indignities on the trail anyway. And people do that all the time with their dogs in the city.”
But while her son, Brendan Nelson, 43, who works in television promotion in Los Angeles, accepted the need for the change, he was still nostalgic for the Trail Camp outhouse that was dismantled this year.
“I do miss it,” Mr. Nelson said. “It was a great place to get out of the wind. It was really a luxury to have it up here.”
For years hikers have boasted about their moment on the seat at the Whitney summit. Behind the single rock wall that hid it from hikers, the seat was open on three sides to the swirling clouds and the immense granite ridges that rise from delicate alpine valleys.
“It was a photo point for a lot of people,” said Rob Pilewski, a Sequoia National Park ranger whose district includes the western approaches to the mountain and the summit itself.
Backpackers have accepted the new pack-it-out policy, said rangers who have distributed Wagbags in Sequoia National Park to the west and the Inyo National Forest to the east. (The Wagbag is actually two separate plastic bags. The inner one is a funnel-like bag with powder at the bottom. Water causes the powder to gel, encapsulating anything in the bag.)
In the past, keeping the privies on the eastern side of the Inyo National Forest clean between helicopter flights was a huge headache.
“If you didn’t clean the outhouse regularly, it was a cascading nightmare,” said Garry Oye, the Inyo National Forest district ranger who put the new Whitney regimen into place.
But with 300 or more people on the trail each day, it was hard to do. “Can you keep your bathroom clean if 400 of your closest friends go through there each day?” Mr. Oye asked.
Joanne Rife, who went to the Whitney summit to celebrate her 75th birthday with her daughter, Susan Rife, 51, and granddaughter Alexis Rife, 21, said the new policy worked. “Most people are using it,” Alexis Rife said. “The few who don’t are ruining it for everyone else.”
So among the visual images of the 103-year-old Whitney trail — myriad tiny holes that hikers’ poles make in the trailside or the winking headlamps of predawn hikers heading up 99 rocky switchbacks — add one more: olive drab bags netted outside hikers’ backpacks.
“Nobody likes it,” said Erika Jostad, a Sequoia Park ranger. “But people understand.”