"How to shit at the crag....?"
“Every day, you handle the deadliest substance on earth. It is a weapon of mass destruction festering beneath your fingernails. In the past 10 years, it has killed more people than all the wars since Adolf Hitler rolled into one; in the next four hours, it will kill the equivalent of two jumbo jets full of kids. It is not anthrax or plutonium or uranium. Its name is shit—and we are in the middle of a shit storm.”
Writes Johann Hari on his page on Independent.co.uk, and he's right. For many of us, taking a turd at the crag has become second nature. A flask of coffee, an energetic, uphill approach, or maybe even a particularly pant-filling lead, can all set the bowels in motion and leave us looking hastily for a spare tissue or some handy leaves.
In the UK we have a culture of 'going' in the bushes when we need to, which for most isn't too often, as our crags are usually close enough to built up areas to enable us to use flushing toilets. But in some areas of Europe and in many places further afield, huge distances between crag and toilet, or just a lack of toilets in general, mean that lightening the load before a hard route isn't quite so easy.
2.6 billion people in the world are without any form of sanitation. We in the west are lucky and privileged to be able to use a flushing toilet whenever we want. Perhaps it is this lack of exposure to the dangers of untreated waste that makes us ignorant of the damage caused to our crag environment from just a few of those 'caught short' moments.
Rose George describes the dangers of not having sanitation in her book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters:
“Eighty percent of the world's illness is caused by fecal matter. A gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs... ...Small fecal particles can then contaminate water, food, cutlery, and shoes—and be ingested, drunk, or unwittingly eaten. One sanitation specialist has estimated that people who live in areas with inadequate sanitation ingest 10 grams of fecal matter every day.”
Basically, when people and animals are exposed to untreated human waste they get sick, disease is spread and in countries without adequate health care, people die.
However, the current UK system of sanitation uses a vast amount of resources, both of infrastructure and energy, and also wastes a huge volume of fresh water. There is no doubt that this will be gradually phased out and we will adopt either more small-scale individual waste solutions, or follow countries like China who are developing re-use systems to, in effect, drink their own pee. So it's worth thinking about how you go to the toilet away from the crag.
Back to climbing, and on a recent trip to the USA I was introduced to a nifty product called the Restop 2. This is essentially a super-fancy version of those little plastic bags you get for picking up dog poo. A tough, re-sealable foil outer encapsulates your turd in a spill-proof, smell-proof package. A fold out inner bag means you can be quite a bad aim and still get your shit together!
The bag contains some sort of chemical powder that neutralises the waste and means that the whole bag is safe to just throw in the bin when you get home. A quick, safe, clean way of disposing of your waste. You can use the same bag several times (although I didn't) and apparently, once full it makes quite a handy camping pillow!
My initial thoughts about this product were along the lines of it actually not being environmentally friendly. The energy and chemicals used to create the bag, plus the fact that it needs to go on the land-fill after use, left me wondering as to its real value. But after giving the issue some serious thought, I am a convert to the poo bag. Micro-environmentalism in this instance has a great deal of value, not polluting our popular climbing venues with human waste is an important issue and supersedes that of a small amount of landfill waste.
The Leave No Trace centre in Boulder, Colorado was formed in 1994 as a result of the cooperation between various bodies, such as the Forest Service and the National Park Service. One of its core values states that “Practising the Leave No Trace principles is the most relevant and effective long-term solution to maintaining the beauty, health of, and access to natural lands”.
I was certainly impressed with the 'leave no trace' principle on my visit, and saw several heavily used climbing areas that were completely free from human waste. I became convinced that if we could get easy to use, convenient products such as the Restop2 to hit the climbing market in the UK and Europe, we might see less surprises at the base of our crags.
Although these products may be heavy on energy consumption and require land-filling at the end of their life, I believe that overall they are a great idea, keeping natural water sources free from disease, keeping crags clean and promoting a sense of ownership and a collective responsibility over our scarce but beautiful wild areas.
The current UK advice can be found on The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) website, and their article suggests that you should “Whenever possible, dig a 15 cms (6") hole and bury your excrement”.
However, in my opinion burying waste at popular venues is not the way forward. As hill walking and climbing become more popular in the UK we are going to see more people and more poo. The MCofS also go on to back up my point regarding usable waste bags with this statement:
“Walkers and climbers in certain areas of North America are encouraged, and sometimes required, to carry out all their excrement when they leave a wilderness area. Lack of suitable containers and disposal facilities are, however, possible sources of dangerous contamination. The techniques and facilities still need to be developed in Britain, so we feel unable to make recommendations at the present time.”
I have been unable to find any Restop bags available in the UK, however they have their own US based website: www.whennaturecalls.com and take direct internet orders. Perhaps this is the product that Europe has been waiting for?
So how to shit at the crag? My advice would be to do it in a specialist bag!
This article was, in part, inspired by the seminal book 'How To Shit In The Woods' by Kathleen Meyer.
In this article series I Want That Job! I'm interviewing people from various professions within the climbing world. Neil Gresham... Read more
Will Hunt writes about discovering new problems in Colsterdale, which he has documented on his website Unknown Stones - a free... Read more