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DATE: March 31, 2019

SNIP: There’s good news and bad news at Denali, North America’s tallest mountain.

The bad news is that the 66 tons of frozen feces left by climbers on the Alaska summit is expected to start melting out of the glacier sometime in the coming decades and potentially as soon as this summer, a process that’s speeding up in part due to global warming.

The good news is that this year, for the first time, the guide companies that lead many of the 1,200 climbers who attempt the summit each year have voluntarily decided to start packing out their human waste. This comes just a year after the National Park Service instituted a policy that all such waste below 14,000 feet must be carried off the mountain.

The poop problem is very real. Climbers scaling Denali, previously known as Mount McKinley, generate close to 2 metric tons of human waste each year, according to the National Park Service. (The average human “deposit” weighs half a pound and the average length of a climber’s stay on the mountain is 18 days, which is how researchers got the figure of 66 tons over the course of the past century.)

Initially, human waste was left in snow pits on the Kahiltna glacier, the most common route up, or thrown into deep crevasses at higher elevations. It was believed that the waste would be ground up in the ice over time.

It turns out that what goes around comes around, even in a glacier, Loso said. He performed several experiments that show the buried feces eventually resurface farther downstream on the surface of the glacier, where they begin to melt.

This is true of all glaciers, which are really extremely slow-moving rivers of ice, though the process seems to be speeding up.

Research by the National Park Service found that in the past 50 years, the area covered by ice within the Alaskan parks has diminished by 8 percent.

“We have lost more glacier cover in the Alaskan national parks than there is area in the whole state of Rhode Island,” said Loso.

A 40-some-year trip through a glacier doesn’t make human waste any less gross. Loso’s research suggests that, in general, the bacteria and other bugs that live in feces survive after being buried in the snow or dropped in a crevasse. Tests of the rivers into which the glacier melts found fecal coliform bacteria, albeit in amounts well below the standard for recreational lakes and rivers.

It won’t be pleasant for whoever finds that emerging poop.

“The waste will emerge at the surface not very different from when it was buried. It will be smushed and have been frozen and be really wet. It will be biologically active, so the E. coli that was in the waste when it was buried will be alive and well. We expect it to still smell bad and look bad,” Loso said.