While many historic climbs occurred this past season, if I were giving awards, my “Patagonia d’Or” would go to a selfless and lasting non-ascent.
The momentum began in late 2014, with climber Steffan Gregory, who sent me an email: “I’m looking at returning to Chaltén next season and wanted to put some time in giving back. I am curious if you know if there is anything in the works regarding waste management. I’d be willing to write a grant for funding or help with an existing project.”
The issue of waste management had been on the minds of the park service for some time, actually. Back in 2007, Carlos Duprez, then head of the northern area of Los Glaciares National Park, encouraged me to help him by looking into possible waste management solutions. The area has long relied on pit toilets, which provide an unpleasant experience while leaving the waste untreated. But back then, none of the options available—composting, dehydration, vault, moldering, etc.—provided a viable solution. In 2010, however, the American Alpine Club organized a conference on the issue, one of growing concern in our cherished alpine zones. From the AAC meeting emerged Geoff Hill, a Canadian Ph.D. who has extensively studied the subject. Geoff conceived of a wilderness latrine that, using urine diversion and vermi-composting (worms/invertebrates), very effectively reduces waste volume and pathogens. It is a simple, fairly inexpensive, low-maintenance and operationally safe design, ideal for cold climates and remote areas, where septic systems cannot be built and where waste cannot be easily removed. We discussed the project for several years, but it was Steffan’s interest and commitment that ignited the effort.Fourteen months after his email, Steffan, Rachel Mangan, Ethan Newman and Alan Torne—a guide, an environmental scientist, a firefighter and writer, and a builder, respectively—left their homes in southern Utah and set off for Argentina. The four climbers, with the help of Acceso PanAm, had done the up-front work of securing funding and permission for the project. Acceso PanAm is a climbing advocacy organization for Latin America, not unlike the Access Fund in the United States.
Upon arriving in Chaltén, Steffan and his crew, with occasional help from Arístides Aitea and other national park employees, set to work. Seeing as this is the first of several possible toilets, they decided that Laguna Capri, a popular destination an hour’s hike from town, would make a good initial site. Carrying the materials, digging the pit, building the structure and assembling the mechanical system took almost two months. Once all was set, Geoff Hill flew in to provide the know-how, finesse the mechanical system, and ensure that everything worked. Now Laguna Capri, on top of its natural beauty, offers the most advanced wilderness toilet in Patagonia, a unit that provides a long-term solution to a growing issue.
The team worked 55 of the 77 days they were in Argentina. They each hiked well over 75 miles and 24,000 feet of elevation gain, and in the process carried 3,000 pounds of materials. They consumed at least 1,000 empanadas and 24 containers of Dulce de Leche. In all they volunteered 2,500 person hours. Combined with the work of Kika Bradford, from Acceso PanAm, and Geoff Hill, they devoted well over 3,000 person hours.
The project was also made possible thanks to the generous help of Acceso PanAm, a Patagonia Conservation Grant, Black Diamond Equipment, the American Alpine Club, Toilet Tech Solutions, Deep Creek Coffee Company, and the Gregory family.
So there it is, my Patagonia d’Or vote goes to Steffan, Rachel, Ethan, and Alan, along with Geoff Hill and Kika Bradford, for their dedication and hard work in helping preserve this precious resource. In a landscape magnificent enough for kings and queens, thanks to these dedicated people and companies, all of us can now sit on a golden throne.