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Improving Sustainability of Climbing – An Experience on Denali

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

By 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, and killing the wildlife. In just the past few decades, we’ve managed to decimate more than 50% of the wildlife on this planet, which is why our era is being referred to as the 6th mass extinction.

So, what is the true cost of an 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 own footprint, and, actually, we already do that in our everyday life. It’s the travel that we needed to either stop, or figure out ways to mitigate our footprint. Feeling guilty every time we climb can take the joy out of it.

With most adventures, the main environmental problems are the single-use plastic and other trash, and the travel itself. Many of us are familiar with “Leave No Trace” ethics, and we never leave anything behind in the back country. The problem is, 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 are taking up landfill space, and creating a demand for yet more fossil fuels and yet more metals to replace what we just discarded. We are adding to the never-ending masses of land and water spoiled and destroyed 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. The total carbon footprint of our single-use containers in this country, including plastic, glass, metal, paper and cardboard, is about 10% of our total carbon footprint. The manufacturing of single-use plastic from fossil fuels makes up about 1.75% of our carbon footprint in the U.S. When metals, such as fuel canisters, are landfilled, it takes at least 20 times more energy to make up metal cans from raw mined ore, compared to making cans from recycled metal.

So, what’s a climber to do? We’ve had our

Figure 1 - From left, Hilary, Julie, Jan, Jill, Dave and Denis holding photos of team members that couldn't join us. Not pictured - Brandon, Lucy and Rodney.

eyes on Denali for many years, and, after standing down in the COVID pandemic in 2020, we finally had a chance to go in 2021.We were part of a team of nine climbers, and, knowing my passion for zero waste, our team leader, Dave Covill, asked me to investigate how to reduce waste on our climb.We didn’t want to end

up dumping a bunch of trash in the Talkeetna or Anchorage Landfills if we could avoid it.That 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 that plastic would be in the form of meal pouches, zip locks and snack bar wrappers. I also tend to take potato chips when I climb, finding them palatable at high altitude, at least to me, and high in salts. 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 Hamilton, New Jersey, ( that recycles a variety of different kinds of plastics in the United States. The box comes with a pre-paid and barcoded shipping label, so once the box is full, it can be dropped off with no additional shipping costs. I ordered a Terracycle box on-line, and had it shipped directly to a friend of Dave’s, Sharmon Stambaugh, in Anchorage.

The plastic must be clean and dry in order to be accepted, so I asked our team members to keep their plastic waste separate from other waste that would have to be landfilled, such as sanitary wipes and such. Most members complied with that, which helped a lot. I also asked them to clean out their food pouches as much as possible, to minimize food residue, just to make cleaning easier later. When we arrived back in Talkeetna, as we departed the plane, the ground crew tried to take the trash, and I had to be quick, telling them I was going to recycle it. I think they thought I was crazy. They seemed to keep their distance after that.

Figure 2 - A mess in Sharmon's garage.

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 from her, filled it with water, and rinsed every meal pouch, as well as any other plastic packaging with food waste in it. Then, I set everything out to dry, and had every square inch of her garage occupied. What a mess! She had to tip-toe through it all just to get to her car. Sharmon has single-stream recycling as part of her trash pickup, so she let me leave all the cardboard and paper pouches in it. There were also a lot of aluminum cans from the beer we cached at the airstrip on the mountain, so we could celebrate while waiting for the plane. That, too, went in the single-stream.

After it was all over, all the plastic fit into the Terracycle box with little room to spare. Not bad for a team of nine for three weeks.

While recycling is all well and good, I wonder if the best thing would be to find ways to wean ourselves off the plastic in the first place. Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier? It took me about 10 hours to sort, clean and dry all that waste, and most climbers would struggle with the hassle. In fact, out of the thousand or so climbers on the mountain this year, I’d be surprised if anybody else went to that kind of trouble. Which means we might have been the only ones who recycled our waste, which is about 1% of the climbers. That’s less than the national average of about 8% of plastic that is recycled. Does that make climbers less responsible than the average citizen? I hope not. That would be truly sad.

Figure 3 - All that plastic fit in this little box. I even found Brandon's lost money in the trash.

Part of the problem is probably that it’s 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, unless the local venues are already doing it. I feel a personal ethical 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 differently to reduce the plastic we took on our climb.

· Stasher Bags – These are 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. We bought chili, lentil soup and rolled oats at a local bulk store and field tested them at home before we went. The instructions said to simmer 10 minutes, but we found that we could put the dry food in the stasher bag with water boiled in our jet boil, zip it shut, and stick the bag in an insulator pouch that Hilary made from leftover foam packaging. We waited about 10 minutes, and the food was done. On Denali, we knew the waiting time would be a little longer, because the boiling point of water is lower at the higher elevations. We bought our Stasher bags at REI, but they are also available on-line at

· We avoided plastic associated with individual snack bars by making bar cookies, and taking them all up in a single reused zip lock bag.

· We bought dried fruit and nuts in bulk, and took it up in reused zip lock bags.

· Chocolate bars in paper wrappers.

· We took tea in compostable tea bags. You have to really dig for these; a lot of teas are in microplastic tea bags. We took mainly Celestial Seasoning tea. We are moving toward buying tea in bulk and using reusable tea balls.

· We got instant coffee in a glass jar, along with really awesome dried milk that we got at a local Mexican market. We transferred these to – you guessed it – reused zip lock bags for the trip.

· When we travel, we never do bottled water, and never will. We take a 1-oz dropper bottle of Clorox, and add 5 drops per liter if we feel 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, purchased by the pound on-line, and dolomite, a source of calcium and magnesium, also by the pound. I have a tiny spoon to add about 500 mg of each to a liter of water. I like to hit the water with a little peppermint and lemon oil for some zingy flavor.

· We never take paper towels or disposable wipes. We each take a cloth napkin and a separate small cloth for body cleaning. We have a little dish kit with soap, a scrubbie and a lightweight towel. All this weighs less than a roll of paper towels, and leaves 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, like toothpaste in a tube. Toothpowder is in bulk and the little 2-oz container we took can be refilled. We also found that, when high-altitude indigestion sets in, we could soothe our stomachs by simply swallowing the toothpowder after brushing, since it’s based in baking soda.

· We used Aspire deodorant. It’s bulk and refillable, and we each took a 2-oz spray bottle, which was enough for the trip. We were also able to use it for foot deodorizer and hand sanitizer, since it’s based in alcohol.

With stasher bags, we see the single-use food pouches gradually being replaced with bulk food that we cook in reusable bags. Of course, for that to happen, we will need more sources of bulk freeze dried food. I dug pretty deep on the internet and didn’t find much, other than the chili and lentil soup. Hopefully some of the freeze-dried food makers will start filling in this important niche, and help turn it into a much-needed common practice.

To recycle the fuel canisters, I tried to find a store that sold fuel canisters in Anchorage who would take the used canisters back for recycling. I called or e-mailed every single one of them that I could find on the internet, about a dozen of them, and found none, including REI, who would take the fuel canisters back. Thankfully, Sharmon ultimately volunteered to take them to the hazmat site at the Anchorage landfill, where they will be recycled. Like the plastic, most fuel canisters probably end up in the landfill. As outdoor enthusiasts, we need to be more responsible. When we create a demand for metal containers by purchasing them, and then fail to recycle them, we are losing minerals that we already took from our planet. This makes each of us responsible ultimately for yet another mine, yet more ore production, yet more land taken from the planet and the wildlife that needs it, to make yet more metal containers.

It would help our planet a lot if manufacturers of these single-use canisters would step up and set up programs to collect them through their distributors. If we don’t make it easy for people to do the right thing, then it won’t happen and our planet will continue to decline, leaving nothing for future generations. I love to climb, and I want my grandchildren to be able to enjoy it too. I don’t want to have to tell them that, since I squandered the resources while I was climbing, they’ll never have the opportunity. I don’t want to tell them that I couldn’t be bothered, and ignored the problems and looked the other way, as though I had no role to play in the solution. When the reality is, that I can choose to be either a part of the solution or a part of the problem.

Finally, let’s face it, the biggest in-your-face carbon footprint of our Denali climb was the travel. We flew on an airplane from Denver to Anchorage, took a shuttle from Anchorage to Talkeetna, then finally took 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 LB, or 1.36 tonnes, not trivial.

When we travel, we offset our carbon by addressing two important issues that will 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 the trees actually absorb CO2, so planting trees really does mitigate carbon footprint of travel. It turns out that it costs $1/tree to plant a tree with One Tree Planted ( 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. In just the past few decades, we’ve decimated more than 50% of our wildlife, and our sheer numbers are a core reason for the destruction. While we have reduced the rate of population growth to about 1%/year, that’s still an addition of about 80 million people every year, 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, with better quality of life. 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 consumes 4.8 tonnes of carbon per year, this works out to about $37.60/tonne of carbon. 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 are trying to control their family sizes, is a lasting benefit that will continue for many years to come.

3. We feel that, by covering our footprint from both ends, increasing the carbon sink with more trees, and reducing the main source of the carbon, the sheer mass of humanity, we are ultimately making a difference for the better. If everybody who travelled did this, it wouldn’t take too many years to begin moving in a direction toward better balance with our planet.

As we continue to enjoy adventure, trekking and climbing on our beautiful planet, the only one we have, we will continue to look for ways to improve, to do better for our planet, to reduce our waste and our footprint. We are lucky to have this wonderful planet, and we want to keep it that way! There aren’t any more like it, so we really need to protect what we have. It is our ethical responsibility to share our planet responsibly 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 be able to take our grandchildren climbing and spend time with them in the outdoors, and, if we are responsible for our footprint, we’ll be able to do that. And we’ll be proud of our role in keeping our planet safe and healthy for future generations and other species for generations to come. At least, that’s my personal hope and dream.

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