Mountaineering and Sanitation

Waste disposal issues

I got introduced to sanitation in mountaineering during my Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM, Uttarkashi) in 2014. The lectures given by army doctors were enlightening and it covered almost all the areas of sanitation i.e. self, surrounding, tent, food hygiene etc.

Sanitation methods in mountains:
Sanitation methods differs according to the terrain.

Snow bound areas

Snow bearing areas: The dig and bury method is still followed for human excreta. However, all the plastic and sanitary napkins must be brought back in the base village/city locations for disposal by municipal corporation.

Ground and hill areas where cat method is useful

For ground: The ‘cat method’ is normally followed in land covering rocks, trees and sand etc. It is also known as ‘dig and bury’ method which is useful for a stay of 1 or 2 days. For longer period of stay, permanent toilets are made by digging a 3 x 4 pit in the ground. Bleaching powder is used to spread on the waste daily. Kitchen waste is normally dumped in a big sized pit in ground. All the plastic waste is carried back to the start village/city for disposal.

My experience: 
During BMC, we backpacked to move to mountains for 19 days in order to complete ice and snow related techniques.  The number 1 and 2 ares used to be quite away from the tent locations. It was okay for a one or two days halt. However, in base camp, at 12500 ft height from sea level, we stayed for 7 to 8 days, where we used permanent toilets and sanitary napkins were collected separately in plastic bags to bring back.
The real problem started when we further climbed up and crossed snow line. The temperatures had fallen drastically to -10 degrees. This was Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 13600 ft. The tents were pitched on the snow and number 1 and 2 areas were quite away from tents as they should be and there were no permanent toilets. The route to these areas was quite difficult and had high slope. The problem used to increase at early morning, when the snow becomes real hard and slippery. We were supposed to fall in at 6:30 for breakfast so there used to be lot of rush to be on time. I noticed that other girls were not following the rules of waste disposal. Subsequently, we also had to listen from Course Senior of the Advanced Mountaineering Course (AMC) for this inappropriate behaviour. True, that the sanitary napkins does not get decomposed in the snow hence ‘dig and bury’ method should not be applied for these. There was no separate collection of  such waste at the campsite, so the only remaining option is to carry used sanitary napkins with us till the road head. Well, for this also, lot of girls will surely resist due to personal hygiene issue.

During my next course i.e. AMC, in 2016, I once again got a chance to go to the same camp sites. The snow line at this point of time had shifted up and above ABC. There was very little rainfall as well as snowfall in this year. The water crunch was visible right from the Tela camp. Out water points were far away from the campsite and there was very little water available to use. The snow was completely melted and ground was exposed at ABC. As a result, all the sanitary napkins and tissue papers used by earlier girl batches were also exposed off. The place was dirty and it was shameful to see the dirt scattered everywhere in the marked area. The Himalaya is so beautiful that we never get tired of praising it’s beauty. So, we have to do something and so we decided to collect all the waste and clean the area. It took several hours of all the 35 girls to clean up the area. We were exhausted and moreover irritated.

This was insane that despite of all the lectures, rules by NIM, students were repeating the mistakes of waste disposal. This was not expected from the young mountaineers, we were supposed to clean up each and every place we visit.

Reasons why students can not keep up the sanitation in mountains: 
These are my listed reasons and there can be other reasons too.

1. The identified number 1 and 2 areas normally are far away from the tent locations. All mountaineers normally gets too tired after the exhaustive trek to reach the campsite. This triggers to take shortcuts in reaching the identified areas and waste disposal.
2. Seniors or instructors do not clarify that nothing is to be disposed off in the snow, as snow preserves everything and decomposes nothing. Even the human bodies also gets preserved for several years.
3. Unavailability of senior lady instructor in the team. When girls are stepping in mountains for the first time, I think they need one to help them understand the issue.
4. Separate plastic bags are not provided for such waste at the identified areas.
5. There is no process / methodology defined if in case somebody wants carry the waste with herself/himself.
6. Early morning cold wind and freezing temperatures make the students to not go far away in the identified areas.
7. Slippery and risky paths to go number 1 and 2 areas.

Whatever are the reasons, it is duty of each and every mountaineer to keep the mountains clean and beautiful as they are. We have no right to spread dirt at such lovely locations. The ones who do not respect mountains and who do not follow basic hygiene rules have no right to visit the mountains.

On the other hand, I have seen water-less urinals invented by Ekam Eco Solutions and I have also came across their experiments to utilise human excreta. The research team may come up with product/s where mountaineers may not need to dispose waste in mountains, rather they should be able to carry it with themselves in most hygienic way.

– By : Jayshri Dumbre

A Metallurgist by training, Jayshri is also a Mountaineering Enthusiast, a Painter, Dancer and a wonderful Chef. Mountains are her source of energy and inspiration.You may like to read more about her on 



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