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Access PanAm and the Patagonia Waste Management Initiative

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Black Diamond is proud to support the crucial work of Access PanAm in the development and execution of the pilot study for Patagonia Waste Management Initiative. This initiative is a multi-year project to develop a viable, long-term human waste solution in order to protect and preserve the environment of high-use basecamps and other areas of Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Zona Norte—home to the famed massifs of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy.

Here is a report from former Black Diamond employee Steffan Gregory on the project and the progress from the past 2015/16 season.


“What are you digging for?” a curious hiker asks.

“Gold!” I say with a big smile. We share a laugh, and she steps off the trail to the eight-foot wide by four-foot deep foundation that myself and three of my best friends are standing in. The four of us flew thousands of miles to a country where we can’t speak the language to build a urine-diverting toilet. We just hiked a wheelbarrow, lumber and metal roofing up one of the most popular day hiking trails in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Zona Norte, near El Chaltén, Argentina. Now, the hiker has spotted us nearing the layer of bedrock. Pick axe swings and funny looks are standard fare during our three month stay in Argentina. This all came to be after visiting on a climbing trip in 2014.

After returning from my “freshman” season in Patagonia in 2014, I realized three things: (1) I am very small. (2) Life is very short. (3) I’m more than fortunate to be able to travel and climb.

With a four-week, four-pitch trip to El Chaltén in the bag, I was heading home. Fully schooled, dominated and destroyed—I was totally sold. My good friend Alan and I had spent some of the coldest, windiest nights we’d ever known in some of the most incredible mountains we’d ever seen. We took our gear on many great hikes and jaunts near beautiful cracks full of snow. We also noticed many groups in the basecamps and the limited real estate for human waste.

In the months following the trip, I reflected on the amount of downtime you get between good weather windows. This, combined with the opportunities for volunteering, sparked an idea to do both: climb and volunteer. This inspiration was a combination of Rolando “Rolo” Garibotti’s American Alpine Club trail restoration project from October-December 2008 and November-December 2009. Rolo and his team spent 4,400 person hours doing trail work, a lot of which was on the Laguna de Los Tres Trail. This is such a huge gesture, and a massive undertaking. Seeing a crew of people dedicate this much personal time and energy on behalf of the park was incredible, especially because there had never been a project previously in Chaltén like this one.

The American Alpine Club’s Zach Martin Breaking Barriers grant was the other inspiration. This statement from the grant page says it all:

“Zack was concerned about the general arrogance and self-serving aspirations of climbers and explorers. He committed to performing humanitarian service in the local community on all of his climbing expeditions. He would ‘break a barrier’ in the alpine environment and ‘break a barrier’ in the heart of man. As Zack often said, ‘The only barrier holding you back is yourself.’”

I read this a number of years ago, and have been waiting for the right time—Chaltén was it for me.

With one click of the mouse, I had sent an email inquiring about helping with waste management in the Chaltén area. Rolo Garibotti responded with more then I ever could have asked for. He himself had already begun the preliminary legwork on the project between 2007-2010. He shifted through loads of ineffective and expensive backcountry waste systems. He was encouraged to do this by Carlos Duprez, the man in charge for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Zona Norte (LGNP) at the time. After a huge effort, Rolo was unable to find a suitable waste management solution that was worth fighting for. He took a break from organizing volunteer projects. In the meantime, he and Kika Bradford, Acceso PanAm´s Executive Director (which is equivalent to the Access Fund for Latin America), had a few discussions about the waste management issues and possible solutions to the area.

My email showed up four years later. Rolo offered his research and contacts to start the project. It was exactly what I was looking for. His contacts: Kika Bradford and Geoff Hill, PHD (Toilet Tech Solutions Founder) were pivotal in the creation of Patagonia Waste Management. Access PanAm, whose President is Armando Menocal, one of the founding members of The Access Fund, was created in 2009 to protect climbing areas across Latin America: basically everything south of the USA. This is a huge mission. You don’t just take on climbing conservation with a feasibility study and a business plan, though. There is more to Access PanAm than that. They provided grant writing and funding possibilities, administrative support and logistical support on the ground as well as coordinating with LGNP.

The science behind the system comes from Geoff, the founder of Toilet Tech Solutions. Geoff did his graduate work studying human waste and urine diversion in Bugaboo Provincial Park. He also works as a consultant for large composting and anaerobic digesters in North America; Engineered Compost Systems (WA), Harvest Power (MA), King County (WA), Salish Soils (BC), HDR Inc., Net Zero Waste (BC).

To address the problem of human waste in the climbing basecamps, located in access and resource limited areas, we needed to start with a pilot study. The area best suited for the test toilet would need to be high use and accessible (this facilitates easy repairs and maintenance). The use needs to be high enough to show that it can handle volume. The added benefit is that it gives data that is region and problem specific that can be applied to a basecamp solution, which is our ultimate goal. The test toilet, while in use, also addresses a waste management problem in an existing day-use and backpacking area.

During the early stages of the project, I was working at the Black Diamond Store in Salt Lake City. The store has deep connections to motivated climbers and advocates, Doug Heinrich and Conrad Anker, to name a few. Working at BD is about hard work and dedication to the craft, but having fun with it at the same caliber is equally important. Everyone in the shop was so accommodating to many international Skype calls and meetings for the project. The support was incredible, and is truly appreciated. After doing logistics and fundraising for 10 months and approximately 700 hours, a team of six headed to El Chaltén in December 2015.

Assembling the remaining four members of the team was as simple as knocking on the bedroom door. Three of the four live in the same house. The team members of the project’s first season were: Ethan Newman, Rachel Mangan, Alan Thorne and myself. We are a mix of diverse backgrounds joined together by a love of wild places. Ethan’s passion for wilderness and varied skills as an arborist and wildland firefighter provided endless resources to the project. Rachel’s degree in environmental science resource management was always critical in decision-making. Alan’s 18 years of incredible skill as a carpenter and builder streamlined the entire project. Being flexible was key given the limited materials and tools at hand. Having such a dedicated and talented crew made project managing rewarding—and most of all fun!

Operations Manager for the park, Aristides Aieta, made sure the crew was well equipped, organized and staffed during the project, start to finish, while in Chaltén. Our basecamp was located near the visitor center and wood shop, where we were able to watch armadillos and pygmy owls scurry through camp each day. From our camp to the toilet site, a six-mile round trip hike, with 1000 feet of elevation gain rounded out each day. The cultural immersion and language barrier made interactions very entertaining for the first weeks. The Argentine maté and siesta ritual’s were easily interjected into our schedule by season’s end! With the help of the LGNP staff, we were able to carry well over 2,000 pounds of material to the site. January was spent with Kika Bradford (the executive director of Access PanAm) standing the structure and preparing for Geoff Hill, who would install the technical system in the toilet. During Kika's time in Chaltén, we took the time to outreach to the community with several meetings with park officials, volunteers, local climbers, mountain guides, and the Chaltén Environmental Commission. Geoff´s time in El Chaltén took the better part of February with a short break at the end. We left Argentina, having completed our goal: a working urine-diverting toilet.

During our 77 days in Chaltén, 22 days were spent climbing, hiking and exploring the Chaltén Massif. All and all the crew managed to climb Aguja Media Luna via Rubio y Azul after an attempt to climb Cerro Torre. Alan and Ethan summited Aguja de l’S via the Austríaca, and climbed all but the last pitch of A Fine Piece on Cerro Piergiorgio. Steffan and Geoff took advantage of some good weather to climb the classic Comesaña-Fonrouge on Guillaumet, while at the same time scouting for the project´s sequel. With the toilet completed, Rachel and Steffan were stoked to complete the 50-mile ice cap traverse in perfect weather!

Of the 52,341 people that hiked in the park during January 2016, 15,939 used the Fitz Roy trailhead. Most of them passed by the toilet or even camped nearby. In February, when the toilet was completed, 14,222 people were on the trail. During our data collection period, we conservatively estimated that four people an hour (during peak season/weekend daytime use) used the toilet. This would equal about 400 people a month. With this amount of usage, and given the location of the test toilet, we expect to collect a large amount of data when we return in January 2017 that can be used to evaluate the next steps needed to appropriately address the needs of climbing basecamps.

A special thank you to Black Diamond Equipment for supporting climbing beyond the vertical. In the spirit of Zach Martin, Black Diamond has supported a powerful effort in providing waste management options where they were really needed. I was honored to be part of this gesture, and look forward to the upcoming return to El Chaltén this coming winter.

— Steffan Greggory