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Moving mountains' movements

Basic rules of plumbing don't apply in the high alpine



A big life goal of his, says Geoff Hill, is turning waste streams into valuable commodities. Toward that end, Hill's PhD project focuses on designing improved systems for managing human waste in alpine and arctic regions.

"It's my life's work to try and integrate humans into the ecosystems that support us," Hill stated. "If you look at any ecosystem, its health and richness can be characterized by its degree of waste integration. Is anything more obviously out of sync between humans and our environment than flying shit out of the alpine under a helicopter?"

Currently, flying 200-litre drums filled with human waste, 80 or 90 per cent of which is urine, by helicopter long-line is the most common method of waste removal from backcountry sites throughout Alberta and B.C.'s mountains.

But, Hills points out, unsustainable methods are not restricted to backcountry cabins.

"We're very accustomed to flushing a .2-kilogram poop or a .3-litre piss with 20 litres of potable water," Hill explained. "Somehow we've tricked ourselves into thinking this isn't crazy. But it's clearly outrageous to long-line drums of excrement by helicopter from provincial and national parks all across North America. The helicopter is one of the most inefficient vehicles ever made, and one of the most dangerous and most expensive vehicles to operate."

So, Hill is studying alternatives, including the benefits, costs and performance capabilities of potential methods with an analytical approach never before undertaken. An avid climber, this summer Hill is conducting research in B.C.'s Bugaboo Provincial Park.

"With the line of work I'm in, the least I can do for myself is choose a beautiful place," Hill said. "Bugaboo Park is very popular and it has numerous backcountry toilets, including forest-level pit toilets, Kain Hut barrels, Applebee Camp barrels and high alpine thrones at the Bugaboo Snowpatch Col and Pigeon Howser Col. I started a project focused on Everest Base Camp in order to bring more sex appeal, but with a slow start up, I shifted my focus to the Bugaboos."

At this point in his research, the most promising alternatives are urine diversion - preventing urine, which is sterile, from coming into contact with feces, which are pathogen rich - combined with dehydration. He is also collecting data on composting toilets at Lillian and Elbow lakes in Kananaskis, Little Yoho Campground and Mounts Shasta and Ranier in California and Washington.

In the Bugaboos, a urine diversion seat, combined with dehydration has yielded an 84 to 95 per cent mass reduction of the total waste. Hill is also testing a hydro-powered ash incinerator, using the mini-hydro system that provides clean electricity to the Alpine Club of Canada's (ACC) Conrad Kain Hut.