The Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen is among Colorado’s most magnificent natural wonders — warm pools near timberline, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the spectacular Elk Mountains, reached only by a nine-mile hike into the wilderness.
But the springs are also nine miles from the nearest bathroom and, until last summer, most of the 2,000 backpackers who visited the springs each year were relieving themselves anywhere.
“Our biggest issue in there is pretty much human waste. Unburied human waste and toilet paper were evident at 71 percent of (camp) sites,” said Martha Moran, a recreation manager with the White River National Forest.
The waste was washing into the very springs people were swimming in, resulting in high fecal coliform levels in the water.
So last summer, the U.S. Forest Service began asking hikers to take special bags for their waste and to carry it out. Hikers in California and boaters throughout the West have been doing it for years, but it was a new concept for Colorado backpackers.
Rocky Mountain National Park officials have begun issuing bags at some popular trailheads, and this summer the American Alpine Club will hold the first nationwide summit on the issue in Golden.
The old rule — digging a hole away from camp and streams for your business — may no longer apply.
Burying isn’t good enough
Rocky Mountain National Park began issuing the bags in 2007 to technical climbers at the popular Lumpy Ridge area, at an unmanned kiosk.
“They were doing what we asked them to do, which is dig cat holes, but because of the volume of people and the slow rate at which that decomposes, we were discovering some problems,” said Jim Dougan, wilderness program manager for the park.
In 2009, the park put in another kiosk, distributing the Restop Disposable Travel Toilet to hikers on heavily used fourteener Longs Peak.
Using the bags is voluntary in the park, as it is at Conundrum Hot Springs. But hikers are complying. Since only 45 of the 250 back-country campsites in the park have toilets, backpackers are offered the bags when they get a permit.
“They’re free. People can say, ‘Oh I’d never do that,’ and we don’t give them a bag,” Dougan said. “We’re trying to start gauging and building public support for this.”
He said the technology of the bags, which sell for a couple dollars each, has improved greatly. Chemicals begin to break down the waste into a gel immediately, and the bags can be used more than once. While they were once considered hazardous waste, they can now be thrown into any trash receptacle. And perhaps most importantly, they hold in the odor, he said.
There are no immediate plans to make the bags mandatory.
“We want to encourage people to begin thinking about that it’s their responsibility,” said Dougan. “In a true leave-no-trace environment, it’s exactly that, leave no trace. Everything you brought in, you take out with you.”
Including last night’s dinner.
Mount Whitney could be model
Ellen Lapham was up on California’s Mount Whitney several years ago with a group that took along their own portable toilet.
Another large group of hikers showed up and, thinking the toilet public, lined up to use it. Their organizers had made no provisions for waste.
The organizer was the Sierra Club, she said.
“Nobody was taking responsibility for human waste, and that included the major recreation groups and it also meant the land managers and land-owning agencies,” said Lapham, a California resident and board member for the Golden-based American Alpine Club.
These days, using a bag is mandatory on that peak, as well as some other highly visited California spots. That’s a model Colorado may need to consider for its more popular areas, she said.
The club is inviting land managers and experts from around the world to Golden July 30 to Aug. 1 for its conference, called, aptly enough, “Exit Strategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild.”
Lapham, one of the organizers, hopes it will be more than a discussion of the problem, but a step toward wide-ranging solutions. While there are different possible solutions — like the solar-powered composting toilet on the lower reaches of Longs Peak — such facilities may not be realistic in most remote areas, and particularly not in designated wilderness areas, where the placement of permanent structures is prohibited.
For details on the conference, visit ameri canalpineclub.org.
In the White River National Forest, the use of bags has greatly reduced the amount of waste around Conundrum Hot Springs, and only two used bags were found discarded last year.
Officials are considering expanding the voluntary program to other popular areas in the national forest.
“It’s ooey and gooey for a while, but it’s kind of an acceptable thing if you want to have the freedom to go into these areas without too many restrictions, and being responsible for your actions and packing it in and packing it out,” said Moran.