Acting globally: AAC and ACC team up to help the Cirque

By John Young, AAC Conservation
International Committee

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After three years of coordination and scrapping for funds, John Harrop and I flew into the Cirque of the Unclimbables ("The Cirque") in Canada's remote Northwest Territories. We were part of an international conservation effort between the American Alpine Club (AAC) and the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) formed to study and implement conservation strategies in the Cirque's main base camp, Fairy Meadows, and its environs. The main issues being addressed were proper disposal of human waste and trash and much needed interpretive signage.

I was happy to be going in by helicopter having completed the "not-so-fun" hike up to Fairy Meadows from Glacier Lake the year before during our feasibility study. Warren LaFave, Kluane Airways owner and original mastermind behind the effort, had acquired a chopper over the previous winter. Warren's hub at the Inconnu Lodge served as our project staging area for assembling the necessary supplies to be flown in. John, an architect from Calgary that spends much of his free time serving as the VP of Facilities for the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), was happy to have a workbench handy.

Site before construction.

This was my third straight summer in the Mackenzie's. I had gotten to know Warren and his concerns about the Cirque in 1998 during an expedition 15 miles north of the Cirque to the Vampire Peaks. Being an ecologist by training and a member of the AAC, I had then decided to see if we (the AAC) could provide some much-needed assistance.

John and I spent the better part of our first full day surveying the landscape for the best place to install our toilet. I had acquired the volunteer services of Human Waste Management expert, Paul Lachapelle, from the University of Montana the previous summer. Paul and I had conducted a feasibility study to better understand the level of impact in Fairy Meadows and the best strategy for alleviating the problem of human waste accumulation in the perennially cold, high latitude base camp. With a number of criteria considered, we settled on an ideal location for installing the toilet. Criteria for toilet location included:

  1. Toilet must be at least 50 meters from an existing water source and downhill from main base camp.
  2. Pit for toilet must be at least one meter deep in developed soil.
  3. Make best effort to orient toilet in a south-facing aspect to insure maximum insolation.
  4. Provide drainage from bottom of the pit for removal of excess moisture.
  5. Make best effort to provide some level of privacy and protection from high winds.
  6. Place toilet in proximity of main campsites to insure a "best effort" level of compliance.
  7. Make the toilet and its platform sturdy enough to endure a three-year trial period, yet primitive enough to be removed with no trace of its existence.
  8. Make best effort to place toilet in an inconspicuous location, and aesthetically blend the structure with its natural surroundings.
  9. Ensure that the toilet captures one of many spectacular views to encourage use.

The crew: Lorna Larson, Nicho
Dankers, John Harrop and Norm
Larson during construction.

We had eight days (8/2/00-8/9/00) to complete our project and thankfully the first four were clear and sunny. Warren exclaimed upon our leaving the lodge, "The Cirque has experienced the worst weather in over a decade". Fortunately, we brought a little good weather. We were able to complete the toilet(*) in a little over three days thanks to volunteer labor and support from most of the other climbers in Fairy Meadows base camp including fellow AAC members Norm and Lorna Larson and Americans Nicholas "Nicho" Dankers, Pat Goodman, and Pete Gruenwoldt. Norm's carpentry skills were especially helpful. Nicho deserves special credit for taking the "not-so-glamorous" task of locating, extracting, and incinerating obvious piles of excreta and paper - a task we had also accomplished the previous summer. The arrival of nice weather also enabled each group of climbers to successfully summit the Lotus Flower Tower.

The last four days were spent socked in and cold as the Arctic Yukon delivered a blast of snow that blanketed the Cirque. John and I had intended to summit Mount Sir James MacBrien. However, our hopes of getting to do some climbing were limited to a bit of bouldering. Fortunately, the congregation in the Cirque was privy to intriguing conversation with John Sherman (yes, Verm was in the Cirque) and the hot coal juggling antics of Pete Gruenwoldt. Equally stunning was the appearance of a huge blond-backed grizzly bear IN Fairy Meadows - the first such appearance in over ten years. Fortunately, it stayed along the lower terrace stream banks and my worst fears were confined to only one sleepless night.

The final product.

Four days of rain and snow followed our completion of the toilet. We headed down to Glacier Lake on our last day to complete another goal of our trip. An interpretive sign with "Leave No Trace" ethics and specific considerations for being a responsible Cirque user was installed at Glacier Lake - the main arrival/departure hub for visitors. Similar signs were left in one of the two bear boxes in Fairy Meadows and at the Inconnu Lodge.

Future efforts to preserve the Cirque will include the distribution of educational pamphlets to outfitters and bush pilots for distribution to visitors prior to arrival. As well, ecological and sociological data collected will be added to future studies likely to be conducted by land managers from the Nahanni National Park, which is interested in adding the Cirque to the park.

The issue of human waste management in alpine regions of the earth has long been a troubling one. The Cirque is a poor example of a site that has been misused thank goodness. In this case, we've implemented preventative steps before the problem gets out of hand. However, other alpine destinations in Baffin Island, Greenland, and Argentina (just to name a few) are receiving serious impacts that not only impose an aesthetic blight, but a major health concern as well. Here, water contamination is the biggest issue. In the future, I would like to tackle conservation projects in some of these areas. For now, I plan to finish our educational campaign for the Cirque and assist John Harrop with helping land managers in Nahanni National Park.

I would like to pay a special thanks to Brent Bishop, Head of the AAC Conservation International Committee, and to the AAC's Spitzer Award committee for helping us with funding over the past two years. As well, the ACC was equally supportive providing funding from their Environment Fund and Energy, Water, and Waste Management Fund.

(*) Toilet specifications and additional information can be obtained from the author at