It's crap on Ben Nevis.
This title doesn't mean that climbing Ben Nevis is not a good experience, it refers to the amount of crap that we walkers and climbers leave behind on the mountain. We need to have a matter of fact conversation about our impact. This blog will talk plainly about pee and poo, and it's past time that we all became a bit more comfortable talking about these things in order that we can lessen the mess we leave behind.
The situation is so severe that Jahama Highland Estates has formally reported the huge amounts of human excrement on Ben Nevis to SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency). I have been faced with a pile of poo in the middle of the path complete with toilet paper poking out of the top.
I have just spent a few days at Lochan Meall an t'Suidhe which is one of the few areas where people can find a little shelter from the wind and viewers on the path. Inevitably there was a lot of toilet paper, poo and tampons as well as three pairs of boxers and two odd socks. I was working with the Green Space Dark Skies project, a large scale arts and technology project which took around 250 people halfway up Ben Nevis for some filming. With such a large number of people all at the same location for a few hours, the production team installed temporary toilets for everyone to use. This resulted in all the pee and all the poo being carried back down to be disposed of properly.
Ben Nevis enjoys around 150,000 people walking up it each year. For this reason it is quite different to other mountains, and our impacts are much more focused. The advice from Mountaineering Scotland is excellent and, as they say, in very busy places like Ben Nevis we need to carry out all our poo. Even if everyone buried their poo and took down their toilet paper, the impact would be too great. Especially on the summit where there is no vegetation or mud to carry bacteria to digest and decompose everything.
Instead, we will need to get used to the idea of carrying down poo, toilet paper, tampons and anything else that we normally dispose of in the bathroom at home. Without a toilet to flush things away and without bins to drop rubbish into we need to do things differently. But, once we have got over the thought of it, it's actually quite easy to do.
This is what Green Space Dark Skies did this weekend. They had lots of Wag Bags which are basically plastic bags with some grains of something in them that absorbs fluids and starts to biodegrade anything you put in to them. You can squat over them or hang them in a bucket with a seat. After you are done, just tie a knot in the bag, seal it in the zip lock bag provided and drop it into a regular bin once you are back in the car park. They are good to go straight into landfill. The plastic bags are biodegradable and you even get toilet paper and antiseptic wipes in the kit.
The main problem with this system is the thought of carrying your poo in your rucksack for the rest of the day. Here's my advice - get over it. It's only poo, we all produce it and all parents and dog owners get pretty adept at cleaning it up and wrapping it in a secure little package.
For this event, we also collected as much pee as we could. This was much more simple - a jerry can and an enormous funnel! Normally pee is not a big problem, and full credit must go to Green Space Dark Skies for taking this down as well. If you want to put it on your compost heap it works wonders by the way! Going for a pee does not have the same problems as going for a poo. But, we should take down any toilet paper we use. To do this, carry a ziplock bag or a dog poo bag or a nappy bag. It's a tiny bit of preparation but it will make a huge difference to everyone else if you can take down your paper.
It's the same with sanitary products such as tampons, sanitary towels, nappies and incontinence pads. We can not leave them on the mountain side, we need to take them down in our rucksacks stored safely in a tough plastic bag. So, carry a couple of plastic bags, it's really very easy to do, and we are all very used to carrying little bottles of alcohol gel to clean our hands afterwards.
The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre stocks Wag Bags (or similar) so they are easily available for Ben Nevis.
So, this is what all Abacus Mountain Guides will have with them, and I encourage all leaders and guides working in busy areas such as Ben Nevis to carry Wag Bags or something similar, as well as regular walkers and climbers. Our right of access is dependent on us behaving responsibly and this is one part of the responsible behaviour that is required of us.
Today I picked up all the toilet paper, soiled boxers, tampons and any other rubbish that I could find at the south end of Lochain Meall an t'Suidhe. The Real Three Peaks Challenge will get to grips with Poo Rock just down from John's Wall not far away as well as lifting as much rubbish as they can in one day. Last year they picked up over 100kg of rubbish and carried it down! So if you are able to help this is a very good event to support. Also, John Muir Trust organises regular litter picks and they are always very happy to see new volunteers.
As a final anecdote, don't do what I did once, learn from my mistake. I went around the CMD Arete with Victor, my springer spaniel, and picked up after him quite early on into the walk. I double bagged the poo in dog poo bags and put it into my rucksack. Of course, CMD Arete is a long day out and by the time I got home I had forgotten about the bag in my rucksack. So I forgot to take it out. After three days in my bag in my shed it was quite aromatic. I'd go as far as to say that it was pungent! Remember to clean out your rucksack properly.
Brilliant post Mike. I was quite shocked when I climbed Ben Nevis and saw what you describe. As a mum of three I am so used to scooping up poo and carrying it in little bags inside my bag until I find a bin. It’s the same as any rubbish we produce when we are in the wild - bag it up, carry it out. Hopefully you can build awareness and spread the word :-)
Thanks Boo. Parenthood teaches us all sorts of things.
Thanks for writing this Mike
Brilliant article, covers all the main issues. I have always avoided the Ben because of the crowds and I’m glad I have. I won’t be rushing to tick it off after reading this.
It's sad to see this needing such commentary when Ben Nevis is relatively close to normal ameneties and the ethos of 'leave no trace' is relatively easy. The problem of human waste at high altitude is a very real issue wherever you are in the wild. We have an international group of like-minded folk interested in this and looking at solutions: from residents & communities to environmentalists, researchers (soil/water etc.) and much more we have members with specialisms in education / training, compost toilets (e.g. in US national parks) to small-scale anaerobic digestion. and come from the UK as well as year-round cold (e.g. Alaska) and high-altitude regions from the Andes to the Himalayas. Small systems can take such material to produce biogas (energy) for remote communites. All of this takes education & discipline. You'll see a little about that in my article via the following link: https://www.biocycle.net/arctic-anaerobic-digestion/ We're self-funded and of course the projects require more funding so we're doing our best to source that and are always looking for support! You'll also find the group at:
I recently climbed Ben Nevis for the first time, taking the arete route up and tourist back down. Not once did I need a poo. Who is waiting till they climb a mountain to go for a poo? Go before you start. Don't have food the day before that is likely to make you need more than one poo the following day. I just don't understand how you're finding so much poo up there. I didn't see any at all.
Well done for a very straight talking and very helpful article. I'll share this.
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Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.