Human Waste and Snow Holes in the Cairngorms
by Heather Morning
Spending the night in a snow hole in the Cairngorms is a popular activity, whether as part of a Winter Mountain Leader Course or just for pleasure. Like all activities in the hills, if only a few folk are doing it then it’s not a problem but with increasing numbers now enjoying the Scottish winter hills, snow hole sites are sadly becoming environmental disaster areas. When the snow melts in the summer months at the popular sites of Ciste Mhearad and Coire Domhain, our human impact is all too apparent.
There are lots of good reasons to carry your waste off the hill:
Visual degradation of our superb mountains.
Water contamination in the River Nethy and Loch Avon Basin.
Growing evidence that human waste is having a significant impact on the biodiversity of the late lie snow bed habitats.
Increased risk of sickness from melting and drinking contaminated snow.
The current trend of milder winters, resulting in the increased number of users to the very accessible, but high, snow hole sites of Ciste Mhearad and Coire Domhain.
Motivated by a ‘Leave No Trace’ Course run by Cairngorm National Park, I felt that the time was right to initiate a ‘Pack It Out’ system here in the Northern Cairngorms. Those of you who have been on Winter Mountain Leadership course at Glenmore Lodge in the last 10 years will know that they have been instrumental in doing just that. The project has worked well and been very successful in educating mountain leaders in good practice. However a system open to the general public, easily accessible from the main access to the Northern Cairngorms and environmentally friendly seemed to be the way ahead if our impact on the hill were to be minimized.
Easy job or so I thought! We have a sewage plant here at the mountain - what could be easier than handing out a few biodegradable bags and providing access to our sewage plant to drop them in!! How naïve can you get? I hadn’t considered health and safety, SEPA regulations, sponsorship, funding, management of the project and the biggest headache of all, finding a biodegradable bag that was strong enough to hold poo but then break down easily in our sewage plant.
After working for 3 seasons in Antarctica, pooing in a bag seems like normal practice to me, though I’m not sure my partner and lodger felt the same way when throughout this summer they have been asked to provided samples for me to test various bags! I figured that the longest a bag needed to stay together was 3 days and then a test suspending them in an old mink trap in the sewage plant would see if they broke down easily and allowed the contents to join the rest of Cairngorm Mountain sewage.
Bio bags made out of various types of starch - potato, corn and tapioca seemed the obvious choice - strong enough to hold the poo, but, on test, unfortunately after 3 months did not break down to allow the contents out. Next trial was ‘water soluble’ bags - perfect.
The commercial laundry business uses them all the time - the whole bag plus contents goes straight into the washing machine and, as if by magic, the bag disappears! A slight flaw became apparent in this system when the temp of the water had to be 60oc for the bag to break down – ooops! The first settling tank of our sewage plant is around 5oc!!
So what about cold water soluble bags? Perfect? Well, they break down immediately when dropped into the sewage plant - but not so perfect if they are being used in wet conditions or come into contact with any urine. Yes you can picture the problem out there on the plateau with a cold water soluble bag in the pouring rain!
Enviro Bag, who produce these water soluble bags, kindly offered to produce one that would break down at 40ºc, allowing the poo to be held in place, but break down when submerged in the sewage plant. However, as this product was oil-based and not vegetable-based - like the starch bags - would it pass the scrutiny of SEPA and, more importantly, not mess up our sewage plant? SEPA is happy with them, but, unfortunately, I’m not as I feel that any system we use has to be ‘Bomb Proof’ and as user friendly as possible. So, while writing this article in Aug for the November issue of Scottish Mountaineer, I’m still not quite there on the bag problem. I have various tests going on at present using moisture absorbing material in the water-soluble bags and adding various substances to the bio-bags to encourage a swift breakdown, including recycled chicken shit from my chucks at home!! Such has been progress that I now feel positive that the bag problems have been sorted and we are ready to launch the project for the winter season. (Nov 07 - the bag problem is sorted and we have available ‘bespoke’ bags reading and waiting for people to use).
Everything else is up and running. I have had some great support from my colleagues here at Cairngorm Mountain while Tiso’s have kindly sponsored the poo bottles; Cairngorm National Park Authority has provided funding for publicity and Cairngorm Signs is currently providing a good deal on the informative signage here in the car park at Coire Cas.
So how does it work?
The service is completely FREE OF CHARGE
If you are accessing a snow hole site from the Cairngorm Ski Area I would encourage you to do your bit for the Cairngorms and call in at the Ranger Base for your bags, a carrying pot (BHD - a light and rigid bottle with a screw top with no chance of any leakage or smell) and pouches (if you want to carry the pot externally it fits really easily to the compression straps on the side of your rucksack). Then, when nature calls, poo in the bag, tie the top of the bag and put in the BDH. On return to the car park, follow the signs, which will direct you down to below the bottom car park where you will find the Poo Chute where you deposit your bag and throw the BDH in the sterilizing barrel next to it. The BDH can then be cleaned and re- used for the next person.
Cairngorm Mountain is a social enterprise owned by a charitable trust. We strive to support our local community while offering an exceptional mountain experience in a sustainable way. Every thing you spend at Cairngorm Mountain goes towards achieving these aims.
Cairngorm Ranger Service