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'Into The Wild' author creates Mount McKinley stink

Craig Medred
"They were taking a shit," climbing ranger John Leonard says. "I don't have much tolerance for people shitting on the mountain." Aaron Jansen illustration

Author Jon Krakauer, who spawned no end of crap for Alaska search-and-rescue personnel when he penned the fable "Into the Wild" 20 years ago, is now involved in his own crappy mess in the 49th state.

Krakauer and Conrad Anker, the writer who helped find the body of British climbing legend George Mallory on the slopes of Mount Everest, have been this season's celebrity climbers on North America's tallest mountain. Thus it caused quite a stir when they were spotted making a pitstop there sans a McKinley Clean Mountain Can.

Clean Mountain Cans were introduced a decade ago as the National Park Service moved to eliminate piles of human feces marking the trail from the Kahiltna base camp to McKinley's summit. For years now, it has been park policy for climbers to use Clean Mountain Cans or, if they are unavailable, biodegradable bags provided by the Park Service and dispose of feces "in a deep crevasse away from popular trails." 

Situation got stinky

Krakauer and Anker, however, took off from Kahiltna last week to explore the route to the base of the West Rib carrying neither a Clean Mountain Can nor a plastic bag, supervisory climbing ranger John Leonard says. They were on what might have been considered an innocent day hike until they had what Leonard calls a bit of an "emergency."

They stopped. They squatted. People in base camp studying the mountain through a spotting scopes saw. The situation promptly got stinky.

"They were taking a shit," Leonard says. "I don't have much tolerance for people shitting on the mountain."

Leonard might have issued them a federal citation, but he wasn't on the mountain at the time. The ranger who was there, according to Leonard, decided against issuing a citation because Anker immediately reported what had happened when he got back to base camp and was extremely apologetic.

"I can't speak for Krakauer," Leonard says, "but Conrad has a reputation for being very conservation-minded. He came down and without prompting said, 'This is what happened.'

"Since this incident, they have both gone to great lengths to help clean up the mountain."

High altitude community service 

One of the world's best high-altitude mountaineers, Anker has been busy back-hauling waste from the 17,200-foot high camp. Some might consider this sort of like a sentence of community service for the stinky mountain affair.

"If we had (a system) for mountain justice, this is maybe the way it would work," Leonard concedes. He expresses no concerns about the Park Service being viewed as playing favorites.

"In my opinion, the ranger that is dealing with this as a law-enforcement officer has been dealing with it properly," he says. "Some people this year are getting tickets for human waste issues and some aren't."

Clearly, Leonard says, Anker and Krakauer were "unprepared" when they left base camp, which once boasted an outhouse with a view to die for. And clearly, the duo didn't make it back in time to use a base camp can.

"I don't give a shit who they are," Leonard adds, "and you can quote me on that. (But) we all mess up, right?"

Kinder, gentler Park Service?

Krakauer and Anker might, however, be beneficiaries here of what appears to be a kinder, gentler Park Service in Alaska since rangers went Wilde on the Yukon River in 2010.

Gun waving rangers in September of that year chased down 70-year-old Interior resident Jim Wilde because he refused to let them board his boat at mid-river for a safety inspection after he came to the aid of what appeared to be a drifting boat in trouble. Wilde later admitted he swore at the rangers, but testified he headed for shore to meet with them safely on a beach. Rangers said they thought he was fleeing, though there was really nowhere to go. 

When he beached his boat and approached them, they said they tackled and handcuffed the unarmed but burly old man because they felt threatened. The incident ended up making headlines across the state. Some Alaskans were appalled. There were public protests in Fairbanks attended by state political leaders.

Moose shooter not charged

Park Service officials defended the two young rangers involved in the case, but since then seem to have taken a more accommodating approach to dealing with Alaska law enforcement issues.

When a serviceman shot a charging cow moose in Denali National Park and Preserve earlier this year, something which had never happened before, park officials investigated, concluded he had a reason to fear for the safety of two young children with him at the time of the attack, and announced he would not be charged with illegally shooting a moose in a national park.

At that time, the Park Service -- one of the federal agencies regularly attacked by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell -- even fell back on the state's "defense of life and property (DLP)" law to justify the shooting. The DLP law entitles people to shoot bears, wolves or even moose if they truly believe they are in imminent danger of harm.

And though there is no similar law for what you might do if you feel in danger of crapping your pants, common sense, as former Gov. Sarah Palin likes to say, would dictate you drop your drawers, the rules be damned.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com