Like most outdoor enthusiasts, I have packed out way more than my fair share of other people’s garbage. I’d even say that a trip not involving my picking beer cans and candy wrappers out of a fire pit is heavily outweighed by all of the ones that do. Which can feel downright disheartening. Because taking responsibility for another person’s carelessness and waste invokes such a sense of powerlessness. And that powerless feeling – being so very pervasive in our everyday societal climate – is precisely what I go into the wilderness to get away from.
I used to have fairly naive ideas about who was to blame for litter and disuse of public spaces. I’ve nodded along with all the usual complaints among climbers – and within the outdoor community at large – that parks are getting too crowded and trails are horribly over-trafficked. Waiting in line for a route is zero fun. Neither are jam packed campgrounds and overflowing bathrooms. Climbing is not the “underground” sport it once was and the general consensus seems to be that celebrity climbers and instagram influencers are largely to blame for encouraging irresponsible adventuring. I mean, somebody’s gotta be to blame for it right?
I was at a belay station 4 pitches up when this way of thinking blew up in my face. There were two teams behind me and 2 ahead – one of which was struggling to get over the cruxiest stretch of the whole wall (hence the traffic jam) much to their own audible embarrassment. My partner and I were at one of the more inhospitable stations I’ve ever had the displeasure of being stuck at, with a single foot hold the size of a chapstick tube to share between us. We were in full sun, our ankles cramping and my expensive (albeit non-toxic and non-reef damaging) sun screen melting slowly from our backs. And wedged firmly into a crack in the wall in front of us was an abandoned and badly leaking poop tube with the name “Zach” scribbled onto it in marker. The smell was absolutely revolting. You know the smell poop has when it’s been left in the sun and humidity for days and days? We’re talking a “maybe I don’t actually want to finish this route, is it too late to just bail and go home?” level of terrible. I choked back vomit for twenty-ish minutes before reaching my limit. I dug a plastic bag from my backpack, wrapped the thing inside and shoved it far into the recesses of my pack – deciding I’d rather scrub down my own backpack than go on breathing in some dirtbag’s festering feces. The smell was that bad.
I was raging. I sweat my way through the rest of the route, muttering to myself every stream of choice expletives I wished I could have unleashed on said poop leaver and vocalizing my frustration to my partner now and again. On the trek back to our campsite he finally said, “Okay, say this Zach person was standing right in front of you now, what would you most want to say to them?”
I found myself at a very uncharacteristic loss for words. Because here’s the thing: I have been climbing for the better part of a decade and never once needed to invest in a poop tube. Nor have I ever been on a climbing trip that necessitated one. Poop tubes aren’t a fair-weather climbing acquisition. So it stands to reason that if someone is an avid enough climber to buy a poop tube, let alone to bring it along to the 4th pitch of a 7 pitch route, then they are experienced enough to know better than to leave it there. And, while I can talk a really big game and don’t have a lot of insecurity about my status as a climber anymore, the idea of berating a potentially more experienced person is insanely intimidating. Can it be that we have become anti-geo-tagging gate keeping because it’s easier to blame hypothetical newbies than take on our own community? And, in the event that someone younger or less experienced called me out for my own behavior, would I be open to it? I want to say I would, but let’s be real here. The answer is, probably not. Oof. What a concept.
Real talk: despite our best wishes, the sport of climbing is not without a footprint. The simple act of developing a route is insanely disruptive to a variety of ecosystems and I think we need to be very conscious about that. Consider the clump of moss you casually scraped aside to clear that magnificent sloper. Or the layers of chalk that become caked onto the rock over time. Have you ever watched someone clear a wall with a leaf blower? I have. These may seem insignificant on the spectrum of environmental harm, but spiders’ webs, ant hills and various fauna provide for hundreds if not thousands of organisms that help make up the wilderness we claim to care about. So, while I am not about to suggest that we abandon our favorite outdoor activity so as to never interrupt the natural state of things, it is worth remembering that what we choose to do in the wild receives an impact from each and every one of us – “environmentalists” included – before we start pointing fingers and placing blame on other people.
That being said, and now that we’ve all put on our big helmet of humility, how do we best go about encouraging better practices without assuming the unflattering role of self-appointed crag police? I’ve given this a lot of thought in the months since poopgate and have ultimately come to a place of peace with the adage, “actions speak louder than words.” I could scream myself hoarse with all the reasons someone shouldn’t leave their poop tube wedged into a wall. But I understand human nature (and myself) well enough to know that even on our best days, when some stranger comes at you with accusations of environmental harm, the defensive walls tend to go right up. Reprimands from strangers are just not an effective means of getting a point across, as unfortunate as that may be. My advice: save your breath for people who actually want to hear you: i.e your friends and family. For everyone else, let your actions speak louder than your words. I honestly think it is the most effective and self-preserving thing that you can do.
I had an opportunity to put this new strategy into effect over the summer. Between climbs a friend of mine casually tossed a cigarette into some bushes. Instead of launching into some tirade about how cigarette filters made with cellulose acetate, a kind of plastic that looks like cotton but isn’t actually degradable, I calmly walked over to the bush, picked up the cigarette butt and put it into my backpack. My friend sort of laughed and then said, “damn, you really care about that.” Then, in the most “oh snap” moment I’ve probably ever had, I asked, “is it weirder that I care or that you don’t.” To which he said, “fair enough.”
So there you have it. I can’t attest to my friend’s never having thrown a cigarette butt into another bush. But I do know that he was more receptive to my actions than he would have been to my words. I can only hope that had pooping “Zach” been there beside me at that belay station, his having to watch me wrap his reeking excrement in a plastic shopping bag before stuffing it into my own backpack would say way more than any mincing of words ever could. Because either he’s a sociopath who gets off on making other people clean up their poop (in which case my words are a lost cause anyway) or he has enough of a soul to be embarrassed by what just happened. So I am going to keep on banking on the latter. Because isn’t that all we really can do? Keep on trying, keep on learning, and keep on praying we’re not secretly surrounded by sociopaths.