Leaving a trace

''I think that all schoolchildren from grade 1 to grade 12 should spend one day a week in the out of doors.  I'd rather see our kids wondering around in the hills, along the rivers, out in the desert, up in the mountains, than sitting all day staring at a video screen, pushing buttons for IBM''

Ed Abbey, University of Utah Speech, 1988

This is the first of 2 posts about environmental related stuff I witnessed on the HRP. 
Doing a long walk means you notice how different countries, regions and National Parks within them deal with the pressures of farming, development and tourism.  Mainly what we are talking about is people pressure - there's more of us out there, and that impacts on the mountain environment, which has consequences for animal habitat and for humans who live and work there, as well as for visitors.  Some impacts are down to individual behaviours... and alot is down to how the machinery of capital works to consume and move on, shifting its costs back to the environment in order to maximise short term profit for stakeholders. We're implicated in both of course, and there's a difficult balance to be struck between access, development and conservation for those in gatekeeper positions.  It goes to the heart of what we value non urbanised space for, and why.  Solutions aren't easy, or comfortable.  But then we know that, its why we're resistant to change.

Lets look at the more micro side of things first, as its maybe the easiest to address.  You may find some of the images below depressing or distressing, I know I do.  And not just the poop ones.


There's litter in many places along the HRP, but more so in Spain than in France.  As you might expect, areas with trailhead or road access suffer more, as casual walkers or tourists are able to get to the hills more easily - so there's more volume in these places.  But, consistently, the culprits are climbers or hikers.  You can tell because of the type of rubbish - Invariably you see empty tins of fish, energy bars and other hiking food wrappers at the start of climbing routes, stuffed into the gaps between rocks, or on trails away from roads where carrying out trash weight might be considered an inconvenience by the user.  I saw evidence of this at many of the wild camps I made.

There's also a heap of rubbish in and around many unmanned huts.  Not all, but lots of them, especially in Spain and Andorra, which is where most of the unmanned refuges are.  The photos above show one such hut in Catalonia, complete with rotting sandwiches, empty bottles, tins and several black bin bags (just out of shot) full of decaying trash.  The signage hangs on the wall of the hut outside.  I spoke to a few hikers, from all over Europe, who couldn't understand why the manned refuges don't accept litter or make bins available for their guests - the idea is that you carry out what you bring in.  And these were often seasoned walkers.  Maybe it tells us where we might need to target better education in order to prevent littering by more frequent, even professional users of open spaces.  Is 'Leave no Trace' fully integrated into outdoor sports training, for all ages?  Schools everywhere, not just in rural communities?  Scouts and Guide groups?  Ultimately, it leaves me with more questions than I have answers for... and a feeling of sadness.

Its not just day trippers...

Most people know littering is not 'a good thing'.  Here you can see the efforts someone has gone to hide their rubbish under a rock.  Or maybe they didn't want it to blow away, because that would be, y'know, littering.  Before...


...and after.  I was astonished that there were 2 wrappers, so not only was this deliberate and premeditated, but both walkers may have agreed that this was a viable option...or maybe a solo hiker was especially hungry.  Either way is strange behaviour.

I know many of us pick up rubbish that others drop - but that's not always possible on a through hike.  Its also awkward to challenge someone you see in the act of littering, and mostly you just see the result anyway, not the culprit doing.  Walking in small groups on the HRP showed me that people really resent rules when they are out - they don't want to be told what not to do, because they are 'getting away from all that'.  Its understandable, so explaining why there are guidelines seemed the most sensible option - some context or background - a banana skin takes 2 years to rot down and isn't native to this habitat, for example.  It felt important to keep explaining and questioning, so we don't forget how to and risk seeing everything as a confrontation.  
A good friend also reminded me of something very important towards the end of the walk - litter is noticeable in the mountains because it is still relatively rare.  Its not the city, and even there not everyone does it.  The trouble with rubbish is that even one piece sets a precedent, but its good not to be too cynical about it.


Clearly this was, and still is, a huge issue in the Pyrenees, especially in the Basque region.  Please look at this link which shows more about the infrastructure behind what I saw - hundreds of huts, shacks, treehouses and hunters bivy's along the route of the HRP.  This link is also excellent.  There is hunting with shotgun, and net, using mirrors to dazzle the birds.  Mainly its for wood pigeon, but birds of prey are killed both accidentally and illegally.  The numbers of migratory birds crossing from Africa over the Basque have reduced by 75% in the last 30 years.  In my view, all hunting purely for sport is not 'culture', its species genocide.  Its too late to argue about this, we're witness to an unprecedented level of extinction that is entirely man made - we don't need to kill stuff for kicks and giggles as well.  Companies arrange trips for money, whats the individual sport-hunters excuse?


I like graffiti in some places, it can be a reclaiming of an oppressive space when creatively done.  But, its all about context.  Unfortunately, people feel the need to tag the natural world too.  The image below shows graf on 'the finger', a highly fragile and crumbling rock on the ridge approach to Taillon, near the Breche de Roland.  This is at around 3000m.

Why is it that we need to mark everything?  Are we that impotent in our everyday lives?  Is the natural world no more than a blank canvas for our enormous egos?  Aside from anything else, spray paint is highly toxic, both to user and ecosystem. 

Then again, lets look at some more formal vandalism.  This is a cromlech, the remains of a 10,000 year old (megalithic era) stone circle situated near the Col d'Orgambide in the Basque region, with a new addition.  In terms of landscape the area feels similar to the west country - wide open with huge horizons and quite flat.  Above me huge numbers of Lammergeier flew in perfect formation, stately, slow moving warplanes.  I descended onto this plateau under the watchful gaze of these feathery undertakers and the Urculu tower, a roman construction sitting on a huge and spiny ridge of limestone that signaled a shift from lower to higher ground on the walk.  Along this way passed the armies of Hannibal, the Romans, and Charlemagne's nephew, Roland.  The latter is fascinating to me because it shows how facts can become entwined with fantasy via aural history and folk tales to create giants, myths and religious icons, all to serve the regional politics of feudal Europe.  Its fascinating to the locals because he famously lost a battle to the Basques at the nearby Ronceveau pass.  Anyway, he's a central figure in these parts and stories about him have been bound up with the history of various tribes that live in this region for centuries.  I knew very little of this as I walked through, but I did feel a definite sense of the past, which has prompted some reading since.  Its a strange and atmospheric place full up with memories, both warring and living in sync with animals and the surrounding wood, water and rock over huge timescales.  A tangible feeling and very odd and all tied up with the way the ancient paths fit into the landscape as you approach the col.

However, the local authorities thought it wasn't interesting enough, so hired a stonemason in 2006 to make some changes.

...perhaps not setting the best example. 

Everyone loves a campfire.  Around Carlit and Canigou, both popular destinations for family camping in the East of the Pyrenees, the area is littered with firecircles.  The exciting photo below features both firecircle and toilet paper - I know, I'm spoiling you.

Why the problem, making a fire is carbon neutral isn't it?  Well, kinda, but not really.  Its the most carbon efficient way of cooking, but its not neutral...nothing is.  Also, one begets another, and before you know it you have a campsite.  Then you just destroyed the reason you are going there for: to be nearer nature.  Much more importantly, fire degrades the area by removing crucial habitat for animals right across the ecosystem in the form of rotting wood.  It also burns the ground and kills plant and insect life directly.  Fires work and are fun, when kept small and when multiple circles are not established.  Avoid building a new fire - if there's a preexisting circle use that instead.  Keep it small and put large flat stones on the ground underneath the fire to prevent scorching.  The best option is just to bring a stove.

I've been told by another walker that 'leave no trace' is ''just a catchphrase'' when I questioned the needless production of another firecircle.  A discussion ensued which got somewhat heated.  It's a symptom of a common mentality - many have grown weary of campaigns, and think the outdoors has value only insofar as it can be used (up) by humans - instrumental value.  I'll return to this - its at the heart of how we see 'outside'.

Areas with trailheads and road access do seem to suffer most here.  Casual walkers have different priorities than people staying over in the mountains.  Chiefly, water.  They are carrying theirs in, and we are usually not.  Therefore people will often relieve themselves near streams, lakes or another water source as it doesn't matter to them practically, if the water is polluted.

Casual walkers or day trippers may also feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about going to the toilet outdoors, which I think goes someway to explaining the mess that is left - huge amounts of paper covering the deed, often done in a what looks like a hurry, near water or on trail.  Around the unmanned huts, there was often a serious waste issue as well, enough to warrant compostable toilets.

Is it a problem, surely its organic waste isn't it?  Well, it is a problem for animals and other humans if we pollute the water supply.  And toilet paper and the rest is a visual eyesore and can take months if not years to rot down, especially in higher altitudes - if the paper is not organically sourced it leaves bleaches and other chemicals in the soil and water table.  The photo below shows the lakeside of Estany Negre in Catalonia, near a beautiful wild campsite that had evidently been used in an otherwise responsible way, for many centuries.  I needed to drink from both water sources shown in this section. 

So, just to be clear, and please forgive the instructional tone for a second longer:  Carry a toilet trowel or other digging tool, go at least 30ms away from water, dig a hole at least as deep as the toilet trowel handle, bury your offering and the paper, which should be organic, or if not, burn it or take it out.  If you are burning it, make sure you don't set fire to anything else.  In snow, dig down to the topsoil, or better still pack one of these, and carry out.  If digging is difficult because the ground is too hard, go between boulders (long drop) and remove the paper, or carry it all out.  This link from the MCofS is about the most comprehensive advice I can find on the subject.

Its unlikely that I'm going to intervene whilst someone is in the middle of a movement, so its down to education this one.  Not knowing how to is not a crime, not explaining is.  We all have to go. 

Pressure of numbers.

There's a bit of aloofness in the outdoors world, and sometimes I fall prey to that too - I vant to be alone!  But generally speaking, I like others to appreciate it as much as I do.  To that end I don't mind sharing the peak of Carlit (shown above) at 9.30am with alot of enthusiastic day trippers, so long as they look after themselves and each other and the mountain they are walking on.  I walked in from my solo campsite right underneath the mountain at 8.30am whilst they drove from their hotel at 5am... but still I like that they made the effort to come at all - the ascent of the eastern ridge is an exhilarating scrambly challenge for the relatively new.  I would mind if the rest of the trail was as busy as this summit, but thankfully I can still share it with the odd walker yet find lots of solitude and peace on the way, by through hiking.  I generally stay miles away from places like Goriz, pictured below. 

Goriz, incidentally, is the refuge between the Breche de Roland and the trailheads of the Odessa Canyon, and is situated just over the minimum height of 2100ms where 'aire de bivouac' - camping between sunset and sunrise - is permitted in this NP.  As such it is under tremendous pressure of numbers.  As you can see they are building an extension.  What you can't see is the terrifying state of the toilet block, the woefully under equipped tourists and scouting groups camping all around and the human excrement in the nearby water supply.  Its an accident waiting to happen.

This all begs the question of access.  How easy should it be to get to the outdoors?  Do I want roads right to the foot of the mountains?  Should there be facilities in case people get thirsty or tired, and if so, what kind?  Should we provide rangers to make sure people are safe?  Is it always demand led, or should we say 'stop' to certain developments - if so, on what grounds, and who decides?  Shouldn't we have to make an effort to get there, to extert ourselves physically and mentally and feel the benefits of this?  Isn't saying this elitist?

These are questions that must cause National Park, Conservation and other NGO staff sleepless nights - it can't be easy or even possible to reconcile the demands of access versus those of conservation.  In the next post I'll take a look at development, farming and tourism within this bigger framework of questions.  I'll try not to rant, but no promises.

But before I go....

The Leave No Trace message is framed under seven principles:
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors