The Cirque of the Unsh!tables

This is the first in a series of vignettes telling the story of my first ever alpine expedition, in August 2018 to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Northwest Territories. You can read about the cast of characters here.

Let me tell you about my friend and the expedition film maker, Taylor. Taylor doesn’t like poop. He finds great discomfort in the ease with which I can discuss my own lower GI tract situations. He doesn’t feel that way because I’m a girl; I get the impression that he’s just a generally private pooper. “Goddam it, Mo,” he’d protest. “You’re obsessed with shitting. You’re disgusting.”

Fairy Meadows has a fantastic outhouse with an ingenious design – a platform over two giant plastic tubs, that the ‘house’ section can roll over the second once the first is full. At the end of the season, a parks service helicopters the tubs out to be disposed of…elsewhere. The temps stay cool at that latitude, so the smell stays pleasant. There are few enough people up there that only once during out stay did I have to wait on someone. The view on your way to the hidden hollow where the house was tucked away was of the gorgeous sheer face of Mt Harrison Smith. In short, shitting in the meadows was easy.

Fairy Meadows, fantasy shitter

Fairy Meadows, fantasy shitter

When we realized we would be bivying on the LFT, rather than doing it in a day, our shits got a lot more complicated. “Yup, this right here,” Pat said proudly, patting his mini orange haul bag, “This here is for our shit. I’ll bring one wag bag. We can share*.” That’s probably going to be uncomfortable, I thought to myself. Taylor let out an audible gulp, and Jim – as always – looked non plussed.

After a day of climbing the first 10 pitches, we arrive at the bivy ledge. It’s a flat grassy spot about 30’ wide and 15’ deep. It’s a nook, with walls on a short and long side, and the rest of the ledge is open to the glacier 1,000 feet below. We fix a line along bolts on the back of the wall, and tie in with a rope end loosely around our waists, just enough to keep us from dying if we did manage to fall off the edge, but supremely comfortable after 12+ hours in a harness.

I was famished and thirsty, but I didn’t have to poop. I can’t say I was feeling all that happy. I was exhausted and scared from the wild climbing we had done that day – surfing picnic table sized blocks, horrendous run outs on questionable gear, having other parties rain scree down a chimney onto our heads, all while wearing a bigger pack than I had ever climbed with. Still, I didn’t have to poop.

We didn’t arrive at the bivy til 11 pm, when the northern sunlight was just beginning to fade. Tucked in our bivy sacks, the stars appeared; shortly after, the green northern lights were faintly dancing over our heads. Contrary to the weather the rest of the trip, the night was warm, still, and dry. I woke just before the sun and had a pee that I’ll remember forever – sat over the edge, my rear suspended over the abyss as my body bridged a gap between two large blocks, and a view of glaciers and unclimbed peaks without another soul (save for the three men sleeping behind me). A five star piss on a four star scale. But still, I didn’t have to poop.

Jim enjoying breakfast on the bivy ledge. PC: Taylor Zann

Jim enjoying breakfast on the bivy ledge. PC: Taylor Zann

As we racked up after breakfast, Pat leaned against the back wall like a cowboy leans on a fence post. “Goddam it,” he spat out slowly. “I don’t think I have to shit, but if I don’t shit now I’ll have to shit later and then I’ll be fucked. God-DAMN-it.” The next 8 pitches were all hanging belays.

Jim shrugged. “I don’t have to poop, but go for it.”

“Me either,” I added.

Taylor was staring at the ground. “I…I think I should poop.”


Pat grunts and goes for it. There isn’t much privacy on the ledge, so we’re all in this ride together. He pulls out the pieces of the wag bag – which, we learn at this point, is a cobbled together home made wag bag – and sits in relative peace while we turn around.

“Ok Tay,” he says while shitting. “So there’s a sheet of plastic here that you shit on, but I only brought one. So I’m going to shit on it, then you’re going to shit on my shit, then you’re going to roll that shit up and stuff it in the bag. Cool?”

I wasn’t sure but I think I could see the color leave Taylor’s face. Was this all a power play on Pat’s part? A move to be the alpha male of the group? Was Pat taking advantage of knowing how Taylor felt about poop – especially other people’s?

After almost two weeks without a shower, Taylor was looking haggard, and now he looked broken. All he managed was a weak acknowledgement of the situation as he sullenly accepted his fate. Pat finished, and Taylor slowly made his way to the steaming sheet of plastic. “I got ya, bud,” Pat said as he zipped his pants. “I sprinkled some grass on the pile so you don’t have to look right at it.”

“Thanks,” Taylor mumbled.

Our poor, neglected little poo bag after we returned to camp from the summit

Our poor, neglected little poo bag after we returned to camp from the summit

And so, we three stood gazing out over the range of the cirque, watching clouds swirl over the summit of Mt Probiscus, listening to car sized blocks thunder off of the mountain flanks to the glacier below, while Taylor layered his shit on top of another mans. “Oh GOD” he choked over and over. I thought he might be near tears, but I couldn’t tell, and I wasn’t going to look. Finally, he finishes his contribution and gingerly picks up the corners of the overloaded plastic sheet. “Jesus”. He manages to get the sheet inside of the zip loc without much fuss, and deposits the whole bag into the haul bag.

Jim and I looked at each other. “Nope, still good. I can save it for the ground.” The fortunate side effect of the extreme dehydration we were experiencing was that I didn’t have to poop (or wasn’t able to) for a good 48 hours, long after I was back to the safety, security, and privacy of the Fairy Meadows outhouse. I think Taylor will be going the planned dehydration route in the future, so that he will forever have the privilege of never having to share his shit sack again.


*Wag bags are 100% NOT designed to be shared