Catholes vs. Blue Bags

A cathole is a pit for human feces.  Catholes are frequently used for the purpose of disposing of bowel movements or waste water (such as the water from cleaning the kitchen dishes) by hikers and others engaging in outdoor recreation; meanwhile, a blue bag is a bag, sometimes blue, sometimes black or clear, that you shit in (not on or around–got it?). 

Having started out my career as an adventurer in backpacking, my first experience with pooping outdoors was with a cathole. I remember it well: I was fifteen, awkward, and luckily with my parents, so the deed was much less embarrassing at the time than if I’d gone with friends. It was on the PCT and we’d been hiking up to Sand Lake (I think). Just before Deer Lake, we came across this gorgeous meadow with a stream running through it, small clumps of trees, and touches of wildflowers here and there. It was like something out of a painting, and it was the perfect spot to stop for lunch.

Unaccustomed to my outdoor stomach, I ate too much and realized I had to poop. Like… bad. You know those times when sometimes you have to do the deed and then you can hold it in and eventually it goes away until a more convenient moment? This was not one of those times.

So, grabbing a shovel and heading out beyond the trees in the meadow, I dug a nice deep hole (6-8” deep, to be exact) and took the best shit of my life. Why? Well, when I was a small child my mother used to read Little House on the Prairie to me, and when I crouched over that small hole in this lovely meadow, I couldn’t help but imagine where a nice spot for a cabin would be, where to set up small traps for animals, and how many deer might cross in the morning. It was just lovely.

I don’t regret my poop or choice in areas, but next time I will certainly choose a spot with less standing water. The mosquito bites on my ass gave me trouble well after that.

In the past seven or so years, I’ve gotten over my trouble at partaking in number two. And, after being watched while I peed by someone on a climb last year, I’m not really that shy anymore. I’ve encountered this before, in patients at the PT Clinic; you try as much as you can to maintain their modesty, but in the end they don’t really seem to care: “Ohh, don’t worry, I’ve had kids and you don’t know how many people have seen all kinds of places of me.” I’d assign my level of modesty about bathroom business just under the “I just had a kid” level. At least I still try to find a tree to go behind.

However, when you’re out there on a glacier, or even a snowfield, or a ridge, and there are no trees, it’s all fair game. Last weekend we were out on snow teaching students how to do Crevasse Rescue with Z and C Pulleys, and the feeling struck…

I sat on my bag and wiggled, hoping it would go away. We were only like ten minutes away from Paradise, away from a proper toilet, one that flushes, with stalls in between and everything. We had our group of about sixty people, not to mention two other Mountaineers branches in the vicinity, and we were perched just below Panorama Point so we had all the traffic of people heading up to Muir to climb or condition. Did I mention Paradise was right there?

After wiggling for a while, I realized my status would not subside: I needed to take a shit. So, sidling carefully over to the co-leader of the trip, I asked if I could run down to Paradise to use the restroom.

What are you talking about, there’s a latrine right there!” He told me, and there was, a beautifully dug one with chunks of snow piled around it, reminiscent of an igloo.  It was wonderful craftsmanship on his part, and had gotten plenty of use for peeing already. 

But I have to poo!” I told him, and, the worst news: “I don’t have any toilet paper.”

Do you have blue bags?” He asked. I nodded.

Then, using his TP and my BB, I set off to do my business. After, of course, he let everyone know what I was doing (which, looking back on it was probably a good thing since it meant no one came over and was surprised to find me squatting). It was all well and dandy until the actual leader of the field trip started throwing snowballs at me. I had to cut short in case there was splatter, which led me having to go back and use a second blue bag like 20 minutes later. Thanks, Chad.

I’ll spare you all the gruesome details, you didn’t come here for that. What I will tell you, however, is this: latrines are nice. Blue bags are okay, if they are big enough. I believe the ones I was using were from a previous trip to Rainier because I’m pretty sure Adams had a target to make things fun.

There was a small blue piece of plastic that you lay out on the ground, secure with snow, and then aim. The guys didn’t seem to know how you aim, exactly, so it must be easier as a girl since you already have to master your aim for pee. Picking up the corners, you secure it with a twist tie (included) and then throw that into a clear plastic bag that is, thankfully, a little more sturdy. Twist tie that and you should be safe!

All in all, the latrine saved me, and I will for sure save some energy to dig one when we attempt Baker this August (I will also let you know how that goes :)). But in the case for catholes vs. blue bags, I’m going to have to say I enjoy catholes. Maybe it’s because you can find an area more secluded and you don’t have to aim your crap onto a 4”x 8” square of blue plastic, or maybe it’s because I hold a special fondness for the firsts in my life. Whatever the case, I’m sure I’ll get used to pooping in bags and carrying it down the mountain, even if it is a little gross in society’s standards: getting the summit is worth it.

From the ridge below Pan Point

View of Adams (Left) and St. Helens (Right) in the background

Why blue bag? The desert, or places with permanent snow, lacks the bacteria necessary to break down human waste. Many places in the US require you to use blue bags, because toilets cannot be set up and catholes cannot be dug deep enough. On Mt. Everest, where there has been little regulation on waste over the past forty years, snow is contaminated in camp sites and littered down the mountain or thrown in crevasses. This makes it difficult to boil water for drinking, and is a poor sight to see for climbers and sherpas alike (see This Article for last year’s article on the poop problem on Everest)

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