The Hills Are Alive ... With Mountain Climbing Trash Pickers

Apr 12, 2017

Emerald View Park encircles Mt. Washington, Duquesne Heights and Allentown in a tight hug, an embrace from which Derek Stuart prepared to depart.

He stood on the grassy expanse that separates the sloping, western end of Grandview Avenue from the steep drop to the rivers’ edge and laid out a climbing rope beside bright pops of blue, red, orange and purple webbing.

Kim Autore, 27, of Lawrenceville is bundled near the Point of View statue atop Emerald View Park in Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington neighborhood. She was one of about 40 volunteer climbers who came out Saturday, April 8, 2017, to help collect trash with the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“It’s just high-angle trash collection,” said Stuart, 54, of Fox Chapel. “Sometimes I think the outdoor community, we’re a bit selfish. We use the outdoor spaces, we go hiking, climbing and things. So when we can help clean things up and make things better we do our best to join in.”

Stuart is part of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh, which organizes an annual Mt. Washington hillside clean-up with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group.

It makes a big difference, said Judith Koch, volunteer and landscape coordinator for the conservancy. She told a bundled crew of 40-plus experienced climbers to look toward the eastern end of Emerald View Park.

Volunteer trash pickers are silhouetted in the morning sun on Saturday, April, 8, 2017, as they prepare for the first rappel.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“Since you haven’t been there for three years, it looks really, really trashy," she said. "There is a lot of litter.”

Pickers alternate from year-to-year across opposing ends of Grandview, battling mid-Spring brush beneath one of Pittsburgh's most popular tourist destinations.

From a rappel, the climbers clip garbage bags to well-worn harnesses and navigate their way in pairs down the slope. They pluck water-logged beer cans, plastic bottles and shredded Styrofoam takeout containers from tangled branches and fallen tree limbs.

Bob Dodson, 70, of Churchill struggles to bend a static 14mm rope into a modern belay device, which is optimized for climbing ropes with a thickness closer to 10mm. Dodson was part of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh's annual Mt. Washington trash pick-up rappel on Saturday, April 8, 2017.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

Plastic bags cling like seaweed to the shrubbery. They routinely find car batteries, hubcaps, small electronics and all manner of discarded or misplaced rubbish, Koch said.

“If anyone wants a real challenge, there is an old shopping cart that I’ve been trying to get out for years. If you can get it out ... I’ll buy you a coffee,” she said.

Volunteers this weekend removed 16 industrial-sized garbage bags of trash, 10 bags of recyclables, 70 pounds of metal, several yards of irrigation pipe and one wet, dirt-flecked $100 bill. Also, the shopping cart.

Ginette Walker Vinski, the explorers club's environmental chair, said that's a pretty typical haul.

Jim Laird, 30, of Ohio Township tells his wife, Ashley, he "feels fancy" going over the face of Mt. Washington's Emerald View Park. Now in its 25th year, the annual volunteer-led beautification day invites experienced climbers to use their skills to remove trash and other discarded items from the hillsides along Grandview Avenue.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

John Zolko, 61, of Murrysville said he’s found sandbags stuck in trees, automotive supplies and once, a working Kindle. He didn’t spot anything like that Saturday, but when the club rappels beneath the observation decks, he said he always comes up with dozens of sun-bleached baby pacifiers.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” said Matt Evans, 36, of Shaler. He pointed to a sticky, silver Toshiba laptop and a couple of car batteries. “How does this stuff get down here?”

Matt Benson, 34, of Wexford joined with the search-and-rescue crew.

Matt Evans, 36, of Shaler attended the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh's annual trash pick-up for the second year on Saturday, April 8, 2017. "You never know what random stuff you're going to find," he said. "Like car batteries. How does that stuff get down here?"
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“It’s a great way to practice our rope skills and enjoy the day while doing something good for the community,” he said.

The endeavor requires a trio of legal waivers and warnings not to empty any full cans or bottles. Participants should look for – but never touch – medical syringes, and they use special grain and seed bags for added protection.

Nathan Brooks, 30, of Shadyside said he could be out there clearing shards of glass all day.

“Most trash, unfortunately these days, is plastic. And it’s very persistent. It doesn’t go away,” said Michael Carlin, who chairs the beautification committee for Neighbors on the Mount, which ran its own separate community clean-up on Saturday. “And the trouble with the garbage on Mt. Washington is, much of it is very difficult to get at. You can only go so far before you’re taking your life into your hands.”

Matt Tolbert, 47, and Nancy Tran, 36, haul trash up the switchbacks in Emerald View Park on Saturday, April 8, 2017, during the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh's annual beautification day.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

Next year, the explorers group expects to take on the area beneath Grandview’s overlooks closer to the Monongahela Incline.

Kim Autore, 27, of Lawrenceville said she thinks it’s setting a good example. Neighbors out walking their dogs and enjoying the weather see the clean-up effort and consider their own complacency.

"They’re realizing even just picking up a little bit of trash here and there makes a big difference,” she said.

Matt Tolbert, 47, of Jefferson Hills said that spirit is “one of the things we’re just very proud of about Pittsburgh."

"What spoils it," he said, "is all the garbage.”