Prove your humanity

At the top of Mt. Washington, on the banks of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, there’s a picturesque view of Downtown Pittsburgh. 

But if you look down the steep hillside, you will see a sorry site — bottles, cans, plastic debris, on a slope so steep you can’t just walk down to pick it up. So on a recent Saturday, Jennifer Flaggs and a group of volunteers came to the vista to rappel down to clear the trash. 

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“It’s extremely steep and, depending on the area, it can be hazardous,” said Flaggs, a member of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh, a group that organizes training and excursions for outdoor adventurers. Today’s excursion? Over a guard rail, attached by climbing rope secured by carabiners and harnesses. 

“There are cars right below us,” Flaggs said. “So there’s a lot of risk involved. So people definitely need to have a skill set for it and, and take care.”

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Pennsylvania’s roadways are covered by more than 500 million pieces of litter, according to a 2020 study by the state. Clearing it out is time-consuming — and, in places like Mt. Washington, even dangerous. Decades ago, the Explorers Club started an annual cleanup event at the hilltop that lends its members’ unique skill set: rappelling.

John Zolko picking up trash

John Zolko picking up trash on Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington. Photo: Elaine Vitone

At this year’s cleanup, Flaggs calls down to a club volunteer who is picking up garbage, while attached to a line fastened to a guard rail. She pulls a line, hand over hand, until a large bag of trash emerges over the railing. She says whenever people see the event, the requests for others start to come in. 

“We’ve gotten requests from members in the community to say, ‘Hey, there’s a spot by our house, say, in Bridgeville. And can you guys come out and do that as well?,’” said Flaggs. “Once word gets out that we’re willing to do this, obviously people are like, ‘Hey! There are plenty of spots where we can do this in Pittsburgh.’” 

Nearby, a couple — two Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. students — are all geared up to rappel down. Jonathan Francis, who’s studying computer science, says today’s event is a little different from their usual Explorers’ Club outing.

“We are mountaineers. So we’ve climbed a few peaks,” said Francis. “We are also ice climbers and rock climbers. So we actually did some ice climbing a couple weeks ago.”

His partner, Bingqing Chen, is studying renewable energy and energy conservation at CMU.

“I wasn’t expecting there to be so much trash, but you look down there, and it’s appalling,” said Chen, who has been in Pittsburgh for five years. “It just is an experience for everyone to raise their awarenessthe environment is not going to clean itself.”

Bingqing Chen and Jonathan Francis

Bingqing Chen and Jonathan Francis, ready to pick up trash on Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington. Photo: Elaine Vitone

A few feet away is Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher Jess Vishner. He’s a member of Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group, a volunteer search-and-rescue organization. He recounts a recent hillside find. 

“We found an electric scooter. We brought that up—one of those little ones where you can rent ’em from your phone,” Vishner said. “So we were able to rappel down to it, tie it off, bring it up, and then just ride it on down to where we’re collecting everything.”

Keith Conover, a semi-retired emergency medicine physician who co-founded Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group back in the ’80s, has done maybe four or five of these Mt. Washington events. 

“There’s all sorts of strange things down herewedding rings, shopping carts. One time we thought we found a body, but it was a mannequin someone had thrown over,” he said. 

Conover has rescued lost hikers in the backcountry and provided emergency medical care in remote caves. But today he’s satisfied recovering water bottles and cigarette butts while looking down on the vista of Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

“We want to keep it like that for all the people who come to this smoky old industrial town and go, ‘Oh, this is a beautiful city!’ We want to preserve that by picking up the trash,” he said. “And the shopping carts and the mannequins and wedding rings…whatever else we find.”