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Fighting dirty: Arizona Mountaineering Club returns for annual South Rim cleanup

An Arizona Mountaineering Club climber rappels down a cliff face below Mather Point Sept 24. The climber was part of a group collecting trash below the rim.  (Photo/John Furniss/AMC)

An Arizona Mountaineering Club climber rappels down a cliff face below Mather Point Sept 24. The climber was part of a group collecting trash below the rim. (Photo/John Furniss/AMC)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — More than $750 coins.

That’s the total from the more than 12,000 coins the Arizona Mountaineering Club (AMC) has collected over the past five years by rappelling below the rim at Grand Canyon National Park.

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Arizona Mountaineering Club members gather for a group photo on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon Sept. 24, 2022. This weekend marks the 32nd year that the AMC performed their ‘Over the Edge’ Cleanup on the South Rim — and for the first year ever, on the North Rim. (Photo/Joelle Baird/NPS)

The club just completed its 32nd ‘Over the Edge’ cleanup below the South Rim Sept. 24, and pulled up 48 pounds of trash, including 6.5 pounds of hats, dozens of sunglasses and even two cell phones.

“We get thanked a lot,” said organizer John Furniss. “But it’s troubling to see all those coins.”

Although much of the trash retrieved from the cliffs below the South Rim are from windblown objects, the majority of the 12,366 coins AMC collected were intentionally thrown over the edge, he said.

“That’s not good for the wildlife, not good for the condors,” Furniss said.

Trash, and especially shiny trash like coins, is a serious hazard to California condors, according to the National Park Service.

Dead condors have been found with bottle caps, small pieces of broken glass, plastic and metal in their systems, with some likely dying from zinc toxicosis, possibly from ingesting pennies, according to a 2012 study on the patterns of mortality in California condors.

Grand Canyon National Park has several “Coins Can Kill” signs on railings down the stairways at Mather Point, Yavapai Point and Lookout Studio.

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Two AMC members pick up trash and debris below the canyon rim. (Photo/John Furniss).

Although picking up trash below the Rim is difficult, requiring technical climbing experience and rope skills, Furniss said the group is grateful for the opportunity to help the park.

“For us its gratitude, any number of organizations would love to do this, but the NPS is comfortable enough with us to have us back each year,” he said.

Furniss said he spends 80-100 hours each year planning the cleanup event at Grand Canyon. The club is selective for who attends the AMC ‘Over the Edge’ event.

“We look for members who have been through our training, have demonstrated a commitment to safety and have good basic solid climbing skills,” he said.

Although the group is volunteering their time at the Canyon, Furniss said the group tries to be low maintenance when they come to the park.

“(Grand Canyon) Emergency Services has hosted us for several years and they trust us to do a job that is high risk,” he said. “The staff is dealing with problems all the time at the park, so we work on establishing trust and confidence in our methods and skills.”

Furniss said stewardship is a main component of the mission of AMC. In addition to the yearly Grand Canyon cleanup, the group also participates in a roadway cleanup near Superior.

“We advocate for access to climbing areas, we teach property climbing techniques and we promote stewardship,” Furniss said.

The group regularly holds basic rock climbing classes, proper anchor placement and lead climbing techniques.

The ‘Over the Edge’ cleanup is one of the group’s major events.

“I believe every year we go up there we have to earn the privilege to go back the next year,” he said. “We don’t take that for granted one bit. We have been accident and injury free. Safety is paramount for my climbers, park visitors and park staff. They are busy, so my objective is to have a low demand, low impact on the NPS staff.”

After each cleanup event, Furniss spends hours analyzing the trash collected below the rim. This year’s event was the first time the group also volunteered to cleanup below the North Rim.

“We found much less trash, but of course there aren’t the retail establishments and fewer visitors,” he said.

When the event is over, Furniss likes to create a report that the National Park Service can use based on the amount and types of trash found.

“A few years ago the NPS implemented self-closing trash cans, they are heavy lidded, and once that when in, the amount of trash over the edge dropped radically,” he said “A lot of it was windblown, but animals get in it, pull it out and run with it.”

Furniss said he was also amazed at the number of condiment packs found, and suggested the NPS consider using condiment dispensers at the South Rim food establishments.

Although the ‘Over the Edge’ cleanup event is a highlight for the AMC, Furniss said he would rather not see any trash below the rim at the Grand Canyon.

“It would be great if we could bring it under control, we can’t stop the accidents,” he said. “But the intentional stuff is a crime.”

More info can be found about AMC at arizonamountaineeringclub.net.

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