I’ve toppled thousands of cairns. I kick them over and scatter the rocks. I then walk away, leaving my trail of no destruction. I admit I feel somewhat pompous about destroying these towers of rocks. Like I was up for an early morning run before work and saw the sunrise while others were sleeping. But should I feel ashamed?
During my cairn-toppling years I’ve come to a consensus. I scatter all cairns on:
- Summits – You can’t go any higher than the highest place. Especially irksome around my home in Alaska. Let others feel like they’re first.
- Trails – Just follow the trail.
But then maybe some places can be justified:
- On Mountain Routes – Some heavily-used mountain routes rely on cairns to keep people from getting lost. In this case the cairns have replaced heavy-duty trail building. Better yet, maybe we all need improved route-finding skills.
- Tricky Turns – A small, three-stone cairn can mark a hidden gully descent route from a climb, or a hard-to-spot access trail.
- Fragile Alpine – Keeping everyone on the same route in alpine tundra can minimize the overall impact.
But who should make the cairn-building decisions? It’s often the outdoor newbies who feel lost and start piling stones. My opinion is don’t build cairns. Approach the mountains on their own terms. Practice true leave no trace. Tear down the cairn!
Do you have strong opinions about cairns? Let me know.
Joe Stock is a mountain guide and photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.