We mountaineers love Alaska for its wild places. Many of Alaska’s mountains have no signs or history of human presence. This opportunity to explore an otherwise tapped-out planet is the essence of mountaineering.
The Argument for Cairns in Alaska
Why Do We Really Build Cairns?
Another reason some people build cairns is to feel in better control of the terrain. They may be out of their element and believe that cairns are essential for them and others after them to navigate the route. In Alaska, where few routes are clearly visible, their navigation skills with map, compass, altimeter and GPS may not be equal to the terrain they’re traversing. Such cairns are akin to chipped holds that make a rock climb more attainable.
Mountaineers in general have a strong Leave No Trace ethic. Leaving trash in the mountains ended 50 years ago, but many mountaineers do not view cairns as leaving a trace, perhaps because the cairn-building tradition is also strong among U.S. mountaineers. The fact is, however, if you build a cairn, you are leaving a trace. This concept is a part of Leave No Trace's seven principles: "Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging."
Keeping Alaska as Alaska
Thoughts about Cairns
Cairns are justified in a few places for safety or environmental reasons. For example: 1) Tricky turns—A small, three-stone cairn can mark a hidden descent gully from a climb, or a hard-to-spot access trail. 2) Fragile alpine—Such as this recently de-glaciated area in the Alaska Range. Also, in heavily used areas, such as The Football Field below O'Malley Peak above Anchorage, cairns that keep everyone on the same route can minimize overall impact.
Within LNT's seven principles is Plan Ahead and Prepare: "Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging."
- Opinion: It’s Time to End Cairn Building, by Robyn Martin, Adventure Journal.
- High Route Redux, Steve Roper, Backpacker, 1997.
- Going Where A Lot of Other Dudes With Really Great Equipment Have Gone Before, John Tierney, New York Times, 1998.