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Cairn About Alaska

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.  

One reminder that you're not the first to visit a new place is finding a cairn. 
A cairn is a man-made pile of stones—from a single balanced rock to a heap of stones—used by mountaineers to mark a route or a summit. Cairn-building has a long history. Native Americans in the Arctic used cairns, called inuksuits, to mark routes. On popular mountain trails, such as in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, cairns keep thousands of recreational hikers on route. Climbers follow cairned routes to difficult-to-find climbs. 

The Argument for Cairns in Alaska

Most agree that cairns can serve safety or environmental purposes. They can mark, for example, tricky junctions, especially those used by climbers. A cairn can mark a hidden descent gully from a climb or a hard-to-spot access trail, such as the faint access trails to climbs along Eagle River above the Nature Center. 
Cairns can help keep everyone on the same route in fragile alpine tundra or in recently de-glaciated areas where plants are just emerging. This minimizes overall impact. The Football Field above Anchorage and the toe of the Spencer Glacier are places with well-applied cairns. 
Some believe that cairns are an important mountaineering tradition on mountain-tops. Summit cairns are often accompanied by a summit register. Advocates for summit cairns say that it’s important, for historical purposes, to know if someone has been there before. In remote mountain regions of Alaska, cairns are often the only sign of humans.
Perhaps the most basic argument for cairns is that they are simply piles of stones. They are fun to make and do not pose a significant environmental issue. 

Why Do We Really Build Cairns?

It’s easy to understand why humans build cairns for safety or environmental reasons. The art and zen of balanced stones in nature is also attractive. The real reason mountaineers build cairns is less easily understood. 
Bryce Courtenay observed that: 
Men feel compelled to leave their mark wherever they go. By this I don’t mean castles and ramparts, ruined buildings and ancient walls. Instead, I mean the small marks that individuals make to ensure that their passing has been noted. 

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

Many mountaineers live in Alaska for that feeling of exploration—a sense that we may be the first person to visit a place. In Alaska, standing on a pristine summit with no history and no sign of humans is still possible. It's a powerful feeling. Some strive to give everyone that feeling. Others strive to let people know they’ve had that feeling. 

Thoughts about Cairns 

Most agree that cairns are useful to mark tricky turns and to show the way in heavy-use or ecologically fragile areas. In such cases, a smaller cairn of, say, three softball-sized stones would serve the purpose as well as a bigger cairn. 
But why not apply Leave No Trace to less-frequented routes and summits? Let’s stop building cairns in these places or, further, dismantle ones that serve no useful purpose? Return the stones to their natural positions, lichen-side up. If you feel you must leave your mark, do it on the internet or in publications such as the American Alpine Journal or Scree.
In Alpinist 35, Fairbanks climber Jeff Apple Benowitz tells the story of Alaska vanity plate 10901. The car’s owner first-ascended Peak 10,910 in the 1970’s, but didn’t report it so others could enjoy the same adventure. 

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."

Cairn Articles

Reader Comments (3)

Man, I couldn't agree more! I was infamous for kicking over cairns in the Tetons when I worked there...that place could get ridiculous. I don't see many cairns in AK, but the ones I've seen are no more. I've even been known to dispose of a summit register or two, but that's a different blog post entirely! Good on ya Joe!

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Hokanson

Hi, Joe.

Reading your essay about cairns caused me to do some introspective thinking about why I have built cairns. I agree that overabundance of cairns can totally ruin the wilderness experience, but I can see merit in the judicious use of cairns. As one of the posters mentioned, use of a cairn to mark a route that can be difficult to follow at some times has great benefits and I have followed such cairns that others have placed to find the way. I've also placed such cairns when I thought I might have difficulty following a route in fog or featureless terrain. When I thought that there would be a low likelihood of others following me (such as on Bashful Peak), I've removed such cairns, but when I thought it would be better to keep others on route and not spread out on a steep slope and potentially cause erosion problems (such as Ptarmigan Pass), I've left the cairns in place. I've also placed summit cairns to mark summit registers. The use of the summit registers might be decried by some, but I think they are very helpful in recording the ascent history of a particular peak. While most mountainous places have seen hundreds of ascents, Alaska is one of the few locations in the world where a reasonably accurate ascent history can be made on many peaks. Destroying that bit of history serves no purpose, but preserving it might seem beneficial several decades from now.

Steve Gruhn.

June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Gruhn

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your comments Steve! Much appreciated.


June 18, 2012 | Registered Commenterstockalpine
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