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Joe Stock: Tear Down the Cairn!

July 28th, 2011

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Trails – Just follow the trail.

But then maybe some places can be justified:

  1. 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.
  2. Tricky Turns - A small, three-stone cairn can mark a hidden gully descent route from a climb, or a hard-to-spot access trail.
  3. 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.


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  1. July 28th, 2011 at 16:45 | #1

    While Joe Stock may see the cairn as offensive, they serve a purpose. Cairns help to keep people from wandering off trail and establishing social trails, which damage the high alpine ecosystem.

    Additionally, in the winter when the trails are snow covered, those cairns help to make it visible.

    Instead of just kicking them down, please reach out to your local trail advocacy group and volunteer you time with them.

    -Joe

  2. akclimbr
    July 29th, 2011 at 10:54 | #2

    akclimbr :
    Now you’ve done it… the high Chugach overlords have officially marked you. Beware acutely aware of your predicament if Choate or Baranow approach with an ice axe.

    “Be acutely” aware – not “Beware cutely aware”.

  3. September 15th, 2011 at 10:14 | #3

    Thanks guys! Great comments. Quite a reaction from people, especially on the facebook link:
    http://www.facebook.com/Ospreypacks/posts/239167336115308.

    My reworked blog is at: http://www.stockalpine.com/posts/cairn-about-alaska.html

    I’m stil interested in this, so please send more civilized, but opinionated comments!

  1. September 22nd, 2011 at 09:02 | #1
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