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Cairns Round II: Do We Need Cairns (Or Want) in Alaska?

September 22nd, 2011

Thanks Osprey blog readers for your helpful comments on my Tear Down the Cairn post. I realize it was written with some arrogance, but sometimes it has to be done to get a reaction. Below is a second go at cairns — this time, I kept it to Alaska. Keep sending your opinionated, but civilized comments so I can keep working on this project. Cheers!

It has been my observation 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. —Bryce Courtenay, 2005
Sad but true—the era of large-scale geographic exploration may be over. The entire planet has been mapped. We have Google Earth and GPS units.
And in the mountains, one sign that you’re not exploring is finding a cairn. Cairns are stones—from a single balanced rock to a heap of stones—that mark a route or a summit. Cairn-building has been going on for eons. Native Americans in the Arctic used cairns (inuksuits) to mark routes. On popular mountain trails in the lower 48, such as in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, cairns keep thousands of people on route. For 25 years I’ve followed cairned routes to difficult-to-find climbs.
But do we need cairns in Alaska? Many come to this wild state for that feeling of exploration—the sense that they 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. Why not grant all Alaskan adventurers that feeling, first ascent or not?
Some have helped do this. In Alpinist 35, Fairbanks climber Jeff Apple Benowitz tells the story (reported by Matt Samet) of Alaska vanity plate 10910: 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.
To keep exploring alive, let’s stop building cairns in Alaska. If we must leave our mark, let’s use the internet. Further, how about a true leave no trace policy? Dismantle cairns and return the stones to natural positions, lichen-side up. Let’s keep that feeling of exploration alive in Alaska.
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.
Cairn links to learn more:
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  1. seth baranoski
    September 29th, 2011 at 09:23 | #1

    I totally agree with unbuilding the cairns. I live in central Alaska and I have always wondered – why can’t more people respectfully leave no trace? It’s bad enough to see bearing tree plates and surveying pegs somewhere on every remote trail. Hiking for me is a chance to crawl out of my small ‘social cage’ and feel the freedom of wide open wilderness, and if you see too much ‘sign’ on a random wilderness trek you may be left wondering if there’s any place you can go to really ‘get away.’ But I also wish people didn’t leave crosses on the side of the road to remind us all of where someone died, and I also don’t appreciate graffiti on roadside bluffs…so maybe it’s just me.

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