Cairns

Departing the car on what seemed like a bluebird day, it was to my surprise that just a few hours later as I crested the ridge into an open alpine area, I was greeted by high winds and increasing fog. With a cold front moving through, the wind gusts brought tears to my eyes while producing what felt like an ice-cream headache. Alone, I internally debated turning back, but knew that would require descending a section that made me squeamish even in good weather. That in addition to my inner stubbornness for wanting to see this loop through to fruition made my decision seamless. I pressed on, trying to make quick work of the terrain to get back below treeline before the weather worsened. I squinted to see better as I struggled to stay upright while I traversed along the rock-covered ridge. It seemed that each gust resulted in me veering several steps off course in an attempt to keep the rubber side down, and somewhere in the midst of this scrambling I lost the white blazes on the rock, this trail’s markers.

Wincing to shed the moisture from my eyes I stopped dead in my tracks and finally acknowledged the reality that the ridge was entrenched with fog. With no blaze in sight, I felt hyper sensitive to the wind as it cut through my sweat-soaked tech shirt. As goose bumps streamed up and down my body I knew I needed to think quickly. Trying to stay warm I sat on my heels, shielding my eyes with my left hand and scouring my surroundings for a white blaze or landmark to help orient me. This approach yielded no insight, but I knew I needed to start moving to keep warm. Instinctively I relied on my internal compass and started making my way down the rock in what I felt was a northwest direction. I had run this route many times before and I knew the angle my feet should be cutting across the rock. This was a bit of a gamble though, as I didn’t know exactly where my starting point was. I focused my eyes almost straight down at my feet to avoid the wind. Then glancing upward for a second at eye level, I saw what appeared to be a cairn, a pile of rocks used to mark a trail. A sense of calm came over, and I felt a little giddy as I gained reassurance with this cairn that I was indeed headed in the right direction.

Still exposed and bogged down with fog I made quick work of the downward slope to the rock pile. I searched the surrounding area for a blaze, not once or twice but three times, only to realize that this was not in fact a cairn, this was someone’s art project, spiritual monument, or way of saying they had been there—a stack of rocks not created by trail builders or maintainers to mark the way but one that looked exactly like that. In the moment the idea of this mimicry was preposterous to me, but I decided to once again orient myself using the pitch of the rock. With each foot strike my jaw clinched tighter with internal anger. Navigating in the mountains had become a game and I had been fooled. I had been given false hope with that false cairn and my wellbeing was at stake.

Eventually my internal compass got me back on the trail and in the protection of the trees, but after this incident my eyes and emotions increasingly took note of unofficial ‘rock piles’ and ‘rock stacks’ As I traveled on the more widely used trails I found them laden with rock stacks where the trail is straightforward, and in other situations I noted rock stacks that were built to signal a place to go off trail to catch a view. These practices and the one that I encountered on my mountain run misrepresent cairns. Cairns are used across the world to indicate the location of a trail, including here in the Eastern U.S. where the trail might not be obvious in bad weather or winter conditions. I rely on them, others rely on them too, and my mishap while out mountain running has helped me to understand that this trend of people stacking/piling rocks impacts personal safety while also dismissing Leave No Trace’s ethics of leaving what you find as you find it out in the natural world.

In all honesty when this trend started years ago and when I would pass a rock stack, I was intrigued as I studied the balance work of the structure while considering the patience of the builder. At the time I didn’t consider what would happen if one rock stack became two and if they kept multiplying. And I also didn’t consider the negative impact that this practice has on nature. It may sound minor, but moving rocks can increase soil erosion and potentially disrupt a home for an animal or insect. It all adds up!

Have you thought about this topic? For me it unfortunately took a mishap in nasty weather to better grasp the importance of cairns and to further contemplate the increasing epidemic of rock stacking. Now it is very clear that rock stacks, like trash, will remain until they are taken down or broken down slowly by the environment. Nature exists in a certain way for a reason and we should not alter these sacred gifts. I ask that when retreating from civilization and entering nature, let go of the human ego and let nature change you, instead of you changing nature. Take a stand and help end this invasive practice. Worship the wild, and if you find the desire to stack rocks, for whatever reason, please do it on your private land.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Aliza would like to know your opinions on the topic of rock stacking. Leave your thoughts in the comments section and join the discussion. Thanks!

Cairns 1

Cairns 2

Cairns 3

Aliza Lapierre

finds peace and a sense of belonging while trail running. Her passion began by exploring the trails in her home state of Vermont and has been regenerated by exploration across the world. She continually works to redefine her perceived boundaries, while trying to inspire others to explore their capabilities as well.

There are 17 comments

  1. Markus

    Oh boy, if rock cairns are our only problems we are in good shape.

    Sometimes I think the “leave no trace” gets a little silly. We are concerned not to step next to the trail to avoid erosion and a couple of miles away they are fracking the hell out of the place.

    I will never understand why the main routes to 14ers in Colorado have no sufficient signing. I guess it is for the “wilderness experience” but what is that worth on heavily hiked 14er routes. People get lost, people get injured, people die, all because we don’t want a sign here and there.

    But when you look around the corner there is a defunct mining operation which left their mess sitting there so they can save money and we can “enjoy the mining history”.

    Rock cairns what an evil thing. I hope you knock them all over.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Last night around dark, I pulled into a dispersed campsite in a national forest. When I woke up at dawn this morning, I wandered down toward a nearby creek that I could hear from where I camped. A social trail led the way, and next to it I found two buckets, both containing human feces and toilet paper. In the forest around the buckets, toilet paper was spread–rodents had clearly gotten into the buckets, took and chewed the toilet paper, and discarded the small pieces. I walked back up to my campsite, double bagged two large garbage bags and put on a set of rubber gloves. I bagged up the buckets and picked up the pieces of toilet paper. I’ve got someone else’s–literally–shit sitting next to my truck as I type this, working from my campsite, which I will hopefully take to the dump of a town I visit later today.

      What is my point? If we all recreate with the attitude of ‘this is a small impact, it’s no big deal,’ we end up with a landscape filled with small impacts. I’ve camped around the western U.S. for my entire adult life and this is the first summer where I’ve felt ethically compelled to carry garbage bags and rubber gloves so that I can clean up the detritus of recreators who have preceded me. More of us are recreating, and more of us are leaving small impacts everywhere. It all adds up and I am seeing a big change. I would instead encourage recreators to enjoy the outdoors with the attitude of leaving as minimal impact as possible, each time, every time.

  2. Richard Senelly

    The apparent human need to “mark” places seems similar to what other animals do to mark their territory. There seems to be an increasing proliferation of meaningless wilderness markings that renders such places no longer wilderness. In Hawaii, cairns (stones gathered and piled) are called ahu. They are important, pre-historic trail markers through unmarked lava wilderness areas. In Hawaii, it is considered very bad form (cursed actually) to move or remove (or create meaningless) ahu. The island of O’ahu is the “gathering place”.

  3. doug k

    Richard, thank you. I was about to reply that making cairns that aren’t trail markers strikes me as a mortal sin: both against nature and literally mortal, as it could cost lives.
    Hawaii has it right.

    Meghan, on canoe trips on the popular Ruby-Horsethief section of the CO, the permit requires carrying a portapotty. Despite this we often have to pick up feces around the campsites. The TP blossoms are usually prominent features of the landscape..

  4. Eli

    I make it a point to always disassemble meaningless cairns, either those on an easily followed route that requires no cairns, or people’s art projects. Then I keep running.

  5. Tony

    I keep it simple, leave no trace. Minimal markings for trails. I as well take the time to clean up trail markings left from previous race or training runs and I take down cairns.

  6. Patrick

    I don’t intend to offend you, but this really strikes me as one of the world’s smallest problems. If you have both the physical abilities of a high-level trail runner, and the intelligence to put together coherent essays, then there’s bound to be something more productive that you could be working on.

    1. AndrewL

      Ahh, the old “don’t write about what you think is important but what I think is important” gambit. I agree, we should spend all our time focusing on how to feed all the poor people, solve climate change, and end cancer. Until that’s done I think we should halt all discussion of trailrunning.

  7. Johnny

    Aliza, I have been utterly annoyed by (what I view as unnecessary) cairns for years, and couldn’t agree more with your stance. Even if was written with a devil’s advocate provocation in mind (just sounds parallelish to an article I read in a mtb mag years ago re:hawkin a lugi on the trail–was actually written just to provoke opinion). Anyway, I concur with your take and have too much to say, so I won’t. But thank you for writing this.
    And Meghan, you’re a better person than I am; I would have probably barfed endlessly trying to do what you did and failed at the task.

  8. Paul

    I set cairns all the time. Typically 1 inch rocks, sometimes branches. I normally use patterns like primes or Fibonacci. I don’t think you would recognize them and they only last that run or hike. I run off trail a lot and when I come across a cairn it normally makes me smile that someone else has been there. It does seem odd the amount of work people go through. I really like them as they are easy to remove. I grew up with blazed trails where any decent tree was marked and rocks were carved into for steps almost more to mark the trail so something so easy to thoroughly remove seems nice. I figure with the distance you cover, some hiking magazine will have an article “where have all the cairns gone?” in a week or two.

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