MOUNTAINS OUT OF TRAIL MARKERS? THE CONTROVERSY ABOUT ROCK CAIRNS
The work of wise men or the litter-like leavings of hill-wandering nitwits? The debate over the use and abuse of rock cairns is one that rages on.
In the past, the issue was usually the preserve of mountaineering clubs, trekking groups, and the odd disgruntled, cranky purist. At biannual meetings it was one of the items that, despite a few ruffled feathers, was generally passed onto the next one without any conclusive decision being made on the matter.
These days the topic has become something of a polemic, having gained greater notice and attention owing to a number of incidents and the sheer volume of cairns now bedecking our hill and mountainsides. Cairns are fast becoming, some claim, not only a bit of an eyesore but also an ecological concern and potential health hazard.
So, just how did these once inoffensive, handy waymarkers come to be regarded by some as a serious contender to the love of money for the title of The Root of All Evil? And what are we to take from the controversy and all its kerfuffle? Use them or ignore them? Build them or leave no trace?
In this article, we’re going to take a wander through the improbably high-profile world of rock cairns, stopping off to explain how to use them, when to ignore them, and also, of course, to shed some light on what all the fuss is about.
Before that, let’s have a little sneak preview of the main points we’ll cover.
When informed that the most heated debate in the hiking world at present concerns the assemblage of small rock piles in wild and mountainous areas, most non-enthusiasts are fairly nonplussed. Even for those of us who are regular outdoor-goers and familiar with the controversy, the cases of the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps can easily lead to a spot cognitive dissonance when assessing the merits of their arguments.
To better understand those arguments and provide a little background to the issue, let’s first take a quick look at the rock cairn’s rise from humble beginnings to international infamy*.
The term ‘cairn’ is one of Scotland’s greatest linguistic contributions to the English language, second only to the now ubiquitous ‘wee’, ‘blackmail’ and, of course, ‘whisky’. The name derives from the Gaelic ‘carn’, meaning ‘stone mound’, ‘heap of stones’, or ‘rocky hill’.
The oldest remaining examples of cairns were sepulchral constructions built to inter and commemorate the dead. The most famous examples are perhaps the Clava Cairns in Scotland and the Cairn de Barnenez in Brittany, France, which have been dated to 2,000 BC and 4,850 BC respectively.
When cairns were first used for navigation purposes is largely unknown, but accounts from early expeditions in the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, European Alps, Karakorum, and South America all made mention of cairns which were explicitly used to demarcate routes.
In Scotland, rock cairns were (and still are) customarily constructed on hill and mountaintops by picking up a stone at the foot of the hill and depositing it on the summit, as described in more detail in this article from Cairns of Scotland.
These days, rock cairns are fairly ubiquitous. Even in zones where trails are commonly waymarked by painted panels (blazes) or signposts, the cairn lives on and is thriving despite its detractors and stiff competition from officially endorsed, newfangled equivalents.
The pleas and prohibitions of many park and land management authorities, as well as activist groups, have done little to stall the infectious proliferation and spread of cairns in wild places worldwide. From the Wadi Rum to New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego to the Drakensberg range, thousands of hikers every year still navigate by this most rudimentary of human technologies, and a substantial percentage, we’d imagine, still play a part in their construction.
Perhaps the most famous cairn in the hiking and mountaineering world is the Gilkey Memorial at the foot of K2, built to commemorate Art Gilkey, a member of 1953 US expedition to the world’s second highest mountain.
And the world’s highest summit cairn? Despite the obvious inconvenience and other notable distractions, even Everest’s summiteers aren’t averse to a spot of cairn building (even if it’s barely visible through all the prayer flags).
The debate about rock cairns is not a new one. In recent years, however, opponents of unauthorized and willy-nilly bump-builders have become more vocal-slash-irate than ever before. As increasing traffic in wild areas has resulted in the construction of more and more cairns in almost every wild corner of the globe, the number of disputants has grown with them. In locations as diverse as Arizona, Iceland, Acadia, Wales, and Australia, their fury has been aired in newspapers, on websites, television, and, no doubt, many a hillside. Resultantly, an equally vociferous faction of proponents of rock cairns has emerged to defend their place in our wild areas. But what’s the beef all about?
The purpose of rock cairns since time immemorial has been as a navigational aid for travelers in wild areas. Whenever we get lost, we see a cairn and — in theory — can then easily get ourselves back on track. Even if we aren’t lost, cairns make for a handy means of hassle-free travel, almost like a large-scale, real-life, outdoor version of connect-the-dots.
In the days of multiple heinous threats to the earth’s beloved wild places, to many minds cairns are a very slight intrusion on the natural environment in comparison. Low-tech and low-key, they stand as a largely unobtrusive alternative to the painted blazes, gaudy signposts, and theme-park-like placards found on many trails around the world.
To others who are less assured in their use of a map and compass, cairns are often blessed beacons that guide the way out of many a potential jam. Their presence, some might add, can also allow non-hikers to enjoy the occasional hike without fear of getting lost (this, however, may cause as many problems as it solves).
Two of the most sizable bones of contention wielded against cairn building have been their blight on natural scenery and damage to fragile ecosystems. These claims are countered, however, by those who contend that cairn-building is a valid art-form and also helps to keep hikers on a single route, thereby reducing deviations which may cause more damage to off-trail soil and vegetation.
So, given their practicality, helpfulness, and possible artistic value, just how did rock cairns come to be the outdoor community’s answer to the question of gun control, Brexit, and/or the Pepsi vs. Coke debate? Alas, for every argument in favor of building cairns, there is an equally, if not more, valid one against doing so…
Seeing a cairn a few hundred meters ahead of you on the trail can be a comfort and reassurance, particularly if you’re hiking in heavy rain, snow, fog, or unfamiliar territory. But what if there are two, situated in opposing directions? Which one is legit and which was built by bored hikers to amuse themselves during a lunch break or breather? What, moreover, if there are eight?
The problem with the ‘little men’, perhaps, is that they don’t speak…
Many of us have had a ‘what the…?’ moment out in the backcountry when encountering a lonesome cairn or collection of cairns that appear to serve no purpose and lead to no obvious destination. Many times, this is not a big issue — we do a quick recon, consult our map, or lose a few minutes reestablishing our bearings otherwise. Other times, it can be nigh on deadly, as described in this thread by hikers and climbers descending on Italy/Switzerland’s iconic Piz Badile, and in this article on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, where cairns have recently been blamed for the deaths of numerous hikers.
As mentioned above, one of the main charges being leveled against rock cairns is their aesthetic imprint, with some going so far as to call them ‘natural graffiti’, acts of ‘vandalism’, and ‘pointless reminders of the human ego’.
But maybe they have a point…
In popular mountainous areas, in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find sections of trail where rock cairns are not visible, and others where maybe a dozen or more form an untidy coterie of blemishes on an otherwise entirely natural landscape.
Given that the original raison d'être for rock cairns in wild places was purely to provide directions where established trails were less visible, the above criticisms seem fairly valid. Also, cairns tend to stand as unofficial rest stops or staging points on many routes, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to find litter scattered around the cairns or wedged between the rocks.
How each of us view the visual impact of rocks cairns is undoubtedly subjective and, of course, maybe not immune to the influence of relativity. Those used to built-up areas may deem the visual intrusion slight compared to the concrete behemoths found in the city. Those from rural areas, or who call any given wild area ‘home’, may be more likely to take umbrage at that area’s increasing embellishment.
Those of us who have added our contribution to rock cairns at any point have no doubt done so carrying an exculpation at the back of our minds. Just one little rock, we think, isn’t going to do much harm. If, however, X amount of people think likewise times 365 days per year, that’s a lot of rock!
Despite appearances to the untrained eye, rocks are both habitats and preservers of habitats.
Displacing rocks to build cairns increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, which both damages trails and in turn increases the risk, in some areas, of landslides and flooding in the valleys below.
Also, given that many rare mosses, larvae, lichens, flies, snails, fungi, and plants all call rocks their home, our seemingly negligible act could amount to something of a genocide or mass diaspora for our one little rock’s minute inhabitants. The slogan ‘leave no trace’ tends to leave room for thoughts that certain behaviors are okay so long as they are hidden or unseen. While the intended meaning of the counsel holds true, it’s best complemented by the more conscientious and responsible addendum ‘do no harm’.
Another oft-cited drawback of rock cairns is their potential to inspire an overly lax and casual approach to navigation. Many hikers and non-hikers alike all too often head to wild areas assuming that the presence of rock cairns eliminates the need for proficiency in the use of a map and compass. While this may well be the case on clear days and where rock cairns are well positioned, in poor visibility or where they are not it could prove to be a fatal mistake.
Pro Tip: Using Rocks as a Compass
For navigation purposes, observe which way rime or ice forms on cairns. Rime usually forms on the windward side, so if you know the prevailing wind direction you can establish the four cardinal directions without a compass.
Also, if cairns have moss on one side and not the other, the chances are the mossy side is the north side (in the northern hemisphere; vice versa in the south).
Personally, I’m of the opinion that rock cairns would be lovely additions to our city streets, squares, sidewalks, and offices, but are superfluous adornments to our wild places when exceeding the bare minimum required for navigation. There’s no doubting the utility of rock cairns, as long as their construction and placement are carefully managed so as to avoid any disastrous deviations from the route.
The most convincing, if terse, rebuttal to the claims of the pro-cairn-building faction should, perhaps, stress the fact that mountainous, wild terrain presents enough variables and natural hazards without adding man-made ones to the mix in the form of errant waymarkers. The common sense answer to the issue where safety is concerned, therefore, might read something along the lines of the following: keep the babies, throw out the bathwater.
With regard to the visual impact of rock cairns, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that earth’s natural spaces face enough man-made threats to their purity and wildness without any further blows being dealt by the impromptu handiwork of self-appointed beautifiers. In constructions and monuments, after all, the world is well-off; in truly pristine wilderness it is fast becoming impoverished. Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that each whimsically erected cairn marks an ironic return to the cairn’s original purpose, serving as a memorial shrine to our genuinely unspoiled landscapes while simultaneously contributing to their demise?
Given all of the above, I believe rock cairns should only be built by designated park or nature area authorities, or volunteers acting under their direction. While this may seem like a fairly sweeping encroachment on the ‘freedom of the hills’, like most freedoms our personal clout ends where the interests and welfare of others begin.
Pro Tip: Dismantling Cairns
Before setting about any vigilante work in dismantling cairns, be sure to check they are not ‘official’ cairns, commemorative cairns, or part of a historical ritual site
If you agree with the above points, then I’d recommend following the guidelines below. And now that I’ve taken myself off the fence, please feel free to respond, berate, or otherwise opine in the comments box at the bottom of the page!
If you’d like your say on the matter, the US National Parks Blog is inviting opinions on rock cairns here.
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive regular updates on our latest backpacking, hiking and camping guides.
Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.