Save Our Cairns

Karen Daubert, Executive Director of Washington Trails Association, recently sent me information about an initiative about cairns in the northeast. The goal is to protect cairns on mountains, as well as to protect the environment where the cairns are built. According to longtime Appalachian Mountain Club volunteer Pete Lane, “Cairns in our area are being damaged and as alpine stewards, we need lots of help to get the word out about leaving them as they are.” As Lane and others involved in the working group note, cairns have long been an essential element of safe hiking in northeast but in recent years these wonderful little piles of rocks have not fared well. The initiative is organized by Leave No Trace.

People not only are destroying cairns but also building too many of them, which can lead people astray and damage the environment, when cairns builders pry up rocks in the fragile alpine ecosystems for cairns. This situation has particularly been bad in national parks and along the Appalachian trail, where people regularly damage cairns despite the best efforts of rangers and volunteers.

The working group has published a set of guidelines for minimizing impact on cairns. Here they are. (From the web site.)

1. Do not build unauthorized cairns. When visitors create unauthorized routes or cairns they often greatly expand trampling impacts and misdirect visitors from established routes to more fragile or dangerous areas. This is especially important in the winter when trails are hidden by snow. Thus, visitor-created or “bootleg” cairns can be very misleading to hikers and should not be built.
2. Do not tamper with cairns. Authorized cairns are designed and built for specific purposes. Tampering with or altering cairns minimizes their route marking effectiveness. Leave all cairns as they are found.
3. Do not add stones to existing cairns. Cairns are designed to be free draining.  Adding stones to cairns chinks the crevices, allowing snow to accumulate. Snow turns to ice, and the subsequent freeze-thaw cycle can reduce the cairn to a rock pile.
4. Do not move rocks. Extracting and moving rocks make mountain soils more prone to erosion in an environment where new soil creation requires thousands of years. It also disturbs adjacent fragile alpine vegetation.
5. Stay on trails. Protect fragile mountain vegetation by following cairns or paint blazes in order to stay on designated trails.

All good advice, which is applicable to anywhere you find cairns, whether in the northeast, the Sierras, or the American southwest. With hiking season on us, this another good lesson in how to lessen our impact on the ecosystems we love to explore.


Final Battle of the Cairns

Living within sight of a famously tall mountain can engender a sense of local pride. So when someone questions the height of your mountain or raises the height of their mountain, sparks can fly. Or more practically and literally, cairns can go up. Such was the case in Colorado with Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. Elbert is officially taller, at 14,433, about twelve feet higher than Massive. Both are in the Sawatch Range.

For many years, however, fans of Mount Massive operated with the knowledge that their peak was actually the taller of the two. To make sure, they would go up on the summit and build a cairn, at least 13 feet high. Elbertophiles, who “knew” that their summit was higher, didn’t take to the Massive upstarts’ cairn-erections and they would hike up Massive and take down the cairn, which lead to the Massive people heading back for another cairn raising. And, so on and so on. Finally, at some point the feud fizzled.

But the height of Massive still troubled some locals. In the late 1930s, an official survey determined that Mount Massive was taller than Mount Rainier, pushing Rainier from down to the fourth highest peak in the lower 48. Washingtonians were apoplectic. Leo Weisfield, chair of the Washington State Progress Commission, was so incensed that he contacted the superintendent of Mount Rainier and asked if something couldn’t be done to return Rainier to its rightful place as the third highest peak. Weisfield proposed that the simplest way to deal with the issue was to erect a cairn on Rainier’s summit.

Even more irate was Col. Blethen, the publisher of the Seattle Times. In a front page editorial on August 25, 1939, he wrote “Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in the United States.” He rested his argument on the how much the mountain rose above its base, not its actual height. Those three mountains (Whitney in California and Elbert and Massive in Colorado) that were said to be taller than Rainier didn’t deserve their status since their bases were so far above sea level.

“For some reason the public has supinely accepted official measurements of mountains from theoretical sea level as indicating their actual height…This is sheer nonsense,” huffed Blethen. “It is perfectly true that Mount Whitney and probably the two hitherto unknown Colorado mountains are more than 14,000 feet “high” in the sense that their tops are that much above sea level, but there actually is no mountain in the United States that is 14,000 feet tall excepting the one which rises straight and clear from the sea level to peak and that is Mount Rainier.”

Despite Blethen’s logic and Weisfield’s plan, nothing changed. Then in 1948, four Seattleites, as part of a service club, proposed to build a cairn atop Rainier. It would be 24-foot-high cairn made of rock and snow. Again, the superintendent of Mount Rainier rejected the request. In response, citizens in Mount Vernon, a small town north of Seattle, countered that they would be happy for the four Seattle climbers to come and build a 10,501-foot-cairn on a hill near Mount Vernon, making it the third highest peak in the state.

As someone interested a wee bit in cairns, I have been delighted to track down these stories of cairns and how important they are to people. Sure they may say that what their doing is all about making their local peaks bigger but I think they all they really desired was to find ways to go out and build more cairns.