High on a mountain trail, where the dirt path fades into hardpack, you come across a neatly arranged pile of rocks. One atop another, the rocks balance in a tower built to withstand the mightiest of winds. This is a cairn, pronounced like yarn. It’s a Gaelic word that comes to us from the Scottish Highlands. Surely, you’ve seen one before. Cairns come in all shapes and sizes. Some are a loose pile of rocks, others look like a megalithic tomb commemorating an ancient God. But if you look closely, they’re all trying to tell you something. With some practice and a little intuition, next time you try you won’t need help reading rock cairns.
The first step to finding your route in the alpine is to keep your eyes up. Let your feet find the ground while your eyes scan the near horizon. Once you find a cairn you are hot on the trail of the next. Look closely at the top of the cairn and see if it has a “beak”, or a noticeable rock that juts out. This could be an arrow pointing toward the next one. If it’s lacking the beak, trust your instincts and look for the likeliest path of an upward ascent.
Mountaineers before you have discovered the dangers or annoyances of routes which might appear to be shortcuts, so trust that the cairn builder knew what they were doing until, or if, you find evidence that’s not the case. A cairn is typically built only as high as it needs to be seen from the next one. Once you find one, all you have to do is connect the cairns up to the summit.
Reading rock cairns on a peak is self-explanatory, this type of cairn is exactly what you’re guessing. It’s the cairn that someone builds atop the peak so you’ll know you reached the top. However, the best summit cairns are more than that. They are hollow in the center and serve as a windbreak that you can enter. Look for the summit register there. It’s likely in an ammo box or a PVC tube.
Sign in and alert other mountaineers if there is anything funky or confusing with the route. Be sure to also include some witty or stoic quip to let the world know what caliber of climber they are dealing with. Also, watch for entrepreneurial chipmunks. They tend to live in summit cairns and appear the moment you open your snacks.
Lazy rivers are often adorned with cairns along the banks. A river cairn, more than any other type, is often built by someone with idle time and a hankering to try their engineering luck. Balancing river rocks is a real art because they have often been worn smooth and round by the water’s current. If you see a cairn on a mid-stream boulder and hear a load roar down the river, perk up. Often times a river cairn is built to indicate the best route through rapids. Slow down and look it over.
If there are rocks on one side of the cairn, that is the direction they are guiding you. The tower grabs your attention, and the secondary rocks are the arrow. These can be helpful on a lazy river float to avoid minor hangups or shallow channels. If you’re approaching a Class V called Jaws of Death, please, don’t trust the rocks. Get out and scout.
Hiking a dry wash can feel like you’re strolling down a walker’s highway. All the footprints and animal tracks in the sand suggest you’re on the route, and it’s easy to mentally drift from the task of navigating. Don’t do it! What are you going to do if you get to a junction of numerous canyons? What if the trail exits the main wash and follows a minor one? You’re going to look for a desert cairn, that’s what. These tend to be small and hastily built. They do the trick of helping you choose the right path when you have options.
In closing thoughts… Yes, building and reading rock cairns is fun, but it’s best done in moderation. Excessive cairn building is akin to litter, or at its worst, vandalism. Each cairn you build should serve a purpose. If you want to zen out and tinker, go for it, but go full zen and deconstruct your cairn — just as the Buddhist monks wash away their sand mandalas after completion. Remember, any existing cairn is fair game for a remodel. Add a stone. Join the conversation. This is how the ancient language of cairns has survived since further back than anyone can remember.