July 20th, a blustery, grey Sunday, found me just above tree line on Cascade, repairing a tumbledown cairn. As a summit steward, I do a variety of trail work, from packing rocks into loose soil to stabilize it against erosion, to lining the trail with stones to guide hiker’s footsteps. Cairn construction, however, is my favorite trail maintenance. It takes patience and skill, and the resulting stone towers, rising in silhouette against the sky, have a stark and unforgettable beauty.
There are several factors that go into choosing a site for a cairn. Those lovely silhouettes are no accident—cairns are placed where they will be most visible to hikers, on the lips of ledges so they will contrast with the sky rather than blending into the rock around them. A cairn must also be built on relatively flat ground, a difficult thing to find on Adirondack summits!
Once a good site has been chosen, the hard work begins. Because the Adirondack bedrock is extremely resistant to erosion, there is virtually no loose rock to be found above tree line. Summit stewards must quarry it from well below its intended resting place. In the case of the most recently built cairn on Wright, rock was quarried a half mile below the summit and lugged up to the peak on the backs of stewards! Carrying these huge rocks up the steep pitches on that trail is no mean feat.
After all this, the actual cairn building can begin. The biggest rocks are placed at the bottom of the cairn. Each rock that goes into the structure must be set—meaning I can push down on each corner of the stone without it budging an inch. Even a little bit of movement will be exacerbated by the weight of the rocks to be put on top, and could destabilize the whole cairn. Furthermore, the rocks should slant slightly inward so that the structure rests on its own weight, each rock leaning in against the rocks opposite it. Rocks that tilt outwards will end up sliding out of the cairn once weight is placed on them. Finally, rocks should be placed so that they intersect the gaps between the stones on the level below them, just as bricks are placed in a wall. You can imagine that, with all of these considerations, it is a very tricky puzzle to place the irregular, craggy rocks in just the right positions. But the effort pays off. A good cairn can be kicked, climbed, blown by 150 mph winds, and frozen by ice without a single rock shifting position.
That being said, tampering with the cairns on the summits, or building your own, can lead to dangerous situations. Please do NOT kick or climb the cairns, as their rocks are heavy, and could hurt you if they fall. Adding rocks to cairns creates a similar problem—if the rocks are not set, they can easily fall off and injure someone. Furthermore, the rocks on the summits are all there for a purpose. They have been carried up by stewards and participants of the Carry-a-Rock program, and are used, as I mentioned, to maintain the trails above tree line. When rocks are taken from the trail to make pretty, though unstable, cairns, the result is often the destabilization of soil being held in place by those stones. An inch of soil can take thousands of years to build up on the alpine summits, so every little bit is precious.
When you’re up on the peaks, take a minute to admire those imposing towers of rock and the hard work it takes to build them; and do your part to conserve our fragile summits by leaving the rocks above tree line exactly where they are.
Devon Reynolds is a High Peaks Summit Steward and a recent graduate of Brown University with a B.A. is Africana Studies and Portuguese & Brazilian Studies. She is also an amateur writer and a lover of wild places.