N. Maroon
(the use of cairns)

5 Aug 2001 - by Bill Strand

We climbed N. Maroon Sunday Aug. 5 via the NE Ridge. Like the other Peaks around Maroon Lake this one is steep and loose. I was surprised at how well beaten the trail was. On the way up we had little trouble route finding. If the moves look like more than a single 4th Class move you can probably find an easier way around. We shared the mountain with a party of five and a solo climber. The others made some of the cliff bands harder than necessary. On the way down we followed erroneous cairns several times and had to reclimb 300 ft at one point. It might be worth bringing some surveying flagging and marking the top of were one climbs the cliff bands for those who aren't sure of their route finding skills. Both of us have considerable route finding experience and were still led astray. It is easy to see how climbers get into trouble with cliff bands all around and loose rock. The views in the area of the "Bells" is truly world renown and I am reminded of this every time I climb there. Leave early, carefully chose your route, test all holds, and have fun.

Mary Gilbert adds:

I've only done N. Maroon from the NW, and not by this "normal" route. We backpacked over Buckskin Pass and camped in the meadows NW of the Peak. (It was September and we found just enough water from a small stream.)

N. Maroon itself on this side had similar stuff--loose rock hazard, etc.--but NO people. We didn't have to worry about someone above us kicking rocks loose. We ascended a wide prominent couloir that took us close to the north ridge of the peak, then a cairned route high on the west side went to the summit with little problem. If we took a wrong turn, we'd know it immediately--coming to the edge of a cliff, etc.

Roger Wendell adds:

After nearly 15 trips through Grand Canyon my brother and I happened onto an Outward Bound group that was removing cairns from the Tonto Platform. This went on for a week (From about South Bass up to Hermit or something). When I finally developed the courage (ha) to ask them why they explained that the cairns had been placed illegally and shouldn't have been there to begin with.

D'Arcy Straub adds:

Cairns can be useful for keeping people on one trail and prevent the needless proliferation of multiple routes. Thus, if you're on a route, don't destroy them.

Brad Beaver adds:

I am all for markings especially when they are not paint < longs peak > I think that Cairns can be very helpful especially in the winter when there is no trail and finding your way becomes critical. I have seen some very over done cairns < 7 feet high > However when a cairn was tactfully done ( some are as old as 50 years ) and has been a part of the trail system that ex-president Roosevelt had built 65 years ago, I think they need to be left alone. Some of our trails in Colorado where built by the Work Projects of the 1930's. Some of the trails are currently maintained by volunteers and the Ameri-Corps. These people do not build cairns but they do not destroy them. Try hike/climbing Longs Peak in the winter and then try finding your way down without the use of markings. Most people look for hours for the cairns that are there and still have troubles finding the trail.

Dean adds:

I did the maroon bells via center couloir... south bell was no problem on route finding , but after summiting north and then beginning the descent via the north east face, I found theat the cairns were the only thing that made it possible to stay on "trail" for that trip down... granted some were erronious but with out them we would have been wondering all over that face looking for routes to get down via.... even the mis-placed cairns still indicated the presence of a line off the mountain....

Paul Wilson adds:

> I am all for markings especially when they are not paint ( longs peak )
> I think that Cairns can be very helpful especially in the winter when
> there is no trail and finding your way becomes critical.

I agree - no paint. If one must mark a trail use cairns or surveyors tape when bushwhacking in the forest. The tape is easily removed on your way back and if you miss one, the stuff has a short life. Experienced hikers are very wary of following the cairns. Beware of somebodys 5th class route or a destination you are not interested in.

I admit to following cairns but I sure have been led astray a bunch of times (cairns probably put there by amateurs or newbies). The worst I have experienced was on Mt Adams I was so frustrated that I removed all the dead end cairns. I found 4 or 5 cairn routes that led to dead end series of cliffs. The route was clearly described in the guide book and remains with cairns.

> Try hike/climbing Longs Peak in the winter and then try finding your
> way down without the use of markings. Most people look for hours for
> the cairns that are there and still have troubles finding the trail.

But the winter route does not need cairns and does not follow the summer trail. However, Climbs in the dark of night, or bad visibility, create a real problems as the cairn route is difficult to locate (not enough of them - way to far apart and covered with snow). The winter route works until one hits the trees then it becomes very tricky, but its better than trying to follow the summer route. Hint: The map and compass work until you find the trail in the trees after which the route need no further help. Get your key bearing from the winter trail sign on the way up. It goes approximately directly to the pass. A couple of bearings are prudent. A part time ranger got lost descending the winter route so one has to be careful. The forest from above all looks the same and he absent mindedly wandered S and got in the wrong drainage. Of course he did not use a compass as he had done the route many many times. Lesson: When visibility is bad do not trust your directional instincts.

> I did the maroon bells via center couloir... south bell was no problem on
> route finding , but after summiting north and then beginning the descent via
> the north east face, I found theat the cairns were the only thing that made
> it possible to stay on "trail" for that trip down...  granted some were
> erronious but with out them we would have been wondering all over that face
> looking for routes to get down via....   even the mis-placed cairns still
> indicated the presence of a line off the mountain....

Yes, a descent via a different route is always problematic. Our descent from the S summit via the ~S ridge 6/24 was bad with regard to following the cairns. Many must have been covered with snow or just missing. We only noted a couple of variations. We mostly just did our own route and it was a good thing we had people in our party that had no problem with free climbing the low 5th class stuff we did. So much for following the cairns.

As an aside: When my buddy and I did Grand Teton via Owens Spaulding, we found one party waiting for us and another party quickly caught up with us so we could show them the way down. A wise move on their part as the route is tricky and is a repeating place for bad incidents for the parties who have gone up a more technical route.

Doug Cook adds:

I really, really hope we aren't suggesting or starting a practice of marking routes with surveyor's tape. Our trails are already "marked" enough on most Fourteeners by braided, often incorrect and sometimes dangerous multiple routes marked by cairns. I too have been guilty of marking what I am certain is the/a best route with cairns and later learning I'm way off the preferred route. We then climb on and never retrace our path to remove the previously placed cairns.

Placing cairns on harder routes where the routefinding is difficult can be wise insurance, but I've found that on the more difficult climbs we seldom follow the same route down. Looking from above, we've always seen a "better" route down and taken a different path (at least part way down) on the descent - which ends up sometimes better and sometimes harder than anticipated. It's part of the game. Cairns are welcome sights to help reassure us that we are on route and are especially helpful when the visibility is poor or the trail is partially covered with snow (but, it often ends up to actually be false assurance when they lead to a dead end or too difficult a section to climb!). As others have commented, you want to follow cairns with a great deal of reliance on your own routefinding skills. (The Bullseyes on Longs are different in that they are "approved," well tested markings that identify the best or one of the safest routes.)

Last July and August, Kevin Craig and I climbed Pyramid and both Maroon Bells (three different trips!). These are, in our experience, three of the most difficult, dangerous Fourteeners. Routefinding is difficult and loose stuff everywhere makes checking holds before committing mandatory and climbing slowly to avoid kicking rocks down on climbers below. On these three peaks, more than on any other Fourteener (where I've seldom seen surveyor's tape) there were several braided, confusing routes marked with a rainbow of fluorescent green, orange, and yellow tape. We'd follow one color for a ways, and then decide there was a better route either unmarked or marked with the same or a different color tape. It gets very confusing, at best. You pretty much end up relying on your own routefinding skills, and backing down when you've made a poor choice and finding another route.

Plastic tape is visual pollution to many people, trash, lasts for years until it weathers and degrades, certainly is not an LNT practice, and just isn't necessary. With so much controversy over leaving colored nylon slings when rapping off climbs, marking routes with brightly colored plastic tape has to be considered bad practice. Please don't encourage it!

BTW, Freedom of the Hills recommends using crepe paper in rolls to mark routes. The paper weathers after just one Winter and "disappears." I tried this as an alternative for infrequent use of tape to mark a critical turning point where I was certain I would return to remove it. It works about as well as plastic tape - red was the brightest color I could find - and is certainly preferred since it doesn't last "forever." Since either paper or plastic tape is trash, both should be avoided.

Regarding removing cairns, whenever you follow cairns and decide they mark a poor route left by climbers as they attempted to mark their trail for their return, knock them down. You'll save someone else following the same dead end route and having to find another path. Chances are slim you'll remove any valuable cairns, and if so certainly someone else will eventually rebuild them.

S. Ram adds:

The best solution, at least to me, is to support the folks that build trails. I volunteer on a regular basis with VOC (http://www.voc.org) and the CFI (http://www.coloradofourteeners.org/ link broken as of 2012). They are in the process of creative impressive and sustainable trails for the 14ers plus numerous other places. Let the pros (do volunteers qualify to be pros?) do the job!!! :-)

I know this for sure at least for the Quandary and Capitol trails which are being worked on as I type. It will be nice to have more people volunteer!


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