Cairns are not always known as cairns. According to the OED, people who dwell in Cumbria refer to, or at least formerly did, a prominent pile of rocks as a man. The best reference for this use comes from Virginia Woolf’s dad, Sir Leslie Stephen, a famed mountaineer of the middle nineteenth century. His book, The Playground of Europe, was quite influential to several generations of mountain explorers.
Late in the evening on July 30, 1862, Sir Leslie and a group of friends were slightly misplaced while hiking near the Eggischorn in the alps of Switzerland. Fortunately, their shouts attracted a young boy who brought a torch to aid them. (It’s not exactly clear what he was doing up there but Sir Leslie doesn’t go into that detail.) But they still remained lost. Sir Leslie wrote “After scrambling up and down, and round and round for a long time, we found ourselves in a disconsolate and bewildered state of mind, standing on a damp ledge of grass at the foot of a big rock staring vacantly into blank darkness Whether to go up or down, or right or left, we knew no more than if we had been dropped into middle of the great Sahara.” Sir Leslie and his companions decided the best thing to do was to wait out the night. Just as he was adding more layers of clothes the boy, who had disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared, reappeared saying “I’ve found a man!”
It took Sir Leslie a few seconds, as he wrote, to “appreciate the fact that he was referring to a stone man or cairn, marking the route to the Eggischorn.” They eventually made it to safety and “two good bottles of champagne.”
Sir Leslie’s pleasure at the boy’s discovery of the cairn exemplifies one of the universal truths about cairns. Finding one when you are lost is truly memorable and one of the most reassuring things that can happen to you in the backcountry. It also exemplifies my thoughts that cairns carry more meaning than just being a simple pile of rocks. They are an important means of communication and a sign of community, for in such a situation as Sir Leslie found himself, he knew that those who came before had erected that man, or cairn, to aid fellow hikers, surely one tangible sign of a community: the desire to help others.
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