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Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

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Summit’s  Signals:  an ancient  custom

Page Type: Article

Object Title: Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Ice Climbing, Scrambling


Page By: Silvia Mazzani

Created/Edited: Mar 1, 2012 / Dec 22, 2013

Object ID: 779069

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Page Score: 87.31%  - 24 Votes 

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Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

Averau - art and nature
An artistic sculpture on Nuvolau; Averau in the background Photo Vid Pogachnik
Mont Blanc summit
Only a little wooden pile marks the top of Europe
Building a cairn on Agouti East, Anti-Atlas range
Building a cairn on the summit of Agouti East, Jebel El Kest Group (Morocco)
A Mary s statue on Monte Marmagna
A little Mary's statue on Monte Marmagna, Appennino Parmense
A windy day on Corno Nero summit
The Corno Nero summit in a windy day

Since ancient times peoples living in the highest lands used to leave a mark of their presence on the summits they had climbed, out of curiosity, for hunting, or burying their things; the history says to us that we can’t consider those ascents like an expression of a primeval exploring spirit, rather we should see them as a kind of mystical “ante-litteram” mountaineering, the Pre-Incas “Sun’s Cult” being an example about it. The numberless ancient articles discovered on different summits in Africa – like in the “Main de Fatma” Group in Mali – and mostly on some Andean peaks, like on the very high Llullaillaco (m. 6723) in the Chilean Andes by the well known scientific expeditions led by the Austrian alpinist Mathias Rebitsch in 1961, are the evidence of those ancient activities.
After the mountaineering’s birth, the majority of summits' explorers and “conquerors” wished to leave on the top a certain evidence of their
ascents; in fact in the nineteenth century, on the Alps , the custom of building a stones’ cairn on the summit began to have a large circulation. On the Andes, after the Aconcagua first ascent realized in 1897 by Mathias Zurbriggen, who left on the top his ice-axe and a note, the habit of leaving on the summit a note - named “comprobantes “ - to testify the climb had a great development.
From that time, slowly during the years, this mountaineers’ simple custom changed into a different phenomenon: the Alpine Clubs and the Mountaineering Associations themselves started to build all the kinds of signals on the summits, in order to identify a peak’s summit point, to give to climbers the certainty of being on the highest point, to adorn the top, to celebrate an ascent, to pay homage to the transcendent and so on, and even for business purposes. Every kind of summit’s signals had been constructed, from the simple cairns to the religious symbols, from the trigonometric marks to the proper summit huts, sometimes unsuitable. At times, but not always, the summit’s signal shelters the summit book, where the climbers can record their ascents. This habit had developed an awful lot in the twentieth century – mainly in last seventy years - but we have some clamorous examples even in the nineteenth century - like the Capanna Margherita's building over the summit of Punta Gnifetti at 4556 m., one of Monte Rosa highest summits, in the origins a little poor cabin, now a big mountain hut.
In the Alps Northern sides, and more than ever in Southern ones (Italy) and in the Apennines, the custom to build on the top some
religious symbols, as crosses and Mary’s statues, has a large
circulation, being the
cross the symbol more frequently used: in Alto Adige (Sud Tirol) the majority of the peaks have a cross on the top. In last times on the alpine summits we started to find some Nepali prayer’ flats, another manifest recall, although belonging to a different culture, to the transcendent.
On the Andean peaks, according to the ancient custom to leave “comprobantes” rather then building “cairns”, usually we don’t find any summit’s signal. Also in Northern Europe, in the Scandes range, we often can find important and sometimes huge summit’s signal, like on the Galdhoppigen, the Stetind and the Eggjenibba, but as a general rule, those ones don’t have any religious significance.
Obviously, even in a very attended range like the Alps, we can find numberless peaks without any signal. Can these "empty" summits really give us a greatest feeling of freedom?

Galdhoppigen summit signal
An orienteering table on Galdoppigen, Jotunheimen, Norway
A stones  cairn on Torre Wundt
A cairn on Torre Wundt, Cadini, Eastern Dolomites
A summit box on Rosenlauistock
A summit-box on Rosenlauistock, Engelhorner, Berner Oberland
An iron cross on Schneebiger Noch - Vedrette di Ries
An iron cross on Schneebiger Noch - Vedrette di Ries, Sud Tirol



[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-3 of 3    

Vid PogachnikGood article, Sylvia!

Vid Pogachnik

Voted 10/10

And thanks for invitation. I attached 4 pictures and hopefully added a bit to the diversity of your collection.

My attitude toward this topic would be that it would be just OK not to have anything on the summits. It's not natural and things like the big statue on Schoenfeldspitze (that's why I attached it, even if the picture is not mine) are far from being in harmony with nature. On the other hand I can recall how often I was greeting with pleasure a simple, cute ciarn, as a new friend I met.
Posted Mar 4, 2012 4:58 am

Silvia MazzaniRe: Good article, Sylvia!

Silvia Mazzani

Hasn't voted

Thank you very much Vid for your approbation and your attachment! I'm according with you that a simple cairn is the better signal a mountaineer can find over a summit...I don't like very much the excessive summit's signal...but those do exist! So - if agree - i'd like share one of your pictures in my page.
ciao and thank you again

Posted Mar 5, 2012 12:32 pm

LuminousAphidNorth America


Hasn't voted

I only have a small experience in mountaineering, all in the NW United States, but it seems that there is a completely different set of traditions regarding mountaintop signals around here. I have yet to see any sort of religious symbol marking the top of summits in Washington; the most common ones here are fire lookouts (mostly burned down or abandoned, but a few which are still maintained), and USGS triangulation cairns.

There was once an extensive network of fire lookouts throughout the cascades, which could spot a fire in even the remote backcountry areas. They even had several different ways of communicating with one another or the base of operations, and they were often manned every day throughout much of the year.

Cairns (some as tall as 7ft) were built mainly to triangulate the summit elevations from surrounding known elevation points, and then use the marks for further triangulation of other points, and so on. Many of these, even though built over 100 years ago, still stand atop lofty summits.

the third type we see around here, while not really a "mark," is the summit register, an extension of leaving a note on the summit. These are found on some unlikely peaks and some see only a few ascents per DECADE; amazing when you think about how lonely these places usually are.

I wouldn't mind writing up a bit more info for this article if you'd like, send me a PM if you want me to write a section up for N america or even just the NW US.

Here are a couple examples:
Cairn on Alta Mountain: http://images.summitpost.org/large/699145.jpg
Summit Lookout on Three Fingers: http://images.summitpost.org/large/602773.jpg
(Not my images)
Posted Mar 12, 2012 1:22 pm

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