Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom
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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 over different summits in Africa – like in the “Main de Fatma” Group in Mali – and mostly over some Andean peaks, like over 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 over the top a certain evidence of their
ascents; in fact in the nineteenth century, on the Alps , the custom of building a stones’ cairn over 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, had a great development the habit of leaving over the summit a note - named “comprobantes “ - to testify the climb.
From that time, slowly during the years, this mountaineers’ simple custom changed into a different phenomenon: the Alpine Clubs and the Mountaineering’s Associations themselves started to build all the kinds of signals over 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.
On the Alps’ northern sides, and more than ever in southern ones (Italy) and in the Apennines, the custom to build over 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 over the top. In last times over the alpine summits we started to find some Nepali prayer’ flats, another manifest recall, although belonging to a different culture, to the transcendent.
Over 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 over 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?