Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

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Summit’s  Signals:  an ancient  custom
Created On: Mar 1, 2012
Last Edited On: Mar 17, 2016

Summits' signals, a mysterious habit that originated in antiquity

Since ancient times peoples living in the highest lands used to leave a mark of their presence on the summits they had climbed in order to hunt, to bury their things, to celebrate a rite or maybe pushed by curiosity...
To linger on the summit and seal our successful ascent by a click near the peak's summit signal is nowadays a common action, come into our habits of climbers and hikers as a manifestation of joy and satisfaction, almost a ritual. This ritual takes on a deeper meaning in the knowledge that it has roots that are lost in the mists of time, when mountaineering was quite far from existing.
Clear and fascinating witness of those far activities was found on the summits of different mountains worldwide, as the numberless ancient things discovered in Africa, on some stunning rocky towers belonging to the “Main de Fatma” Group in Mali. Given the difficulty required to reach these spires, we have to assume that those ancient inhabitants were able to climb...

Averau - art and nature
An artistic sculpture on Nuvolau; Averau in background Ph. Vid Pogachnik

A Mary's statue on Monte Marmagna
A little Mary's statue on Monte Marmagna, Appennino Parmense

Another evidence of the mysterious human presence on the highest mountains was the discovery of old remains on some Andean peaks, as on the summit of the very high Llullaillaco (m. 6723) in the Chilean Andes, made by the well known scientific expeditions led by the Austrian alpinist Mathias Rebitsch in 1961.
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”, practiced by the pre-Inca peoples of the highest summits of the Andes, being an example about it.

Summits' signals after the birth of Mountaineering

Traditionally and - I would like to add - conventionally history considers the birth of Mountaineering to coincide with the day of the first ascent of Mont Blanc on August 8th, 1786, realized by Michel Gabriel Paccard, a doctor, and Jacques Balmat, a hunter and crystal-seeker, both from Chamonix.
The word "conventionally" is not random: there are at least three major climbs that were in fact made some centuries before the first ascent of Mont Blanc, and we remember those in the chronological order. Already in the fourteenth century, 1336 April 26th, the poet Francesco Petrarca and his brother Gherardo climbed Mont Ventoux 1909 m in Provence. Only a few years later, on 1358 September 1st, Bonifacio Rotario d'Asti reached the summit of the Rocciamelone 3538 m in Piedmont. We should also remember the diffucult ascent of Mont Aiguille 2085 m in Vercors, realized by Antoine de Ville and his team on 1492, June 26th on the orders of Charles VIII.
The first ascent of Mont Blanc was carried out for scientific purposes, but soon the Alps began to be frequented mainly by the British explorers which begane to climb the main alpine summits with a very different spirit, as the joy of discovery, the challenge and, last but not least, the desire for conquest. Therefore it's quite easy to understand how the majority of explorers and first summiters wished to leave on the top a certain evidence of their succesfull ascents, a trace of their victory.
Within 1865, the year of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, all the major peaks of the Alps had been climbed.

Ice-blades on Rocca Pumacioletto summit cross
Ice-blades on Pumacioletto summit cross
The Jebel Toubkal summit signal
Jebel Toubkal summit signal, High Atlas
A huge frozen cross on Monte Marmagna
A huge frozen cross on Monte Marmagna

A summit box on Rosenlauistock  A summit-box on Rosenlauistock, Engelhorner, Berner Oberland
An iron cross on Schneebiger Noch - Vedrette di RiesAn iron cross on Schneebiger Noch - Vedrette di Ries, Sud Tirol

Twentieth century: the evolution

It's in fact in the twentieth century that the custom of building a stone-cairn on the summit began to have a significant spread.
In the Andes, on the contrary, the custom to build stone-cairns on the tops or in order to sign a route didn't develop and yet nowaday it's not practiced.

Building a cairn on Agouti East, Anti-Atlas range
Building a cairn on Agouti East, Anti-Atlas range

A windy day on Corno Nero summit
Corno Nero summit in a windy day

We must consider that Mathias Zurbriggen during his successful climb to the summit of Aconcagua in the year 1897 left on the top his ice-ax and a sheet where it was noted the name and date of ascension. This historic ascent originated the andean habit to leave a sheet - named “comprobantes“ in Spanish - as the only way to testify the ascent.
Coming back to the Alps, over time mountaineers’ simple custom to build a stone-cairn slowly began to change, turning into a rather different use, not as spontaneous as in the past; 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.

A stones' cairn on Torre Wundt
Stones cairn on Torre Wundt, Cadini
Galdhoppigen summit signal
Galdhoppigen summit signal
Stetind summit book
Signing the Stetind summit book

In some cases the good, old and basic stone-cairn was replaced by various objects more conspicuous and sophisticated, but certainly less spontaneous.
Every kind of summit’s signals had been constructed from the religious symbols to the trigonometric marks to the proper summit huts, sometimes unsuitable.
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.

The current meaning of summits' signals

Sometimes, but not always, the summit’s signal shelters the summit book, where the climbers can record their ascents.
In the Northern sides of the Alps, 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 has 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 Galdhoppigen, on Stetind and Eggjenibba, but as a general rule, these latter don’t have any religious significance.

Mont Blanc summit Only a little wooden pile marks the top of Europe, a free summit

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?


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Viewing: 1-3 of 3
Vid Pogachnik

Vid Pogachnik - Mar 4, 2012 4:58 am - Voted 10/10

Good article, Sylvia!

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.

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Mar 5, 2012 12:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good article, Sylvia!

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



LuminousAphid - Mar 12, 2012 1:22 pm - Hasn't voted

North America

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:
Summit Lookout on Three Fingers:
(Not my images)

Viewing: 1-3 of 3

Summit’s Signals: an ancient custom

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