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...
An artistic sculpture on Nuvolau; Averau in background Ph. Vid Pogachnik
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 Pumacioletto summit cross
Jebel Toubkal summit signal, High Atlas
A huge frozen cross on Monte Marmagna
A summit-box on Rosenlauistock, Engelhorner, Berner Oberland An 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
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.
Stones cairn on Torre Wundt, Cadini
Galdhoppigen summit signal
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
, 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.
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?