Since ancient times people living in the highest lands used to leave a mark of their presence on the summits they had climbed in order to hunt, to hide their things, to celebrate a rite or maybe pushed by curiosity...
In our time to linger on the summit and seal our successful ascent by a click near the summit signal is a widespread action, come into our habits of climbers and hikers as a manifestation of joy and satisfaction, almost a ritual. Few talk about it, but in this moment someone may live a more intimate experience, a deep spirituality and a full harmony with the mountain, feeling a close contact with the heaven. Spirituality. There is no need to profess a religion to perceive this feeling!
This present ritual takes on a much brighter meaning in the knowledge that it has far roots, lost in the mists of time, when the ancient people lived and survived on the mountains and mountaineering had still to be invented...
Clear and fascinating witness of those remote spontaneous activities was found on the summits of different mountains worldwide, like the numberless "ancient things" discovered in Africa, on some stunning rocky towers belonging to the “Main de Fatma” group in Mali. Given the considerable difficulty opposed by these vertical spires, we have to assume that those ancient inhabitants were someway able to climb...
Another evidence of the mysterious human presence on the highest mountains since very remote times 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 Cult”, practiced by the pre-Inca peoples on the highest summits of the Andes, being an example about it.
Traditionally, and I would also like to add the word "conventionally", history considers the birth of Mountaineering to coincide with the day of the first ascent of Mont Blanc, realized by Michel Gabriel Paccard, a doctor, and Jacques Balmat, a hunter and crystal-seeker, both from Chamonix, on August 8th, 1786.
The word "conventionally" is not random: there are at least three major climbs that were in fact successfully completed some centuries before the first ascent of Mont Blanc, ascents underrated in the history of mountaineering, because realized not for pure pioneering spirit, but to achieve a vote previously made, or behind a reward. We remember those latters in the chronological order.
Already in the fourteenth century, precisely in the year 1336, April 26th, the poet Francesco Petrarca and his brother Gherardo had reached the summit of Mont Ventoux 1909 m, located in the Provence ranges, France. Only twenty-two years later, on 1358 September 1st, Bonifacio Rotario d'Asti managed to get the high summit of the Rocciamelone 3538 m in the italian Alps of Piedmont, summit which at that time was considered to be the highest in the Alps.
We must also remember the difficult ascent of Mont Aiguille 2085 m in Vercors, Provence ranges. a true rock climb, realized by Antoine de Ville and his team on 1492, June 26th, on the orders of Charles VIII, king of France. The same year of the discovery of America!
If we well consider, also the first ascent of the Mont Blanc was mainly carried out with non-alpinistic purposes. It had indeed been designed by the Swiss physician Horace Benedict de Saussure for scientific purposes. However, it was such an amazing and important undertaking for that time that most historians consider it to rise to the point of the birth of mountaineering. At that age the exploration and conquest of the alpine summits were often combined with the scientific reasons, as measurements and experiments.
In subsequent years, the scientific interest slowly become a secondary reason and across the Alps the British "lead the way" to the birth of mountaineering as exploration and sport. Soon the Alps began to be frequented mainly by these British pioneers which, at the beginning accompanied by mountaineers and local guides, began 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 of conquest.
Therefore it's quite easy to understand how the majority of these pioneers and first summiters wished to leave on the top a certain evidence of their succesfull ascent, a trace of their victory. To put a little stone cairn, where possible, was the simplest way to mark the summit. Within 1865, the year of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, all the major peaks of the Alps had been climbed.
It happened that the Alpine Clubs and the Mountaineering Associations themselves started to build all the kinds of signals on the summits, in order to identify the highest point of the mountain, to give to the climbers the certainty of being on the summit, to adorn the top, to celebrate an ascent, to pay homage to the transcendent and so on, and even for business purposes.
In many cases the good, old and basic stone-cairn slowly began to be replaced by various more conspicuous and sophisticated objects, some of which are truly artistic and well constructed, but certainly less spontaneous.
Every kind of summit-signal began to be settled, from the religious symbols to the trigonometric signals. And what about the shelters built on the summits, often useless and fortunately few in number?
These ideas to build the shelters on the summits had developed a bit in the twentieth century – mainly in the last decades - but we have few clamorous examples even in the nineteenth century, like the building of Capanna Margherita on 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.