Summit Signals: an ancient custom

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Summit Signals:  an ancient  custom
Created On: Mar 1, 2012
Last Edited On: Jun 25, 2018

Summit signals, a mysterious habit that originated in ancient times

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!

Stetind summit book
Signing the Stetind summit register

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.

Summit signals after the birth of Mountaineering

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. 

Twentieth century: the evolution

With the beginning of the twentieth century the custom of building a stone-cairn on the summit in order to indicate the first ascent began to have a significant propagation.
In the Andes, on the contrary, this customs didn't develop and yet nowaday it's not practiced or only poorly. To explain this fact we must consider that in the year 1897 Mathias Zurbriggen, during his successful climb to the highest summit of the Andes, the Aconcagua,  had left on the top only his ice-axe, plus a sheet where he had annotated his name and the date of the climb. This historic ascent originated the Andean habit to leave a sheet, named “comprobante“ in Spanish - which meaning is  "document in which there is evidence of the accomplishment of something - as the way to testify the ascent.

Coming back to the Alps, over time the consolidated custom of the first summiters to build on the summit only a simple stone-cairn slowly began to be flanked by another phenomenon,  not as spontaneous as in the past. In fact, in some cases, the summit cairns began to be replaced or integrated by rather different summit-signals. What happened?

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.

The current meaning of the summit signals

Sometimes, but not always, the summit signal hosts the summit-book, further sheltered from the action of the bad weather by a sealed box, where the climbers can record their ascents. 
In the Northern sides of the Alps, and more than ever in the Southern ones (Italy) and in the Apennines, the custom to build on the top the religious symbols, as crosses and Mary-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 the last times we may find on some summits of the Alps also the Nepali prayer-flats, another manifest religious symbol, although belonging to a different culture, but considered by most people as a symbol of peace rather than a religious one.

Yes, in the Alps there are many crosses on the summits... Crosses against which a famous mountaineer such as Reinhold Messner has recently pronounced himself.  I really think that the detractors of this kind of summit signal should go beyond the obviousness and understand this simple fact: if crosses and Madonnas maybe have a religious meaning in the intentions of those who put them down, often for the alpinists who have climbed the peak these signals may instead have the meaning to seal the arrival on the top, to stimulate the reflection in this topical moment, without necessarily implying faith or religion. 
On the Andean peaks, according to the ancient custom to leave the “comprobantes” rather then building “cairns”, usually we don’t find any summit signal.
Also in Northern Europe, in the Scandes range, we often can find important and sometimes huge summit signals, like on Galdhoppigen, on Stetind and Eggjenibba, but as a general rule, these latter don’t have any religious significance.
Obviously, even in a very attended range like the alpine chain, we can find numberless peaks without any signal. This is the case of Mont Blanc, Alphubel and many other peaks that are completely free of any type of summit signal. Perhaps for historical reasons, or more simply, as in the case of Mont Blanc, due to the typology of the ground that makes difficult the maintenance...
Mont Blanc summit
Freedom on the top of Monte Bianco: only a little wood pile, that will soon be wiped out...

An invitation to reflection: may it be that these "empty" summits give us a greater feeling of freedom?


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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)

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Summit Signals: an ancient custom

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