We’re somewhere north of Salt Lake City, still road tripping to Bellingham. Good memories of Wasatch backcountry skiing when we cruised through the basin yesterday. I was whipping out a Thursday news roundup this morning but went off on the following.
Attractive features (or any paint friendly surface) attract graffiti. That’s obvious in nearly any urban area. Yet the backcountry is somewhat immune. Even so, tree bark is a common canvas for the tyro artist knife, as are antique cabin walls and the occasional trail sign.
But the obvious place to leave your mark is on top of a mountain. Thankfully, other than leaving your scrawl in summit registers that practice has not caught on. Yet it happens.
Colorado’s highest summit, Mount Elbert, is easy to reach and thus hiked by thousands of people each summer. Out of those thousands, a few feel the call to tag beyond the summit register. Felt tip markers are the tool, rocks the pallet. Illegal, of course.
One guy this summer was not content to only leave his mark. Perhaps he saw all the attractive and appropriately dressed females that bag peaks during hot summer days. Perhaps he was looking for climbing partners. Whatever the case, our intrepid artist whipped out his Sharpie, then painted his phone number and email address on a rock.
Poor guy. Instead of a call from Sally, or Jane, or Sarah — he hears from the U.S. Forest Service and gets raked over the coals by by internet forum royalty.
No one should paint the summit of a mountain, but leaving your mark on peaks has a long and storied tradition and some forms seem to even have cultural approval. Consider the summit of Mount Everest, which is littered with everything from flags to statues. (My favorite Everest deuterous being at least one statue of Mao — talk about pandering to your sponsors! Of course, one has to consider what fate awaited a Chinese climber who did NOT make the summit and leave a statue… Thankfully our WildSnow advertisers treat me better than that, at least so far.)
Closer to home, the tradition of placing flags on summits is alive and well, with prayer flags being the litter of choice these days since patriotism isn’t hip. Summit flagging reached its most amusing “peak” in early Colorado days when groups from Harvard and Yale universities would climb their eponymous fourteeners and erect gigantic poles on the summits, hoisting their alma mater’s standard there for every pika and marmot within 10 miles to salute.
And consider the ubiquitous summit registers. Back in my purist days I considered summit scrolls to be anathema. Can’t say I ever threw any into the abyss, but I’ve met a few people who claim to have done so. They do get ridiculous on popular peaks, steel boxes stuffed to the gills with thousands of random pages. On the other hand, when you reach a less popular summit and find a chewing tobacco can containing a scrap of paper from 1958 — that’s special.
More recently, we’ve also got the issue of over cooked trail markers such as gigantic cairns. This came to a head a few years ago, when the Colorado Fourteener Initiative included massive piles of rocks in their “improvements” on a number of peaks. They’ve since toned down that practice. At the height of the cairn controversy, I was amused to receive a several anonymous letters describing epics of cairn destruction carried out by purists who scattered rocks like Thor hurling lightning bolts.
Of course, trail marking can be elevated to a higher level of ethical float than that of self aggrandizing graffiti. I’ll concede to that. Thus, a few trail markers are okay.
But once upon a time… In the 1970s, a Colorado Mountain Club group did a climb on the Maroon Bells near Aspen, and marked the route by spray painting yellow “fried eggs” on dozens of rocks over the entire alpine portion of the route. Area climbers were incised. Soon after, I bought a can of rock colored spray paint and spent a day on North Maroon squirting hydrocarbons on the “eggs” in a mostly successful attempt at erasing them.
Years later, you could still see some of those painted-over yellow blobs, some even leading to less than ideal variations of the route.
Thinking back, I have to say the most clever summit tagging I’ve seen was that of a guide service of the early days, the “Climbing Smiths,” who left company inscribed pencils in all the register tubes. Conservation heard on summit: “Wow, it looks kinda tough getting down off this thing, we should have hired the Climbing Smiths!” Of course nowadays you’d just get their number off the pencil, call on your cell, and wait for a guide to meet you on the summit.
So, loyal commenters, should summits be tagged? And if so, in what form? Are flags okay? Summit registers? Or are you a purist?