Tag Those Peaks

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 18, 2008      

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?


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15 Responses to “Tag Those Peaks”

  1. Scott September 18th, 2008 10:11 am

    I don’t like to see anything on a summit, or in any “natural area” for that matter. Most of what you mentioned seems to be litter to me. I’ve never signed a summit register, but at least most of these are fairly non-descript.

    Another item that you didn’t mention is permanent memorials. I don’t even like to see these. I understand why the families would like to place such things, but if you extrapolate out in time, you’ll have many memorials. This probably applies more to roadsides, but I’ve seen flower pots glued to rocks and stocked with plastic flower. I can’t but help to wonder if the person being memorialized would actually approve of the memorial being placed in the middle of the wilderness that they may have cherished.

  2. Lou September 18th, 2008 10:28 am

    Scott, I agree about the memorials as far as summits go, but don’t mind a few lower down on the mountain when they’re there for a related reason, such as a guy who died up there or perhaps made a major contribution to the area. On the other hand, I agree it could easily become too much and hard to regulate once you open the door.

  3. Halsted September 18th, 2008 10:55 am

    I have climbed a lot of peaks, and not signed-in on the summit registers. I have always considered summit photos plent of proof that I was there.

    For a long time I have thought that summit registers should be removed, since all they seem to do is promote “summit-meritbadge-climbing.” But, then hearing about this bozo with the Sharpie pen, I started to think again. If summit registers are removed then I think we will see more bozos with Sharpie pens “Tagging Summits.”

    So, I guess summit registers should be left on summits, for the meritbadge gang…

  4. Andrew_L September 18th, 2008 11:17 am

    The summit register as blank canvas? Never thought of it that way, but it does kind of make sense. Thank god most people who like to carry spray paint cans don’t like to walk too far from their cars!

  5. JohnnyV September 18th, 2008 3:42 pm
  6. Different Scott September 18th, 2008 5:14 pm

    Reading the story about the guy who put his number on Mt. Elbert gave me some hope, though. Sure, he was an idiot and did something stupid, but when people taught him the right way to do things he was happy to learn and help out. Kudos to him for going back up there and attempting to fix what he broke. At least he’s taking some personal responsibility.

    I’m sort of mixed on memorials. If a person actually died there, then a memorial can be a good thing reminding people that they should be careful (e.g. the memorial to some kid who fell off Angel’s Landing in Zion in February). But random memorials unrelated to the place other than that the person liked them should be kept off. Spread ashes, leave a picture, something temporary that will be gone in a year, but remember Leave No Trace. Leaving your mark with a plaque just because you liked the place ranks about the same as leaving your phone number with a sharpie.

  7. Simon September 18th, 2008 8:40 pm

    I always prefer the idea of leaving registers at trailheads, or huts.

    For a number of years, not too long ago, when you drove north into Squamish, BC, you were greeted by a giant heart, spray painted with a marriage proposal, on the giant sloping face at the top of the Papoose, a smaller climbing area south of the Squamish Chief.

    I discovered a couple of years later, much to my dismay, that I actually knew the knob who painted it. I am pleased to report that she said “no”.

  8. Lou September 18th, 2008 10:15 pm

    Johnny, do we need to rope up for the climb up the glacier? We didn’t bring glacier gear or crampons…

  9. Randonnee September 18th, 2008 10:36 pm

    Generally I oppose and thus far resist leaving signs, plaques, etc. on a summit or publicizing online little known places that are nearby stashes. In the Wenatchee mountains traffic is low, and one experiences often solitude and feeling like it is your place, at least for that day. One realizes that theirs is not a first ascent, but it is special that the area seems so untrammeled. Once I showed a new acquaintance one of “my” powder stashes, and found it interesting that he had also found that stash and considered it his, and thought as I did that basically nobody else skied it since tracks are not seen there. That is a special experience. An online posting could potentially destroy such pristine experiences.

  10. Jason H September 19th, 2008 10:34 am

    People seem to have an innate urge to leave their mark one way or another (think bathroom walls), so to me summit registers are a great and non-permanent outlet for that. And even the memorials add to a sense of the history of the place.

    The problem we run into in the mountains is that each of us is looking for our own “untrammeled wilderness experience” at the same time and place as millions of other people. Now, you pretty much have to choose whether you want a solitary mountain experience or a “climbing a 14er” type of experience. They’re not often going to go hand in hand. If we want to go to the popular places we’re going to have to deal with the side effects of their popularity, and if that’s a line of people, a packed register, or “well done” memorials (ie. not just plastic garbage), then that’s fine with me. Vandalism and litter, though, are not.

    Also, I’ve unfurled old glory on a number of peaks over the years, but never left it there because 1) it would not be illuminated at night, and 2) it would quickly get torn and tattered and eventually blown all over the hillside, neither of which is the way to treat the flag. Tibetan prayer flags are to my knowledge made specifically for that treatment. I don’t always carry the flag with me because most of my climbing is in Colorado, which is pretty solidly US ground, and I think that most people who see the displays don’t need to be reminded. 🙂

    Thanks Lou!

  11. JohnnyV September 19th, 2008 5:44 pm

    Lou, Stick to the main route and this time of year you should be fine. Be mindful of big cracks, but fine without any rope work. Remember never go anywhere with Sky without more energy than anyone, ropes and a nice Jetpack.

  12. Johnbo September 21st, 2008 2:29 pm

    Flags aren’t patriotic, they’re nationalistic. Nationalists support the nation and it’s government, while patriotism waves a flag for the ideals shared by one’s countrymen. So, just because you see more prayer flags than American flags on an “American” mountain, that doesn’t mean patriotism is on the wane. I would say that means Americans -among others- are “conquering” these peaks for peace, just as they used to conquer them in the name of God, country, etc.

  13. Hamish September 21st, 2008 2:45 pm

    Your cholesterol control on the Bells is reminiscent of the back-and-forth fuss over painting a giant “CU” on the third flatiron in Boulder. First it was painted in white, then painted over in a subdued brown/red that is still visible from anywhere around town. So now there are gallons upon gallons of latex paint hanging over Boulder “like a glacier” as Rossiter puts it in his guide. One way to look at these sorts of battles over permanent additions, just like bolt wars and ski-area expansion dramas is to see the wild as contested space where rules are still made up by participants. That’s why you, Lou, get to disagree with the eggheads, but the way the wrong you perceived gets corrected is by you actually doing something. Just like Scott Backes said: “all climbing is anarchy.” Good on you for putting action behind your ideals.

  14. Lou September 21st, 2008 8:04 pm

    Johnbo, good points.

  15. Geof September 21st, 2008 10:29 pm

    Funny, this was just discussed on another site not long ago. The cairn thing was the biggest issue along with summit registers. My question is this… Why have them in the first place? Was it CMC that did that, or some other entity. I think its a pretty silly practice really. Having said that, if they are there, fine. Cairns are another thing entirely. Some I think are ok, but massive backstop cairns are just pointless. With regard to flags, put them up, take your picture, take them down.

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