Monday, September 26, 2016

Cross purposes (3)

Continued: how summit crosses conquered the Alps 

As the debate over the meaning of C D Friedrich’s summit cross paintings showed, symbols have multiple meanings, depending on who interprets them. Those paintings also contributed “not a little” to popularising the idea of summit crosses, says cultural historian, Martin Scharfe. We may doubt, however, whether they contributed much to the population of actual summit crosses. According to Scharfe himself, no more than half a dozen appeared on high alpine peaks during the artist’s lifetime.

Summit cross on the Gross Ruchen, Urner Alps

For peak-baggers who might want to visit their locations, these early summit crosses were set up on the Vincent Pyramid (1819) and the Zumsteinspitze (1820), both in the Monte Rosa massif, the Ankogel in the Hohe Tauern (1822), the Sonnwendjoch in Rofan (1823), and on the Dachstein (1834). In the same year, Swiss climbers put one on the Altels, a mountain in the Bernese Oberland.

To the summit of Clariden, April

Further evidence that mountain symbology did not rank high in most people’s awareness came in the winter of 1852/1853, when a storm wiped Sigismund von Hohenwart’s cross from the Grossglockner’s summit. For decades, nobody bothered to replace it. And, by the time somebody thought of doing so, the sociology of alpinism had changed completely. Middle-class mountaineering had arrived and, with it, the invention of alpine clubs.

Piz Terri, club outing, July 
In 1880, the Austrian Alpine Club, then in its second decade, submitted a humble petition to the Imperial authorities. Their request granted, the Club erected on the Grossglockner a new cross inscribed to the “solemn commemoration by the grateful Austrian people of the familial celebration on 24 April 1879 of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of their majesties, Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth”.

Austrian mountain guides rescue the Grossglockner cross in 2010
Photo: Bergrettung AT -
Made of iron, weighing a third of a ton, and anchored to the rock with heavy chains, the cross has endured, just about, to this day. But not the obsequious plaque bearing the original gilt inscription, which vanished in the chaotic period after the first world war. (Piquantly, at a much more recent date, somebody affixed another memorial, this one for the late Jörg Haider, a controversial politician with a liking for Lederhosen. This too has vanished from the cross in its turn.)

Bending to the anti-imperial sentiment of the times, the Austrian Alpine Club re-dedicated the cross as a war memorial. For the mood had indeed changed. Writing in 1928, Eugen Guido Lammer, a “high priest of guideless and solo climbing”, asked “What has the cross to tell us in midst of the mountain wilderness – this memento of the worst judicial murder of all times? Just let the voice of the elements sound clearly so that Nature can speak to you in her authentic voice.”

Summit cross, Rigi
Then, in tones that anticipate those of Reinhold Messner, Lammer decried the “trashy monuments” (Kitschdenkmäler) that he’d encountered atop the Petit Dru, the Géant and “many another peak”. If they wanted to pray, Lammer enjoined his readers, then they should “desist from praying to these sickly-sweet simulacra, and address themselves instead to the divinity that resides in the fearful sublimity of the natural elements”.

Summit cross on the Lagginhorn, Valais Alps

Extreme climbers, then as now, may not be fully representative of their age. For the fact is that many new summit crosses made their appearance after the two world wars, at least if those Tyrolean statistics are to be believed. Most were set up by local communities or mountaineering clubs, often as memorials to a village’s war dead, or victims of a mountaineering accident.

One might take as an example the crosses that used to adorn the Schafreuter (2,102 metres), in the Karwendel range that runs along the Austrian/Bavarian border. The mountain’s first one, an oaken cross standing eight metres high, was put up towards the end of July 1926 by the local alpine club. It was dedicated to the memory of alpinists from Bavaria and the Tyrol who had fallen during the war.

In October 1951, the old cross was replaced by a new one, half as high. Again, it was the local alpine club, represented by its youth section, who took the initiative. Pater Volker, who officiated over the inauguration, said the cross on the summit symbolised eternity and, together with his congregation prayed for world peace, and for the souls of all Germans and Austrians who would never come home after the war.

The Schafreuter summit cross, after the hacking attack
(Photo: Alpenverein Tölz/Die Welt)
And there the cross stood until late August this year, when witnesses passed a man with short light hair and a slight beer belly on his way to the summit. When he reached it, he starting hacking away at the cross with an axe “like a wild animal”, as the Guardian reports, damaging it so severely that it was later taken down. This was the third cross that the unknown axeman had attacked in a matter of months.

There’s a strange twist to the Schafreuter story. The local mountaineering club – the same that set up the original crosses after the two world wars – was quick to promise that it would bring up a replacement next year. But they have been forestalled. Just one week after the axeman’s visit, a group of anonymous young men brought up a makeshift replacement cross and set it in place. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, they were wearing t-shirts that associate them with a right-wing nationalist group.

Summit cross on Vorderglärnisch, Glarus Alps
A police officer investigating the Schafreuter case has speculated whether the axeman had links to the Swiss Freethinkers, an association set up in Zurich in 1870 to defend the interests of non-religious and secular citizens. In 2010, the Freethinkers did call for a moratorium on new summit crosses in the Swiss Alps, although they condemn acts of vandalism.

Standing somewhat aloof from European affairs, Switzerland’s recent history and politics have been less volatile than those of its neighbours. By the same token, its summit crosses have generally stirred up less controversy. There is even a foundation, Croix aux sommets, that pays for new crosses to be set up. But the ruckus in 2010, not to mention the Patrick Bussard case, shows that the cross-currents swirling round the country’s otherwise serene peaks are not, in essence, so different to those that beset nearby regions.

Belayed to the cross, Matterhorn
Wisely, the alpine historian Daniel Anker steered delicately round these flashpoints when he surveyed the history of summit crosses for “Die Alpen”, the house journal of the Swiss Alpine Club – an article on which this post leans heavily. Crosses, we are led to infer, serve many purposes, from religious symbolism through furnishing the backdrop to summit selfies. Anker concludes his article by quoting another author’s account of climbing the Weisshorn. Reaching the top, the mountain guide clips his rope into an arm of the summit cross, so that “while we rested there, we were belayed by Jesus”.

Summit symbolism
There was no need to belay on my ski-tour, ten years ago, on that modest peak in central Switzerland. When I reached the top, the sun was sagging towards the horizon; everyone else had left. But still I needed a summit photo. As the cross stands barely waist-high, I knelt in the snow to angle my Nikon towards the miniature figure at its centre. Through the viewfinder, the arms of the little crucifix seemed to span the world.


Daniel Anker, „Das Kreuz mit dem Kreuz“, Die Alpen, 4/2012

Wilhelm Eppacher, Berg- und Gipfelkreuze in Tirol

Martin Scharfe, Berg-Sucht : eine Kulturgeschichte des frühen Alpinismus 1750-1850

Norbert Wolf, Caspar David Friedrich : 1774-1840 : der Maler der Stille, Taschen

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cross purposes (2)

Continued: on the meaning of C D Friedrich's summit crosses

Within a few years, all the German states were feeling the Napoleonic heat. By 1806, most of them were occupied by French troops. Over in Dresden, a young painter started on a remarkable series of drawings and paintings, all featuring crucifixes set in dramatic mountain landscapes. These works culminated in The Cross in the Mountains (the Tetschen Altar), the picture that made Caspar David Friedrich’s name.

The cross in the mountains (The Tetschen Altar) (1807/08)

Many critics found the image inadmissible. One accused Friedrich of trying to smuggle landscape painting into churches and onto altars. But surely that had been the artist’s intention all along. He even designed a frame for the painting, so that it could better serve as an altarpiece. The furore didn’t stop the Countess von Thun-Hohenstein plunking down two hundred thalers and carrying the painting off to Schloss Tetschen.

The story goes that, when the artist wanted to visit the Schloss to see his masterpiece in its new setting, he was repeatedly fobbed off by the Count and Countess – the reason being that they’d hung the work not in the chapel, as Friedrich had hoped, but in their bedroom.

Cross in the mountains (c. 1805/06)

So the critics may have had a point. Friedrich, a pious Lutheran, insisted The Cross in the Mountains was strictly a devotional work. But a close friend was not alone in seeing in his paintings of this period “a specific, I would like to say politically prophetic meaning, references to an invisible hand intervening in the confused affairs of men and in the liberation of Germany from the foreign yoke”. The symbol's significance depended on what you wanted to see in it.

Morning in the Riesengebirge (1810/11)

Symbols, wrote Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian, are not signs. While a sign points unambiguously at a universally agreed meaning, symbols grow out of the collective unconscious. They open up levels of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. They cannot be invented; they grow when the situation is ripe for them; and they die when the situation changes.

Be that as it may, after Napoleon was vanquished, C D Friedrich never again painted a notable cross in the mountains.

The cross in the mountains (1812)


Friday, September 16, 2016

Cross purposes (1)

How Alpine summit symbols have stirred emotions for centuries

One January, I set off to ski-climb a mountain in central Switzerland. Billows of freezing fog rolled aside just below the summit, letting me zig-zag up the final slopes in the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun. The last few metres were climbed on foot, to a summit cross still hoar-frosted from the mist’s crystalline breath. The sight was unremarkable. Summit crosses – in the Alps, they’re everywhere. And always have been, surely?

Or perhaps not. A decade after that excursion, some seem to be questioning if crosses should stand on summits at all. An unknown axeman has vandalised three of them in Bavaria, recalling an earlier incident in Switzerland. And, should one suppose that such amputations happen only in central Europe, these cases follow one on Ireland’s highest peak – although that cross was apparently felled with an angle-grinder, not an axe.

Now it seems to be Reinhold Messner who has an axe to grind. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in which he comments on the Bavarian incidents, he admits that summit crosses are not necessarily to his taste. They are “a relatively recent phenomenon”, he says, originating more as political than religious symbols. In his view, “one shouldn’t clutter the mountains with religious, political and other ideological symbols. These are mostly demonstrations of authority. They’re all about domination.”

When it comes to the facts, Messner is solidly grounded, as one would expect the founder/curator of six mountain museums to be. By coincidence, it is the Tyrol, Messner’s native region, that provides the only summit cross statistics that come easily to hand. These data suggest that 95.3% of all Tyrolean summit crosses were put up in the twentieth century (up to 1955). Of these, almost seven out of ten were dedicated in the decade after the second world war.

Mt Aiguille: the dawn of alpinism, perhaps
If the statistics support Messner, what about the symbolism? Here too, his case is well-buttressed by historical evidence. When, on 26 June 1492, Antoine de Ville forced his way, by means of “subtle engines” (including ladders), to the top of Mt Inaccessible in the French Vercors region, his hand-picked team of seven included two priests. These were employed to celebrate mass on the summit, baptise the mountain and inaugurate three small crosses.

Some commentators dispute whether the first ascent of Mt Inaccessible – or Mt Aiguille, as de Ville re-branded it – really belongs to the history of alpinism. Their beef is that de Ville didn’t set the ball rolling himself. Instead, he was ordered to make the climb by Charles VIII, whom he served in the role of royal siegemaster.

But, for the purpose of this disquisition, that is the point. Those summit crosses marked the successful conclusion of an official act – a demonstration of authority, to use Messner's phrase. De Ville even submitted an official expense claim, for “1533 librae, 8 solidi 5 denarii unum tercium”. Summit crosses never have come cheap; it’s the cost of getting them up there. Incidentally, there are no longer any crosses on Mt Aiguille today.

Weather cross above the town of Klausen in 1561

Indeed, few crosses adorned alpine summits during early modern times. Rather, they were sited to mark passes or boundaries, or they stood within sight of villages to protect them against storms. Such “weather crosses” were numerous enough to irk an Austrian scholar by the name of Thomas Ebendorfer (1388–1464). People who set them up, he said, should be rebuked for presuming to honour the Lord “inadmissibly”.

The admonition was quickly forgotten. In the Tyrol, mountain crosses proliferated during the first half of the seventeenth century, a time of stress. Although the region escaped the direct ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), it fell victim to associated ills such as the plague. Trapped in their alpine valleys, mountain dwellers sought to ward off these evils by setting up simple larchwood crucifixes, often with a protective rooflet over the cross-beam.

A cross of the plague years
So far, nobody – with the possible exception of Antoine de Ville – had thought of planting a cross to mark a mountain’s first ascent. According to Martin Scharfe, a cultural historian, the first to take that step was Sigismund von Hohenwart (1745–1825), who with five companions reached the top of the Kleinglockner (3,770 metres), Austria’s third-highest summit, on 25 August 1799.

The Grossglockner without a cross: painting by Markus Pernhart
The arc of von Hohenwart’s career ran almost parallel to that of the Enlightenment itself. As a young geognost, he discovered on his alpine travels a mineral that occurs in eclogite, a rock from deep within the earth. Later, after his appointment as the Bishop of Linz, he helped to root out unorthodoxy. He was probably the author of the inscription carved on the stone base of the Kleinglockner cross: "Eia nunc rara moles, exple finum, crucem exalta, cultum promove!” (Well now here is an unusual monument (mass of rock), fulfil your purpose, raise high the Cross and advance Christian worship!) Raise the cross, promote the faith; the message could not be more explicit.

Returning to the mountain next summer, von Hohenwart made the aery traverse across to the Grossglockner (3,798 metres), which was destined to become modern Austria’s highest peak. There his party set up a much larger cross, almost four metres high. Two years later, it was damaged by lightning.

Traversing from the Kleinglockner to the Grossglockner 
In retrospect, those turn-of-the century summers were a lull before the storm. Austria and its allies were then pausing for breath, having faced down the first onslaught of France’s revolutionary armies. Alas, the respite was short. Two days after von Hohenwart inaugurated the first modern summit cross on the Kleinglockner, a young French general relinquished his command in Egypt and set out for Paris, where he would soon wrest power from a moribund Directorate ...


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Summit “crescent” stirs up Swiss hikers

People might accuse Project Hyakumeizan of making it up. Just hours after this blog published a post on the lingering symbolic power of summit crosses, a Swiss newspaper has broken the story of a controversial “summit crescent” that has appeared on a mountain in eastern Switzerland.

The two-and-a-half-metre-high sculpture is the work of a local artist who now lives in Shanghai. "Whenever I come back to Switzerland, I go hiking and see all these absurd summit crosses – so I had to do something," Christian Meyer, a self-confessed atheist, told a local radio station.

His aim, he added, was to provoke people, and in this he has succeeded. The cantonal authorities have given him a week to remove the installation. Soon the summit of the Freiheit (2140 metres) will again be free of symbols, whether cross or crescent.

Read the full story (translation from the German)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hacking incident

Summit crosses stir passions in the Alps - not for the first time

Within the last few months, a mysterious vandal has attacked three summit crosses in the Bavarian Alps, chopping and sawing two of them to the ground. As the “summit cross axeman” has yet to be caught, his motives remain unclear. However, witnesses have seen him in action, hacking away at the crucifix atop the Schafreuter “like a wild animal”, as the Guardian reports in its September 1 online edition.
Summit cross on Pizol, Canton St Gallen, Switzerland

Strange to say, this incident is not an isolated one. It recalls the case of a mountain guide who was charged with destroying or damaging three summit crosses in western Switzerland during the winter of 2009/2010. When asked by the police for his motive, he said: "These religious symbols, these effigies of torture disturb me when I encounter them out in the open air - the mountains belong to everyone: symbols have no place there."

The axemen are not alone in their animosity to summit crosses. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Reinhold Messner dismisses them as “symbols of resistance against the enlightenment", although he does not condone vandalising them. Yet, two hundred years after the Age of Reason, summit crosses still seem to be stirring up violent passions.

That mountain symbols retain their ancient power should not be surprising. Indeed, the emergent discipline of meizanology - the study of what mountains signify - would have no purpose if they hadn't. As powerful symbols in themselves, summit crosses deserve nothing less than a full meizanological analysis. And, in a week or so, they will get just that. Please watch this space.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The river is never the same (2)

Continued: an excursion along the Kurobe River's Upper Corridor

“Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.”

In his classic Account of a Ten-Foot Square Hut, Kamo no Chōmei presents himself as the reclusive literary type. But his opening passage, quoted above, outs him as a prototypical Heian-era sawanaut, one who well understood the morphing, braiding, mining, sapping ways of a great river.

Had we read our Chōmei, we wouldn’t have been surprised to find ourselves forced into a roped river crossing where, only a few years before, Sawa Control and I had just kept walking along an easy embankment. And we would have spared ourselves the shock, right now, of finding a deep channel where none had previously existed.

This too was a crux pitch. The rock walls of the gorge were too steep to climb. Our buoyant packs floated us too lightly for us to use our feet to make headway; and we couldn’t swim against the current. Eventually we slipped through by flattening ourselves ninja-like against the rock.

While we’d been tussling with the river, the sunlight had retreated to the mountaintops. Down in the gorge’s shadows, we urged ourselves forward. Campsites are far and few between in the Upper Corridor, and I was aiming for the one that we’d found on the previous visit, a broad tableland standing several metres above water level. Then, you could have pitched a small town of tents on it.

“I’m sure it was here,” I said, “right here in this bend.” And there, indeed, it was, when we looked more closely. But the tableland was gone; in its place stood a mere pedestal, washed down to a sliver of its former size. As Chōmei might have warned us, the river had shifted the scenery as dramatically as in any opera.

We scrambled up the bank and found a flat patch of sand for our bivvy shelter. Shivering in the evening gloom, we changed into dry clothes and scrabbled around for firewood. There wasn’t much to find on this portaledge-sized terrain.

We saw no trace of any prior occupants on our pedestal – in fact, we would see no trace of human existence until we climbed out of the river next day: no footprints, no pitons, no garbage, nothing to indicate that other people had ever passed that way. There weren’t even any contrails in the sky above. We were the sole inhabitants of this gorge.

It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man, says Thoreau in his account of a river climb up Mt Ktaadn, “We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. … Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe … Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific … the home, this, of Necessity and Fate …We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping, from time to time, to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste …”

It was too dark now to go in search of berries. Nor did we expect any smart or spicy taste from the sachet of freeze-dried food that I’d just retrieved from the depths of my army pack and set to simmer on the Epigas stove. Not that we cared – after six hours in the river, our appetites, like those of Edward Gibbon’s Gallic army, were as indelicate as they were voracious. Caspar got a feeble campfire going just as the moon floated clear of the unhandselled ridge above us. Then we sat down on a river-rounded boulder to eat.