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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe

Climb Every Mountain: Summit Crosses in Tirol

Updated on 28.05.2020 in Arts & Culture

Innsbruck, Nordkette

For locals and visitors alike, climbing a mountain in Tirol wouldn't be complete without a grinning photo at the top next to a mighty crucifix. But why do almost all mountains in Tirol have a "summit cross" crowning their peak?

„For me they bring people together – no matter their religion or belief – and underline that we are all united as members of the human race,“ explains Bishop Hermann Glettler at the ceremony being held to bless the new summit cross atop of the Glotzen mountain above Wattens. The original cross on top of this mighty mountain was placed here in 1958 by the local Scout group. Now, 60 years later, the time has come for it to be replaced with a new one. Check out the video…

Video: One mountain, two generations. The story of the Glotzen mountain and its summit cross.

An ancient tradition

Summit crosses developed from „weather crosses“, whose origins in Tirol can be traced back to the Middle Ages. They were erected to ward off storms and hail, while at the same time also marking the borders between pastures and municipalities.

Summit cross atop the Großglockner mountain. Photo: Bernhard AichnerSummit cross atop the Großglockner mountain. Photo: Bernhard Aichner

Symbol of gratitude

The summit crosses we are familiar with today appeared in the 19th century, when alpinism first developed as a sport in its own right. It was in 1799 that the first crucifix was placed on the summit of a mountain in Tirol, in this case the Kleinglockner.

Many crosses were later erected on mountains once they had been climbed for the first time and – in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment – equipped with lightning rods and scientific measuring devices.

The tradition gained popularity once again in the 20th century after the World Wars. Throughout the Alps many crosses were erected atop mountains as a symbol of gratitude for protecting those in the mountains and ensuring their safe return.

„Summit book“ at the cross on the Rosskopf mountain in Kramsach. Photo: Paul Kranzler„Summit book“ at the cross on the Rosskopf mountain in Kramsach. Photo: Paul Kranzler

Hard work and commitment

Since then, crosses have traditionally housed a „summit book“. This is the name given to a blank book placed in a container in the cross for climbers to write down their name and any other comments they wish upon reaching the summit. Today, most of the summit crosses in Tirol are erected and looked after by the local branch of the Alpine Club or other traditional clubs in the region, including the mountain rescue service.

The extreme weather conditions on top of mountains in Tirol mean that summit crosses have to be repaired or renewed on a regular basis. In many cases the technique is the same as it has been for hundreds of years: strong young men carry the heavy wooden beams up to the top of the mountain by hand. For more elaborate crosses and on mountains which are hard to access on foot, a helicopter is sometimes called in to help.

Wimbachkopf mountain in the Zillertal Valley. Photo: Frank BauerWimbachkopf mountain in the Zillertal Valley. Photo: Frank Bauer

Changing spirituality

A more modern development in the mountains of Tirol is the tradition of hanging Buddhist prayer flags on the region’s crosses. This custom was brought to Tirol by mountaineers who had spent time climbing in the Himalayas.

For many hikers and climbers, summit crosses continue to have a spiritual meaning. For others, they are simply a symbol that they have reached their goal. One thing is for sure: the history of summit crosses is one which will never stop evolving.

Having worked overseas for years, Klaus Brunner returned home to explore Tirol with his camera and microphone in tow. Home is where the heart is.

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