Back in the day – the day when I was taking people deep into the wilderness; when I was young, vibrant, idealistic, and rather self-righteous – the day when I was a purist, a leave no trace purist – I had a thing about summit registers.
There was a handful of us who believe(d) that Leave No Trace means leave. no. trace. and that leaving a plastic tube with paper and pencil, attached by cable to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere was leaving a trace.
A physical reminder of man’s need to make his mark, to conquer, to claim fame.
So, those few of us who felt so strongly about the issue often ended up with a few summit registers in our packs as we hiked out of 30 days in the backcountry into civilization. Mostly unbeknownst to our students. Mostly. We knew that what we were doing was controversial, but like I said…
Lifting a summit register is often no easy task. It usually entailed telling my students to start the climb down, “I’m just going to coil the ropes, I’m right behind you.” Then, with a few mighty swings of an ice axe, the cable would break and the entire thing got stashed into the top of my pack and down I’d go to meet my group – no one any wiser.
Word of our tireless endeavors to clean up the Weminuche was getting around amongst the higher-ups in our organization and the word then came from those higher-ups to us lower-downs to stop this practice, but, since we imagined ourselves to be the next Ed Abbeys, saving the planet one golf pencil at a time, we ignored the warnings from above.
Until the day when I dragged my students into re-supply way the fuck out in the wilds where a dirt track crossed a remote trail and lo and behold, there was my supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor, come all the way down from Denver to have a face to face with me.
Apparently, one of my students who was rather perceptive (and impressionable) and fully aware of the trash issue, had taken a register when I wasn’t there, stashed it in his backpack, and brought it home to Connecticut with him where his mommy unpacked his bag, found it, and immediately called our offices to let them know that her child, who had come to Outward Bound because he got in trouble with the law for…stealing…had stolen something with the support of his Instructor.
Wrist slapped. Warnings issued. Promises made. And the lesson I learned…
Be more stealthy when stealing.
I have lost some of my edge in my old age. I no longer take such a hard stance, although, I do still believe that humans should not be leaving anything manmade in the Wilderness. Especially not affixed to a mountain top.
I understand that some, (most), like the camaraderie that reading other people’s scribblings at the end of a hard climb brings. So I am slightly less militant. I certainly won’t sign one, but I will consider leaving one in place, especially if the people I am with are enjoying it.
Depending on where and how offensive it is.
So, I went out to Utah the other day and climbed to the very top of a ridge which is not a peak – it’s more like an 80-mile undulating wall of China. I am sure there is a “highest point” but it could be anywhere in that 80 miles and the reality is that the monocline is only at most, 900 feet tall; it’s not some massive peak begging to be conquered.
As I got to the tippy top, the place where the sloping incline of rock abruptly stops and there is a 900-foot uninterrupted drop down to the wash below, I saw a cairn (a pile of rocks marking a trail…don’t even get me started on those in the wilderness) marking what seemed to me, to be the perfect place from which to cast oneself into the abyss with no hope of surviving.
I know, as I approached the pile of rocks that I don’t want to take one step past it, but would everyone realize that before they did take that step, that one step too close to the edge?
Dumb, I thought as I made my way towards the offending and potentially dangerous pile of sandstone. And then, I saw it. A glass jar with paper and a golf pencil.
Not even on a summit.
Granted, it’s a steep climb to get there, but my stubby-legged dog made it, and it was no great accomplishment. Not a big enough one to warrant a symbol of great achievement.
In glass no less. Everywhere you look is solid rock – slick rock – perfect for dropping a glass jar.
Inside, of course, is the inevitable notepad and pencil. One person has written on the register and it says:
Dude, (and Dudette) if you’re calling it an ego tube, and you not only signed it but actually put it there, what’s that saying about you?
And who the fuck carries a glass jar of tomato paste in their backpack? Obviously, this was planned in advance – the jar was clean, pencil sharp, and paper stapled.
The old me was outraged. The newer me was also outraged. Nonononononononononono. Not here. Not okay. Not ever.
So the old me picked up the jar and stashed in my pack. I scattered the rocks used to build the cairn, the new, more careful me resisting the urge to trundle them over the edge since there was a truck below me and trucks usually mean people and I didn’t want to kill anyone.
I fumed. I was disheartened to find that here. Here in my place. Here in the fragile desert. Here where it didn’t belong.
When I got back to my truck, I decided that the only thing to do with the offending item was to take it to the visitor’s center. My hope is that they will put it on display with a sign that says, “DON’T be an asshole!”
To the conquerors of the peak, congratulations, you hiked less than a mile and climbed, at most, 900 feet, never losing sight of your truck.
To my old rebellious friends…
I stole another summit register!!