Alpine crosses under threat as Bavarian police hunt summit axeman

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Vandalism of mountain-top crosses has led some, including climber Reinhold Messner, to question the tradition

The culprit struck in the dead of night, using an axe and a handsaw. As day dawned, a group of campers saw with horror that the wooden cross on the top of the Schafreuter mountain, 9ft 2in (2.8 metres) tall and weighing 250kg, was swaying precariously in the morning air.

The third act of vandalism in Bavarias Lenggries municipality in four months has left locals scrambling to hunt down the summit cross axeman and led others to question the purpose of an Alpine tradition.

Before the attack on the summit cross on the Schafreuter mountain last Saturday, a mysterious vandal had cut down a wooden cross on top of the nearby Dudl-Alm in May and the adjacent Prinzkopf mountain at the end of July.

Witnesses who passed the suspect on his way to the peak paint a picture of a man of nondescript appearance, between 30 and 40 years old, with short light hair and a slight beer belly. Once the man started hacking away at the summit cross, however, he acted like a wild animal, according to an Alpine herdswoman interviewed by a local paper.

The Schafreuter summit cross before it was vandalised by the suspected axeman. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The tradition of erecting wooden crosses on the summits of mountains or as boundary markers can be dated as far back as the 13th century but boomed particularly in the early 20th century. Though sometimes equipped with scientific measuring instruments, the symbolism of the crosses is overtly religious.

Josef Mayr, deputy head of the Bad Tlz police force, told local media the culprit must have something against Christian symbols, speculating about links to the Swiss Freethinkers, a humanist association that has in the past called for a ban on summit crosses. There are certain groups who say nature belongs to everyone and should therefore not be claimed by religious symbols, Mayr said.

Andreas Kyriacou, the president of the Swiss Freethinkers, has dismissed the speculation as absurd and defamatory, saying that while his organisation was against erecting new crosses, it would never condone vandalism.

As the search for the summit cross axeman continues, critics of the tradition have received support from mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who has a legendary reputation in Germany and Austria.

A cross on the summit of Jenner mountain in Berchtesgaden, Germany. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

In an interview with Sddeutsche Zeitung, Messner dismissed summit crosses as symbols of resistance against the enlightenment whose scientific usefulness was limited: rather than necessarily marking out the highest point of a mountain, they were often positioned for maximum visibility from below.

There is already something elevated about mountains you dont need symbols of the supernatural on top of that, Messner told the newspaper.

The local branch of the German Alpine Association has called for a reward for anyone able to identify the suspect and announced that it was trying to rebuild the Alpine cross on the Scharfreuter in time for a mass scheduled to be held on the mountain on 9 October.

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