Is this the world’s strangest summit cairn?

Take a look at the photo below, and tell me if you can see anything funny about it.

Don’t worry. It’s not a scene from War of the Worlds, and that’s not a Martian fighting machine behind Edita’s head, sneaking over the rock and preparing to zap her with a heat ray.

This is the summit of 3,880m Tibherine East in the High Atlas Mountains, a peak just a short distance below the north ridge of Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco.

That thing behind Edita is actually an old aircraft engine, but how the hell did it get there?

"And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal." (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds)
“And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal.” (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds)

On 28 November 1969, a Lockheed L-749 Constellation aircraft was flying from Faro in Portugal to the island of Sao Tomé off the coast of West Africa. Its eventual destination was the town of Uli in the Republic of Biafra, a disputed territory that seceded from Nigeria and existed as an unrecognised independent state from May 1967 to January 1970.

The cargo flight was carrying ammunition and flying over Morocco at night when the crew experienced problems with three of its four engines. The crew informed air traffic control that they wanted to divert to the nearest airport. Shortly afterwards the aircraft disappeared, and a few days afterwards search and rescue operations were suspended when no trace of the aircraft could be found. The plane was carrying three crew and five passengers. None of them survived.

Eight months later, in July 1970, debris of the aircraft were found close to Jebel Toubkal. The plane appeared to have struck the summit of Tibherine East. Parts of the aircraft were strewn all the way down Toubkal’s north-west couloir, and one of the engines was actually embedded in the summit.

So that's what a Lockheed L-749 Constellation aircraft engine looks like
So that’s what a Lockheed L-749 Constellation aircraft engine looks like

After climbing 4,167m Toubkal for the third time last week, I took an alternative route back down the mountain, descending by its north ridge and coming down the north-west couloir, a gully which runs parallel to the standard tourist route up Toubkal from Toubkal Refuge. On the ridge just below Toubkal’s main summit are three more peaks, Imouzzer (4,010m), Tibherine East (3,880m) and Tibherine West (3,887m).

We tried to climb Imouzzer, but a lack of snow turned a reasonably straightforward snow plod into a technical rock climb that we were not equipped for. Afterwards we wandered up Tibherine East and had our lunch on the summit. There is a fine view down the valley to the village of Imlil, starting point for climbs of Toubkal, but the most notable thing about Tibherine East is its weird summit cairn that appeared there, as if by magic, 48 years ago.

Those red Atlas rocks must be pretty solid, for they did an impressive job of pulverising the aircraft. Descending the north-west couloir back to Toubkal Refuge, we found more aircraft debris hundreds of metres further down.

I’ve seen all sorts of strange things on mountain summits, including crosses, prayer flags, statues of the Virgin Mary, radio masts, Ordnance Survey trig points, and even one or two restaurants, but this has to be the strangest thing yet.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say this has to be the world’s weirdest summit cairn, but if you’ve seen one stranger, then by all means post a link to a photo and I’ll doff my hat to you.

(Source: Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

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8 thoughts on “Is this the world’s strangest summit cairn?

  • January 3, 2018 at 5:29 pm
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    It’s a bit like the summit of Grey Friar in the Lakes with it’s Halifax Undercarriage or Rudh Stac mhor on Beinn Eighe with the wreckage of an aircraft strewn on the gullies and the summit. Unfortunately in the 2nd World War night flying in the UK was a hazard for air crews and crashes on mountain summits were not unheard of!

  • January 3, 2018 at 11:08 pm
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    I’ve seen plenty of aircraft engines in museums. But never in such an exciting context. Coolest pic of the year so far!

  • January 4, 2018 at 11:23 am
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    Hehe, thanks Roz! Well, it’s still early days, so hopefully there will be cooler pics to come.

    Thanks for these two examples, Paul. Yes, you’re right, there are lots of mountainsides that have aircraft debris on them, but I think (though I could be wrong) what makes this one unique is that the engine is still where it landed, precisely on the summit. As I understand it the Halifax memorial on Great Carrs (which I believe is the one you’re referring to) is on a ridge rather than the summit.

  • January 10, 2018 at 5:21 pm
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    Very Interesting, thank for posting!

    Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachians has aircraft parts strewn across it’s upper reaches just under the 6k summit -at about 5850ft ASL .

    I personally can’t stand cairns, monuments, crosses, and especially flags etc at a peak. -It screams ego and conquest -which is silly IMO. -Although an accidental aircraft engine is pretty damn cool.

  • January 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm
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    I guess it depends on the size of your erection. Personally I always think it’s nice to find something on the summit, just to let you know you’ve arrived. 🙂

  • January 12, 2018 at 9:17 pm
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    I guess mountains and airplanes are not a good mix. Of the four highest mountains I’ve climbed in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, USA, three have airplane wreckage near their summits.

  • September 29, 2018 at 12:42 am
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    Hi Mark,

    My sister sent this post to me today because I recently returned from Morocco and that rekindled a memory in her about our Grandfather, David Brown. Apparently, and I just discovered this today, the wreckage in the Atlas mountains you are highlighting here is of my Grandfather’s plane. Growing up, no one in my family had a clear answer for my inquiries as to where he crashed and where he was buried only that he was flying to or from Portugal. I would love to hear more info from you regarding your findings as it seems you have some pretty detailed knowledge of the crash. Do you know where his remains are buried? Do you know who else was on the plane? Can you point me to how I can find more information on this?

    I’m a bit of a climber/trekker myself and now, at 44 years old and after a lifetime of curiousity, I plan to visit this site in hopes to be closer to the grandfather I only heard stories about.

    Best Regards,

    Shawn

  • September 29, 2018 at 8:57 am
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    Hi Shawn, you could try the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents that I link to at the end of the article. Good luck with your search.

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