Never Hold A Meeting Under Rockfall…

… And other signs seen while trail running in Europe.

It is my last trail run of what has been a great season in the Alps, and I could not ask for a better day. The air holds the promise of colder weather to come, and the prospect of snow before long. The Désalpes celebrations have come and gone, and the herds of cows have been marched down from their summer pastures, paraded through town, lauded by the residents, and transported to their lower-elevation winter homes.

The tourists are gone from these mountains around Zinal, Switzerland, too. The trails are serene, but with everyone departed, it’s hard not to feel a bit melancholy. Within a few days, I’ll be headed home, too. After a season of hard running, I’m feeling strong as I power uphill through the brown and red pastures towards the glacier at the end of the valley. It is one of those moments we all seek when trail running. Everything is working well, and I imagine I can run forever.

Then, I spot the sign. The man on the sign appears to be screaming in terror. His hand is shoved towards me, and his mouth says it all. Which is a good thing, because the designers creepily opted to leave off his eyes, ears, and nose. The message is clear. “You really don’t want to see what I’ve seen, pal!”

Hand of Terror

All photos: Doug Mayer

I stop in my tracks and stare. It’s Switzerland, I think to myself. Just how bad can it be? Is there an up-ended trash barrel up ahead? A farmer with an untidy yard?

I take a few steps forward, and I see why he’s aghast. The trail— it just… ceases to be. In the distance, some combination of geological forces has created an abyss that would impress even the best Game of Thrones set designer.

The physical precipice is made all the larger by the gap of language and culture between the warning and this American trail runner. It’s not the first time I’ve stopped and stared, slack-jawed, at a sign that’s struck me as more than a bit odd. All season long, I’ve been photographing my favorite, bewildering trailside warnings. I stop and take a photo of the sign, which has me thinking that maybe the Swiss Alpine Club has hired Edvard Munch, of The Scream fame, to design their trail signs. I adjust my plans for the afternoon, and get back to my run. What sign will I see next, I wonder?

In celebration of the cultural and linguistic divide that leads to such moments of head-scratching bewilderment, here are a few of my favorite, confounding Alps trail signs. I know my discoveries are just the beginning, however. How many more of you have stood on a trail in a foreign land or even right here in the U.S., uttering “What the….”, your voice trailing off as your find yourself at a loss for words?

What signs have you seen? I’d love to know!

The Priest and the Sheep

SheepLocation: Zinal, Switzerland.

Translation: Priests in vestments thank you for being on alert for a person walking his dog amid a flock of sheep.

Five Languages for Your Convenience

Five Languages Location: Zinal, Switzerland.

Translation: None Needed.

Commentary: That’s clear enough without a translation—because it’s provided in no fewer than five languages. Even in multilingual Switzerland, that’s a lot. I like the use of the flags here, to more efficiently identify which text is yours. Forget your morning coffee, and finding yourself oddly unsure which language is English? Just look for the Union Jack!

The Red Circle of… Misunderstanding?

Red CircleLocation: Saint-Luc, Switzerland.

Translation: It’s perfectly fine to walk here. Or maybe it’s entirely forbidden?

Commentary: It took me years to realize that a red circle without a slash through it means exactly the same things as a red circle with a slash through it. In the mean time, I unknowingly flirted with danger time and again. (Years after it happened, I now realize this explains my wandering into a situation that resulted in being chased through a field by a mother cow and high-jumping some barbed wire.)

The Mystery Exclamation Point

ExclamationLocation: Arve River, Chamonix, France.

Translation: Be Alert! (But we’re not telling you why.)

Commentary: I’m a fan of the exclamation-mark sign, which is all over Europe. It lures you towards something perilous. What’s next is still a mystery. “There’s something potentially dangerous up ahead. But, sorry, we can’t tell you about it.”

No Meetings Under Rock Falls, Please

RockfallLocation: Trient, Switzerland.

Translation: Never hold a meeting under rock fall.

Commentary: It’s hard to argue with that logic. (No one ever said the Swiss weren’t thorough, right?)

The Shrine

ShrineLocation: Near Cabane de Tracuit, Switzerland.

Translation: God is looking out for you here. Possibly for good reason.

Commentary: My childhood was about as free of religious education as one could fathom. So, when I see a shrine built into a cliff, my incomprehension leads to a vague foreboding. Did someone pass away here? Will only the protection of a deity save me from what’s around the corner? Are spiritually uncertain agnostic-Buddhist-atheists like myself doomed?

 The Italian Hand of Death, Destruction, and Maiming

Italian HandLocation: Near Rifugio Lagazuoi, Dolomites, Italy.

Translation: You really don’t want to see what I just saw. I’m not kidding.

Commentary: The truth is, this guy has been haunting my Alps trail runs for years. It’s only a matter of time before he starts appearing in my dreams. Here he is again. Cultural note of curiosity: When he’s in Italy, he seems to prefer wearing a baseball cap.

Clear as Mud

Electric Fence Location: Near Meiringen, Switzerland.

Translation: Watch your udder on the electric fence.

Commentary: Homemade signs are personal favorites. This one was in a pasture filled with a herd of cows. As best I can tell, it was meant for them: “Watch out! Keep your udders off the electric fence!” Or maybe that’s a hand? If so, someone needs a drawing class.

No Littering on People’s Heads

Litter ConcussionLocation: Hasliberg, Switzerland.

Translation: Please do not throw litter. It will land on the heads of hikers.

Commentary: It’s bad enough to litter. But tossing your empty, glass container of local yogurt off this cliff can result in manslaughter charges. Consider yourself forewarned.

Scooby-Doo Goes to Switzerland

Scooby Doo

Location: Val-d’Illiez, Switzerland.

Translation: Even a disembodied Scooby-Doo loves his leash!

Commentary: When did Hanna-Barbera start licensing Scooby-Doo for European warning signs? For a dog that’s missing his body, he seems quite happy—and a bit too energetic. Did he eat dad’s amphetamines?

I Don’t Know What You’re Offering but I Think I Want Some

Dix Shower Location: Cabane des Dix, Arolla, Switzerland.

Translation: None

Commentary: Finally, a warning sign I can get behind—and in perfect English, or so I thought. I went looking for beer, good coffee, and blueberry tarts. The “product?” A shower. Disappointing, guys.

I Can’t Unsee the Swiss Robidog

Rabid DogLocation: All over Switzerland.

Translation: Owners of rabid dogs should bring kettles into which their dogs should poop.

Commentary: This might be more of a case of inexcusably poor marketing, than mistranslation. The Robidog company provides waste bags, so dog owners around Switzerland can do their part to keep the country immaculate. But, what right-minded enterprise would name its product one little vowel away from a dangerous disease? And, is the dog supposed to drop its waste into what appears to be a cook pot? (Aside to sign-maker: We don’t actually need to see the poop.)

The Vengeful Toxic Wave of Death

Terrified BoyLocation: All over Switzerland.

Translation: Beware random, malevolent waves of toxic fluid.

Commentary: This young man is one of Europe’s most tormented figures. He appears in thousands of locations, always being chased by a wave that, if the skull and crossbones is any indication, could be sulfuric acid. If I grew up with these signs as prevalent as they are in Switzerland, I’d never set foot in a stream bed again.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think of these signs?
  • What are some of the signs you’ve seen on the trails anywhere in the world? You can share images of your favorite trail signs over on this Facebook thread.

There are 11 comments

  1. E_C_C

    Waitaminit … if I read the signmaking convention correctly, the Italian (/Swiss) Hand of Death Destruction and Maiming actually translates to: DON'T STOP!

    1. runthealps

      I think you're right! It could be interpreted as a double negative. I should have looked for a heap of injured trail runners beneath the precipice!

  2. jdcheesman

    You probably already know this, but yellow background road signs in mainland Europe are temporary. Triangles are warnings / advisory, and the exclamation mark means danger.

    Love the hand-drawn warning about electrical octopi, though :)

  3. senelly

    Hilarious! Thank you for recording and sharing these. A couple of my favorite roadside signs here in the USA: "End Construction" and "Slow Children"…

  4. Eric Ashley NJ

    Awesome post! My favorite trail sign was a translation from Nepalese to English near Annapurna base camp: "Before you defecate, make sure there is no latrine around." Gets straight to the point, sort of :)

  5. billgeist

    Love it. I have been living in Austria for the past two years and the locals still debate what the red circle with something in it signs mean when I ask then.

  6. @ScallywagSprint

    LOVE the river bed of death one.

    In Switzerland I personally enjoyed the 'weg' warnings of which 'weg' you were on. Ramble, mountain or Alpine?! Particularly impressive leap up from mountain weg (which anyone between 10 and 60 in reasonable health could do) and alpine (do you have a climbing harness on?).

    I also saw this homemade sign in cyprus, which I enjoyed. : http://instagram.com/p/oVSjf9Noax/

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