School-Sponsored Mountain Graffiti

byu-yIt’s time to take the Y off of Y Mountain. The Block U should go too, and all the other school-sponsored graffiti that litters mountains across Utah and the Western United States.

My home state of Utah may be the  school-sponsored mountain graffiti capitol of the world, but like many vices, we imported this from California. Berkeley started it.

u-of-u-2015-06-02-12-56-56-2Hillside letters, or mountain monograms, as some people call them, are a cultural artifact left over from a time when vandalism of natural wonders was something of a national pastime.  In 1905, the University of California Berkeley branded a local hill with the letter C as a sort of student unity project. Somehow, taking out their frustrations on that innocent hill created a camaraderie that would last forever, or at least, until they all graduated shortly thereafter—definitely worth the sacrifice of local wildlife habitat. Not to be outdone, a few weeks later the University of Utah attacked a pristine mountain nearby with a giant letter U. It was like an episode of Sesame Street gone bad. And over 100 years ago now in 1906, Brigham Young University became the third school to ruin a local mountain with their own autograph.

v-2015-04-04-13-43-10According to lore, this act had nothing to do with their jealousy of the U and everything to do with resolving a conflict between juniors and seniors, both of which wanted to write their own graduating class years on the mountain.  “Let’s all get along and kill trees together,” said their administrators.  Although this project had nothing to do with the U, of course, they decided to outdo University of Utah students by inscribing all three of their initials on the mountain.  They started in the middle, so as to center the abomination properly, but it was a lot of work and they were getting tired and the middle initial always has been the favorite Mormon initial anyway, so they quit after finishing the Y.

To be visible all the way down in the valley, letters have to be big.  Really big. That itty bitty Y you can glance up at to feel school spirit while the Cougars play football is bigger than the football field itself.  That is a lot of forest destroyed to make a letter you could see better if you just typed it into your own cellphone.

p-2015-06-21-14-13-56Maybe the mountain scarring wouldn’t be so bad if it had stopped at the universities, but high schools started littering the local mountain ranges too. The Utah high school population is rapidly growing, requiring constant construction of new schools with equally proud students that want to vandalize their own bits of the mountainsides with their own school initials.

ns-2015-07-01-14-48-18Social conservatives who couldn’t care less about the environment (most of the Utah population) should still be concerned about how these these mountain letters are proliferating as the Utah student population grows. It is only a matter of time before the alphabet soup we are building across our mountain ranges inadvertently spells out four-letter words. Imagine the  Salt Lake City postcard someday when the University of Utah’s U is flanked by letters posted by, for example, schools called Franklin High School to the north and Cottonwood High School and Kennicott High School to the south.

j-2015-07-01-16-57-17I get it. Seeing your school initial on a mountain fills you with school spirit, akin to wearing your letter jacket. But unlike your jacket, which wraps around your own body alone, a mountain shades an entire valley full of people who  have no affiliation with your school, many of whom would find more joy in the natural beauty of the mountainside, unobscured by some letter that stands for some high school they have never heard of.

I’ll admit that as a teen growing up in Utah, I was just as enchanted with school-sponsored mountain graffiti as anyone else.  My own high school, Bingham, boasted a letter B on a local mountainside.

Well, actually, it wasn’t that local.  The B was created back when Bingham boundaries encompassed most of the sparsely populated Southwestern quadrant of the Salt Lake valley in 1927. Years before I attended Bingham, the high school moved to a new location miles away and the B wasn’t even visible from the new school building.

That is one big problem with mountains; they aren’t very mobile.

b-2015-06-21-13-37-32-1The Salt Lake valley isn’t sparsely populated anymore and school boundaries have divided over and over again, so Bingham’s B hasn’t been located in the vicinity of Bingham’s school boundaries for decades.  Several other high schools are geographically closer to the Bingham B than Bingham itself.

In spite of its distance from the school, Bingham students used to proudly journey to it annually to whitewash the B.  Whitewashing day was a big event for Bingham students, a sort of school-wide outing—at least, until my first year at Bingham, when officials finally decided that sending the entire student body up a distant mountain was a logistic nightmare and limited the event to seniors only.

a-2015-06-28-16-26-47I was still excited to participate as a senior, but by my senior year, the powers that be decided that even with just the seniors we had too big a crowd, so the event was limited to student body officers, cheerleaders, and their best friends.  Basically, they invited all of the kids that sit at the cool table to go up the mountain together, creating just one more way to exclude self-conscious teens from the in-crowd.

g-pleasant-grove-2015-06-05-19-06-44As Utah high schools become more urban, there are many options for school spirit that don’t involve trespassing into animal habitat and destroying what is left of our foothills.  I once saw a school with their monogram installed on a freeway overpass.  More of that, please!  Don’t ruin a beautiful hillside; improve an ugly road.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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14 Responses

  1. Mabel says:

    “That is a lot of forest destroyed to make a letter”

    For what it’s worth, the west face of Y Mountain is not forest, it is scrub oak, rock, and short grasses. Also, BYU just invested a fair amount of money on purchasing & improving the letter, trail, and trailhead. I kid you not, there are now picnic tables at the Y.

    I’m not sure what laws and regulations govern placing letters on mountainsides, but I’m sure that it is no longer allowed on public (federal) property. I think the key to preserving what is left of our foothills is to make sure the land is owned or managed by organizations that will prohibit further home building, ATV riding, letter making, etc.

  2. Amy says:

    I feel this so much. I was in Student Council my sophomore year, the year in which were elected to head up the campaign to “Save the B” on the mountainside in Bountiful, Utah from the oncoming residential development. I remember everyone coming up with fundraising ideas and realizing just how much money we were putting towards a cause that just seemed so wrong in my budding liberal mind. When I dared voice my opinion to all the “cool” seniors I was looked upon with shock and my school spirit was called into question.
    I remember saying, the B on the mountain is just ugly and really ruins the view. It was not a popular stance to take in a room full of “school spirit.”
    I wish I had put up a bigger resistance then, but resistance is fairly futile in that community.

    A community service project sponsored by the senior class would have a much larger impact on society than the defacing of our natural landscape. Here’s hoping the community can recognize that the value of school and community spirit doesn’t need to be represented in a meaningless symbol.

    • I was not nearly so aware as you were when I was in high school and offered no resistance at all! My biggest complaint about our mountain letter at that time was that I was peeved that I had not been permitted to participate in the annual hike due to my lack of the right social connections. I congratulate you for even thinking about such issues at such a young age.

  3. Gemma says:

    Some Utah County residents like myself joke that Lindon, UT needs its own high school so it can put an “L” on a nearby mountain. Then when you drive south on I-15 from downtown Salt Lake to Provo, the mountain letters will spell out U-G-L-Y.

  4. Nathan Whilk says:

    How do you feel about ancient geoglyphs? Forgivable because they weren’t as civilized as we are?

  5. Bec says:

    I think it’s cool and it provides plenty of enriching activities for students.

    Has anyone flown over mountain ranges like the Wasatch Front? The space for a letter is relatively miniscule.

    Sorry, but although I re-use and recycle like crazy and was a cloth diapering mama, this seems like misdirected concern.

    Leave the Y be.

  6. PollyKate says:

    My alma mater is apparently guilty in starting this trend over a hundred years ago. However, The Big C at Cal is not particularly large – nowhere near the size of a football field – and it likely has had very little effect on the local flora and fauna. And, the Big C is a tradition that both liberal and conservative students get behind, so it is a unifying force. Perhaps the problem in Utah is that those issuing the letter construction permits are allowing these concrete letters to become way too large. At the rate home and office construction is happening along the I-15 corridor, my guess is that in the not too far off future there won’t be any mountainside acreage left upon which to build these letters. Maybe the problem will just go away on its own?

  7. Andrew R. says:

    I confess, not having been further west than Tx, that this is something I knew nothing about. And I find it appalling. Does the school buy that piece of land?

    Planning permission in the UK would never allow something like this – a virtually permanent blot on the landscape. We have enough problems getting permission for wind turbines, which serve a purpose and help to reduce carbon emissions. A concrete block the size of a football pitch – no way!

    How sad.

  8. Alfred says:

    What a sad one-sided article. Mountain monograms are symbolic, they build unity not only for the school, but also for the community. You’ll be disappointed to hear that not one but two hillside letters are going in in my neck of the valley this coming Spring. This will provide a place for high schoolers to rally around and hike up, creating annual traditions that are far more important then so called environmentalism. I don’t want to attack your views, but I feel as if you are missing the point. These letters are better than houses and they stand for unity.

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