[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 84, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 84 for all the goodness!—Ed.]]
AS I WRITE THIS, climbers around the world are preparing to travel to Briançon, France, for the annual Piolets d’Or celebration in mid-November. The propriety of Piolets’ “Golden Ice Axe” awards in the realm of alpinism has been debated ever since the first ceremony in 1992. Alpinism, after all, is a niche pursuit, perhaps rooted more in philosophy and personal exploration than in sport.
“Climbing is more art than science, yet a growing number of awards attempt to evaluate the year’s best climbs,” Ian Parnell wrote in 2006 for Alpinist 16. “The controversy surrounding the biggest of them, France’s Piolet d’Or, raises a central question: Is it possible to choose a winner in an inherently unquantifiable pursuit? … For a community that claims to be so uninterested in prizes, it’s ironic to note how much debate and column inches the Piolet d’Or has provoked.”
Just months before Parnell’s article appeared, a Piolet had been bestowed upon a Russian team for a 2004 siege ascent of the north face of Jannu/Kumbhakarna (7710m). Steve House’s 2004 solo ascent of K7 (6934m) with a four-kilo pack in a forty-two-hour round-trip had been the counterpart for consideration at the 2005 ceremony. But the jury was apparently biased in favor of the Russians, even though that climb represented the antithesis of the Piolet d’Or charter. Parnell’s story dug into this pivotal moment to consider the wider questions surrounding the award.
During and after the 2005 ceremony, House wasn’t concerned about recognition for his K7 climb, but for the ethics at stake. In a response in the French magazine Vertical, he asserted that the Jannu climb wasn’t the least bit innovative. “The ascent was contrary to the stated spirit of the award: ‘We cannot in fact pass down to future generations summits mutilated in the name of a destructive climbing style,’” House wrote, quoting the charter. Leslie Fucsko—the then president of Le Groupe de Haute Montagne, the co-founding organization of the Piolets d’Or—defended the decision to award the Jannu climb, saying, as quoted by Parnell, “One of the real ‘last Himalayan problems’ fell…. This objective certainly appears inaccessible to a light-style ascent.”
Despite Fucsko’s claim, during the second week of October this year, Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau climbed a new route on Kumbhakarna’s north face in a seven-day alpine-style push. Round Trip Ticket (M7 AI5+ A0, 2700m) shares parts of the Russian Direct and the Southwest Spur. The climb won’t be eligible for consideration for a Piolet until next year, but it provides a timely opportunity to reflect on how the “art” of alpinism has evolved in the past thirty years.
If the Piolets d’Or fail to live up to their aspirational status as a touchstone for alpinism’s greatest ideals, they at least provide us with a weather vane for the culture. At the 2007 ceremony in Grenoble, France, Marko Prezelj (who received the first Piolet with Andrej Štremfelj in 1992) famously spoke out against the Piolet d’Or, comparing the award to “a pop-singing competition or a beauty pageant contest.” You can’t judge the best climbs any better than a favorite food, Prezelj argued: “To come up with a worthy comparison among such different climbs is futile.” Criticism snowballed as more high-profile climbers declared their opposition to the format of the awards at the time, in which the ascents were judged for a top prize. In response to the widespread derision, the event took a hiatus in 2008 and was reformatted. Instead of a single winner, there are now multiple Honored/Awarded Ascents presented in no order, plus occasional Special Mentions. In 2009 the Lifetime Achievement Award was also started to honor people rather than particular climbs. The current Piolets charter states: “Their purpose is … to use these ascents to promote clear ethical messages regarding our practices as alpinists around the world.”
The list of Significant Ascents may be the more interesting part to follow from year to year, however. PioletsdOr.net explains the list is intended to reflect “significant, innovative ascents in most mountain regions of the world, climbed [in a given year], in alpine (or in a few cases capsule) style and with minimal or no use of drilled equipment. This is not a list of nominated ascents for the Piolets d’Or and should not be confused with such: it is a selection of routes that are classed as noteworthy within their [particular] regions.” In recent years the list, which typically includes about fifty climbs, has been compiled by Lindsay Griffin, senior editor of the American Alpine Journal (AAJ), with help from AAJ editor-in-chief Dougald MacDonald and Rodolphe Popier (Club Alpin Français).
“I like that it shows that each year there are all sorts of climbs, by all sorts of people, in all sorts of places that live up to the standards outlined in the Piolets charter,” MacDonald said in an email. “It shows that high-standard alpine climbing is alive and well. As for the awards themselves, I have mixed feelings. I agree with Marko’s original premise that you can’t judge alpine climbs. The Piolets organizers have strived to minimize this aspect in the way they promote and celebrate their final choices. But you can’t get around the fact that they have a jury and that the jury is narrowing a big list to a final list of three or four.”
Besides the seeming incongruity of comparing climbs from all over the world, there have been other long-standing concerns. Trophies for risky endeavors that frequently result in death can make alpinism look more like a blood sport. And there has been a lack of diversity. Only two women have received the award: Lise Billon (2016) and Kei Taniguchi (2009). To address the first concern, judges seriously consider “the suitability of the route in light of objective dangers,” according to charter criteria. The Special Mention has frequently been used to highlight women’s expeditions that might not receive as much attention otherwise, but overall diversity lags.
Billon is a member of this year’s technical jury. When asked how she feels about the diversity of the awards, she said it’s easy to see that alpinism remains an activity for the “social elite,” and that she’s been interested to learn more about the accomplishments of teams from non-Western cultures. She pointed out that there are increasing numbers of women on the long list. “It shows the mentality is evolving,” she said. Ines Papert, another member of this year’s jury and a veteran of previous juries, responded: “It’s about time to push some female efforts again…. There were quite a few female ascents that deserved more attention.”
In light of all the subjectivities and inconsistencies, why not simply do away with the trophies and just have a party, as Prezelj and others have suggested over the years?
Tom Livingstone, who was selected for the Piolets d’Or in 2019, is one of those people who see the prizes as a detriment to the spirit of alpinism. “In having the concept of the award, the Piolet d’Or also supports showcasing your route as much as possible,” he said. “We know that increasingly it’s not what you do, it’s how you tell it.”
True. Storytelling matters, especially in pursuits like alpinism, where the action usually unfolds far away, with few, if any, outside witnesses. How many of us get to behold cutting-edge climbs as they happen in the moment? We must rely on the photos, videos and words from the few who were there. Stories of exploration and difficult routes—knowing what has been done and how people did it—inform our imagination. Storytelling advances alpinism.
Meanwhile, every year mainstream media continues the barrage of coverage on the 8000-meter peaks as though the fixed lines and oxygen bottles represent the pinnacle of climbing. Journalists require tangible details to tell stories. The biggest, highest mountains, the fastest ascents and deadly accidents are all much easier to comprehend than the commitment, skill and endurance needed for a fast and light push on an obscure peak. A few shiny trophies for standout climbs each year might ultimately be helping the cause of alpinism by giving media more tangible focal points, highlighting examples of fine climbs.
I asked twelve people—climbing editors, jury members and high-end climbers—if they perceived the Piolets d’Or as having any positive or negative influence on them personally, or on climbing culture. Livingstone and others said the award has given them benefits they might not have had otherwise, which can add to the mind games. “I don’t agree with the Piolets d’Or but unfortunately there’s a voice in my head that sometimes wants another one,” he said. “I agree that one potential effect is that the mainstream media looks to the Piolets d’Or for guidance about what’s ‘good.’ ” Most of those I reached out to doubted that the event’s influence extended much beyond climbers, or that the possibility of a trophy swayed decisions they made in the mountains.
Fresh off his ascent of Kumbhakarna, Rousseau balked at the question. “We started this Jannu project because we didn’t think we could do it,” he said. “The motivation was self-doubt.”
Alik Berg, who will be attending the 2023 ceremony with Quentin Roberts to accept an award for their first ascent on Jirishanca (6094m) in Peru, said, “The selected ascents are merely examples of an ideal and less about being better than others.” He added: “The Piolet jury are all people I respect immensely; I appreciate getting a nod of approval from any one of them.”
I asked Prezelj if his feelings about the event have changed since 2007. They have, and he’s accepted two more awards since then, in 2015 and 2016. But it remains a contest in storytelling, he said, particularly in years when there are fewer outstanding climbs.
As for me, I’ve never had a chance to experience the revelry. I’ve mostly heard that it’s a joyful time with friends old and new. I’m just an outsider looking in, and storytelling is my job. I can say that if there’s one unquestionably positive aspect about the Piolets, it’s that so many intriguing stories intersect with the event. The trophies are a conversation starter, an icebreaker, a speck of dust that enables a snowflake to form.
[Additional thanks to Lindsay Griffin, Dougald MacDonald, Rodolphe Popier, Genki Narumi, Quentin Roberts, Tino Villanueva and Kilian Jornet.—Ed.]