For the first time in its seventeen-year history, the Piolet d’Or has been canceled. The presitgious French trophy, a Golden Ice Axe presented by Grivel, has been awarded annually for the most outstanding achievement in the world of mountaineering and, by its very nature, has often been surrounded by controversy. The award ceremony traditionally has been the joint effort of Montagnes Magazine and the Groupe de Haute Montagne, but last year some dissent over the way the teams were shortlisted led to the GHM, under its president Leslie Fuscko, withdrawing its participation. Montagnes Magazine went ahead with the award, which suffered: first when it was discovered that one of the short-listed teams had been somewhat economical with the truth about its ascent, and second when one of the winners wrote several widely read (and widely supported) articles on why the whole ethos of the Piolet d’Or–the selection of a winner–was totally at odds with the spirit of alpinism.
Philippe Descamps, editor of Montagnes, took all this on board and to his credit tried to canvass a wide opinion on how the award could be improved. As this discourse developed, the GHM returned to the fold. The result was that the three co-founders of the event–the GHM, Montagnes and Guy Chaumereuil–the latter the editor of Montagnes at the time of inauguration of the award, produced a new “Charter.” And to show that the Piolet d’Or was truly international in nature, they decided to hold the 2008 ceremony not in France, as in the past, but south of the border in the Val d’Aoste, Italy.
For those who see the future of alpinism as doing more with less, persuing the alpine-style ethic, the improvements to the Piolet d’Or are many, and criteria for judging which climbs should now be celebrated are very sound. However, most people consulted were still unhappy about maintaining an overall winner: not only is it against the spirit of alpinism, but it is also more or less impossible to compare different mountaineering exploits, particularly those occuring very recently within a short time span and presented in a variety of different ways. And even though the organizers have decided to call the overall winner an “ambassador of modern mountaineering,” he or they still will be deemed to have won.
Some have advocated the idea of a meeting, where alpinists would come together to share ideas and experiences, and perhaps celebrate a collection of the year’s great achievements. But one of the fundamental aims of the Piolet d’Or has been to showcase climbing to as wide an audience as possible, and it is an expensive event to run. Mainstream media, which appears to be essential for the sponsorship of this event, unfortunately needs a winner.
In the new ceremony, the short-listed achievers would be decided by the GHM and Montagnes, as before. However, this time there would be two distinct juries: the GHM would provide an international jury of climbers, while Montagnes gathered a group of six climbing reporters. It was hoped that the eventual ambassador would be decided by consensus, although in the new Charter, the short-listed teams also would take part as a third and separate jury. The Russian version of the Piolet d’Or, which took place in November, was decided solely by the participants themselves. This method is nicknamed “Hamburg Score” in Russia, as it was described in a novel by a well-known Russian author, Viktor Shklovsky, in 1928. The process tries to eliminate any commercial and political interest from the result. It is based on a story about wrestlers who would cheat for commercial gain by allowing themselves to lose a contest. But once a year they would meet in private in Hamburg, away from agents, organizers and the public, to fight a fair battle. Only in Hamburg did the wrestlers know who was the real champion.
Unfortunately, this year it never got to that stage. Although the jury of international reporters was able to decide its choice of worthy participants for the Piolet d’Or in Italy, organizing a jury of climbers and its president proved difficult in the short time available (last year’s event took place in late January). Since it was not possible to obtain total agreement, it was decided to cancel. The full charter is still open for discussion: the organizers hope it will be possible to improve it further and produce a highly successful event in 2009. Who might have been the ambassador this year? It’s impossible to speculate, though the favorites of many included the teams that made the first ascents of Jannu’s northwest ridge, K7 West and Pumari Chhish South.