It is not possible to judge another person’s climb objectively; each ascent contains untold stories, influenced by expectations and illusions that develop long before setting foot on the mountain. In alpinism, even the most personal judgments are extremely subjective.
- Marko Prezelj
High above France’s Isère valley, the tiny village of Autrans nestles among the rolling hills of the Vercors plateau. A farming community lives here in summer; winter transforms the undulating pastures into a Nordic skiing paradise. Host of the 1968 Olympic Games Nordic and ski-jumping events, Autrans enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight before slipping back into its pastoral slumber.
But each December, the village of Autrans comes alive when adventure filmmakers from across Europe arrive to attend the Autrans Mountain Film Festival (AMFF). It was here, at the Autrans festival, that I witnessed the first Piolets d’Or in 1992, an event that would eventually become a lightning rod for the climbing community, attracting both praise and criticism. I knew nothing about the Piolets, although I had been told it was a ‘celebration of alpinism’. After watching the ceremony, I could see it was that, but there was another element that added a bit of frisson – the dreaded element of competition.
The origins of the Piolets d’Or were collaborative, the brainchild of Montagnes Magazine, directed by Guy Chaumereuil and the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM) whose president was Jean-Claude Marmier, in co-operation with the AMFF, directed at that time by Mireille Chiocca. Their idea was to celebrate the highest levels of alpinism by awarding a Piolet d’Or (golden ice axe) to the top climb of the year. The GHM and Montagnes would nominate a number of climbs, and a jury, consisting of the Montagnes chief editor, the President of the GHM, previous winners of the Piolets (obviously not available for year one) and three additional jury members invited by the GHM, would choose the winning climb. The event would take place at the Autrans festival. One quick glance at the organizational structure and it was obvious that this was likely going to be a very ‘French-centric’ award.
The judging process was both interesting and stressful (particularly for the nominees) since, although the jury was sent a preparatory briefing about the nominated climbs, the actual judging took place on the day of the award, with each team making a 20 minute presentation followed by questions from the jury. I remember the nervous excitement and the buzz of that first award, with climbers and media and a standing-room only audience.
Despite the stress and the apparent Frenchness of the organization, the first ‘winners’ were not from France, perhaps because the Piolets founders intended to make this an international award that recognized alpinism in a global sense. Slovenians Andrej Štremfelj and Marko Prezelj were given the first Piolets d’Or for their astonishing 3000 m ascent of the South Pillar of the south summit of Kangchenjunga, 8476 m. But rumours immediately began circulating of a political decision to establish the award’s international credibility by ignoring the home favourites, Pierre Béghin and Christophe Profit. The French climb was an enchainment of two previously established routes on K2 – a superb achievement. But, the Slovenian line was seen as more important because it explored almost completely new ground.
Festival director Mireille Chiocca recalls the early years of the event, and how important it was for the festival : “I can say that the Piolet d’Or in Autrans was a big, rich and emotional moment. All the laureates were present and with them lots of well-known alpinists. In those days, Autrans was really a big, annual alpinism meeting.” Sadly, not for long. The last year that the Piolets celebration took place in Autrans was in 1997 when the Slovenians again dominated. This year it was Tomaž Humar’s and Vanja Furlan’s new route on the east face of Ama Dablam that won the golden axe. Tragically, only Tomaž was there to collect the prize, since Vanja had been killed that August while climbing in the Julian Alps. The prize catapulted Tomaž into alpine prominence, possibly more so than the organizers could ever have imagined.
The senior direction at Montagnes changed that year, and they decided to move the event to Grenoble…According to Mireille, the “hotels in Autrans were not considered ‘luxe’ enough for the prize”. Although the Autrans events had been wildly popular with the festival audiences and relatively free of controversy, there was one incident when famous French climber, Catherine Destivelle, a nominee but not a winner, declared that “the Piolets d’Or Jury was macho because no woman climber ever won the prize”. Mireille remembered that the audience went wild with applause but GHM president, Jean-Claude Marmier, was angry with both her comment and the public response.
Controversy began to surround the award, in great part because of the non-quantifiable nature of climbing accomplishments, and the various interpretations of alpinism. Discussion grew even more polarized around ‘heavy style’ vs. ‘light style’, which was the case in 1998 when the award was given to a Russian team for their siege- style ascent of the west face of Makalu. Although it was the first ascent of the magnificent west face, many felt that it was an undignified ascent, particularly since several teams had already tried to climb it in alpine-style, adhering to the ethics espoused by the Piolets d’Or. Not only that; two climbers had died on the Makalu climb and many questioned whether a climb should be honoured when not everyone had returned. Nevertheless, the award was given, and Jean-Claude Marmier left the jury in disgust, declaring that “the decision of the jury has been a real disaster”.
A new problem emerged the following year when French climbers Lionel Daudet and Sebastien Foissac were awarded for their ascent of the southeast face of the Burkett Needle, instead of Slovenian Tomaž Humar for his solo climb on the south face of Dhaulagiri. The jury determined that the Dhaulagiri climb was “a step too far”, even though he had retained enough control to retreat before the summit – and save his life in the process – unlike two of the Russians on Makalu the previous year. They also said that the Humar climb was too “heavily slanted toward media coverage” but Jean-Claude Marmier, who had resigned the year before, claimed that “while the French team had accomplished ‘an interesting ascent’, it was ‘at a standard that we have seen recorded two or three times a year in The American Alpine Journal for the last fifty years’”.
The Piolets prize had become controversial, not just for the climbs it awarded, but for many of those it did not. The first ascent of Melungtse by Marko Prezelj and Andrej Štremfelj was well received, yet it didn’t win them any golden iceaxes. Many alpinists felt that Tomaž Humar’s and Janez Jeglič’s alpine-style route up Nuptse’s west face was possibly the best climb of their too-short lives; however, it went unrewarded, just like Tomaž’s Dhaulagiri solo. Marko Prezelj’s K7 west climb with his American partners, Steve House and Vince Anderson, was a technically brilliant achievement, but it didn’t win a prize. There were niggling rumours that the nominating process was ignoring important climbs done by Americans, giving preference to European climbers. Defining success and choosing winners in the mountains was turning out to be a tricky job, one that was ultimately subjective.
As Ian Parnell, a cutting-edge British climber who was nominated several times and eventually withdrew from the competition asked in his article, Victors of the Unwinnable : “Is it possible to choose a winner in an inherently unquantifiable pursuit”? Ian went on to clarify his position. “Human beings are innately competitive, and mountaineers are no exception; but their most prized contests haven’t been between climbers, but with nature in its most dramatic forms. For many alpinists, climbing offers an alternative to competitive sports, and they interpret their ascents as creative, spiritual or aesthetic quests. While awards have brought an emphasis on rivalry, they have often come from forces outside the climbing community and have been geared less toward climbers than toward a public schooled in the gladiatorial world of traditional ‘sport.’” Ian had a point. Although the Piolets had been born and nurtured within the mountaineering community, one of its first partners had been a media representative – a mountaineering magazine – and there was growing concern that the media side of the partnership was growing in influence to the point of dominance.
The 2005 event was particularly problematic. To begin with, the initial shortlist missed some important American ascents : Steve House’s solo of K7, Kelly Cordes’ and Josh Wharton’s first ascent of the southwest ridge of Great Trango Tower and Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson’s near success on the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat. After one of the nominated climbs withdrew from the competition, the organizers opted to slot in Steve House’s solo climb. Things got ugly at the actual ceremony when two climbs with two entirely different climbing styles became the two finalists. The contrast between Steve House’s K7 solo, completed in a 42-hour round-trip with a four-kilo pack, and the Russian siege-style climb of the north face of Jannu, represented extreme opposites of the mountaineering spectrum. The jury, chaired by Polish climber Krzysztof Wielicki, chose the Russian climb. The public was shocked, the audience booed, and Steve House was visibly angry and disgusted. As if anticipating the problem, the organizers had added a ‘People’s Choice’ award that very year. The House climb won, with 40% of the vote. The Russian climb received just 5%. Later, in a piece written for Vertical, Steve bolstered his argument by quoting from the GHM’s own Piolet d’Or guidelines. “Did [the ascent of Jannu’s north face] embody ‘commitment’? With all that fixed rope, obviously no. Was the ascent of Jannu ‘innovative’? Absolutely not. Did it show ‘respect for the mountains that surround us’? Quite the opposite. In fact, 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.’ The Russians did climb the north face of Jannu, an amazing accomplishment of engineering and perseverance, but they also mutilated it with their heavy style.” Well, at least everyone knew what he thought!
The following year, Steve House and Vince Anderson accepted the award for their first ascent of the central pillar of the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. Ironically, one of the jury members was from the previous year’s Russian team. The jury’s decision was aligned with the People’s Choice award.
One of the strongest and consistent critics of the prize was Marko Prezelj. Even though he had received the inaugural prize, his attitude to the whole thing had soured. In 2007, when his partner, Boris Lorenčič and he, won the prize for their first ascent of Chomolhari’s northwest pillar, Marko refused to accept it. Publicly and loudly, he stated that it was impossible to compare worthy climbs. He explained on his website : “Every climb is unique...Judging an ascent is senseless. The essence of a climb burns out in the moment of experience.” His strict ethics and focus on style clashed with the world of media and prizes and publicity. The event reached a new level of decline when it was revealed that Montagnes had hand-selected the five finalists for 2007, disregarding the jury’s input on the nominees. In response, the GHM renounced its participation in the event, and the jury’s president, Andrej Štremfelj, resigned.
Marko wasn’t the only one critical of the Piolets. Russian alpinist Pavel Shabalin expressed similar sentiments: “Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation as love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography.” But it wasn’t just the commercial nature of the Piolet that bothered Marko. “The Piolet is a symbol of vanity,” he said. Instead of offering a prize, he suggested that it would be better to organize a party, invite a group of climbers who had done some good climbs, and simply celebrate. It’s unlikely that Marko’s approach would excite the sponsors, though, because what would they gain? A big bill for a party. Without winners and losers there would be no excitement, no spectacle and no publicity.
Marko’s climbing partner from the inaugural prize, Andrej Štremfelj, had initially felt differently about the prize and the activities that surrounded it. He believed that the Piolet could positively influence what young people choose to climb. He saw great value in the prize’s gathering, with its exchange of ideas on values and style. He cited the animated discussions : alpine style versus expedition style; weather forecasts – yes or no; satellite phones – yes or no. Despite his resignation from the jury in 2007, he continued to believe that the competition would help direct the future of alpinism. Andrej looked at alpinism with a long view, pointing out that every ascent influences those that follow, adding that the influence of an individual climb depended largely on media attention or support. The Piolet combined both.
Marko simply couldn’t agree and wrote passionately about his thoughts for Alpinist magazine.
Several people criticized me for participating in the Piolet d’Or ceremony this year. None of them was in Grenoble.
Joining this circus gave me the opportunity to present my opinion about the award publicly. Time will tell if doing so was a mistake.
I don’t believe in awards for alpinism, much less trophies or titles presented by the public or the media. At the ceremony, I could see and feel the competitive spirit created and fuelled by the event’s organizers. Most of the climbers readily accepted this mood without understanding that they had been pushed into an arena where spectators thrive on drama, where winner and loser are judged.
It is not possible to judge another person’s climb objectively : each ascent contains untold stories, influenced by expectations and illusions that develop long before setting foot on the mountain. In alpinism, even the most personal judgments are extremely subjective. When we return from the mountains we remember moments differently than they were there and then, in the moment when we had to make decisions under the pressure of many factors…
In Slovenia, fame has the same word as a woman’s name : ‘Slava’. Old people used to say : ‘Slava je kurba’ (Fame is a bitch), one day she is sleeping with one and the next day with another. Fame is a cheap trap set by the media in which the complacent are quickly caught and exploited, realizing too late that trust and honour do not live in the same house as notoriety. The public doesn’t truly care about climbers who are links in an incestuous chain binding sick hunger for attention to media that promote or criticize according to their interests. The Piolet d’Or show organizers know and count on the cruel fact that they will always find plenty of desperate, passionate gladiators and clowns to role-play in the fame game…
I ask the media and the promoters to stop forcing the competitive spirit into alpinism, and to start respecting the alpinists, their human differences and the creative ideas that make alpinism a complicated and rewarding experience.
Wow! It’s hard to imagine a clearer point of view. Marko added a zinger of a closing to his piece with, “I apologize if I have offended anyone who is addicted to Miss Fame; she gets around so watch out for STDs.”
The Piolets was cancelled for 2008. The organizers realized that a revamp was required so they rewrote the Charter in a way that tried to celebrate the spirit of alpinism rather than quantify it.
The purpose of the Piolets d’Or awards is to raise awareness about the year’s greatest ascents across the world. They aim to celebrate the taste for adventure, the bravery and sense of exploration that lie behind the art of climbing in the world’s great mountain ranges.
The Piolets d’Or draw their inspiration from mountaineering’s rich history. They are a celebration of a sense of partnership and solidarity, of shared experiences, and reward individual or collective achievement.
In modern mountaineering, questions of style and means of ascent take precedence over reaching the objective itself. It is no longer a matter of employing huge financial and technical resources (bottled oxygen, fixed ropes, high-altitude porters, so-called ‘performance-enhancing’ substances…) and large numbers of people to reach the top at all costs. The Piolets d’Or throw the spotlight on imaginative and innovative new routes, using a minimum amount of equipment, and building on experience.
Apart from the values statements of the Piolets, the organizers realized they needed more solid criteria for evaluating the nominated climbs. They included :
With a new Charter and new commitment to transparency, it’s perhaps not surprising that the 2009 Piolet turned from singular to plural, when not one, but three climbs were awarded. But, it was still devilishly difficult for the jury to manage. Or, as Polish alpinist, Voytek Kurtyka said, when asked, unsuccessfully, to be on the jury : “This exercise makes as much sense as asking which is better, sex or Christmas?”
Another notable development in 2009 was the creation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Called the ‘Career Piolets d’Or’, it was created to reward “a career where the spirit has inspired the following generations, in the sense of criteria set down by the convention.” The first lifetime award was given to legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti whose mountaineering ethos perfectly reflected the spirit of the Piolets d’Or.1
Despite all the criticism, the Piolets endured and evolved. After moving from Autrans to various locations, including Grenoble, Argentière and even Paris, it finally became firmly ensconced in Chamonix, with the lifetime award event held across the border in Courmayeur, Italy. It tried hard to embrace its new Charter and inclusiveness. So much so that in 2013, the jury chaired by Stephen Venables, decided to award all six nominees with golden axes. More controversy! The jury has no guts, people cried. The Piolets is in shambles, others roared. Wonderful decision, some gushed. The jury stuck to their guns with this statement : “2012 was an exceptional year for ground breaking ascents. The jury struggled to reduce that list [from] six…In light of the very high level of the six ascents, the jury has decided to award each of the nominated ascents a Piolet d’Or.” Interesting. It seemed that the event was starting to approach the concept that Marko Prezelj had floated years earlier – just have a party and celebrate some of the best alpine achievements of the previous year. Forget about declaring a winner.
With the evolution of the Piolets into something more inclusive, Marko’s stance began to soften. In 2015, he returned to Chamonix with two young Slovenian climbers, Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič, to accept the prize for the third time. Three golden axes were awarded that year. And again in 2016, he returned with American Hayden Kennedy and Slovenian Urban Novak to win one of four prizes awarded, this time for their ascent of India’s Cerro Kishtwar, 6173 m.
2016 witnessed another major shift with the Piolets, this time, physical. After seven years of holding the events in Chamonix and Courmayeur, the organizers, led by mountain guide Christian Trommsdorff, moved the Piolets d’Or from the foot of Mont Blanc to the mountain village of La Grave in southeast France, which the event organizers claimed, “will become the international capitalof alpinism.” The committee went on to state that, “Solidarity - or team spirit in the case of alpinists - is a fundamental value in the mountains, and the Piolets d’Or will shine a spotlight on a mountain region that has been hard hit by a natural disaster : the destruction of the road linking La Grave and the surrounding communities with Grenoble.” They stressed the importance of celebrating the different dimensions of alpinism, particularly the ‘mountain spirit’ aspect, which was curiously (and strategically) connected to their lifetime achievement award that year.
The story began back in 2010 when Christian Trommsdorff had invited Voytek Kurtyka to accept the lifetime achievement award. Voytek said no thanks, citing many of the same philosophical ideas voiced earlier by Marko Prezelj. “This is a devilish offer,” he said. “I always had a sense of escaping to the mountains from everyday social bullshit, and now you propose to me to take part in it. I was always escaping to the mountains to find encouraging proof that I’m free from the social bonds of award and distinction and now you offer it to me. I always ran to the mountains with the great expectation that I could elevate myself above my human weaknesses, and now you try to put on me the most dangerous one : the illusion that I am a person of distinction. My entire life is a sort of struggle with that illusion… Don’t even try to honour me.”
Christian tried again the next year. Voytek said no. Christian tried a third time in 2012. Voytek was a little clearer this time in his response. “Sorry. NO. NO! I will not be talking about Piolets d’Or any more. I gave you my reasons. Don’t try to make me an idiot…” By this time, some of the greatest alpinists alive had accepted the lifetime award, including Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott. Voytek relaxed, thinking the Piolets campaign was over but Christian simply bided his time. In 2016, Christian sent another letter, this time informing Voytek that he would be given the lifetime award, regardless of whether he accepted it or not.
And so it was, that at the 24th edition of the Piolets d’Or, two of the most ardent critics of the prize were in La Grave, France to accept them. Marko Prezelj and his international team for his fourth annual golden axe and Voytek Kurtyka for the lifetime achievement award. The organizers understood the significance of the change in venue, the acceptance by Voytek and the return to the fold by Marko, and their public statements reflected a new and more inclusive approach. “Alpine style climbing breaks down barriers and fosters mutual respect through its spirit of discovery and understanding, and encourages respect for nature by renouncing siege-style tactics,” they said. “In a tense international geopolitical climate in which extremism is gaining ground - even within the European Union - the organizers of the Piolets d’Or, as well as the public and private partners who support the event, hope to convey a spirit and culture of international openness, thoughtfulness, and tolerance with this year’s event.”
The event was all of that. La Grave is a fantastic place, located in a wild, alpine environment with the great brooding walls of La Meije looming over the village. Hundreds of people, mostly climbers, milled about in the cavernous event tent, glasses of wine in their weathered hands, exchanging fantastic stories of high altitude bivouacs and splitter cracks. There was a bit of everything : too-long speeches, intense discussions, passionate arguments, gut-massaging laughs, dancing until dawn. This was the Piolets d’Or celebration, the gathering of the tribe. Despite all the controversy, the discontent, the name-calling and the scandals, the climbing community had found a way to overcome their differences and gather together to recognize and honour each other and the fine art of alpinism. I suspect they will continue to do so for at least another quarter century.
Voytek Kurtyka finally accepts the golden ice axe
Complete list of Piolets d’Or recipients :
Complete List of Lifetime Achievement Awards :
A history of the Piolet d’Or (aka the golden ice axe)
BERNADETTE MCDONALD was the founder of The Banff Centre for MountainCultureand has authored 10 books on mountain culture and mountaineering. Among her awards are : BoardmanTasker,Banff Grand Prize, American Alpine Club Award and Kekoo Naoroji Award. When not writing, Bernadette climbs, hikes, skis and paddles. She has just finished the biography of Polish Himalayan climber, Voytek Kurtyka.