A Climbing Award That May Be a Winner’s Last

High on Lunag Ri in Nepal, the Austrian climber David Lama started worrying that he might lose his toes. The cold on the 22,621-foot-tall mountain was as bad as anything he had ever experienced.

Lama, attempting to scale it solo in 2018, could have ended up dead if he got pinned down in a storm with severe frostbite or got hurt in a fall. A rescue would be nearly impossible.

Lama’s digits never froze entirely, and he continued to the top of the mountain. The image of him silhouetted on the pulpit-like summit is what climbers dream of. He said after the ascent that he had pushed near his risk-tolerance limit. For his climb, Lama won a Piolet d’Or — the Golden Ice Axe — alpinism’s biggest prize.

But Lama wasn’t present to accept the award at the Piolets d’Or ceremony in Lądek-Zdrój, Poland, in September 2019.

He had died five months earlier in an avalanche, while attempting to climb a new route on the dangerous Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies. His two partners, the American Jess Roskelley and the Austrian Hansjorg Auer, also died in the accident. Auer, too, was being honored with a Piolet d’Or in Poland, for a boundary-pushing solo climb of Pakistan’s Lupghar Sar West (23,481 feet).

The dissonance between their deaths and the celebration of their risky solo ascents raised an uncomfortable question about the Piolets d’Or: Is choosing winners — and therefore losers — in mountaineering a bad idea? Elite alpine climbing already feels perilous; its practitioners dying is a matter of course. But does handing out awards reinforce an unhealthy culture of risk in what is already a potentially deadly pursuit?

Lama in base camp of Lunag Ri in 2018.Credit…Martin Hanslmayr/Red Bull Content Pool

Giving the awards to Lama and Auer was like “having a drinking party for somebody that died of liver disease,” said Rolando Garibotti, 50, an Argentine-American alpine climber for over 30 years, during a phone call from Innsbruck, Austria. Garibotti is one of several significant climbers who wrestle with the implications of giving out prizes for climbs.

“There are plenty of alpine climbs where people walked away only barely with their skin,” Garibotti said. “And none of those people and climbs, in my mind, should qualify for the Piolet d’Or. If we want to create a culture in which not so many of the top guys end up dying, we need to make some changes.”

Garibotti’s comment about top alpinists dying is not hyperbole: Since 2008, at least seven Piolet d’Or winners, including the Swiss climber Ueli Steck, have gone on to die in the mountains.

The 2021 Piolets d’Or, the ceremony’s 30th anniversary, took place this weekend, in Briançon, a center of alpine climbing in France. It was an event of pomp and circumstance, with glittering trophies, acceptance speeches and standing ovations. The honored ascents this year had greater margins of safety than Lama’s or Auer’s. But the specter remained.

Christian Trommsdorff, the organizer of the Piolets d’Or and himself an alpinist, said in a phone call from Greece, “Risk is not a factor in the selection process” of winners, meaning that climbs judged to have been too dangerous are not considered. “But it’s part of the game,” he said, referring to the intrinsic risks in alpinism.

The Piolets d’Or were founded in 1992 in France as a collaboration between Montagnesmagazine and the Group de Haute Montagne, or High Mountain Group, of which Trommsdorff is president.

Risk aside, there has been debate over the years on how to judge climbs, which have a subjective quality as alpine climbers routinely debate “style,” or how one gets to the summit.

Things came to a head in 2007, when the Slovenian alpinist Marko Prezelj refused to accept the Piolet d’Or. Later that year, he wrote an article in the annual American Alpine Journal, arguing that the awards foster an environment in which climbers are “encouraged to overstretch their capacity, to make use of performance-boosting substances, and to take inconsiderate risks.”

Uisdean Hawthorn, one of this year’s Piolet d’Or winners with his partner, Ethan Berman, on his climb of Mt. Robson.Credit…Ethan Berman

So in 2009, the Piolets d’Or introduced a new format, honoring several climbs, all announced months before the ceremony. This satisfied many of the most vocal opponents in the “style” camp, but for others, like Garibotti, it failed to redress the fundamental problems surrounding risk.

Garibotti knows the danger firsthand. By his tally, over 30 people he has roped up with died climbing. The Piolets d’Or twice tried to nominate Garibotti for the award, once in 2006, for a new route on Cerro Torre, in Patagonia, and once in 2009, for the first traverse of the entire Cerro Torre massif. Twice he refused.

Most shocking was whom the jury decided to honor in 1998: a Russian team that made the first ascent of the west face of the Himalayan peak Makalu in 1997. Two of the climbers on the expedition died in the process. The organizers introduced a new criterion after backlash that year, requiring, according to Trommsdorff, “that you have to come back in one piece.”

The problem, in Garibotti’s opinion, isn’t that the awards encourage climbers to take more risk, but that in awarding risky climbs, they validate risky behavior. “If you have representation of climbs that are reckless, there are going to be more reckless climbs,” he said.

After winning a Piolet d’Or in 2019 with his Slovakian teammates Ales Cesen and Luka Strazar, the British climber Tom Livingstone wrote in an essay on his website that the award “plays on my human ego” in worrisome ways.

“I already have a devil on my shoulder at the end of a run-out” — a section of sparsely protected climbing that can result in dangerous falls — “who whispers, ‘uh oh, you’re gonna take a big one!’” Livingstone wrote. “I don’t want another offering me a golden trophy.” He accepted the award only because his teammates wanted to.

Of course, for many climbers, danger is a big part of the sport’s appeal.

“We have to recognize that in traditional mountaineering, death is a possibility,” said Reinhold Messner, 77, one of the most lauded alpinists of the last century. “If it’s not a possibility, it’s not mountaineering. The art of surviving is just that. It’s an art.”

Berman looking up the face of the mountain while camped at the base of the face.Credit…Uisdean Hawthorn

Though Messner accepted the lifetime achievement Piolet d’Or in 2010, an award created a year earlier, he too dismisses climbing prizes as reductive. In 1988, he declined an honorary Olympic medal for becoming the first person to summit the world’s 14 8,000-meter (26,246.7 feet) peaks.

“I was always against the idea that traditional climbing is a competition,” Messner said. “Generally I am not for medals at all. The lifetime award — it’s about respect.”

Despite the detractors, many leading climbers are in favor of the Piolets d’Or.

Symon Welfringer, a 27-year-old Frenchman and one of this year’s Piolets d’Or recipients for his first ascent of the south face of Pakistan’s Sani Pakkush (22,805.1 feet) with his countryman Pierrick Fine, said the award “was one of my main goals in starting to go on expeditions” to the Greater Ranges.

“In alpinism we don’t have that much recognition,” Welfringer explained. “Nowadays you have social media, but it can be quite hard to make people understand how difficult and committing it is to open a new line.”

Messner agrees that recognition helps non-climbers understand the accomplishments of the best climbers and functions as a check on “charlatan climbers who only appear like great adventurers” in Instagram pictures.

Uisdean Hawthorn, a 28-year-old Scottish climber, is another recipient of a Piolet d’Or this year with his partner, Ethan Berman, for their new route on Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face, in Canada. “I think it’s a good thing,” Hawthorn said. “This ceremony brings climbers together to have a discussion. So I think anything that kind of does that is positive.”

Hawthorn doubts most alpinists see the Piolet d’Or as a motivator, as Welfringer did in his climbing. He compared climbers to scientists doing years of research in an esoteric field: “They’re not like, ‘If I do this, I’ll get a Nobel Prize,’” Hawthorn said. “They’re just really into that weird niche thing and they like it.”

Berman descending just below the summit.Credit…Uisdean Hawthorn

Trommsdorff agrees. “We’re not pushing people to take risks — you don’t need the Piolets d’Or to do that,” he said. And, Trommsdorff said, the Piolets d’Or specifically removed mention of winners and losers in its revamped charter in 2009.

Many, like Hawthorn, appreciate this reframing. “You could negatively look at it as still an excuse to award the best climb in alpinism, but I don’t really see it as that. It’s more of a celebration of alpinism. If it wasn’t a peer-judged thing, it would be completely different.”

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