Victors of the Unwinnable

Posted on: July 1, 2006

Julian Cartwright on the first ascent of The Knowledge (Alaska Grade 6: ED4 5.7 A2++ WI6, 1200m), north buttress of Mt. Hunter (4441m), Alaska Range, Alaska. Cartwright climbed the route with the author in 2000; the climb was nominated for that year's Piolet d'Or. The author has been nominated twice since, but in 2005, he withdrew from the competition. This choice seems to be a growing trend: Alessandro Beltrami, Rolando Garibotti and Ermanno Salvaterra withdrew their new route on Cerro Torre from consideration in 2006. [Photo] Ian Parnell

Climbing is more art than science, yet a growing number of awards attempt to evaluate the year's best climbs. 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?

In 1977 Mo Anthoine, Chris Bonington, Clive Rowland and Doug Scott were descending from the first ascent of Pakistan's aptly named Ogre. High on the mountain, Scott lost control of a pendulum, breaking both legs. Farther down, Bonington broke his ribs in another fall. Scott's retreat on bloodied hands and knees seized the public imagination. Newspaper columns were filled with praise of his heroism; there were rumors of a knighthood. The Victoria Sporting Club decided to present Scott and his teammates with their annual "Man of Courage" award.

The award was a relatively high-profile affair; the previous year's winner had been the British motor-racing driver Niki Lauda, who'd survived a horrific, fiery crash and returned to the track despite his burns. Initially Scott couldn't be bothered with the award, but Bonington persuaded him to accept it for the team: there was rumored to be a cash prize of 25,000 British Pounds, a sum that they hoped to give to the Mount Everest Foundation to help fund future British expeditions.

Receiving the prize "seemed wrong," recalls Scott. "I hadn't done anything heroic.... I'd just saved my own skin." He nonetheless dutifully agreed to appear on lunchtime national TV. "I was sitting in the studio next to one of the award's organizers. So I asked her whether she might be able to write the check out directly to the MEF rather than it have to go through our own accounts. She turned to me and said, 'What check?' 'Well, the twenty-five grand.' She replied, 'There is no money.' So I asked her what the trophy itself was worth. When she said 95,000 British Pounds, I mentioned that we might be able to melt it down and sell it. She didn't like that option. Well, there was obviously no point in hanging around, so just before we went on air I got up and left. She went on to say that Mr. Scott doesn't want the award because there's not enough money in it for him."

The British press snatched the opportunity for scandal: "One day I was the golden boy of mountaineering and the next they had headlines calling me a 'filthy swine'." Any mention of a knighthood was dropped, but Scott learned a valuable lesson. "I let my guard down. You've got to watch anything that tries to reduce mountaineering from pure and simply climbing."

Marko Prezelj on the first ascent of the 3000-meter Southwest Ridge of Kangchenjunga (8476m), which he climbed in pure alpine style with Andrej Stremfelj in 1990. The climb won the inaugural Piolet d'Or. [Photo] Andrej Stremfelj

Most climbers would agree that climbing is an inherently unquantifiable pursuit. As Andrew Lindblade puts it, "Mountaineering is a physical act, but also a highly creative one. It has all the physicality of an Olympic marathon, but it is also a 'structureless' form: the rules are not finite and absolute.... In this sense, strict competition is redundant."

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."

And yet climbing awards have been around nearly as long as the pursuit itself. When French crystal hunter Jacques Balmat and Doctor Michel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, they picked up a substantial purse from Horace Benedict de Saussure as well as a prize from the King of Sardinia. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the Olympics, proposed in 1894 that an "Alpinisme" medal be given for the best ascent in the four years between each game. This medal has only occasionally been awarded: in 1988 Jerzy Kukuczka and Reinhold Messner won silver medals for their ascents of all fourteen 8000-meter peaks, which begged the question of what they needed to do to win a gold.

In spite of such efforts to give mountaineering a place within the global sports culture, Erik Ullen, in 1912, underscored its innate incompatibility. Appointed to the Olympic Committee for Alpinism to determine potential winners, he was unable to make any recommendations, citing among a long list of problems "the impossibility of comparing different types of climbs."

His complaint has been echoed in the mountaineering culture with the most developed award system: the former Soviet Union. Since 1948, climbing teams have competed in regional and national championships; all of today's leading Russian mountaineers have participated. In a recent investigation by the Russian Web site, climbers questioned whether the championships encouraged innovation. "Competitions today are not relevant," said high-altitude specialist Anatoli Moshnikov. "[They] are displacing the essence of mountain climbing."

And it's this "essence"—when exploration, teamwork, passion, creativity and sheer survival are played out in the unforgiving arena of the high mountains—that makes simple first-past-the-post awards such a poor reflection of our art.

The Piolet d'Or ("Golden Ice Axe"), awarded annually since 1991 in recognition of the year's finest climb. Despite its founders' intentions, the prize has rarely gone to ascents as unequivocally superior as that of Prezelj and Stremfelj—and even that initial award enjoyed its share of controversy. [Photo] Giulio Malfer

Even so, mountaineering awards, from provincial climbing organizations to national magazines and governing bodies, continue to proliferate. Only one, however, attempts to reward the "essence" of climbing in a truly international event: France's "Golden Ice Axe," the Piolet d'Or.

When Guy Chaumereuil, then-chief editor of the French alpine monthly Montagnes magazine, and Jean-Claude Marmier, then-president of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM), the Chamonix-based invitational club of elite international mountaineers, established the award in 1991, their aims were laudably high. The GHM has always prided itself on championing the spirit of alpinism as much as the performances themselves. While the Piolet d'Or is presented to the most "significant" alpine accomplishment of the year, and "a high level of technical achievement and commitment constitute... the principle criteria," Yves Peysson (president of the club from 1997-2000) adds that "respect for the mountains that surround us, the beauty of movement, and the spirit in which they were climbed have become some of the primary conditions."

The process starts with a shortlist of half a dozen climbs selected by the GHM and Montagnes. Then a jury forms, consisting of Chaumereuil and (until 1998) Marmier; the current president of the GHM; the editor of Montagnes; and the previous year's winners—as well as another three members, invited by the GHM, one of whom becomes the president of the jury. Initially this jury was largely French, but in 1998 the GHM invited Australian Greg Child to participate. Since then, there has been an attempt to broaden the award's international perspective with jury members such as Briton Chris Bonington, American Christian Beckwith, Swiss Jean Troillet and, in 2004, the Polish mountaineer Krzysztof Wielicki.

Montagnes (with input from the GHM) sends the jury a preparatory briefing, but the judging takes place on the day of the award, when each team makes a twenty-minute presentation and answers questions from the jury. Initially held as part of the Autrans International Film Festival, in 2000 the Piolet d'Or became part of the Argentiere La Bessee Ice Festival. In 2002 the organizers moved it to a more media-friendly Parisian venue; in 2004 it moved again, to Grenoble, the home of Montagnes and the climbing capital of France.

Climbers are a pretty curmudgeonly lot, and given the general antagonism to mountaineering awards, it's not surprising that the Piolet d'Or has had a controversial history. Still, 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. Even the inaugural award, presented in 1991 to Marko Prezelj and Andrej Stremfelj for their audacious alpine-style first ascent of the Southwest Ridge of Kangchenjunga, resulted in some disquiet. Rumors circulated of a political decision to establish the award's international credibility by ignoring the home favorites, Pierre Beghin and Christophe Profit, who had enchained two previously established routes on K2. History seems to have supported the decision: while both ascents were undoubtedly superb, the Slovenian line explored almost completely new ground, while the French duo's ascent was arguably a linkup of two previously established routes, albeit in vastly improved style. Still, the hubbub was a harbinger of more to come.

Brendan Murphy on the 1997 first ascent of the North Face (VI 5.9 M6 WI4, 1600m) of Changabang (6864m) in India's Garhwal Himalaya. Murphy and partner Andrew Cove climbed the route alpine style, but Murphy was swept to his death in an avalanche on the descent. The climb was nominated for the 1998 Piolet d'Or. The prize went to a team from Russia led by Sergei Efimov that established a new route, siege style, on the west face of Makalu (8463m). Two men died while completing the climb; some questioned whether an ascent that involves the deaths of team members should be rewarded. [Photo] Andy Cave

In 1997 the jury gave the award to a large team of Russian mountaineers for an ascent of Makalu's west face—a climb that cost the life of two climbers—and thus brought up a new issue for dissension. Philippe Descamps, Montagnes' current editor, explains, "The idea of the GHM president at the time, Yves Peysson, was that an expedition that resulted in deaths shouldn't be able to win the Piolet d'Or. A full accomplishment should end with everyone returning home."

The controversy took yet another form in 1999 with the decision to award French climbers Lionel Daudet and Sebastien Foissac for their ascent of the southeast face of the Burkett Needle, instead of Slovenian Tomaz Humar for his solo climb on the south face of Dhaulagiri. Marmier, who had resigned the year before, claiming "since 1998, the decision of the jury has been a real disaster," was particularly vocal in his criticisms; while the French team had accomplished "an interesting ascent," it was, he insisted, "at a standard that we have seen recorded two or three times a year in The American Alpine Journal for the last fifty years."

An initial comparison of the French ascent of a technical but low-lying peak (3049m) with Dhaulagiri's (8167m) fearsome south face would seem to vindicate Marmier's comments, but Humar's solo failed to reach the summit, and more importantly, as Peysson explained, it was heavily slanted toward media coverage. Furthermore, according to Peysson, Daudet and Foissac's ascent demonstrated "a kind of philosophy of mountaineering, where the [physical] performance is not the only criterion...."

Peysson's comments vocalized the emerging idea that the role of the Piolet d'Or was to send a message to the climbing community about which styles and ethics were the most valuable. The concept has been far from systematically applied, however, and as a result only exacerbated the debate.

The Piolet d'Or's glitzy evening presentation attracts the full panoply of the French media. Most climbers feel as if they've gate-crashed the Oscars. Some participants break down in tears during their presentations, others present factual lists, while the more poetic revel in the attention. In 2000 Jules Cartwright and I had climbed a new route on the north buttress of Mt. Hunter, but I was both flabbergasted to be nominated—it was, after all, my first big mountain route—and humbly chuffed. I was also more than a little daunted about the presentation, for neither of us spoke French. Jules suggested that one way around the translation problem was just to play some tunes while our slides rolled through: "Some banging techno'll wake 'em up." Unfortunately within thirty seconds of the dulcet tones of "Ecstasy Makes Me Want to Use a Machine Gun" by Johnny Violent wafting around the lecture hall, the bass speakers blew, and I wondered whether we'd gone too far. But within minutes half the crowd was pumping their fists to the music, and by the time the din died down, I'd given the tape away to Sebastien Foissac, the previous year's winner.

To us, whether we won was of little consequence, yet other climbers, both those competing for the prize and those criticizing it, took the Piolet d'Or far more seriously. That year's presentation, to Thomas Huber and Iwan Wolf for their ascent of Shivling's North Ridge Direct, produced a few more murmurs: the climb, which relied on much fixed rope, added a four-pitch direct finish to a line Hans Kammerlander and Christophe Hainz had attempted, alpine style, a number of years earlier (a storm stopped Kammerlander and Hainz 300 meters shy of the summit). Even the initial choice of nominees agitated some. Missing from the lineup were Jonathan Copp and Mike Pennings, who had blitzed shockingly fast repeats and first ascents on three towers in Pakistan's Shipton Spire group; and Scott Backes, Steve House and Mark Twight, who had made a single-push repeat of the Slovak Route (aka Czech Direct) on Denali.

Twight, a member of the GHM, expressed his reservations about the award's focus in the French magazine Vertical. "The new terrain covered by all the nominated routes [in 2000] was merely physical while the Czech Direct in sixty hours nonstop explored new terrain within the context of human psychology," Twight declared. "Is this not the region where alpinism has historically evolved in the greatest leaps?"

Twight's criticism reflected Peysson's own valorization of philosophy over physical performance. It also accentuated another subject of complaint: until last year, when two of the six nominees were US teams, the Piolet d'Or has taken a particularly Eurocentric view of alpinism. In 1991 the jury nominated an Italian team's fixed-rope siege of Mt. Dickey's south face but ignored Americans Jay Smith and Paul Teare's alpine-style ascent of the Phantom Wall on Mt. Huntington, a couple of miles away. In 1994 the jury omitted American Brad Jarrett and his team's The Dream on Escudo, one of the first super-technical big-wall climbs in Patagonia to be achieved without fixed ropes. Instead, the prize eventually went to Frenchman Francois Marsigny and Briton Andy Parkin's route in Cerro Torre's Col of Hope gully. Although their descent from the mountain and across the Continental Icecap was undoubtedly adventurous, like many climbers before them, Marsigny and Parkin had been thwarted by Patagonia's narrow weather windows and had missed the summit by 500 meters.

Misha Mikhailov at 7300 meters on the North Face Direct (VII 6b A3+ M6, 3100m) of Jannu (7710m), Nepal Himalaya. The climb won the 2005 award, but the selection generated considerable acrimony, in part because the climbers fixed much of the route and left ropes and equipment behind. Steve House won the People's Choice award for his solo climb of the Southwest Face (VII 6a A2 M6+, 2500m) on K7 (6942m), but House was not even nominated until the author withdrew his climb from consideration. [Photo] Barry Blanchard

The conflict between physical and psychological terrain articulated by Twight reached a crisis point during 2005's Piolet d'Or. 2004 was a particularly strong alpine year: American climbers achieved a string of successes around the world; Ermanno Salvaterra established a bold new line on the east face of Cerro Torre; Jean-Christophe Lafaille soloed a new variation on Shishapangma; Elio Orlandi and his team put up a new route on Fitz Roy; and a large Russian expedition, led by the big-wall maestro Alexander Odintsov, climbed the north face of Jannu, one of the Himalaya's most daunting problems.

I was privy to one of the first attempts at a shortlist and was surprised to note that several of the key American ascents were missing: Steve House's solo of K7, Kelly Cordes and Josh Wharton's first ascent of the massive southwest ridge of Great Trango Tower and Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson's brave attempt on the Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat. American John Varco and I, however, were nominated for our first ascent of the northwest face of India's Saf Minal. John and I were proud of what we'd done, but it seemed to me that several of the American routes were climbs of a lifetime. I suggested to the organizers that, with a quiet withdrawal, our climb could be replaced by one of the Americans'. The organizing team opted for House's K7 solo; Cordes and Wharton remained off the list—and yet in terms of philosophy and style, their climb had been visionary, transferring the light-is-right ideal to Great Trango Tower, a bastion of the siege method.

The nomination travails, however, paled next to the award ceremony, which threatened to polarize both climbing styles and nations with a near-impossible choice. As the possibilities narrowed down to two, the contrast between Steve House's K7 solo, completed in a forty-two-hour round-trip with a four-kilo pack, and the Russian climb of Jannu—likened by the eleven-man team to war—represented the extreme opposites of the mountaineering spectrum.

In a decision that disappointed supporters of alpine style, the jury, chaired by renowned Polish alpinist Krzysztof Wielicki, plumbed for the Russians. Leslie Fuscko, the current president of the GHM, explained on the GHM Web site, "ultimately, the incontestable historical dimension of [the Russians'] accomplishment won over. With the north face of Jannu... one of the real 'last Himalayan problems' fell.... In the photographs and video of the climb, this objective certainly appears inaccessible to a light-style ascent.... Must we wait to climb [Jannu's north face] in a light style? There are no real absolutes in alpinism, and that's how it should be!"

As if to acknowledge this lack of absolutes—or perhaps to indicate some hesitancy regarding their selection—the organizers created a new People's Choice award, which opted, with forty percent of the vote, for House. Only five percent of the vote went to Odintsov's team.

Vince Anderson and Steve House holding the 2006 Piolet d'Or, which they won for their first ascent of the Central Pillar on Nanga Parbat. Looking on is Misha Mikhailov, one of the 2005 recipients for the ascent of Jannu. [Photo] Giulio Malfer

House had arrived ready to fight an "ethical battle," not for the award itself but for his vision of alpinism. Instead of selling his ascent, House spent much of his presentation condemning "an ascent done utilizing a style that violates the ideals of the moral alpinist." Later, in a piece for Vertical, he buttressed 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."

Descamps, on the other hand, insisted that the jury's choice had underlying ethical merit. "It's our responsibility, too, to communicate values, notably that of respect for the environment. But I believe that the Piolet d'Or helps in this evolution. [Yuri] Koshelenko and [Valeriy] Babanov climb today very differently than they did several years ago." The Russian Koshelenko, winner in 2003 for his ascent, with Babanov, of the southeast ridge of Nuptse East I, might agree: "The Piolet d'Or has helped [me] to [understand better] the ideals of European mountaineering." Perhaps as a result, Koshelenko, best known for old-school ascents, made an alpine-style attempt on Menlungtse's north face in Spring 2005, climbing more than thirty pitches before he fell ill.

In 2005 the Piolet d'Or came under more scrutiny than at any other time in its history. While its critics were ready to condemn the award as out of touch with modern mountaineering, the organizers appeared to proceed more carefully than ever. Although superb contenders, such as Louis-Philippe Menard and Maxime Turgeon's new mixed testpiece on the north face of Mt. Bradley, Gleb Sokolov's solo traverse of Pobeda, Pavel Shabalin and Ilias Tukhvatulin's alpine-style ascent of Khan Tengri and Gabo Cmarik and Jozef Kopold's ninety-pitch new route on Great Trango Tower were excluded from the list, other important ascents such as Alessandro Beltrami, Rolando Garibotti and Ermanno Salvaterra's new route on Cerro Torre and Stefan Glowacz and Robert Jasper's technical new line on Cerro Murallon made it on. The final nominees included Vince Anderson and Steve House's new route on Nanga Parbat's Rupal face; Serguey Samoilov and Denis Urubko's ascent of the south face of Broad Peak; Yannick Graziani, Christian Trommsdorf and Patrick Wagnon's traverse of the North and Central summits of Chomo Lonzo; and Ueli Steck's solo climbs on Cholatse and Tawoche. By anyone's reckoning it was an outstanding group of climbs, and the final selections raised no dissenting voices.

As though to address the issue of contemporary relevance while maintaining the link to tradition, the jury included cutting-edge alpinists Silvo Karo and Marsigny, with veteran Himalayan climber and historian Stephen Venables as chairman. Venables' concluding speech echoed Lindblade's observations about climbing: "[T]his is not an Olympic sport.... There is no scientific way of measuring the value of different ascents.... And that is why alpinism is so much greater and more interesting than any Olympic event. All our nominees are winners." After praising the attributes of the nominees, he announced, "In the end, we had to find some extra quality. We were looking for an ascent [that] seemed to point to the future...[:] a small team, working in harmony, using the absolute minimum means to climb a beautiful, elegant line." The decision, he continued, was nearly unanimous: the 2006 Piolet d'Or was awarded to Anderson and House for their ascent of Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face.

It was a decision that few could fault. In a near synthesis of both sides of the previous year's debate, the Rupal Face ascent combined House's perfect alpine style with the technical difficulties and historic importance of one of the Himalaya's last great problems. Although the organizers made no mention of the 2005 controversy, the majority of the nominated ascents were exemplars of lightweight style; only Glowacz and Jasper's climb employed significant fixed ropes. Urubko noted that with this first award to an American team, the perceptions of European bias had been altered. And this year, the jury's and the People's Choice awards were in agreement as well.

House remains nonetheless somewhat skeptical about the award's future relevancy. "[T]here was [nothing] good done in siege style this year. It will be interesting when the Russians climb something else, like the east face of Masherbrum or the north face of K2..., and see who gets nominated then."

Yet this year's controversy came not from House, but from Beltrami, Garibotti and Salvaterra, who withdrew their Cerro Torre climb from consideration. The three Italians' line, El Arca de los Vientos, shared a lot of ground with the much-contended 1959 Maestri-Egger Route, which many people believed had never been completed (indeed, the 2005 trio found no trace of a previous climb). While Maestri protested loudly that the 2005 climb was a repetition, not a first ascent, Garibotti, in a letter to Manu Rivaud of Montagnes, thanked him for the invitation, but then explained that he, Beltrami and Salvaterra had no interest in the prize: the climb itself was their best reward. "It was the essence of the experience that interested us most. An award such as the Piolet d'Or tries to quantify this essence and attempts to judge the quality of the experience.... How could there be any real value to such a subjective judgment? How to judge elusive concepts like elegance and imagination?"

Garibotti didn't argue for the abolishment of the Piolet d'Or; instead, he proposed that it model itself after climbing meets like those in Scotland or Argentiere la Bessee, "where ropes are shared and no subjective prizes are awarded." Such an alternative, he suggested, would allow the Piolet d'Or to continue what it does best, providing "a forum where climbers from the four corners of the globe can exchange lessons learned [and] share points of view and experiences." Until that time, Garibotti concluded, "we would rather stay away from this event."

Ermanno Salvaterra on the first ascent of El Arca de los Vientos on Cerro Torre. Though the climb was nominated for the 2006 Piolet d'Or, the team members withdrew their climb from consideration. "It was the essence of the experience that interested us most," wrote Rolo Garibotti to the jury. "An award such as the Piolet d'Or tries to quantify this essence and attemps to judge the quality of the experience... How could there be any real value to such a subjective judgment?" [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

After fifteen Piolet d'Or ceremonies, the celebration of nearly one hundred climbs and the attendance of hundreds of mountaineers, some of climbing's most influential voices have come to reject this institution—at least in its current form. While the Piolet d'Or offers a means to present our game to the wider public, the very idea of competition overlooks climbing's strongest values—such as an equal respect for all who take part in the brother- and sisterhood of mountaineering.

The Piolet d'Or is certainly here to stay; in fact, its recent controversy has elevated its profile, and several copycat awards, such as Climbing magazine's Golden Piton, France's Cristal d'Or and Russia's Golden Edelweiss, have been initiated. But because the Piolet varies from year to year in what it prizes most, its criteria remain ill-defined. Is it an award for a single climb, as it was in 2005 for the Russians on Jannu; or is it a lifetime achievement award, as it seemed to be in 1995 for Andi Orgler's Alaskan ascents and in 1999 for Daudet and Foissac's approach to alpinism? How does it evaluate extreme risk? In 1997 the Piolet rewarded a climb in which two team members died, but two years later Humar's solo bravado on Dhaulagiri was chastised as a step too far, even though Humar was still in control enough to retreat before the summit. The award shifts depending on the composition of the jury and the presidency of the GHM, but such inconsistency leaves the Piolet d'Or without a true value system.

Even if the Piolet d'Or becomes more focused, it seems to me the award's problems are rooted in the notion of a "best of" prize for mountaineering. As Doug Scott realized in 1977, climbers look beyond the podium for deeper rewards from their adventures. "[M]y father [once] gave me a wooden plaque he had carved during the war," he says. "On it was a quote from Grantland Rice: 'When the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.' That seems to me as relevant as it has ever been." Fortunately, with climbers like Beltrami, Garibotti and Salvaterra able to see beyond the glitter of the golden axe, the real rewards of alpinism will remain where they belong: in the mountains.

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