Piolets d'Or 2013 - summits, lists and prizes

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Prizes are silly. A prize that shines some light into neglected crannies of mountaineering creativity is a useful sort of silliness. The people behind the annual mountaineering Piolet d'Or award seem to understand that.

This year's winners will be announced at a ceremony in Chamonix, France at the beginning of April. But the Piolet d'Or "Super Big List" of "major ascents during 2012"  is perhaps more interesting than the names of the eventual winners.

72 climbs from all over the world have made it onto the list. 17 of them fall within the Himalaya/Karakoram/Hindu Kush area covered by the Himalaya Masala Ascent Book. They are an eclectic bunch of climbs. Some finish on the summit of their mountain. Some don't. Some were done alpine-style. Some involved fixed ropes. Some are mixed routes in the modern idiom. One (Ramadhan, created by Martin and Florian Riegler on Kako Peak in the Karakoram) is a rock climb that finishes on a summit of just 4950m. One (the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat, completed by Sandy Allan and Rick Allen) is an immense high-altitude odyssey.

Most of the climbs cover new ground. After all, the Piolet d'Or charter highlights the "spirit of exploration." One of them (Bielecki and Golab's ascent of Gasherbrum I ) took a well-trodden route but did so in winter. As Simone Moro said while this month's Broad Peak tragedy was unfolding, "you can call it what you wish, but it's still exploration."

Most of the climbs were completed without serious mishap. But an ambitious attempt by Marco Camandona and Sete Sherpa to complete their ascent of a new route on Churan Himal with a traverse of all three summits of the mountain had to be abandoned after an accident to team-mate Alain Marguerettaz. Fast and decisive action by the rest of the team allowed Marguerettaz to be whisked to hospital by helicopter almost as promptly as if he had been injured in the Alps. This kind of thing isn't yet to be taken for granted. Helicopters still can't reach the highest places in the Himalaya and  rescue teams still don't exist. The Piolet d'Or Charter requires "respect for people, climbing partners, members of other teams, porters and local agents."  Do these seem like anodyne words? They won't seem so at 7000m.

My science teachers never tired of claiming that you can't compare apples and oranges. Well, it's a lot more fun than trying to measure the biggest apple. The Piolet d'Or jury will have to pick a flavour. Good luck to them.

Some climbs haven't made it onto the "Super Big List." The ascent of Everest by Austrian superstar Ueli Steck and Nepali climber Tenji isn't included. They followed the standard way up the South-East Ridge where thousands have gone before, so it would be hard to detect much spirit of exploration in their choice of route. But they did it without the usual supplementary oxygen, and in as good a style as seems to be  possible on that route, up that mountain, in the high season.

The list also misses the ascents of Pt 6150 and G23 by members of the Scottish Zanskar Expedition. These climbs were of a very exploratory nature, but they were not major ascents and did not involve significant technical difficulties. A rather more difficult new route on a previously un-named and unclimbed peak (dubbed Dunlung Khangri) in the Rimo range, climbed by Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and Simon Yearsley was also missed out.

No ascent by climbers from South Asia has made it onto the list. It would be nice - up to a point - to pin the blame on eurocentric attitudes chez Piolet d'Or. But it wouldn't be fair. Ascents by South Asian climbers that have gone on record for 2012 don't seem to measure up very well against the Piolet d'Or charter. And details are in some cases thin or non-existent.

But what about the ascent of Jonsong (7462m), in Sikkim, by Pradeep Sahoo, Ang Dorji Sherpa and Purba Sherpa? Ascents of Jonsong are rare because of political restrictions on access to the area. According to the Himalayan Club, the 2012 climb was "most likely" the first ascent of the mountain's east-northeast spur.

In July 2012 Tulsi Das, from India, became the first woman to reach the summit of Thalay Sagar (6904m), an iconic peak in the Garhwal. The route appears to have been the one taken when the mountain was first climbed in 1979, involving mixed ground at 70-80° and rock pitches of IV/V. No further details are available. A separate Indian expedition that reached the top of Thalay Sagar a few weeks earlier made extensive use of fixed ropes. Sherpas attached to the expedition appear to have played a key role in the ascent.

Military climbing, commercial climbing and the Ascent of Rum Doodle (porters carried the climbers up the fictional mountain) cast their shadows everywhere, but they are particularly noticeable in India. Local mountaineering and adventure clubs seem quite often to believe that their role is to provide mountain experiences not too different from those available, at greater cost, through commercial expeditions.

Tulsi Das is said to have set her sights on Everest. That's not much of an ambition for a mountaineer. But what about a place on a future Piolet d'Or Super Big List?

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