Piolets d'Or 2013 - Winners and Quitters

The Dru at sunset

2012 was a bumper year for mountaineering. The Piolets d'Or award - the mountaineering equivalent of the Booker Prize - was last week awarded jointly to six mountaineering teams for their ground-breaking climbs in the Himalaya and Karakoram. Smiles all round, you might think.

Not a bit of it. The Editors-in-Chief of Montagnes Magazine and Vertical Magazine have resigned from the Piolets d'Or Steering Committee. The committee of seven people is chaired by Christian Trommsdorff, President of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM), Chamonix. Other leading figures in the mountaineering media have also expressed disquiet at the outcome of the competition.

The row began peaceably enough. On the evening of 5 April Stephen Venables, President of the Piolets d'Or jury, told an audience gathered in Courmayeur for the award ceremony:

"We had a unanimous decision that you cannot decide between such amazing excellence. We have given all the teams the Piolets d'Or"

But it seems that the event's sponsors would have preferred the jury to come up with a winner, or perhaps with two or three winners, out of the six short-listed climbs. Some of them believe they know who the winner should have been.

Vinicio Stefanello, Editor of the web magazine Planetmountain.com, wrote:

"There was a real winner. And how! It was clear to all - except evidently to the Jury - that the ascent of the year could be no other than the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat. That of Sandy Allan and Rick Allen is a truly powerful story, epic and incredible, an alpinism reminiscent of yesteryear."

Manu Rivaud, Editor-in-Chief of Montagnes magazine, wrote:

"Who can today reward the ascent of Nanga Parbat by the Mazeno Ridge in the same way as the Prow of Shiva, without bitterness?"


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But that's not Rick Allen's view. He told EpicTV:

"There's nobody here that doesn't deserve to win. I'm really, really glad that the jury came to the same conclusion."

Mick Fowler, who with Paul Ramsden climbed the Prow of Shiva (6142m), in Himachal Pradesh,  took a similar view. He said:

"I sympathise with the jury. I didn't know what they would do. And I think that they came to a really sensible outcome."

The other winners also declared themselves satisfied with the result.

The Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat was an outstanding climb. Eighteen days of alpine-style movement at high altitude, carrying everything necessary to eat, sleep and climb! A final, stripped-down summit push by Sandy Allan and Rick Allen, bypassing the direct finish to the ridge. A long descent, without food or drink, that must have brought them within whispering distance of death. It was undoubtedly an epic.

Significant ascents on 8000m peaks are rare

All the same, the Mazeno Ridge was not quite in the same idiom as the other  short-listed climbs, or as most of the climbs that over the years have won Piolets d'Or. It shouldn't be a surprise that the jury were reluctant to single it out above all the other ascents.

For the Piolets d'Or sponsors, on other hand, the Mazeno Ridge might have had a special charm.

Piolets d'Or are often awarded for ascents of mountains that hardly anyone has heard of. But a lot of people have heard of Nanga Parbat.  At 8125m it's the ninth highest mountain in the world. Significant ascents on 8000m peaks are rare. That's partly because high peak fees and the omnipresence of  commercial expeditions attempting the standard routes have tended to frighten hardcore alpinists away.

The last time that the Piolet d'Or was awarded for a climb on an 8000er was in 2005, when Steve House and Vince Anderson were given the prize for their fast alpine-style ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. 

A lot of mountaineering money is linked, directly or indirectly, to the glamour of the 8000ers. Maybe the mountaineering industries are getting hungry for another 8000m Piolet d'Or. Not just a shared prize, but a prize snatched snarling from beneath the noses of losers who climb lesser peaks. A prize for an ascent that's valued by climbers, but can still give a nod or two in the direction of Hollywood values.  Maybe that's what Vinicio Stefanello meant when he condemned this year's award, saying:

"If we continue in this direction we will always remain in our small little world."

The track record of the four jury members - Stephen Venables, Silvo Karo, Katsutaka Yokoyama  and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner  - embraces a huge range of climbing styles. What  was going through their minds as they worked towards their decision?

the rules are elusive, continually evolving and always subjective

Unlike the jury in a court case, the Piolets d'Or jury are not bound to keep their thoughts to themselves. But for the moment, the deliberations of the jury are just as mysterious as  if they had indeed been sitting on a criminal trial.

The press release announcing the Piolets d'Or decision didn't include any quotes from the jury members. The numerous journalists present at the event haven't yet published any comments from them. Emails to a couple of jury members have so far elicited no response.

Controversy isn't new to the Piolets d'Or. It's to be expected in a game where the rules are elusive, continually evolving and always subjective. The history of the Booker Prize is chequered by similar controversy. But this year's row looks serious. Manu Rivaud says in Montagne magazine:

"Montagne magazine, co-founder and co-organizer of the Piolets d'Or since 1991 therefore regrets the outcome of this 21th edition, which weakens the event and its status, which in a way blurs the image of mountaineering in the eyes of the public, and does not reflect the real personality of the alpinists who are making history."

The resignations of Manu Rivaud (Editor-in Chief of Montagnes magazine) and Claude Gardien (Editor-in Chief of Vertical magazine) from the Piolets d'Or Steering Committee seem for the moment inexplicable. They are the founders, movers and shakers of the Piolets d'Or.

On this occasion, the invited panel of guests who make up the jury took a decision they didn't like. So what?

Piolets d'Or 2013 Winners

As well as awarding Piolets d.Or for these 6 winning climbs, the jury made a special mention of two climbs on Cerro Torre, Patagonia and gave a lifetime achievement award to Austrian mountaineer Kurt Diemberger.

The awards were presented at events hosted jointly by the towns Chamonix and Courmayeur on the French and Italian sides of Mont Blanc.

The Piolets d'Or Organising Committee was (until this week's resignations) made up of Luigi Cortese (Courmayeur Town Hall Representative), Claude Gardien (Vertical Magazine), Cecilia Malfa (Courmayeur Town Hall Representative), Claude Marin (Chamonix Town Hall Representative), Carmen Mennella (Courmayeur Town Hall Representative), Manu Rivaud (Montagnes Magazine) and Christian Trommsdorff (President of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM), Chamonix)
More about the Piolets d'Or

The Pinnacles, Mazeno Ridge, Nanga Parbat
Kyashar, the Nima line
Kamet, South-West Face
Muztagh Tower, northeast buttress
Ogre I, south face

"The climber possesses an exceptional awareness of freedom. I hope you will understand my uneasiness in the face of such a great honour" - Voytek Kurtyka, rejecting a Piolets d'Or Career Award in 2010