Piolets d'Or row - response from jury President Stephen Venables

Piolets d'Or

British climber Stephen Venables, President of the jury responsible for awarding this year's Piolets d'Or mountaineering prize, says he is "appalled" at some of the criticism of the jury's decision. Doug Scott and Kurt Diemberger support his stand.

Manu Riveaud (editor of Montagnes Magazine) and Claude Gardien (Editor of Vertical Magazine) last month announced their resignation from the Piolets d'Or Committee in protest at the decision of this year's Piolets d'Or jury to award the mountaineering prize to all 6 of the climbing teams nominated for it. Jury President Stephen Venables' robust response to their criticism is published in the May issue of Montagne, and is republished below.

Venables says he is "appalled" at some of some of Riveau's public criticisms of the jury, and describes the accusations against the jury as "wild". Doug Scott (with Dougal Haston, jointly the first British person to climb Everest) and veteran Austrian mountaineer Kurt Diemberger have expressed support for the jury's decision. Their messages are published in full below.

Venables says that this year's verdict was "a deliberate decision, agreed unanimously, to suggest what we felt should be the future direction of the event, representing the best traditions of alpinism."

He points out that his three fellow jurors - Silvo Karo, Katsutaka Yokoyama ( 'Jumbo') and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner - are "are amongst the finest mountaineers in the world."

Manu Riveaud has refrained from making any further comment on the jury's decision. So perhaps peace has now broken out and Montagnes Magazine will continue to support the Piolets d'Or event.

The magazine includes a brief statement from Jean-Pierre Roger, Director of Editions Nivéales, publisher of Montagnes and Vertical magazines. The statement, published below, tends to support the suggestion on HimalayaMasala that the row had its origin in  Niveales' business strategy.

The four distinguished climbers who made up this year's Piolet d'Or jury were quite entitled to conclude that all the nominated climbs deserved equal recognition. Manu Riveaud was quite entitled to hold a different view, and to say so in the pages of his magazine. But it's a little surprising that he did so in such forceful terms, saying that the jury’s decision was "a snub to who we are and to the history of mountaineering" and was "in contempt of the public and private partners without whom the event would not exist."

The right to get a little carried away goes with the territory for a magazine editor. But the decision of Montagnes and Vertical to withdraw their support from the Piolets d'Or is another matter. It must surely have had more to do with commercial pressures than editorial independence. To put it bluntly, it looks like the exact opposite of editorial independence. It looks like editorial pyrotechnics summoned on the instructions of the editor's boss.

But perhaps, after all, there are some grounds for complaining that people attending the Piolets d'Or presentations were short-changed.  It seems from Stephen Venables' statement that the jury members had very little left to do when they arrived in the Mont Blanc valleys for the four-day event. The jury's decision came as a surprise to the nominees and the audience. But in fact, everything had already been decided.

Stephen Venables fights back

Dear Manu

I was sorry not to see you at the Piolets d’Or and even more sorry to hear that you have decided to withdraw from the event. I was also appalled by some of your public criticisms of me and my jury. I was shortlisted for the first ever Piolets and I have been involved with the event at various stages over the last twenty years, promoting it in the press and serving once before as president. As for my fellow jurors, all three of them are amongst the finest mountaineers in the world, so I think you were rash to question their judgement so aggressively.

I will answer your specific questions in a moment, but first the general principle behind our decisions. Over the last few years it has become increasingly obvious that choosing a single ‘winner’ – or two winners, or three winners – from a shortlist of outstanding climbs is highly haphazard and subjective. More important, it goes completely against the whole spirit of alpinism. Mountaineering is not an Olympic sport with simple quantifiable criteria. It is creative and diverse and every ascent is unique. Amongst a shortlist of six outstanding climbs, we will never be comparing like with like. That is why previous Jury presidents were so reluctant to choose ‘winners’ and that is why several prominent nominees decided to boycott past events.

This year’s jury relied considerably on the expertise of the Piolets d’Or organisers and advisers, in particular Christian Trommsdorff, Rolando Garibotti and Lindsay Griffin. (The latter has far more detailed knowledge of current world climbing than anyone on the Jury, and probably anyone else in the world!). We were also grateful for the advice of former presidents, such as Michael Kennedy. It was with all these people's expert advice and support that we all decided, before Christmas, that we would like, ideally, to award Piolets d’Or to all the nominees. This was a deliberate decision, agreed unanimously, to suggest what we felt should be the future direction of the event, representing the best traditions of alpinism.

I should also point out that in February, whilst I was away leading an expedition in Antarctica, the organisers relied heavily on advice from Silvo Karo, who is of course a hugely experienced Patagonian expert. It was he who suggested that the Cerro Torre ascents should be highlighted with a ‘special mention’ rather than a Piolet d’Or.

As for the shortlist of six ascents, of course it is very, very hard to say that there was not a seventh, or eighth, equally valid ascent worthy of inclusion. However, as you know, the event is constrained by its budget, so we had to have a limit of six teams. Thanks to expert advice from Lindsay Griffin, however, we felt quite confident that each of the six teams finally selected shared the kind of qualities which the Piolets d’Or seeks to celebrate. In particular, every one of the six shortlisted ascents, shared a huge sense of commitment.

Now, to answer your specific questions: [see below ]

  1. Yes, Jumbo and I did spend a whole morning paying very careful attention to the presentations by the six teams. If we had discovered anything negative about any of the climbs, we might have changed our minds about giving all of them awards. In fact the opposite was the case. For me, certainly, the presentations reinforced my admiration for every one of the climbs. In particular, I discovered just how impressive were the four climbs I had previously been less familiar with – Kyashar, Kamet, Mustagh Tower and Baintha Brakh. Most of all, I learned just how committed the Russian team had been on the Mustagh Tower.
  2. After the presentation there was little need for discussion. Two members of the jury, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Silvo Karo, were unable to attend, but they had already agreed to the principle of giving everyone an award. Jumbo and I were so impressed by all the presentations that, as I said, it simply reinforced our decision. There was nothing more to discuss.
    1. This is an interesting point. I did have some doubts about Kennedy and Dempster leaving Wharton at the high bivouac. However, after discussing this with the two climbers, we learned that they continued to the summit with the blessing of Wharton. They climbed very fast and efficiently, and one day later were still in perfectly fit condition to help Wharton down the mountain. I have been in similar positions myself in the past. On some occasions – eg Kusum Kanguru – we decided to descend with the sick partner; another time – on Everest – we let our sick companion descend alone. Every situation is different and it is not for me to judge. Kennedy and Dempster climb at a much harder standard than I have ever achieved and they are much, much faster. They were able to complete their route safely and look after their companion.
    2. I am not sure what you mean about the Russians ‘losing their way’. Perhaps you are referring to the descent, where they took a different route from the one intended. My own feeling is that they made an astounding ascent and descent, showing fantastic tenacity – as remarkable – in its different way – as the seventeen day traverse of Nanga Parbat. As for your suggestion that they were rash to climb in such bad weather, that is for them to decide, not you. They operated as a highly efficient team, moving carefully and slowly, despite terrible condition during the first week. None of them suffered illness, injury or frostbite, and they succeeded in making a difficult, unplanned descent on sight. I think we should applaud their panache.

I hope this answers your questions. I also trust that you will publish this letter as a riposte to the wild accusations you made earlier this month. I am sorry that I have had to write this letter in English, but my French is not good enough to respond adequately to such harsh criticisms.

Best wishes


Questions to the Piolets d'Or jury from Manu Rivaud

Questions to the Piolets d'Or jury from Manu Rivaud, editor Montagnes Magazine. Translated from the article published in the May 2013 edition of Montagnes (digital edition available by subscription from the Montagnes website).

Manu Rivaud explains in his editorial in the same issue of Montagnes that he put these questions to the jury having "at first" resigned from the Piolets d'Or Committee. He makes no further comment on the issues raised, but instead affirms the importance of specialised mountaineering journalism and a "clearly defined editorial line", and also re-affirms the support of Montagnes magazine for the values set out on the Piolets d'Or Charter.

  1. Nanga Parbat, Shiva, Kyashar, Kamet, Mustagh tower and Baintha Brakk, these were the six climbs nominated, very promising for discussion. Did you spend the time necessary with the climbers when the ascents were presented to you?
  2. After this, did you have all together a good discussion to clarify your ideas, thanks to the new elements which had been highlighted during the presentations? Did someone remind you what criteria had to considered for each climb in order to evaluate how close the climbs were to a pure alpine style and how close they were to the values and criteria defined in the Piolers d'Or Charter?
  3. I am rather curious about the facts relating to two ascents
    1. On Baintha Brakk, Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy left Josh Wharton, in poor condition, at the last bivouac around 6900 m., and pushed to the summit. They got back, picked up Josh and then had a long and hard down climb. This is their story, nobody can "judge" it. But, does this "rope team spirit" deserve a Piolet d'Or ?
    2. About Mustagh tower, the team had pushed the limits in the bad weather, was coached from the base and apparently lost the correct route several times, certainly because of a lack of past experience... taking account of the way the Russian expedition functioned, does it deserve a Piolet d'Or?

Right of response from Montagnes Magazine

Response from Jean-Pierre Roger, Director of Editions Niveales, which publishes Montagnes Magazine, Vertical Magazine and a number of other outdoor magazines. (translated from the response published, in French, in the May 2013 issue of Montagnes Magazine).

Stephen Venables’s response has the merit of putting to readers, in a direct way, the process de presided over in awarding the 2013 Piolets d’or: we will not comment on it here any further. It is written, in general terms, in the recurring context of a thesis which would like that mountain climbs cannot be critically assessed by external parties: the impossibility of establishing any objective measurement, the solidarity of the mountain community, the absolute commitment of the individual who seeks to get up a summit, would prevent any possibility of judging the value of an alpinist's actions. However, if one agrees that the mountain world has within itself values of courage, enterprise and ethics, one has to admit that their exemplary qualities can only be transmitted to the public – we are thinking about the youth – illuminated by choices made according to criteria built on those same values and proclaimed around events capable of holding the audience in suspense.

Jean-Pierre Roger, Directeur de la publication.

Message from Doug Scott

Message from Doug Scott about the Piolers d'Or controversy, posted (not by Doug Scott) on the Summitpost website.

Piolets d'Or have evolved over the last 21 years through many highs and lows and now, to the satisfaction of all climbers I know who primarily climb for its own sake, the organisers of the Piolets d'Or and the judge and jury have taken a brave step into the unknown by awarding the Piolets d'Or to all climbers nominated for 2012 rather than as before, deciding that one was better than the other.

The Piolets d'Or has thus become a marker in the sand, sending out the message that climbing cannot be quantified, that any judgement that one climb, even one's own climbs, are better than another, is doomed to subjectivity since it is an impossibility to compare like with like. This was realised long ago in 1912 by the Swedish IOC official Eric Ullen, when tasked with having to decide if mountaineering could become an Olympic event. He decided that it was an inappropriate pastime for the Olympics.

The climbing magazine editor/proprietor has to make a choice between upholding great traditions or taking the easy option of going with the flow of all those who would subvert climbing for their own ends. They could either promote the modern Piolets d'Or award as it now is, make it the flagship award it now deserves to be, or they can ridicule the Piolets d'Or if they see it as in their interests to promote winners and losers and indulge in show business and razzmatazz that goes with competition.

There are editors who might find life easier if they applied their journalistic skills to reporting on athletics or the intricacies of golf. These days there is no guarantee that outdoor press editors have known the exhilaration of leading across an exposed rock face or of commitment high in the thin, cold air going Alpine Style where no-one has gone before, day after day, always at the mercy of a change in the weather.

Responsible editors should enquire of the rationale behind Piolets d'Or judge and jury decision making. Manu Rivaud of Montagnes rightly questioned the judgements made last month in Chamonix. Such examination ensures Piolets d'Or abides by its own criteria. In fact criteria were met - the climbs were original, climbed in committing style without drilling, the team members looked out for the environment, for local people and each other and better still, came back as friends having climbed just for the sake of the climb. It would be a great step forward if the climbing magazines' editors helped the Piolets d'Or award to extend these virtues far and wide.

Doug Scott
Kandy, Sri Lanka
24 April 2013

Message from Kurt Diemberger

Message from Kurt Diemberger (winner of this year's Piolets d'Or lifetime achievement award) to Christian Trommsdorff ( President of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM), Chamonix, and member of the Piolets d'Or Committee). Published (not by Kurt Diemberger or Christian Trommsdorff ) on the Summitpost website.

Dear Christian, thank you for calling and telling me about some negative opinions for giving the piolet d'or to each nominated party; however, if the jury thought, that they all did outstanding climbs - what is the matter? To put a higher value to one than to the other of these different climbs seems to me, as if one should decide - assuming the first ascent of the Eiger north face, the Matterhorn north face and the Walker spur would have happened all in 2012 - to grant different ranking piolets d'or to the Heckmair-Voerg-Kasparek-Harrer-teams versus the Schmid-brothers and the brilliant Cassin-Team of the Walker!

These great north faces are very different and in my opinion impossible to compare, besides their climbing conditions!

Therefore nobody today would ever think of different ranking values for those great climbs... and the 2013 jury simply respected all teams of the very different climbs.

I cannot see a problem. Best wishes! Kurt.

Piolets d'Or 2013 - the winning climbs

Unusually, all 6 of the winning climbs were in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges (just a few of many recent first ascents in the Himalaya). The presentations were held in Chamonix (France) and Courmayeur (Italy), on opposite sides of the Mont Blanc Massif, from 3 to 6 April.

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