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Highlights from the 23rd Piolets d’Or

From left to right: Tommy Caldwell, Ales Cesen, Luka Lindic, Aleksander Gukov, Sir Chris Bonington, Aleksey Lonchinskiy, Tut Braithwaite, Doug Scott, Marko Prezelj.

[Photo] Menno Boermans

Each year, a swarm of climbers, alpinists and mountain-lovers gather at the base of Mont Blanc, for a meeting of global alpinism. The Piolets d’Or (Golden Ice Axes) were long considered to be the “Oscars of Mountaineering,” but controversy and a shift in general perception about the meaning of the ceremony slowly metamorphosed the event–now in its 23rd year–into a more or less competition-free celebration. Besides of the nominated athletes, this year’s Piolets included former recipients Sandy Allan and Kazuki Amano–as well as Catherine Destivelle and Connie Self, who presented Jeff Lowe’s documentary Metanoia; and Tut Braithwaite, who, together with Doug Scott, congratulated Sir Christian Bonington with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Alpinist’s correspondent Menno Boermans shares his highlights of the event, which occurred on April 9-12:

Everybody is a winner

In recent years, the Piolets d’Or has been a constant topic of controversy. Different people have questioned the award’s process and significance. “I don’t believe in awards for alpinism, much less trophies or titles presented by the public or the media” Marko Prezelj wrote for Alpinist in 2007. “At the ceremony, I could see and feel the competitive spirit created and fueled by the event’s organizers. Most of the climbers readily accepted this mood without understanding that they had been pushed into an arena where spectators thrive on drama, where winner and loser are judged.”

In 2013 all six nominees were awarded, but that decision did not prevent from critics from voicing their opinions. The organizers appreciated the feedback and returned once again to the drawing table. Asked about the subject on stage during this year’s Chamonix evening (preceding the official ceremony in Courmayeur), Prezelj told the public he was satisfied. “It is not so much of a competitive spirit anymore,” he says. “This year I had a hard time deciding to join or ignore the event. Despite the fact that it would be easier to act like most of the critics, I went to Chamonix to encourage organizers to transform the event into a festival. During the event, to make my message clear, I spontaneously offered?a rose?to each?recipient of the statue, as a symbol of passion and the nature of vanished feelings we? share as opposed to the plastic statue that symbolizes vanity and narcissism that we share as well. I hope that in the future there will be no more winners and losers.” Also, Christian Trommsdorff, president of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM) and head of the organization, confirmed: “We still recognize the finest mountaineering accomplishment of the year using a criterion of style, commitment, difficulty and ethics, but the new format marks a departure from tradition of the Piolets. This year we announced the three nominated ascents weeks before the event and there is no single winner–all climbs done in good style are celebrated.

Left to right: Aleksander Gukov, Sir Chris Bonington, Aleksey Lonchinskiy.

[Photo] Menno Boermans

A shared passion

During an informal press conference preceding the official ceremony in Courmayeur, the recipients of the 2015 Piolets d’Or were asked to share anecdotes from their ascents. “We only had a vague Google Earth print of the mountain,” Aleksander Gukov related of his Thamserku south face expedition. “When we saw the wall in [reality], we were absolutely amazed how lovely it was, like a beautiful woman.” Aleksey Lonchinskiy added, “And when worsening weather was hiding the peak from our eyes, we decided to call the route Shy Girl.”

Besides Marko Prezelj, the Slovenian team that tackled the north face of Hagshu for the first time consisted of Ales Cesen and Luka Lindic. One of the youngest recipients of a Piolet ever, Lindic told the audience he felt sad that alpinism does not attract more young people: “I don’t exactly know why, but sport climbing and bouldering seem to be more attractive nowadays,” he said, quickly adding, “Not for me. I will continue to climb hard and pure routes in the Alps and Himalaya.”

From left to right : Marko Prezelj, Ales Cesen, Luka Lindic

[Photo] Piotr Drozdz

As Bonington put it, “I admire these young people. And with their ascents they are the evidence that alpinism is certainly not dead.” Asked about his age and if he is thinking about retiring from extreme climbing, Prezelj stated, “I am turning fifty soon, but as long as you have passion, age does not matter.” Caldwell, mainly known as a rock climber, said, “Every time I put on crampons, it feels weird. I won’t call myself an alpinist.” But there’s no need for Caldwell to be humble, Bonington said, “I think the Fitz Traverse was a climb in the purest alpine form. Caldwell replied, “Hearing that from your mouth gives me shivers all over my body.”

Left to right: Doug Scott and Tommy Caldwell.

[Photo] Menno Boermans

Inspiration for generations

In many ways, the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Acheivement Award has started to overshadow the normal Piolets. Handed out for the first time in 2009 to Walter Bonatti, the prize is awarded for an outstanding career in alpinism–one that, as the Piolets d’Or Website states, “has inspired generations through its spirit….” This year, it was given to Sir Chris Bonington. Born in 1934, Bonington began climbing at 16. His achievements have been significant in both the Alps and Himalaya; he has published numerous books, which have been translated into many languages; and he was knighted in 1996. In 2014, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he returned to repeat one of his own famous ascents, the Old Man of Hoy, a spectacular sea stack in Orkney that he first climbed in 1966. No one less than Doug Scott, a career award winner himself, took the stage to add Sir Chris to the Hall of Fame. With humor and humility, Scott talked about the life of one of the major influencers of generations of mountaineers. Standing next to his longtime friend, a visibly touched Bonington said, “This means a lot to me. I am very grateful. But I also would like to dedicate this award to my peers and fellows, all the wonderful people we have lost in the mountains.”

Sir Chris Bonington holding his Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award. Doug Scott is in the background.

[Photo] Piotr Drozdz

150 years of Alpinism

With the Mont Blanc range as one of the earliest sites of modern alpinism, there is no better place to hold the Piolets d’Or than in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy. And this year the alpine villages are celebrating 1865: an eventful year when the Golden Age of mountaineering reached its climax. In the beautiful La Majestic building Claire Burnet gave a short but powerful history lesson with interesting trivia and stunning black and white pictures. The year 1865 was immortalized by 65 first ascents across the Alps and seven in the Mont Blanc Massif, including the Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses and the remarkable Brenva Spur on Mont Blanc. Mountaineering developed as pursuit of adventure in its own right without the need for scientific justification, and the spirit of modern-day alpinism was born.

Vallee Blanche

On Sunday, in bluebird weather, guests skied down the famous Vallee Blanche. A 12-mile-long glacier descent passing beneath Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses, Les Drus and many other great mountains with significant alpine history. After arriving at the authentic mountain hotel Montenvers, the mountaineers enjoyed wine and food. It was not till the train arrived back down in the dark valley that the music stopped, singing voices dimmed, and ski boots were taken off.

View the list of major ascents considered for the Piolets d’Or 2015 compiled by Claude Gardien, from Vertical Magazine, and renowned mountaineer Lindsay Griffin here.

“During the event, to make my message clear, I spontaneously offered?a rose?to each?recipient of the statue, as a symbol of passion and the nature of vanished feelings we?share,” Marko Prezelj said, adding, “I hope that in the future there will be no more winners and losers.”

[Photo] Polona Cesen

Planet Mountain videos of the 2015 recipients as shown during the ceremony:

Fitz Roy: Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold [Video]

Hagshu: Ales Cesen, Luka Lindic, Marko Prezelj [Video]

Thamserku: Alexander Gukov and Alexey Lonchinskiy [Video]