The Piolet d'Or - Right or Wrong?

© Grivel
Marko Prezelj Rejects 2007 Piolet D'Or
The Piolet d'Or 2008 has been cancelled. The award has been in turmoil since the public denunciation from Marko Prezelj and others in 2007. Many top level Alpinists have spoken out against the ethos of the award, stating that it goes against the spirit of climbing to judge one ascent above all others.

The Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM) and Montagnes Magazine have been issuing the Golden Ice-axe annually since 1991. Problems arose in 2005 regarding the choice of the winning Russian team, led by Alexander Odintsov. The Russians conquered the huge North face of Jannu (7710m). Whilst their achievement was certainly significant, the fact that they were chosen as winners of the Piolet d'Or was openly criticised as many top level Alpinists felt that the fixed-rope and siege tactics that the team employed were at odds with the general ethos of the award. The Russians abandoned most of their camps and equipment, including seventy-seven fixed ropes, leaving them on the mountain.

Due to the general ill-feeling and lack of momentum behind the award, the organisers have now changed the judging criteria and hope to win back the favour of the mountaineering public. The Piolet d'Or will hopefully be back in full swing in 2009, after all those involved have been given the chance to help re-shape the award and its criteria.

Grivel have plugged the 2008 gap with their own awards ceremony, the St. Vincent Awards, to be held on March 7th in Val d'Aoste, Italy. However the Grivel awards are not a direct replacement of the Piolet d'Or, as they concentrate on Mountain Professionals and Guides, with categories such as; 'Best World Climbing Achievement by a Guide' and 'Best Service Performed in the Mountains by a "Uniformed Professional" (e.g. rescue)'. The only competing category will be; The mountaineering or climbing achievement that best distinguishes itself with "excellent ethics."

Kenton Cool on the summit of Everest
Piolet d'Or nominee Kenton Cool gives us his thoughts on the Award and what climbing is to him.:

It seems to have become quite popular to criticize the Piolet D'Or in the last few years, which I think is sad. Many view this award as a negative thing for climbing rather than a celebration of Alpinism, which in my opinion is what it's all about. We all climb for for our own reasons, these reasons are endless and personal to each of us. I really don't see that the Piolet D'Or generates any unhealthy competition for that's not the reason we climb. No one goes out to climb a new route with a view to win the award. It is given out to the 'best alpine style ascent of the year' by a board of judges. It's only their opinion, not like a 100m race, there is no clear winner. All climbs are different and to judge one better than another is a little ridiculous. This one single fact will always mean that the award is open to critics and over the last few years it's been slammed. It would be better not to have a winner at all, for that is the one thing that has bred discontent. We don't have an alpine climbing in the Olympics, so to celebrate our great sport and achievements we have generated our own - the Piolet d'Or. It's hard to judge different routes against each other so why bother. Yes, celebrate the great ascents of the year but they are all outstanding in their own way so shouldn't they all be heralded? In the beginning the award was a light-hearted affair but it seems to have got way too serious. Maybe it would be better to have a simple Alpine Climbing Festival where climbers from around the world can come together in one spot and meet everyone else.

I was lucky to be nominated in 2003 and spent a few days in France for the award. I had a great time and met some cool people; I climb for many reasons but one of them is to meet like-minded folk, so what better place than a festival for Alpine climbers? It didn't matter to me who won the Golden Axe that year (It was clear from the start that it was going to be Valery Babanov for his ascent of the S Pillar on Nuptse) because that's not what it's all about. All the climbers there had been on great expeditions, climbed fantastic routes and come back alive, and, one would hope, had fun. That's what it's all about - FUN. Climbing for most is a hobby and we do it because we enjoy it. For the very few who are full time sponsored climbers, then perhaps it's different. I'm a full time mountain guide yet I still enjoy every day I have in the hills, that's why I'm a guide and that's why I climb. It seems to me that people started to get a little too serious about the award, the whole thing was meant to be fun, a chance for folk to get together, talk about climbing and drink beer. Is that any different to an evening in the Moon at Stoney or the Heights In Llanberis? No, not really apart from they give out a Golden Axe at the end. The competition element has meant that one of the main reasons for the award has been lost. People are too concerned about the winner or the loser rather than climbing. When we climb there is no competition between the rope team, it's simply the two climbers and the route, and the route doesn't care who wins or loses. That's what we should also celebrate; the climbing and the mountains, not a single winner, because we are all winners every time we come back in from a days climbing.

The Piolet D'Or doesn't mean anything to me apart from the chance to celebrate the great sport which we take part in and to try and raise the profile of Alpinism. Yet its loss will be felt, and the climbing community will be poorer for it.

Marko Prezelj and Boris Lorencic
© Grivel, Jan 2007
The New Piolet d'Or Mission Statement:

The mission of the Piolet d'Or is to present the year's great first climbs to the largest public possible. Its objective is to glorify the need for adventure and the sense of exploration, and to pay tribute to the art of climbing and to the world's most beautiful summits. It is a celebration of great mountaineering.

The spirit of the Piolet d'Or draws its inspiration from the rich history of mountaineering, which is all about going where no one has gone before, without forgetting the teachings of the great mountaineers of the past, and facing risk to better appreciate the value of life. It is a public celebration of the roped party, of a spirit of camaraderie and solidarity, highlighting the beauty of individual and collective achievements. It involves the whole mountaineering community.

In modern mountaineering, the question of the means primes over that of the objective. Mountaineering is no longer a question of achieving success at any cost using artificial means (oxygen bottles, fixed ropes, porters, etc.). It's all about imagining new itineraries, of making great climbs with very little hardware and of learning something along the way. It is a question of wisdom and daring, of conviction and courage.

Performance evaluation criteria:
The climbs of the year will be evaluated in terms of elegance of style, taking the alpine style as a reference and taking into account the characteristics of each mountain. There will be no national preference. Each climb will be evaluated using the same criteria-individual evaluations will be followed by a collective evaluation.

  • The spirit of exploration: originality of the itinerary and/or of the summit, creativity, innovation
  • Commitment and autonomy
  • High technical level
  • Intelligence of the itinerary, taking into account the objective dangers.
  • Economy of means.
  • Respect for the communities.
  • Respect for the environment.
  • Respect for future generations of mountaineers, making sure they can relive the same adventures in the same conditions.
  • Selection of the climbs of the year

The mission of the international jury is to ascertain the value of the climbs of the year by highlighting the strength and the contribution of each one of them within the diversity of modern mountaineering. In December, the international jury will designate the climbs which are going to take part in the Piolet d'Or ceremony. This preselection should be arrived at by consensus. In the absence of an agreement, votes can be organized inside each group. One group is composed of mountaineers, another is made of journalists. Each group casts one vote. In case of a tie, the president of the jury, who will always be a highly experienced mountaineer, gets the last say. The jury must be representative of the various cultures of high-level mountaineering. Its composition and the choice of its president are the responsibility of the GHM and of Montagnes Magazine. The GHM picks the members of the mountaineers group, and Montagnes Magazine is responsible for the choice of the specialized journalists.

Before the ceremony, each team will present its climb to the jury with a detailed description of the means employed, backing up its presentation with as many documents as possible (photographs, testimonies, films). At the end of this first presentation, if the jury considers that a climb does not fit with the spirit of the Piolet d'Or, it can decide to exclude the team from the ceremony.

This charter, the values and the procedures exposed therein, form the premise on which the mountaineers and the members of the jury can base their appreciation. Participation to the Piolet d'Or means that one approves the charter and considers oneself free from any personal commercial, national or political motivations.

The Piolet d'Or:
All the climbs which have been selected will be honoured. With the Piolet d'Or, the jury's task is to identify which of them best exemplifies the values of modern mountaineering, without classification. It is only a question of designating every year an ambassador of modern mountaineering. The choice should be made by consensus. Only if necessary, a vote can be organized.

The climbers participate in the process of selecting which team deserves special recognition. Each team can vote for what it considers the most remarkable climb, thereby choosing the great mountaineering's spokesperson for the coming year. It is not allowed to vote for itself. The group of nominees have one vote, like the two other groups (mountaineers and journalists). The president of the jury has the final say.

It seems from the new mission statement that the people behind the Piolet d'Or have reacted well to the criticism they have received, updating the criteria and ceremony to reflect a more modern attitude. We at UKClimbing wish them the best of luck with the new style awards and hope 2009 brings an assemblage of the worlds finest mountaineers together to enjoy each others company and achievements.

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