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Alpinism’s Highest Honors Announced: The 2021 Piolets d’Or Recipients

Ascents in Canada and Pakistan, as well as two lifelong alpinists, will be awarded in Briançon, France this November.

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The 2021 Piolets d’Or were announced earlier this month for two significant ascents, one in the Canadian Rockies and one in Pakistan, as well as a special mention for the prolific big wall soloist, Sylvia Vidal. The “Golden Axes” were awarded by a jury of five veteran alpinists —Ines Papert, Kelly Cordes, Victor Saunders, Valery Babanov, and Helias Millerioux; the latter two are themselves past recipients.

Yesterday, the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Yasushi Yamanoi, a Japanese alpinist with noteworthy rock, ice, and alpine ascents around the world. He is the thirteenth recipient of the award and joins a heavy-hitting list of climbing greats.

Mount Robson (12,972 feet), British Columbia, Canada

Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face with “Running in the Shadows” outlined. (Photo: Ethan Berman)

From September 30 to October 1, 2020, Ethan Berman (USA) and Uisdean Hawthorn (U.K.) established Running in the Shadows (VI M6 AI5 A0; 7,500 feet) on Robson’s historic Emperor Face. The jury was most impressed by the duo’s commitment to a lightweight and self-supported style; Berman and Hawthorn made the 12.5-mile approach by foot in the pouring rain, bivvied once below the face, climbed virgin terrain on all the technical ground, bivvied again on top, and then spent a full day navigating the rime-fused traverse to the summit.

Looking back on the ascent, Berman told Climbing “what stands out the most is how wild and out there the adventure was. Like climbing the final ice pitches to the summit through a tube of rime gargoyles leaning every which way.”

Though not Canadian-born, both Berman and Hawthorn are currently based in Canada and appreciate how accessible Mount Robson is compared to big mountains abroad. “You don’t have to travel around the world and pay a ton of money to get the raw, visceral experience that climbing in the mountains delivers,” Berman said.

Berman traverses easy ice before starting up one of the crux mixed sections above. (Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn)
Berman on the first steep ice pitch climbing through the “Jaws” feature of the Emperor Face. (Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn)

In a press release, the jury noted that “Berman and Hawthorn were only the second team (and the first for almost 40 years) to climb a new line on the face, and reach the summit, without using a helicopter for the approach or descent.”

As for the award itself, Hawthorn said he was happy to see the restructuring of the Piolets d’Or in 2009 to include multiple ascents and the Lifetime Achievement Award. Before 2009, the award received criticism for having only one recipient, and for creating a competitive atmosphere in the alpine climbing community. 

Hawthorn said this new multi-recipient format levels the playing field for less media-inclined climbers. “These days it’s easy for certain ascents to receive attention because of [several] factors,” he said. Did the alpinists make a film about the ascent? What language do they speak? How many Instagram followers do they have? “The [jury] doesn’t take these things into account and considers ascents that don’t make the news at all. The members of the jury, made up of experienced and respected alpinists, [are] people who have committed themselves to alpinism for many years,” Hawthorn said. “To give them an opportunity to promote what they consider impressive ascents from the year is important. It’s alpine climbers driving the direction of alpinism—not editors, marketing managers, or film directors.”

Sani Pakkush (22,808 feet), Tolltar Valley, Pakistan

Sani Pakkush’s south face and southwest ridge with “Revers Gagnant” outlined. (Photo: Symon Welfringer)

From October 16 to 19, 2020, the French alpinists Pierrick Fine and Symon Welfringer made the first ascent of Revers Gagnant (M4+ WI 4+ 90°; 8,200 feet)—and second ascent of the mountain—on Sani Pakkush’s south face and southwest ridge. 

The pair had originally planned to visit Nepal that autumn but a bout of pandemic-related restrictions forced them to change objectives. Pakistan was the only country willing to let them enter, and so an online photo they found of Sani Pakkush became their last minute goal.

Theirs would be an exploratory trip through and through. “The south face is big and complex and rises from the head of the Tolltar Valley, the upper part of the glacier almost certainly not reached previously by mountaineers,” the Piolets d’Or press release said. “The odds were stacked against them as October is generally far too late for climbing big mountains in Pakistan.”

Fine and Welfringer on the summit after four days of climbing. (Photo: Symon Welfringer)

“To be honest, until now, the Piolets d’Or was something unreachable for me. I have to admit that it was something I would have loved to accomplish one day,” Welfringer told Climbing. “In alpinism, you don’t really get recognition from what you achieve, the community is quite small and the public doesn’t always understand the meaning and the difficulty of the route opened in remote areas like Himalaya and other wild ranges.”

Fine told Climbing that he appreciated the jury’s emphasis on rewarding style and ethics, and points to the large list of nominees that inspired his own climbing. Speaking candidly, he said he was surprised to learn of his award; he thinks Revers Gagnant would not receive the Piolets d’Or in a year when more climbers were allowed into the Himalaya. “But this [ascent] is also in the spirit of the award: adventure and daring,” Fine said.

Special Mention: Silvia Vidal

(Photo: Courtesy of Silvia Vidal / Piolets d’Or)

Catalan climber Silvia Vidal has made cutting edge solo ascents around the world. She received this mention for “doing more with less” and for embodying an authentic lust for adventure while upholding a high standard of commitment. For more than two decades, Vidal has shown “impressive feats of endurance and hard aid climbing on remote big walls around the world,” the press release said. “Her most notable ascents have been achieved mainly in total autonomy: entirely alone, no radio, no mobile, no GPS, no weather forecasts, no communication. Drilling tends to be minimal, and always by hand.

“Vidal’s new routes, climbed in capsule style, lie in places such as Alaska, Canada, Chile, India, Mali, Pakistan and Peru. Significant solo ascents include: Un Pas Més (530 meters, 5.10a A4+), Xanadu, Alaska (36 days of ferrying equipment—540 kilometers of walking—both up to and down from the face, and 17 days alone on the wall, 2017), and most recently Sincronia Magica (1,180 meters, 5.10b A3+), El Chileno Grande, Chile (16 days of load carrying and, after fixing the initial 180 meters, 33 days alone on the wall, 2020).”

The Lifetime Achievement Award: Yasushi Yamanoi

(Photo: Courtesy of Yasushi Yamanoi and Piolets d’Or)

The Lifetime Achievement Award was first given to Walter Bonatti in 2009 to acknowledge the impact his career had on the following generations of young alpinists. Since then, legendary climbers including Catherine Destivelle, Jeff Lowe, and Reinhold Messner have received the award. 

Lindsay Griffin and Rodolphe Popier, with input from Hiroshi Hagiwara, chose Yamanoi for his wide ranging—and ongoing—career: from the initial free solo forays around his home in Japan, to chasing hard crack climbs like Cosmic Debris (5.13a) and Sphynx Crack (5.13b) in America, to becoming the first person to solo Patagonia’s Fitz Roy (11,171 feet) in winter in July 1990. 

As noted in the Piolets’ press release, ‎Yamanoi first explored the world of high altitude climbing in the early 90s as part of a siege-style Japanese expedition on Broad Peak (8,051 meters). While Yamanoi didn’t take to the heavy, militant tactics of that climbing style, he became enamored with the Great Ranges and returned, time and again, for significant ascents: a new 7,200-foot route on the southwest face of Cho Oyu (8,188 meters), solo; a first ascent of the east face of Kusum Kanguru (6,367 meters), solo; a first ascent of the striking southwest face of Bublimotin (6,000 meters) with Taeko and Daisaku Nakaga; and a proud attempt of the unclimbed east face of K2 (8,611 meters) with the Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka.

“Whether solo, as a married couple, or with friends, Yasushi Yamanoi’s climbing has shown great creativity, commitment, and resilience,” the press release said. “His minimalist style and often discreet ascents paved the way for younger Japanese climbers to operate in modern alpine-style. Together with a great respect for the environment through which he travelled, these qualities make Yasushi Yamanoi a worthy recipient of the 13th Career Award.”

Anthony Walsh is a Digital Editor at Climbing.

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