4 Climbs Honored With 2020 Piolet d'Or Awards

Photo: ©Andy Houseman (autumn 2012 photo) / American Alpine Journal

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Four remarkable ascents will be awarded Piolets d’Or in Ladek-Zdroj on September 19. The year 2019 turned out to be very rich for modern alpinism, with a substantial number of significant first ascents from all over the globe. The protagonists were alpinists of wide diversity. There were notable ascents by the “old guard” of highly-experienced high altitude climbers, but also fine achievements by a promising new generation of “young guns.”

Our eight-member international technical jury had the difficult task of making a choice, the intention being not to discard any remarkable climbs, but to choose a few significant ascents as “ambassadors” for modern, alpine style mountaineering. In the end the jury chose what we believe to be a consistent selection of four climbs. These will be awarded next month in Ladek.

The four ascents comprise two from Nepal and two from Pakistan. Most had seen previous attempts and were on the radar of number of strong parties. All climbed to rarely visited, or in one case virgin, summits. They are detailed below, in no particular order.

Chamlang (7,321m)

Marek Holeček and Zdeněk Hák (Czech Republic)

Northwest Face, UFO Line, 2,000 meters, WI5 M6, and traverse of the mountain, May 17-23 round trip from basecamp     

Since he first saw it in 2001 Marek Holeček had dreamed of climbing the great northwest face of Chamlang in Nepal’s Mahalangur Himal. Others had shared the same dream, and after more than half a dozen attempts the face had become one of the most coveted in the country. When Holeček and Zdeněk Hák arrived in spring 2019 it was obvious the face had little snow and a lot of hard water ice. Outflanking objective dangers in the lower section would prove to be one of the keys.

From a bivouac at 5,300 meters on the glacier below the face the two Czechs headed up more or less directly below the summit. On the fourth day they reached the upper east ridge and bivouacked 80-meters below the top. On May 21 they crossed the summit and spent the rest of the day trying to navigate the Original Japanese route on the south ridge. This proved more difficult than expected. Two more bivouacs—without food—and difficult down-climbing and rappelling in often poor visibility were needed to reach the valley.

UFO Line on the northwest face of Chamlang (7,321 meters). The seventh bivouac site—on the descent—is hidden. (H) marks the high point of a 2019 attempt on Chamlang’ s unclimbed north pillar.©Andy Houseman (autumn 2012 photo) / American Alpine Journal

The route was named UFO Line as a tribute to Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott, who in 1981, with Sherpas Ang Dorje and Pasang, were the first to climb the north side of the Chamlang massif and reach one of the middle summits. There, they were puzzled by a box-like object that hovered above them, shining magnificently in the midday sun.

Tengi Ragi Tau (6,938m)

Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva (USA)

West Face, Release The Kraken, 1,600 meters, AI5 M5+, October 13-17 round trip from a glacier camp below the face.

In 2012, on their first expedition to the Himalaya, Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva made the first ascent of Langmoche Ri on the north ridge of Tengi Ragi Tau in Nepal’s Rolwaling Himal. Walking below the west face of Tengi Ragi Tau they were mesmerized by its sheer magnitude and fine ice runnels through beautiful granite. They returned in 2014 to attempt a direct line, climbing to around 6,500 meters in less than ideal weather before retreating. Five years later and the face was now attracting the attention of several strong parties.

©Tino Villanueva / American Alpine Journal

After crossing the Tashi Laptsa pass and camping on the Drolambo Glacier, the two Americans climbed the initial dry-tooling pitches to access the snowy face, then made three bivouacs before reaching the summit. A tricky rappel descent was made down the line of ascent. With a multi-pitch ice crux high on the route, followed by steep flutings of unprotectable snow, this technical and elegant line on one of the most outstanding unclimbed faces of the Rolwaling was a just reward for the perseverance of two experienced alpine guides. Their ascent was only the second of this difficult mountain and the first in alpine style.

Link Sar (7,041m)

Mark Richey, Steve Swenson, Chris Wright, Graham Zimmerman (USA)

First ascent via the Southeast Face, 2,300 meters, AI4 M6+ 90°, July 31-August 8 round trip from an advanced base at 4,700m

Another much-coveted problem, this time in the eastern Pakistan Karakoram, Link Sar had received at least eight attempts before 2019. But the difficulties are not just about climbing the peak: the Indo-Pakistan conflict has made this region an on-off affair (largely off) when it comes to obtaining a mountaineering permit.

Steve Swenson first attempted Link Sar in 2001 with a strong American team, and then again, after a number of failed permit attempts, in 2017 with Chris Wright and Graham Zimmerman. Having now discovered a feasible line of ascent, these three decided to reinforce the team in 2019 with the addition of Mark Richey.

(A) Changi Tower. (B) K6 Main. (C) Link Sar (7,041m) from the southeast, showing the line of the 2019 ascent, advanced base camp, and bivouacs.©Matteo Della Bordella / American Alpine Journal

Six days after setting out from Advanced Base, they reached the top. During that time they had waited out a 36+ hours storm, and on the summit day recovered from a 35-meter leader fall due to avalanche and overcome an ungradable final pitch of deep, steep, and unstable “Peruvian” snow. A little over two days were then needed to reverse the route. These climbers succeeded because they were persistent, used their 126 years of combined climbing experience, and understood what partnership meant.

Rakaposhi (7,788m)

Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima (Japan)

South Face and Southeast Ridge, 4,000 meters from base camp, June 27-July 3 round trip from basecamp

The Hunza region of the Pakistan Karakoram holds a number of impressive mountains that fall only a few hundred meters short of the 8,000-meter mark. One of the most outstanding is Rakaposhi, first climbed via the southwest ridge in 1958. Whilst the south side of the mountain—leading to the crest of the great southeast ridge—had been reconnoitered in the past, it remained untouched. Climbers were unable to find a feasible route. An ascent from this less visible side of the mountain would be highly exploratory.

From a 3,660-meter basecamp at the snout of the glacier, and in generally unstable weather, Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima climbed the south face to 6,100 meters, both to acclimatize and confirm that their chosen line would go.

©Kenro Nakajima / American Alpine Journal

On their second outing they took three days, strenuously climbing through often deep soft snow, to reach a camp at 6,800 meters on the southeast ridge, where they were forced to wait two days in bad weather. After this they climbed to the summit and back in a single long day, and on the following reversed their line of ascent all the way down to basecamp.

Although the route does not feature the high technical difficulties of the three other awarded ascents, its huge length, and the commitment and style of Hiraide and Nakajima’s determined ascent on a rarely-climbed mountain, makes it of equal merit for a 2020 Piolet d’Or.

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