In the weeks that followed Marko Prezelj’s refusal of the 2006 Piolet d’or, at the ceremony in Grenoble, France, on January 26, Climbing sat down with the Montagnes editors Phillipe Descamps and Manu Rivaud. Here is their take on this year’s ceremony, Prezelj’s stance, and on the complex issues surrounding the Piolet and similar awards, including Climbing’s Golden Piton.
Did you expect that Prezelj would decline the award this year? How was the audience and judge’s reaction?
Philippe Descamps: We knew that Marco had a very particular relationship with the media. He’s a somewhat provocative character, but a likeable one as well, and he is above all else a top-notch climber who makes the way for future generations.
At the time, Marko’s position wasn’t entirely clear and understandable. That’s why, after the ceremony, I suggested to him that he should write out his point of view so that it could be published in Montagnes magazine. Not long after sending us his text, which is set to be published in our next issue (April 2007), he sent it to other publications as well.
We will publish others opinions as well, and we think it is very important that this debate takes place. Its too early to make any kind of assessment of the reactions, but there are a number of them.
Have you been able to understand or agree with his motives for doing so? Have you and he spoken about this?
Manu Rivaud: Yes. We first took the time to get better acquainted. Things flowed very well. There was mutual respect between us and a desire to see things move forward, [and] also to explain to Marko the goal and the significance of the Piolet d’or [Golden Ice Axe] as it was originally conceived and how we would like to see it evolve.
Descamps: Marko exaggerates the positions a bit by putting all the media in the same basket, whether they be the large and far-reaching media or the smaller and more specialized. And it may come as a surprise, but we basically agree with him on the some of his essential points (if not always the particlar way in which he writes it). I think that the level of competition pushed to such a high level, in particular by money, is harmful to the body (over-training, drug-use, dependancy, acceptance of unconsidered risk, etc.), as well as to the mind (hierarchal perception of the human community, superiority complexes, etc.).
The goal of the Piolet d’or has never been to assign rankings or designate the « Best » mountaineer in the world. It aims rather to celebrate the thirst for adventure and the sense of exploration that comes with the art of climbing the world’s most beautiful summits. It also aims to show the world that the sport of mountaineering today is alive and well, that adventures on a grand scale are still possible today, and oftentimes with an ethical code even more pure than it has been in the past.
For Montagnes magazine, the organization of the Piolet d’or costs a lot of money. But we do it because we think it can serve the sport of mountaineering. That’s why we have always listened to criticism, of the good and the bad variety.
Rivaud: As a practicing mountaineer for eight years in the Alps in every season, I absolutely understand the position of Marco Prezelj. I would have without a doubt thought the same if I had not completely understood the role and the significance of the Piolet d’or. This role and this significance needs to be clearly redefined to the whole mountaineering community.
The conversation lasted several hours, and I agree with Marko that the Piolet d’or could lead to bad situations in which the recipients and finalists do not well represent the values of mountaineering, or more importantly, those of mountaineers. I also agree that it is impossible to compare two ascents, since a single route can change in difficulty and undertaking in the course of a single day. It is precisely for this reason that each year we insist on the subjectivity of this award.
Prezelj and Lorencic up in the high alpine of southern France, justMontagnes Magazine
I know Prezelj received the first Piolet, in 1991 — how many times has he been nominated?
Rivaud: Marko has been nominated for the Piolet d’or four times – 1991, 1995, 2001, and 2006.
What do you think about Prezelj and Rolo Garibotti’s idea to hold the Piolet more as an open meet and exchange of ideas, than as an awards ceremony?
Rivaud: It’s a good idea. But the goal of the Piolet d’or has been to make the world of mountaineering more available to as large a public as possible. These types of meetings are often geared only toward climbers. Those members of the public who don’t climb and who are not familiar with the mountains rarely ever show up.
Descamps: The climbers’ meetings are very nice. But do we always want to stay amongst ourselves or do we also want to tell our stories to others?
The critique of Marko and Rolando also clings to the fact that there is without a doubt a discrepancy between our intention at its core, and the shape in which the ceremony can take in its second part, where the Piolet d’or is given to a team with a certain level of pomposity. Like Marko or others, I think it would be best to place less emphasis on a single ascent and to associate more with the climbers themselves. I would suggest, for example, to have each of the nominees vote for an ascent (with an enforcement against voting for oneself). In our mind, it’s not so much a question of designating a champion as it is to designate a spokesman for the sport of mountaineering. With his big mouth, Marko makes an excellent spokesman. …
Despite the stance of the Groupe de Haute Montagne these past few years we have tried to advance the Piolet d’or with a more international jury, higher standards concerning ethics and method of means, a longer meeting with the jury in order to prevent cheating, etc. We still have a ways to go and it will require, I think, a writing-out of the tacit rules as dictated by the Piolet d’or organization in order to avoid any misunderstandings.
Download the high resolution image! This way to the gold — a crew of Slovenians, including Marko Prezelj, heads toward Chomolhari (23,996 feet), near the Tibet/Bhutan border. Prezelj and fellow countryman Boris Lorencic’s first ascent of the peak’s striking Northwest Pillar (delineated by the sun/shadow line) earned them a 2006 Global Alpine Golden Piton and a Piolet d’Or.Photo By Marko Prezelj
It sounds like Marko accepted the award, but spoke against it at the ceremony, and then returned it later, around the time he published his thoughts on line. Does this seem like the correct chain of events?
Rivaud: The ceremony took place January 26, 2007, in Grenoble, France. Marko accepted the invitation to come because he enjoys these events where it is possible to speak about and exchange stories about mountaineering. One of his motivations also was to get out his message about the dangers of a competition. We are publishing his letter in our next issue because he is free to express himself as he sees fit. Again, we have already made his opinion known in the issue that followed the Piolet d’or. The important thing is that his opinion is known and that this leads to discussions on how to progress. Marko’s stance is constructive. If his thoughts are shared by even a few, then they have enough merit to evoke a more general attentiveness.
Descamps: For the moment, Marko and his climbing partner have held on to the trophy, which they very much deserve. You would have to ask him what they intend to do with it, but that’s not what’s important. The important thing is, in my eyes, that in a more and more sterilized and globally positioned world, that there is still some place for that quest for the unknown, that thirst for adventure, the partnership of a single piece of rope.
It sounds like Garibotti, Ermanno Salvaterra, and Alessandro Beltrami withdrew their climb from the event in 2005, but that the decision was to include it anyway — has this caused a conflict?
Rivaud: No. We have kept cordial relations with Rolando Garibotti.
Do you think Prezelj’s position that in the Piolet d’or “the commercial influence on the event is obvious and definite” is an oversimplification?
Rivaud: Yes. The Piolet d’or costs Montagnes magazine and Nivéales Editions time and money. We do not touch any supplementary bonuses or see any rise in salary (and ours is not much) for the organization of the event. However, this price does add a kind of notoriety to our title and our publishing house. But it is essentially all foreign attention, and we don’t have any intentions of marketing our magazine outside of French-speaking countries.
The absence of a Piolet d’or will not impede us from talking about the great mountaineering exploits in our magazine. It would, in fact, give us more time to do our work as journalists, without the work tied-up in the organization and logistics of the event gnawing away at us.
I would say that those who profit the most from the Piolet d’or are the partnering labels and the nominated mountaineers themselves, who are often later solicited following the Piolet d’or to sell the images of their expeditions.
Descamps: Those who profit from the Piolet d’or are first and foremost the mountaineers and the sport of mountaineering in general. That’s what it’s made for.
It doesn’t have much to do between Montagnes magazine and Paris Match or between Climbing and Gutter Press. On this point, Marko kind of mixes everything up. For the eight years that I have participated in the Piolet d’or, never has a sponsor of a mountaineer influenced the jury or even tried to do so.
On the grounds of journalism, it just so happens that I was once a professor of journalism at the university level and I wrote several strongly critical articles about the functioning of the general media. I am familiar with the ins and outs of the media and how it can skid out of control, and I would like someone to step forward and demonstrate to me how exactly the Piolet d’or could give the media that opportunity.
Certain climbers never speak about what it is that they are doing, and I respect that. It’s not the case with Marko when he sells photos and runs a website And I think he is correct to do so because it is worth the work in order to be recognized.
Are these awards (Climbing has the “Golden Piton”) a necessary evil in a sport where the top athletes must rely on some commercial aspects — sponsors, slideshows, seminars — in order to make money to climb full time? Or do you see Prezelj’s actions as a sort of elitism?
Rivaud: The role of the Piolet d’or is to leave some milestones to future generations. The subjectivity or the token of its significance should never create business, rankings, or privileges for any mountaineer before another with a sponsorship.
The Piolet d’or should never be anything more than a recognition shared by all the mountaineering community as a display of the most invested and exploratory mountaineers who realize magnificent achievements in the mountains. These achievements and these climbers are and should remain as a source of inspiration, of dreams, and of motivation for others. They tell us that to commit oneself allows us to do exceptional things and to have exceptional experiences. Our role as journalists is to inform others of these adventures, to help deliver this inspiration and this idea of personal commitment in all ways of life… as well as to denounce any abuses or mishandlings of any sort.
The Piolet d’or is already an opportunity to come together and to share opinions and questions about mountaineering at its highest levels and about its influence at the heart of this community and of the general public.
Descamps: Just as Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for Literature, there might be in a move such as this one as much panache as there is a very high opinion of oneself: Not only am I strong, but I am even stronger than the others because I allow myself to criticize it, or to refuse it… which we have yet to see.
I do not believe that the Piolet d’or is a necessary evil in order for climbers to find the finances to carry out their projects. The selected ascents generally have much less finances than other expeditions on the normal routes and with fixed ropes.
Before the Piolet d’or (and even after?) the most well-known climbers were those who had the best connections with the media. The information that we ourselves ask of the climbers, the questions posed by the jury, and the experiences of each does not guarantee that some ascents that would have deserved to have been nominated will not have been overlooked. However, those who were nominated deserved at the very least to be recognized, and sometimes they would not have been were it not for the Piolet d’or.
But let’s not look only at ourselves here. To have gone to Moscow and to Seoul in order to speak about the Piolet d’or in front of hundreds of climbers, I can bear witness to the fact that the Piolet d’or is also a powerful tool for changing minds towards pursuing a purer style of climbing, more respectful toward men and toward the environment. It is a way to assemble climbers from all over the world around some strong virtues.
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Schuhmann.
Translation from the French by Christoper Schuhmann. Schuhmann is a world traveler who now resides in Boulder, CO, as a Master's Student in French Literature at the University of Colorado. His interest in climbing began five years ago in the French Alps, where he first learned to climb on the famous Mer de Glace, near Chamonix. Currently, he climbs in the Colorado Rockies and is preparing for his second trip abroad to France, where he will teach English at the university in Tours. You may contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org for any translation work.
Editorial of issue #316
At long last, the debate on the Piolet d'Or is open! Thanks to Marko Prezelj's provocative statements, our mountaineering community has started to exchange points of view and to ask itself questions about the award's meaning. From the organizers' point of view, certain statements could seem a little bit unfair or even out of place. But to understand the passionate stances, one must understand the issues at the heart of the debate, which is far from being simplistic: whilst everybody agrees on the dangers of an excessively competitive spirit, there is also a broad consensus on the importance of providing a space where great mountaineers can meet together and with the public. It's now only a question of finding the right formula, the right balance.
Far from fostering a spirit of healthy emulation, the logic of pure competition is not only bad for mountaineering as a whole, it is also dangerous for mountaineers individually. Distracted by financial objectives, mountaineers are encouraged to over-stretch their capacity, to make use of performance boosting substances and to take inconsiderate risk. An excessive competitive spirit fosters a feeling of superiority, which in turn develops into arrogance and creates a hierarchical vision of the community.
Within the mountaineering community, the race for celebrity didn't wait for the Piolet d'Or. The media hierarchies set up in the seventies and eighties were mostly determined by the talent of the various press agents. By becoming international, by attempting to formulate objective criteria — however imperfect — and by taking an ethical stance, the juries of the Piolet d'Or have over the years managed to defend a certain style of mountaineering. None of those who were awarded the Piolet d'Or over the last 16 years were undeserving, even if their exploits had sometimes very little in common. The juries' decisions were coherent with the defense of a certain style of mountaineering which has had a lasting influence on the evolution of mentalities in many countries. If the staging of the award ceremony probably needs to be revisited, the show of the past few years has at least had the merit of showing that mountaineering needs spokes-persons more than it needs champions.
The real challenge for the members of the elite of mountaineering is to open up to the world, to meet each other and to share their experiences with the public. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, we know that the greatest arsenals are of no use if their only purpose is to protect those who despise the values that they pretend they are defending. We know since Vilfredo Pareto that History is a "cemetery of aristocracies". Clubs are for fossilized elite who have lost all contact with reality.
The experience of these last years has proven that if they stay within the boundaries of their professional objectives and don't try to overstep their competence, specialized journalists have an important part to play in the evolution of mountaineering. Their job is to check on the information at its source, to cross reference the information, if possible, with information from other sources, and to make the information understandable, by putting it into perspective. It's not about objectivity - there is no such thing - but about a subjective point of view trying to embrace the largest number of objective facts possible. That is the art of critique. It has nothing to do with the art of communication, which is all about passing things off for what they are not.
If the question today is whether we should rethink the Piolet d'Or or scrap it, one has to start from what it is today: a prize which is known throughout the world and which helps promote mountaineering and its universal values. Whom does it profit? Mountaineers and mountaineering as a whole. All ideas are welcome. The discussion is open. We will make selection criteria more explicit and give mountaineers a bigger say in the outcome, by giving the competing teams an opportunity to vote for their favorite climb (their own excluded). We also intend to break away from a French event by taking a more international approach, in order to better promote the specificity and the meaning of the different nations' approach to mountaineering. The competition is open again for mountaineers and for all men of good-will.
1) the organization of the Piolet d'Or represents a budget of approximately €25 000 per annum, 30% of which is financed by sponsors and the remaining 70% by Montagnes Magazine.