Do you climb for yourself? Or do you climb for the attention, and even awards? As climbing edges closer towards the 2020 Olympics, legendary climber Doug Scott asks: how do awards fit with the high mountains?
My first climbing award came from the Russians in 1974. Along with Paul Braithwaite, Guy Lee and Clive Rowland, I was presented with a colourful certificate in Cyrillic script, stating that I'd climbed Peak Lenin in the Pamirs. The occasion was an international 'camp' in the Achik Tash valley. Its purpose was to foster international relations amongst climbers but there was also a hidden agenda: to persuade the International Olympic Committee to allow high-altitude climbing to become an Olympic event. Whenever this proposal was voiced at the camp meetings it was generally laughed out of court – the idea for most visiting climbers was anathema.
Pressure for climbing to form part of the Olympics has never gone away. However there is an important distinction to be drawn. The organisers of indoor and ice climbing competitions are working hard to gain entry into the Olympic arena. Most climbers, whatever their reservations, seem to think this is inevitable and not a problem so long as such competitions remain indoors or outdoors on purpose-built artificial structures.
What the mountaineering fraternity do question is the idea that there should be competition in the high mountains. But history has been more equivocal. Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the French idealist and father of the modern Olympic Games – suggested giving recognition for achievement in mountaineering, as he considered such a noble pastime exemplified his Olympic ideals. In fact, mo less than 20 Olympic medals have been awarded to climbing since 1924, although most before the Second World War.
The idea of competitive mountaineering is still far from alien in the former Soviet bloc, where mountaineering competitions were first promoted in 1948. However, the uniquely Soviet attitude to mountaineering suffered a severe setback with the death of eight Russian women mountaineers set on making the first all-women traverse of Peak Lenin in 1974. They perished in a terrible storm at 23,000 feet. They lacked the experience and suitable equipment, but also they were, it seems, blinded to the build up of danger by their overwhelming ambition to succeed. They were locked into a pre-planned itinerary that precluded changing direction as conditions dictated and the considerable backup of guides on patrol with radios and with helicopters in the area may have induced a false sense of security. Here, laid bare for all to see, was the problem of external organisation and procedures subverting a small group from taking responsibility for their own lives through flexible self-reliance and prudent decision making. This tragedy brought home to many the folly of promoting high-altitude mountaineering as another Olympic event.
A year after our visit to the Pamir's camp came our successful ascent of the South West Face of Everest. No award was expected and none was received, at least not directly. Chris Bonington, our leader, had already been given a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in 1974. In fact I had stood with Don Whillans underneath the new, gold-embossed letters of Chris's name up on the panelling at the old entrance to the Society. Don, who was not getting on with Chris at the time (Chris had dropped him from his Everest plans), looked up and quipped: "What exploring he's done? I've done all 'is exploring".
Don was oblivious to my pointing out that Chris had done a lot more than just lead the Annapurna Expedition. However I heard no grumbling when eventually Chris was made a CBE – after all he was, with justification, the main spokesman for British climbing and had climbed more than most. Rumour even has it that Dougal Haston and myself, as summiteers of Everest, might have expected some recognition from Her Majesty if Dougal hadn't served three months in one of HM's prisons during his misspent youth. Still, we did get an invite to No 10 where we met Harold Wilson – he asked us what part we had played in getting the summiteers to the summit!
In 1994 I received a letter from the Ceremonial Branch of the Cabinet Office, Westminster, asking if I would accept becoming a Commander of the British Empire. This came as a complete surprise; I had no inkling that such a possibility was even being discussed. I have to say I accepted without a second thought and have never regretted doing so. My parents were overjoyed, my father saying, 'Thank God I have lived to see this day' – it being the culminating point in his lifelong ambition to see his son honoured for everything he did.
Generally, being a CBE has only been of help in fundraising (notably for Community Action Nepal) and helping friends abroad obtain UK visas and generally getting things done more quickly. It was rumoured that since Rebecca Stephens, a relative newcomer to climbing, had been awarded an MBE for her ascent of Everest, the climbing establishment thought a token old-timer should be awarded something too.
It came long after I had done my most demanding climbs and was to honour a lifetime of climbing and unravelling the mysteries of Himalayan mountains rather than as a reward for one particular event. This was also the case with fellow climbers: Chris Bonington CBE, George Band OBE and more recently Joe Brown CBE and Pat Littlejohn OBE. None of us seem to have attracted any criticism for accepting these awards.
Two friends with impeccable climbing credentials illustrate the pros and cons of accepting – or rejecting – awards. Voytek Kurtyka, one of the foremost mountaineers of the 20th century, turned down a request from the organisers of the Piolets d'Or to sit on the jury of what is arguably the best known international award in mountaineering. The Piolet d'Or – golden ice axe – came into being in 1991. It was conceived by Jean-Claude Marmier, President of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM) and Guy Chaumereuil, editor of Montagnes magazine to salute climbs that captured the imagination and essence of alpinism. Despite an auspicious start, the event became mired in controversy, essentially over the illusion of a 'best' climb, until Christian Trommsdorff, new President of the GHM, revamped the award in 2009.
Voytek was approached to be part of the new jury. He declined, saying he was sorry but he could not be part of the jury as he understood that: "The world is suspended on a monstrous structure of wild competition and consequently of award and distinction … this structure is an enemy of true art … where award and distinction rules the true art ends." For him, climbing was a means to physical and mental wellbeing and towards wisdom; award and distinction only led to vanity and egocentricity. "Taking part in the game of award and distinction is dangerous for the climber… I cannot accept your offer," he concluded.
Christian thanked Voytek for his sincere reply, before adding, "personally I totally agree with you about competition; this is not the spirit we want to promote at the GHM now but we choose to take an opportunity to be present in today's world and promote our values the best we can rather than to be absent and let others occupy the space … people driven by competition … maybe some of them could be inspired by people like you to change their attitude."
Voytek did not take part but those who did, including myself as Jury President, saw that new criteria of pure alpinism were applied. Paramount was that the awards should be given to those climbs exhibiting commitment: no drilling equipment carried, no fixed ropes, eschewing other aids that would diminish the uncertainty principle of the climb, such as walkie-talkies and sat phones for weather forecasts. Other key criteria were that the climb should be original, the 'leave no trace' principle should be observed, and local people treated with respect.
In fact, the 2009 award was given to three different climbs that more-or-less met the criteria. Not having a single winner was seen as a step forward, lessening the competitive element and creating a system that endorses all those making inspiring climbs in an inspiring style; the 'winners' were not winners, but ambassadors.
With a new spirit established for the Piolets, Christian felt confident enough to approach Voytek again, this time to accept the 2010 Golden Ice-Axe Career Award to "help promote our common values in alpinism". Voytek's reply was predictable: "This is a devilish offer … I always run to the mountains with great expectation that I can elevate myself above my human weaknesses and you try to put on me the most dangerous one … the illusion that I am a person of distinction … all my life is a sort of struggle with that illusion … the greatest trap of our ego and a proof of vanity, I can't accept Piolets d'Or. The climber possesses an exceptional awareness of freedom. I hope you will understand my uneasiness in face of such a great honour."
You can, of course, get even purer than Voytek if you never record anything you ever do. No doubt there are people going into the hills, even to the Himalaya, who never report anything and do it entirely for enjoyment. But that is unusual. For myself, I've always been ambitious: for writing articles, sharing experiences with others and, partly, to be appreciated for what I've done. It's not a big step to find yourself getting acclaim, in articles and maybe even an actual award. It would be disingenuous to say it was not welcome but it certainly wasn't the reason I went climbing and, as far as I know, that was the same for my contemporaries.
The new Piolets d'Or celebrates the best in alpinism and does so in the atmosphere of a climbers' festival rather than a winner-take all competition dominated by strutting bureaucrats and gear sponsors. If the Piolets holds to this ideal it will remain the flagship award, a marker in the sand as to the best way forward to the good of climbing everywhere but especially to those former communist countries where an outdated ethos has clung on.
In recent years, leading Russian climbers such as Alexander Klenov have questioned their country's system of high mountain competitions. He feels that it has held back Russian climbing from breaking new ground in a committed style. Anatoli Moshnikov is quoted as saying, "competitions today are not relevant and are displacing the essence of mountain climbing". I must say, the message has taken its time getting through.
Don Whillans once pointed out to me that there had always been competition in climbing, but for the route, not to be better than anyone else. That's the big difference between an adventure sport such as climbing and track-and-field sports where the main point is to beat somebody else. The Piolets show a better way because instead of being about winners and hype like every other sport, it's about something other.
We all like to be liked and I am no exception. When you do get an award, it's not only a pleasant experience but you suddenly find you are 'somebody' – with the chance to get something off your chest. At the Piolets, I was given the chance to extol the virtues of maintaining the freedom of access that we have in the Alps – by keeping politicians, bureaucrats, insurance companies and other commercial interests from restricting access. But the most important message is that the only climbing that is going to get this kind of acclaim has to be done in an original and committing style – without compromise.
Doug Scott has made 45 expeditions to the high mountains of Asia. He has reached the summit of 40 peaks, of which half were climbed by new routes or for the first time in alpine style. He has reached the highest peaks on all seven continents. He is a past President of the Alpine Club, was made a CBE in 1994 and in 1999 he received the Royal Geographical Society Patron's Gold Medal.
Adapted by Stephen Goodwin, from an original article in the Alpine Journal. Stephen is a journalist and Editor of the Alpine Journal, the oldest mountaineering journal in the world. In 1998, he reached the South Summit of Everest.
What is the Piolet d'Or?
The inaugural award went to Marko Prezelj and Andre Stremfelj for climbing the South West Ridge of Kangchenjunga South in impeccable alpine style – as original and committing a climb as the founders could have wished for. British recipients included Andy Parkin for a new route on Cerro Torre (1994) and Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden for their first ascent of the North Face of Siguniang (2002).
The event eventually became mired in controversy over the illusion of a 'best climb' and the vexed business of picking winners. After collecting his second golden axe – for the North West Pillar of Chomolhari – Prezelji denounced the whole idea and warned against the addiction to "Miss Fame". An attempt to meet climber's concerns in time to hold a Piolets in 2008 failed. There seemed little prospect of its revival until 2009 when the new GHM president, Christian Trommsdorff, relaunched the Piolets (with an 's') as a climbers' festival, celebrating the true spirit of alpinism. Chamonix and Courmayeur towns provided vital resources, reducing dependency on commercial sponsorship; publishers Nivéales and magazines Montagnes and Vertical were also on board.
The Piolets phoenix rose in a party atmosphere in April 2009. Doug Scott was president of the jury and the focus was on style, exploratory spirit, commitment and respect. Axes were awarded to four teams and Walter Bonatti received a lifetime award.
A new course was set for mountaineering's best-known award.