The 18th Piolets d'Or showcases two ascents

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 02/05/2010
From left to right: Normand, Dempster and Brown on stage

British mountaineer Bruce Normand was one of a team of three to be presented with a famous Grivel Golden Ice Axe at the 18th Piolets d'Or, which took place in Chamonix and Courmayeur from 7th-10th April.

In the summer of 2009 Normand, together with Americans Kyle Dempster and Jed Brown made the first ascent of the 6,422m West Top of Xuelian Feng (pronounced Swaylian) in the remote Chinese Central Tien Shan. The three spent a little over four days climbing the 2,650m North Buttress at WI 5, M6 and 5.7 to create a marvellous route they named the Great White Jade Heist.

Scottish-born Normand will not be a familiar a figure to many British climbers, having lived outside the UK since school days. After a university education at MIT, his work in solid state physics research has taken him to other areas of America, Japan, Switzerland and China. Brown on the other hand is a mathematician currently based in Zurich and specializing in the solutions to complex differential equations relating to ice flow. Tent conversation must get a trifle heavy at times.

A second Golden Piolet was presented to Kazakhstan mountaineers, Boris Dedeshko and Denis Urubko for their new route on the 2,600m South East Face of 8,188m Cho Oyu. The pair took five days up and three days down, alpine-style, overcoming difficulties of UIAA VI+, A3, M4 and 90°. With this ascent Urubko became the ninth man to climb all 14 8,000m peaks without supplementary oxygen: three of these were by new routes, and one was a first winter ascent.

Cho Oyu featured technically hard terrain low down through a difficult rock buttress, and extremely bold climbing above, especially when the weather turned nasty. Adopting a traditional 'Soviet' tradition, Urubko led throughout and used his wealth of experience, huge ability and 'sixth-sense', particularly on the final avalanche prone section, to win through. There are arguably less than a handful of people in the world capable of such a climb, but then Urubko’s strict training regime with the Kazakh Army involves, amongst other things, not eating on three non-consecutive days a week. You can't dispute the man's dedication.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the choice of these two climbs would not have surprised too many of the large audience packed into Chamonix's Majestic Congress on the evening of Saturday 10th April, the reasoning behind the decision was a rather more complex affair.

The former Piolet d'Or was a highly controversial beast with an outdated concept of electing an overall 'winner'. It was rightly abandoned in 2007. The new Piolets d'Or (plural), reborn in 2009, now focuses on being a celebration of passions for pure, ethical mountaineering. Its goal is to raise awareness of modern alpinism and the fine ascents taking place throughout the world - particularly relevant to France and Italy where the general audience sees mountaineering mostly in terms of ‘conquering’ 8,000m peaks. The new charter champions adventure, boldness, exploration, style, technical difficulty and a minimalist approach, in fact all that we in the UK might feel characterizes 'our' type of expedition.

Prior to this year's event, an appointed six-member international jury of Andrej Stremfelj (jury president, Slovenia), Jordi Corominas (Spain), Lindsay Griffin (UK), Anna Piunova (Russia), Robert Schauer (Austria) and Kei Tanaguchi (Japan) had worked through 55 worthy ascents from 2009 and decided to make five nominations for presentation at the event: these five represented two different types of exploration. Dedeshko and Urubko's route on Cho Oyu, and Vitaly Gorelik and Gleb Sokolov's ascent of the North Face of the Camel on Pik Pobeda (7,439m) were imaginative outings that probed untouched areas on extremely well-known, high-altitude peaks. They proved that beautiful, bold, new lines could still be discovered on particularly visible faces.

The objective dangers on the lower section of the 2,400m mixed buttress climbed alpine-style in seven and a half days by Gorelik and Sokolov were high, and the pair had spent several years trying for the right conditions before setting foot on the route. Steep sections of technical ice and mixed climbing were made more difficult by poor weather on the upper part of the wall. This was a committing push by the two jovial Russians, who three years ago were members of the successful, but much criticized, expedition that seiged the West Face of K2. And Sokolov is 56.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The remaining three nominated ascents exemplified exploration of a different kind. In 2005 an 11-member Russian team, including Mikhail Mikhailov and Alexander Ruchkin, gained the Piolet d'Or for the first ascent of Jannu's North Face. At the time the choice was highly controversial: while the ascent was arguably the most sustained, technically-difficult route so far climbed at high altitude, it was achieved using an outdated, very heavyweight style. In 2009 Mikhailov and Ruchkin made the first ascent of unnamed Peak 6,134m in Sichuan's Minya Konka Range, a climb for which they had already been awarded the Russian Piolet d'Or.

They climbed in pure alpine-style, traversing the mountain in a spontaneous effort, choosing their objective ‘on-sight’ when their planned mountain proved impracticable. The line, an elegant 1,100m vertical or overhanging rock pillar to a snowcapped summit ridge, lies in a largely unexplored part of a Chinese range certainly not noted for clear blue skies. Mikhailov had made a big effort to attend the event in Chamonix, as his wife was expecting a baby imminently in the Kyrghyzstan capital Bishkek, However, the surprise revolution gave him no choice and he returned home before the presentations really got going.

Xuelian's West Top gave the American-British team a long, high quality, committing and technical route in an almost unknown range; 'another excellent example of progressive alpinism', according to the jury. Prior to this ascent they'd also climbed several more virgin summits by fine lines.

Chang Himal's magnificent North Face was different: although it is situated in a remote corner of Nepal, thousands of people had walked by it on route to Kangchenjunga Base Camp, yet no one had dared to make a serious attempt. It was certainly on the 'to-do' list of several of the world's top alpinists, including one of this year's jury. Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman climbed it on their first try, with long stretches of insecure climbing and difficulties up to M6. Rather than attempting to descend south off the mountain (the route followed on the one and only previous ascent of Chang Himal) and negotiate what they felt would be an incredibly complex glacier, Bullock and Houseman chose to descend their line. Conditions on the upper flutings were such that they were unable to find anchors to rappel this section, and had to carefully down-climb to their top bivouac.

All five teams talked about their ascents to large audiences of enthusiastic climbers at various venues in Chamonix and Courmayeur.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But in the days leading up to the finale, other awards were conferred. As in the past, the Piolets d'Or was jointly organized by the Groupe de Haute Montagne - spearheaded by its current president Chamonix guide Christian Trommsdorff - and climbers and staff from Montagnes and Vertical Magazines. And, of course, considerable backing from the Chamonix and Courmayeur communities, who now share the celebrations. In an innovative move, Trommsdorff and his team decided that this year should also focus on youth. Young climbers were able to meet, ski and climb with jury members and nominees, and part of one evening was dedicated to acknowledging local institutions that ran various training programs and small Himalayan expeditions for young people.

While most evenings were taken up with presentations and gastronomic delights, the days were pure fun, and exemplified the spirit of the event, with jury members, nominees and organizers all out on the crag together as a happy family. One such day took place at the wonderful gneiss crag of Machaby in Italy's Aosta Valley before an evening in Courmayeur's Monte Bianco Cinema, where the 2010 Career Piolet d'Or was presented for only the second time.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reinhold Messner had a well-prepared acceptance speech and in a characteristic rant gave his own, critical perspective of the general trend in mountaineering, in which he felt most of today's participants did little more than simply follow the 'piste'. He praised the Piolets d'Or for its defence of classic alpinism, which he felt was disappearing - and for its celebration of alpine-style, which he said was 'invented by the British'. He also echoed a comment that occurred more than once throughout the four-day event: that one of the great aspects of climbing is the ability to enjoy and gain great personal achievement at any level, at any age.

Now, at a lowly 3,000m, he was still able to experience the same sensations and make the same demands on his body as he did when climbing the 8,000ers in alpine-style. Walter Bonatti, last year's Career Piolet d'Or, joined him on the stage for a moving celebration in front of a huge crowd. It was gushing Italian at its best, though many male eyes were more focused on the elegant, ex-model, female presenter, who towered above both celebrities.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so to the final night at the Majestic. In a nice gesture, Grivel axes (of the non gold paint variety) had already been presented to all nominees and jury members, but while the jury felt that all five nominations were a brilliant example of modern mountaineering and an inspiration to future generations, awarding 'golden' hatchets to everyone was not to be an option, not least because there would be no point in bringing a jury to Chamonix for the event. Instead, jury members decided to chose a representative ascent from each example of exploration.

As jury president Stremfelj explained in his award speech, "imagination and creativity are two of the most exciting aspects of climbing - to see possibilities where no one has seen them before. Some climbers will discover lines on well-explored, well-known mountains; others will choose to find mountains that no one has ever seen".

And then to his announcement. " Today we have decided to showcase two of these ascents, which are representative of two different forms of creativity and exploration. Each suggests many possibilities for today's climbers, and future generations". Stremfelj continued to say that jury members were unanimous in their decision to present Golden Axes for the ascents of Xuelian West and Cho Oyu.

So was everybody happy? By and large a resounding yes, although brought up on a traditional Soviet competition system, Gorilek and Sokolov were the only ones to look disappointed after the result. But they soon came round. Everyone appreciated the hospitality and good humour with which the event was conducted, the informality of the days on the crag and in the bar, and the opportunity for jury members, organizers and nominees to hang out together and exchange ideas. The Piolets d'Or will be back in 2011, celebrating all that is great, good and most of all fun about modern alpinism. After all, it's only a game.

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captions from top to bottom

Urubko (left) and Dedeshko answer questions on their climb.

On stage at the Majestic. From left to right (standing) Bullock - looking bemused at the whole affair, Houseman, Gorilek, Sokolov, Normand, Dempster; (below) Ruchkin, Dedeshko, Urubko, Brown.

Legendary Slovenian mountaineer Andrej Stremfelj makes the final announcement.

Messner, with an admiring Italian presenter, acknowledging his Career Piolet d'Or in Courmayeur

Italian legends Messner and Bonatti , and the Golden Ice Axe, on stage in Courmayeur.

More the true spirit of the Piolets d'Or. Outside the Majestic. From left to right, (top) Sokolov, Corominas, Houseman, Taniguchi, Bullock, Dempster; (below) Ruchkin, Normand, Dedeshko, Schauer, Gorilek.



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