Mountaineers in the extreme debate over whether the risk outweighs the reward for the mountaineering prize

High on Lunag Ri in Nepal, Austrian mountaineer David Lama began to fear losing his toes. The cold on the 22,621-foot mountain was as bad as anything he had ever known.

Lama, who attempted to climb it on his own in 2018, could have been left dead if he had gotten stuck in a storm with severe frostbite or had been injured in a fall. A rescue would be almost impossible.

Lama’s fingers never froze entirely and he continued to the top of the mountain. The image of him looming over the pulpit-shaped summit is the kind climbers dream of. He said after the climb that he had pushed close to his risk tolerance limit. For his ascent, Lama won a Piolet d’Or – the Piolet d’Or – the highest prize in mountaineering.

But Lama was not present to receive the award at the Piolets d’Or ceremony in Ladek-Zdroj, Poland, in September 2019.

He had died five months earlier in an avalanche while attempting to climb a new route over the dangerous Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies. His two partners, American Jess Roskelley and Austrian Hansjorg Auer, also died in the crash. Auer was also honored with a Piolet d’Or in Poland, for a solo ascent pushing the limits of Pakistan’s Lupghar Sar West (23,481 feet).

The dissonance between their deaths and the celebration of their risky solo climbs raised an uncomfortable question about the Piolets d’Or: Is picking winners – and therefore losers – in mountaineering a bad idea? Elite alpine climbing is already perilous; the death of its practitioners goes without saying. But does handing out rewards reinforce an unhealthy risk culture in what is already a potentially deadly lawsuit?

Handing over the prizes to Lama and Auer was like “organizing a drinking party for someone who has died of liver disease,” Rolando Garibotti, 50, an Argentine-American mountaineer for more than 30 years, said during the ceremony. a phone call from Innsbruck, Austria. Garibotti is one of many important climbers who are struggling with the implications of the award ceremony for climbs.

“There are a lot of alpine climbs where people barely get away with their skin on,” Garibotti said. “And none of those people and climbs, in my mind, should qualify for the Piolet d’Or. If we’re going to create a culture where few of the best guys end up dying, we need to make some changes. “

Garibotti’s comment on the deaths of top mountaineers is not hyperbole: since 2008 at least seven Piolet d’Or winners, including Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, have died in the mountains.

The Piolets d’Or 2021, the 30th anniversary of the ceremony, took place this past weekend in Briançon, the Mecca of mountaineering in France. The event featured glittering trophies, acceptance speeches and standing ovations. The climbs honored this year had greater safety margins than those of Lama or Auer. But the specter remained.

Christian Trommsdorff, organizer of the Piolets d’Or and himself a mountaineer, said on a phone call from Greece: “Risk is not a factor in the process of selecting” the winners, which means that the climbs deemed too dangerous are not taken into account. “But that’s part of the game,” he said, referring to the inherent risks of mountaineering.

Les Piolets d’Or was founded in 1992 in France as a collaboration between Montagnes magazine and the Haute Montagne Group, or Haute Montagne Group, of which Trommsdorff is president.

Risk aside, there has been a debate over the years over how to judge climbs, which has a subjective quality as mountaineers regularly debate “style” or how one gets to the top.

Things peaked in 2007, when Slovenian mountaineer Marko Prezelj refused to accept the Piolet d’Or. Later that year, he wrote an article in the annual American Alpine Journal claiming that the rewards foster an environment in which climbers are “encouraged to exceed their abilities, to use performance enhancing substances and to take risks. inconsiderate ”.

Thus, in 2009, the Piolets d’Or introduced a new format, honoring several climbs, all announced months before the ceremony. This satisfied many of the more vocal opponents in the “style” camp, but for others, like Garibotti, it failed to address the fundamental issues surrounding risk.

Garibotti knows the danger firsthand. According to his tally, more than 30 people he roped up with later died while climbing. The Piolets d’Or have tried twice to nominate Garibotti for the prize, once in 2006, for a new route on Cerro Torre, in Patagonia, and once in 2009, for the first crossing of the entire Cerro massif. Torre. Twice he refused.

The problem, Garibotti says, is not that the rewards encourage climbers to take more risk, but that by awarding risky climbs, they validate risky behavior.