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Why We Climb: Piolet d’Or Honorees on the Value of a Life in the Mountains

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Ian Welsted comes up the last few steps to the broad, corniced summit of K6 West. The Nangma Valley lies below; Photograph by Raphael Slawinski
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The first night of the 22nd Piolets d’Or, Kazakh climber Denis Urubko summed it up: Mountains (and oceans) are the last wild places on Earth. We go to these places to remember we are humans in nature, to seek lessons from the wild, and to get away from the trappings of human civilization. But as humans we are social beings. When we return we like to speak with like minds and share our experiences. So every spring there is a four day celebration of the spirit of alpinism held in Chamonix, France and Courmayeur, Italy, the Piolets d’Or.

By awarding winners in a sport which is inherently anarchic it is bound to attract controversy. How to compare personal and team efforts in wild environments? To clarify the goals of the award the organizers have adopted a charter that emphasizes the spirit and sustainability of alpinism. Climbs must respect the environment by leaving no trace. Cultures must be respected by visiting climbers if we are to have friendly relationships when we visit. And this year the jury said climbers must not play “Russian roulette” with their lives—too many famous climbers have perished in their efforts. The sport is meant to take us into nature and then return us to society richer and wiser.

No one was surprised that Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck was awarded his second Piolet d’Or for a new route he climbed by himself on the South Face of 8,000-meter Annapurna. In an amazing 29 hours, it stretched the boundaries of what is thought possible for a human in the highest mountain environments. Ueli says his mind switched to a state of calm adventure, continuing ever further up the face “to go and explore above” until he realized he could not continue any higher. Ueli admits that he was very close to the edge, that any error would have been fatal, and that he doubts he will continue with any other effort like this.

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The jury also chose to reward this writer’s team with a Piolet d’Or. Our first ascent of an unclimbed 7,000-meter peak in Pakistan, K6 West, was of a different character. After three similar trips to Pakistan, two friends formed a tight team. We surpassed an extreme cultural barrier by continuing in Pakistan after the infamous massacre of 11 people at the nearby Nanga Parbat basecamp. And we were well in control on the climb, sharing security and brotherhood. [Editor’s note: Canadian climbers Ian Welsed and Raphael Slawinski were named two of our own Adventurers of the Year for this climb. Read the story here.]

For what use is going to the mountains, into nature, if we do not return? The Piolet d’Or is about sharing our experiences as alpinists with a wider audience, trying to learn about the human experience through adventure. The era of the heroic warrior climber who climbs themselves literally to death in the high mountains is over. Lifetime Piolet d’Or winner John Roskelly put it right when he said that his greatest success was growing old with grey hair after a life in the mountains, not any of the climbs he completed. As climbers we need to approach nature sustainably. And being part of nature, we as humans have to treat ourselves in a sustainable manner, while at the same time recognizing and rewarding the most highly evolved of human achievement.