Three teams of climbers, including Americans Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, will be honored with a Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest award, during the ceremony that is scheduled to take place April 9 to 12 in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy.
“I’ve always joked that if I won a Piolet d’Or I’d retire from climbing,” said Honnold, the 29-year-old climber from Sacramento, California, who is most well known for his big-wall free-solo (climbing without a rope) endeavors in Yosemite. “I definitely never expected to do anything noteworthy in the mountains. I’m pretty psyched about it.”
While Honnold is considered one of the best rock climbers in the world, his skill set as an alpinist pales in comparison. “I still have never lead a pitch of ice,” Honnold admits. “Not much of an alpinist yet.” This detail likely makes Honnold the first person to receive a Piolet d’Or who has never led an ice climb before.
Honnold and Caldwell are being “recognized”—the jury that awards the Piolet d’Or prefers not to use the term “winners” so as not to imply that there are also “losers”—for their Fitz Traverse in Patagonia (which was also honored among our 2015 Adventurers of the Year). During a five-day continuous push, the two American rock climbers made a traverse of the entire Fitz Roy massif, a complex ridge line of seven jagged-tooth spires, including Fitz Roy (11,020 feet / 3,359 meters) the highest peak in the region.
Their success hinged on a particularly dry season in which they were able to do mostly rock climbing, an area in which both Caldwell and Honnold are masters. They also used a speed-climbing technique called simul-climbing, in which the two climbers are roped together and moving in sync with each other, but not stopping to belay.
“Our comfort simul-climbing 5.10 and harder terrain was definitely clutch on the Fitz traverse,” says Honnold. “And being able to climb 5.9 and 5.10 in approach shoes and gloves definitely helped as well. Alpinism seems to require a lot more than normal rock climbing, but in this particular case, rock climbing skills were more important than normal.” (See how free climbers care for their hands.)
Russians Alexander Gukov and Alexey Lonchinsky will be recognize for their alpine-style first ascent of the complex and dangerous southwest face of Thamserku (21,729 feet / 6,623 meters). Their route, which they dubbed “Shy Girl,” is steep (average 70 degrees), mixed (snow, ice, and rock) and long at 6,200 feet (1,900 meters)—requiring seven days of climbing before the duo reached the summit of the rarely climbed peak. (See our pick for the world’s most influential free climbs.)
Last but not least, a multi-generational team of Slovenian alpinists that includes past Piolet d’Or recipient Marko Prezelj, and the younger yet equally talented climbers Luka Lindic and Ales Cesen, will be recognized for their ascent of a steep ice climb on the north face of Hagshu (21,840 feet / 6,657 meters) in the Kishtwar region of India.
Now in its 23rd year, the Piolet d’Or has both evolved and been criticized over the years by members of the climbing world. The selection process hinges on a jury, which includes editors of the European climbing publications, to review all nominations for high-level achievements in the mountains that, in their minds, best embody the “passion, spirit, and values” of alpine climbing, according to the Piolet d’Or’s website.
This year the board reviewed 60 different ascents that took place in 2014 before deciding on these top three. In the past, climbers have criticized the Piolet d’Or jury, usually for awarding climbs that aren’t completed in pure alpine style. The most glaring example of this took place in 2005, when the jury awarded a Russian team a Piolet d’Or for their ascent of the north face of Jannu (25,295 feet / 7,710 meters), which they completed in expedition style and also abandoned hundreds of pounds of ropes and gear on the face.
Since then, the Piolet d’Or jury has tried to move away from loaded words such as “winner” and “award,” instead tried to make the ceremony simply a celebration of the past year of great climbing in the mountains. This is the first year that the Piolet d’Or “nominees” (i.e., winners) have been announced in advance of the ceremony.
Says Honnold: “Honestly, I’m just psyched to get an award. And I do think it’s appropriate to honor some climbs for pushing the sport in positive directions. Whether our ascent is deserving or not is open to debate, that’s fine. But people definitely climb inspiring things every year and I think it’s worth celebrating that in some way.”