The 19e Piolets d’Or happened this weekend and if you’re the kind of person who likes to hear stories of the triumph of the human spirit over impossible odds, all from the comfort of a well-appointed, air-conditioned ballroom then Chamonix was the place to be. This year’s Piolets d’Or went to…
Katsutaka Yokoyama and Yasushi Okada for their route on the southeast face of Mount Logan called I-TO (ED+, WI5, M6, 2500m)
Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Ben Ditto and Captain Bob Shepton for nine new big wall routes in Greenland’s south coast including Devil’s Brew (7c, 850m).
Fine job gentlemen. Full respect for all the imagination, creativity, persistence, strength, courage, luck and grit this hard-earned award represents. How the highly-qualified jury was able to select just two teams to receive Piolets d’Or from the group of six extraordinary nominees I’ll never know. But then again I guess that’s just one of the many reasons I wasn’t invited to be on the jury. But don’t think for a minute that’s going to stop me from presenting my own darn awards…
Thanks, But No Thanks award
Mt. Edgar, east face, The Rose of No Man’s Land (WI5, M6, 1100m) – What makes two seemingly clear-thinking individuals like Kyle Dempster and Bruce Normand want to march into the shooting gallery that killed Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson just two years earlier and think they can come back alive? Whatever it is, they were right. The two completed their route, the first on the east face of China’s Mount Edgar, in eight days and returned home with all the body parts they walked in with. Amazing, considering the objective dangers these two faced just getting on and off the climb. When one jury member asked if he would ever consider repeating the route, Dempster’s face dropped into an astonished look that clearly read, ‘Have you not been listening to everything we just said?’ but left it with a simple, “Um, no.”
Kyle Dempster: As we were descending on Day 7, having already dealt with so much objective danger throughout the climb, we got lost and stumbled out the wrong gully and just started walking out this disgusting, heavily-broken glacier with tons of crevasses everywhere. And as we got further and further down it started getting warmer and warmer and wetter and wetter, foggy and cloudy, rain or snow or both. And there was just instability everywhere, steep granite walls all around us, rock slides, threat everywhere whether it was snow avalanche, rock slide or falling in a crevasse. The anchors for rappels got shittier and more difficult to find and we’re like V-threading off a serac and when you’re that tired you sort of become … less caring. Just kind of over the danger and unable to really engage anymore.
Bruce Normand: For me, the biggest question mark was on Day 5, that day where we were heading up on the last of the technical climbing and the ice was becoming more and more broken. I was spending more time looking down the mountain at all this horrible stuff we had just come up – a few hundred meters down the really technical stuff, a few hundred meters down the low angle ice, and another few thousand meters down the serac drainage gully and out the stream beds that spit rocks at you – and thinking how going back down didn’t seem terribly appealing. Kyle was on the lead and the ice was getting more broken and he had to spend more time cleaning it off and dry tooling the rock beneath. And it was starting to look like we might not find a line at all and that we would have to run the same gauntlet that we’d had to pass to get in. For me, that was the day that was mentally the most difficult, not sure whether we would make it or not.
The day that got Kyle’s goat was Day 7, going down through the broken glacier, when we ended up at 4300 meters, stuck on a ledge with no obvious thread. The ropes were icing and I was starting to clean them while Kyle was scouting for places to abseil off and all you could see were these slabs going down into the mist and slabs going up into the mist and we didn’t know what was about to fall on us. We had a little snow ledge that was covered in crap and he set up another sling, pulled on it, and it blew so it was like ‘OK, we’re not going any further tonight.’
Mt. Foraker, southeast face, Dracula (M6 R, AI4+, A0, 3200m) – After a long spell of bad weather, Colin Haley and Bjørn-Eivind Årtun left their base camp and headed up the 3200m southeast face of Mt Foraker … without bivvy gear. Their 71-hour push resulted in Dracula (M6, AI4+, A0, 3200m).
Bjorn-Eivind: “There were two critical moments. One was when we had to decide whether to go or not because it was a short weather window: one-and-a-half days. We could have easily decided not to go but we’d had bad weather for 30 days and we were hungry. We’d also already decided to do it in a single push and counting the hours, and based on our experience on Hunter the year before, I knew we could do it.
The second critical moment came on the descent after we summitted and descended the East Ridge. We’d been moving 35 or 36 hours when we took shelter in a crevasse to eat and brew up. After an hour, we emerged from the crevasse into a full-on blizzard. We had expected it to descend upon us slowly but it was like, bam! There was no visibility, we had problems standing up and I almost walked off a big cornice. So this is a really remote area, it’s far from base camp, we had no food, we had no sleeping bags, but the weather was just crazy. We weren’t going anywhere. So we decided to dig in and wait. But we had no bivvy gear, we had half a canister of gas, some nuts, no sleeping pad, no sleeping bag. And this is kind of … we had a sense of humor about it, not feeling very stressed but we had this sense of standing on the brink of the possibility that we would either stay here for a long time with no bivvy gear or have an incredible fight to get down. So … phew … So that’s what we did, always moving in and out to check for a clearing, we just needed a little bit of visibility to find our way down an alternate route. I wasn’t directly scared but for me it was the closest I’ve ever come to thinking this was maybe a little out of control. But we never panicked and that’s important because if you’re calm then you’re in control of the situation. The critical moment comes when you realize there is the possibility of real suffering or freezing to death if the storm lasts. But this option is always there on big climbs. In the end we made it down and it didn’t result in any big epic for us – especially compared to what Doug Scott [this year’s Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award winner] went through, breaking both legs and taking eight days to crawl down The Ogre – I mean, pffft, this is nothing.”
Mt Logan, southeast face, I-TO (ED+, WI5, M6, 2500m) – To put Katsutaka Yokoyama and Yasushi Okada‘s new route on Mount Logan into perspective, try to wrap your head around the fact that their acclimatization climb alone was 60 frikkin kilometers long. Yep, you read it right, that was the warmup. So with that in mind, try to envision a point in the middle of this massive, remote face, two totally exhausted climbers, weather threatening and unknown terrain ahead…
Katsutaka Yokoyama: “From base camp we had been moving for four days. The sky was perfectly blue but we were worried that it would be getting worse very soon. So we had a long discussion about whether we should go up or down. We didn’t have any idea what was above us and because we had been climbing for so long we were super exhausted by that time – we hadn’t been able to sleep at all and we’d eaten very little. So probably the reason we were so nervous and so afraid and had such hesitation is because we were so exhausted. If the weather got bad there was the strong possibility we would really suffer. Yasushi thought for a bit, then shouted at me, “We’re going!”
ChamonixInsider: “What’s next for you guys?” Katsutaka: “Cigarette.”
Gotta love the Giri-Giri boys.
You Really Shoulda Been There award
Vasuki Parbat, west face (M6, 1600m) – While the Piolets d’Or tends to be dominated by professional climbers who have the luxury of climbing full-time throughout the year, working stiffs Malcolm Bass’s (a clinical psychologist) and Paul Figg‘s (an arborist) gorgeous new route on the west face of Vasuki Parbat (M6, 1600m) was accomplished in the kind of perfect weather conditions that all Brits hope for when they leave on their summer holiday. The pair’s unabashedly enthusiastic description of the route and typical British downplaying of the sustained mixed difficulties made me wish I’d been along for the ride on this one although the reality is that I probably would have been left at the bottom of the route crying for mama.
Malcolm Bass: “The critical moment for me was when we saw the route, thought about it for a little while – it had been failed on by two really, really good British alpinists – and I made the decision that we were gong to climb it. Once I made that decision I trained really hard for it and I was absolutely, bloody determined that we were going to do it if we got the weather for it. I’ve not felt that way about every other climb that I’ve done in my life, I’ve never had that absolute sense of certain determination that it was going to get done.”
Lunag I, Southeast Face, Close the Door (IV/5, 5, 1200m) – All I can say is that it’s a bittersweet tribute to a team when their fantastic effort on a big peak in Nepal is recognized by the international climbing community but one of the teammates is not there to receive it. Max Belleville, Mathieu Détrie, Mathieu Maynadier and Sébastien Ratel climbed a beautiful, all-time route in great style. Although Max died tragically in an accident on the Vallée Blanche this spring, Mathieu, Mathieu and Sébastien represented their team with strength and grace.
Mathieu Détrie: It’s a good moment. It’s interesting to meet the other teams and other people. It’s good for promoting alpinism in general. It’s great.
Sébastien Ratel: I think the most important thing is that we can talk about modern alpinism, with fresh ideas and good feeling. That’s more important than the award.
Initially, the Te Crew was started by five local boys from Chamonix. But now they have opened it to other guys who have the same spirit. It’s good, because we are young and we can all share expensive equipment like the phone, the portaledge, and the bags.
The Climb That Looked Like One Helluva a Good Time award
Greenland big walls – Nicolas and Olivier Favresse, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll and Ben Ditto are four of the nicest, most fun-loving guys you’ll ever meet. Throw them in a 10-meter sailboat captained by an animated 75-year-old Scottish priest, point the boat in the direction of an amazing passage from the west to the south coast of Greenland, bring musical instruments up the wall for late afternoon jam sessions, tack on a post-climb trans-Atlantic crossing for good measure and this adventure almost looked like too much fun to be considered alpinism. And it should be noted that as juror Simon Anthamatten pointed out, if the Favresse brothers rate a pitch 7c you best be prepared for 8a.
Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll: “It feels great, we just can’t believe it really. Obviously, we don’t do these climbs for this kind of reward or anything, the best prize is obviously the climb. But it’s a big surprise for us and it definitely feels nice for us to get the recognition. It’s also kind of like a message for the future of climbing and alpinism in general about how the style will be in the future. All the teams that were nominated here used really nice style on really nice ascents and it’s great to see that the values promoted in this event – like team spirit, respect for the mountain, and clean, alpine [style] pushes – are really good values. Another thing is the communication and recognition that we can share with the general public about what we do. Because we don’t climb 8000-meter peaks the big media doesn’t know what we’re doing, but a prize like this helps bring attention to it.
Ben Ditto: It shows the fun side of it. [Climbing] is not just about the suffering and the manliness. [For us] it’s more like going out and having a good time and seeing what happens.
Mission accomplished, gentlemen.
Long Overdue Award
Sir Chris Bonington presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to Doug Scott. ‘Nuf said.