Not all is gold that glitters? Kairn's interview with Montagne about the future of Piolet d'Or

Posted: Oct 30, 2007 03:44 pm EDT

( "Climbing competition debates took place already before WWII," Artur Hajzer told ExplorersWeb. "Later, when Messner refused to collect his Olympic medal, it all started over again."

Judging climbs should be easy. Climbers do it all the time, when evaluating their next projects. There are very simple facts to ponder: The altitude, the steepness, the weather, the topo, previous attempts and so on. Climbing is not rocket science and neither are climbing awards; that is until they become manipulative and political.

For Piolet d'Or, the situation has gone beyond competition scuffle. Justice, money and power are on trial; rather than alpinism. Even if things have always been a certain way, with time, people come to realize that the world is not flat - no matter what the Pope says. The question now is if the golden ice axe will manage to mend its bad rep.

"We live in an era when 'truth' is very virtual"

Following the Piolet d'Or uproar, nominees refused selection and the GHM - in charge of the moral caution - abandoned the award. But it was this yearâs winner, Slovenian Marko Prezelj, who delivered the biggest surprise.

Calling the award 'prostituted', Marko wrote in an online open letter: "Media is being manipulated by the climbers. They should be skeptical, ask questions and try to avoid sensationalism by exaggerating or hiding facts fed to them by the alpinists. I know that this is not simple. We live in an era when 'truth' is very virtual."

An uneven battle

It's an uneven battle though, and it's getting worse. American Conrad Anker issued a press release which stated that he was the first to free climb Everest second step; although he knew that at least Oscar Cadiach had done it before him. Mysteriously, the insignificant event hit world headlines and last week, a film made about Anker was awarded at the Taos Mountain Film Festival.

Recently it was revealed that British Bear Grylls consistently lied in his reality TV show. This month, Grylls is featured on the cover of Outside magazine - and is also back at the Discovery Channel.

A second edition of the 'Everest Beyond the Limit' series is airing; again trumpeting a commercial outfit and insignificant climbers as world's best, and - worse - with the leader accused by his guides to order them to leave a dying mountaineer behind and, according to other climbers a few months later, to hush witnesses to murder.

Not about achievements

"How can they do that?" an American climber asked ExplorersWeb after reading about the new Discovery show.

We live in an era when 'truth' is very virtual, Marko correctly noted. Outdoor media is tightly inter-connected today; the film festivals, the magazines, the book publishers and the film makers all enjoy the same sponsors/advertisers, and feature the same athletes.

It's not about achievements - Grylls, Anker and the climbers in the Everest series are only a few among the thousand names who have scaled Everest normal routes in guided outfits climbing on supplementary oxygen.

It's about characters and stories that sell. "Spin used to be a bad word," a tired-looking journalist said in a documentary about today's media. "Now we study it," he continued, "people will high-five each other at a good spin."

A Golden ice axe award fits nicely into the picture; easy to grasp at a glance and judged by acclaimed French mountaineering authorities with fuzzy rules. "It's not personal; it's only business," the Godfather would probably answer our American friend.

The French Revolution

Ugly politics involving explorers are not new. Marco Polo was jailed, Columbus lost cred to Americano, and Amundsenâs speech assignments in US were cancelled when he spoke in favor of Cook vs. National Geographic's favorite Peary.

But hundreds - even thousands - of years are no guarantee for the survival of of imperialist behaviour, history tells us. Not even on the small scale of mountaineering awards.

Co-founder Groupe d'Haute Montagne (French High Mountain Group), who had represented the Golden ice axe body of reference and moral caution, left the award shortly before the latest edition was held. "The Piolet d'Or is dying," they said. "Financial interests have too much influence."

Editor in chief: "The Piolet dâOr leans entirely on the financial support of Montagne Magazine

New climbs popping up as potential candidates, and GHM calling for a new award - the question now is how the Golden ice axe is set up these days in terms of criteria, jury, and candidates. In July, Kairn.comâs Cedric Larcher went to Montagne Magazineâs editor in chief Philippe Descamps to ask about the past and the future of the magazine's abandoned prize. Here goes the first of the 2-part interview:

Kairn: Could you explain the reasons for the split between Montagne Magazine and the GHM (High Mountaineering Group) as partners on the Piolet dâOr award?

Philippe: "I am not sure âsplitâ is the right word â I would prefer ârun away.â GHMâs directive committee was incapable of making a list of activities or naming someone as president of the jury. We had to do everything by ourselves. However, the committee still had full vote in choosing the nominees. In that sense, there was never a fundamental disagreement."

"I am not talking about the beginning, which I donât know. But since 2000 the Piolet dâOr leaned entirely on the energy and financial support of Montagne Magazine and *Editions Niveales."

Kairn: Donât you think the GHM provided an historic and structural factor of vital importance for the Piolet dâOrâs credibility?

Philippe: "The GMH is a noble institution we respect, and among whose members we have many friends. On the other hand, in recent years the directive committee has lost touch with reality."

"It has proven incapable of noticing and assuming the evolution of high level climbing. In contrast with GHMâs lack of skills, Montagne Magazine has made the award evolve, especially by internationalizing the jury, in order to:

- Avoid any âchauvinisticâ decision.
- Not to let the best activities go unnoticed.
- To promote alpine style and expeditions with the least possible support.
- Not to promote taking unnecessary risk.

Piolet dâOrâs credibility lays on the quality and composition of the jury, not the presence of the GHM. Some foreigners even told us that the GHMâs departure was good news since the prize wouldnât risk being too 'French-oriented'."

"The GHM barely displays any dominance in activities nowadays, and itâs virtually unknown by the public, who tends to mistake this entity with some other French mountaineering associations."

"We have no opinion on GHMâs departure. They can come back when they wish. It was the directive committee members who put themselves in a position of ridicule by throwing us an ultimatum. They threatened us with quitting the award committee if we didnât include a sixth nominee to the award."

"I told them they had already agreed on the selection of five final candidates and, if they had found a better climb, we still had time to fix the error. The two members of the committee present at the moment had no climb to propose as a new candidate."

"Then I said the problem there was just to satisfy the committee membersâ ego, not to add a sixth team to the list. From that moment, the committeeâs director started having a negative attitude toward the Piolet dâOr, as he had never displayed in a positive way in previous years."

"The lies launched by GHMâs directive committee spread through the internet without verification, or a right to reply. What I say may seem senseless: Everyone can make mistakes or pass through unproductive periods. But by proving that GHMâs director is at the very least "away" from whatâs being done today, I got at the soul of the entity, since they are considered experts. I donât discuss that characteristic; I just say they didnât do the (small) work they were meant to do."

Kairn: Garibotti and team refusing to be nominated, Prezelj refusing the prize, the annulated nomination of the Ukrainian team What are your reflections on these subjects? Is perhaps the Piolet dâOr a catalyzer for these kind of problems? Is it a reflection of todayâs climbersâ hypocrisy?

Philippe: "Here starts the real debate. Garibotti and Prezeljâs positions are much more interesting than the GHMâs outbursts. We want the climbing community to make the Piolet dâOr theirs. We ask for debates and critics."

"Let me remind you that Markoâs famous text was written at my request (by the way, he didnât actually reject the award, which is in Slovenia today, while he took advantage of this tribune to cry against competition in alpinism) and I requested him to write down his allegations in order to publish them in OUR magazine."

"At the same time, he published the text through the internet. We are staying away from Markoâs fears and comments done by other climbers such as Steve House or Ian Parnell (you know what I mean) We never wanted to set up a competition. We think that, most of all, the Piolet dâOr is there to testify the values and vitality of alpinism in front of a larger audience."

"The winner must be a spokesman, not a champion of the world. I do not think that the Piolet dâOr is a catalyst of this kind of problem. On the contrary, it made it possible to avoid the construction of media hierarchies such as those ruling during the â80s and which led to some deadly attempts on the mountain."

"As for Jean-Claude Marmier, whose 'big mouth' is well-known, I find it incredible that you could publish his statements without any proper fact checking. Virtually none of the facts mentioned correspond to reality..."

(Kairnâs editor note: doesnât change the statements contained in an interview, out of ethics and respect for the person interviewed. There is a difference between an article, which is the editorâs responsibility, and an interview which is a literal transcription of the statements done by the person asked.)

Part 2 - Piolet d'Or final: "Slava je kurba"

*Editions Niveales is a French press editor for mountain magazines such as Montagne Magazine, Vertical, Grimper, Trekmag, Snowsurf and others. Editions Niveales was partner with the GHM for organizing the Piolet d'Or. GHM was in charge of the moral caution, and part of the jury. Editions Niveales was in charge of organizing and mediatisation of the event. press agency is specialized in mountain outdoor sports. Created 6 years ago, today is a leading online mountaineering and climbing news source in France, and an international reference. Co-founder Cedric Larcher is an alpinist and a journalist.

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The stylish climbing award "Piolet d'Or" is held each year in Asia as well as Europe.

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