Piolet d’Or Winners Announced

Four 2019 climbs were awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or earlier today. In addition, Catherine Destivelle will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The eight jurists, most of whom had won a Piolet d’Or themselves in the past for excellence in mountaineering, included Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Hélias Millerioux, Aleš Česen and Raphael Slawinski.

Recognizing exceptional climbs, the Piolet d’Ors have been given every year since 1992. It is unclear whether this tradition will be broken next year, since COVID-19 has crippled most expedition plans.

This year’s winners:

Chamlang (7,321m)

The UFO line on the northwest face of Chamlang, by Marek Holeček and Zdeněk Hák. The “H” denotes the high point of a 2019 attempt on the unclimbed north pillar. Photo: Andy Houseman


Since he first saw it in 2001, Marek Holeček had dreamed of climbing the great northwest face of Chamlang in Nepal’s Mahalangur Himal. Others had shared the same dream, and after more than half a dozen failed attempts, the face had become one of the most coveted in the country. When Holeček and Zdeněk Hák arrived in spring 2019, they saw that the face had little snow and a lot of hard water ice. Outflanking objective dangers in the lower section would prove to be one of the keys.

From a bivouac at 5,300m on the glacier below the face, the two Czechs headed up more or less directly below the summit. On the fourth day they reached the upper east ridge and bivouacked 80m below the top. On May 21 they crossed the summit and spent the rest of the day trying to navigate the Original Japanese route on the south ridge. This proved more difficult than expected. Two more bivouacs – without food – and difficult down-climbing and rappelling in often poor visibility were needed to reach the valley.

The route was named UFO Line as a tribute to Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott, who in 1981, with Sherpas Ang Dorje and Pasang, were the first to climb the north side of the Chamlang massif and reach one of the middle summits. There, they were puzzled by a box-like object that hovered above them, shining magnificently in the midday sun.

Tengi Ragi Tau (6,938m)

Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva, West Face of Tengi Ragi Tau. Photo: Tino Villanueva


In 2012, on their first expedition to the Himalaya, Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva made the first ascent of Langmoche Ri on the north ridge of Tengi Ragi Tau in Nepal’s Rolwaling Himal. Walking below the west face of Tengi Ragi Tau, they were mesmerized by its sheer magnitude and fine ice runnels through beautiful granite. They returned in 2014 to attempt a direct line, climbing to around 6,500m in less than ideal weather before retreating. Five years later, the face had begun to attract the attention of several strong parties.

After crossing the Tashi Laptsa pass and camping on the Drolambo Glacier, the two Americans climbed the initial dry-tooling pitches to access the snowy face, then made three bivouacs before reaching the summit. A tricky rappel descent was made down the line of ascent. With a multi-pitch ice crux high on the route, followed by steep flutings of unprotectable snow, this technical and elegant line on one of the most outstanding unclimbed faces of the Rolwaling was just reward for the perseverance of two experienced alpine guides. Their ascent was only the second of this difficult mountain and the first in alpine style.

Link Sar (7,041m)

First ascent, southeast face of Link Sar, by Mark Richey, Steve Swenson, Chris Wright and Graham Zimmerman. Photo: Matteo Della Bordella


Another much-coveted problem, this time in the eastern Pakistan Karakoram, Link Sar had seen at least eight attempts before 2019. But the difficulties are not just about climbing the peak: the Indo-Pakistan conflict has made this region an on-off affair (largely off) when it comes to obtaining a mountaineering permit.

Steve Swenson first attempted Link Sar in 2001 with a strong American team, and then again, after a number of failed permit attempts, in 2017 with Chris Wright and Graham Zimmerman. Having now discovered a feasible line of ascent, these three decided to reinforce the team in 2019 with the addition of Mark Richey.

Six days after setting out from Advanced Base, they reached the top. During that time, they had waited out a 36-hour storm. On the summit day, they recovered from a 35m leader fall because of an avalanche and overcame an ungradable final pitch of deep, steep and unstable snow. They then needed a little over two days to reverse the route.

Rakaposhi (7,788m)

Rakaposhi, south face and southeast ridge, by Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima. Photo: Kenro Nakajima


The Hunza region of the Pakistan Karakoram holds a number of impressive mountains that fall only a few hundred metres short of the 8,000m mark. One of the most outstanding is Rakaposhi, first climbed via the southwest ridge in 1958. The south side of the mountain, leading to the crest of the great southeast ridge, had been scouted in the past, but it remained untouched, because climbers were unable to find a feasible route. An ascent from this less visible side of the mountain would be highly exploratory.

From a 3,660m base camp at the snout of the glacier, and in generally unstable weather, Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima climbed the south face to 6,100m, both to acclimatize and confirm that their chosen line would go.

On their second outing, they took three days, strenuously climbing through often deep soft snow, to reach a camp at 6,800m on the southeast ridge, where they were forced to wait two days in bad weather. After this, they climbed to the summit and back in a single long day. On the following day they reversed their line of ascent all the way down to base camp.

Although the route does not feature the high technical difficulties of the three other awarded ascents, its huge length, and the commitment and style of Hiraide and Nakajima’s determined ascent on a rarely climbed mountain, earned them their Piolet d’Or.