Sports | November 29, 2021 1:57 pm

Annual Mountaineering Award Criticized for Encouraging Risk

The Piolets d'Or have sparked some controversy recently

Piolet d'Or
South Korean mountaineers Ho Seok-mun, Kim Chang-ho and Park Joung-yong pose for pictures ahead of the awarding ceremony of the Piolets d'Or prize in Grenoble, eastern France, on November 8, 2017.
AFP via Getty Images

Nearly every discipline has an annual award, if not multiple awards, presented to those who excel at it. Are you a great soccer player? You just might win the Ballon d’Or one year. Did you write a compelling short story collection? If so, you might end up receiving the Story Prize. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that the world of mountaineering also has its own annual award — the Piolet d’Or, or Golden Ice Axe, which was first awarded in 1992.

The awards’ goal, as explained on their website, is “to raise awareness about the year’s greatest ascents across the world.” That, in and of itself, seems innocuous enough. But there’s also a problem with an award that inherently involves taking risks — a significant number of winners have gone on to die while climbing mountains.

That, in turn, has led some to critique the awards and wonder whether they do more harm than good. A new article by Michael Levy in The New York Times explores the growing controversy over the Piolets d’Or. It also includes an unsettling statistic: “at least seven” people who won the award since 2008 later died while climbing.

The organizers of the awards have pushed back against charges that they reward dangerous behavior. Award organizer Christian Trommsdorff told the Times that “[r]isk is not a factor in the selection process.”

Several recipients of the award, however, have expressed mixed emotions on winning it. The article cites Tom Livingstone in particular, who wrote about his conflicted emotions about being part of a team that completed one of the “Honoured ascents” for 2019.

“It provoked competitiveness, played on climber’s egos, and awarded very controversial ‘alpine style’ attempts (sometimes not even alpine style),” Livingstone wrote. “It now seems to be more of a celebration of climbing and meeting of friends, which I like… but why still the awards?”

Two years later, the questions he raised still resonate, with few easy answers.