What You Missed: Piolet d’Or Story Sparks Mountaineering Debate

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There’s a chicken-or-egg question at the heart of a recent story in The New York Times about mountaineering’s highest honor, the Piolet d’Or.

Does the annual award tempt climbers to take deadly risks in the high mountains? Or do mountaineers simply face life-or-death situations as they pursue the unclimbed or punishing routes that Piolet d’Or judges tend to honor?

The Times contacted some of the biggest names in mountaineering for their perspectives, among them Frenchman Symon Welfringer, Argentine Rolando Garibotti, and even the sport’s elder statesman Reinhold Messner, who accepted the Piolet d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2010.

“I was always against the idea that traditional climbing is a competition,” Messner told The Times. “Generally I am not for medals at all. The lifetime award—it’s about respect.”

This story lacks a conclusive answer to its existential question, with interviewees presenting opinions on both sides of the divide. Garibotti, who declined his nomination for the award in 2006 and 2009, believes the awards at the very least reinforce a culture of extreme risk taking. Scottish climber Uisdean Hawthorn, meanwhile, thinks few mountaineers are actually motivated by the awards, likening the Piolet d’Or to a Nobel Prize granted to a scientist for a breakthrough in a niche field of study.

“They’re not like, ‘If I do this, I’ll get a Nobel Prize,’” Hawthorn said.

The story has sparked a debate online within the mountaineering community, with climbers and fans taking to social media, forums, and even the story’s comments section to voice their opinions.


“People were making, and dying on extreme ascents long before the Piolet d’Or, but I agree with the general sentiment, that climbing and awards are odd bedfellows,” wrote one commenter on the Times’ website.

“Dying doing what you love is overrated,” wrote another. “I’ve lost 34 friends and relatives that way. Who loves having his neck broken, head smashed in, or lungs full of snow? The companies that sponsor these athletes aren’t paying them to top-rope at the gym.”

Mountaineering rewards those who are comfortable with risk, and the world’s top climbers share a desire to push themselves in environments that most people would never choose to explore. There are a growing number of external forces that also push climbers to tackle bigger and bolder routes, such as sponsorship obligations and media opportunities. It’s no secret that major expeditions these days become Netflix specials, feature documentaries, or branded films for major outdoor companies.

Whether a Netflix documentary or a branded film can motivate a mountaineer to a greater degree than either the Piolet d’Or or his or her own internal drive, however, is a question for an altogether different story.

Canyoneering Death in Zion National Park

Andrew Arvig of Chesapeake, Virginia, died over the weekend while canyoneering with two others in Heaps Canyon, a section of pools and cliffs approximately four miles from the park’s main entrance. On Sunday rangers responding to an SOS call located the trio stranded above Emerald Pools. Two climbers were perched on a cliff, while Arvig hung from a rope about 260 feet above the ground.

Crews lowered Arvig, and a doctor later pronounced him dead. Officials with the National Park Service are investigating the cause of his death.

According to a press release, the trio had set out Saturday morning to rappel from a series of cliffs overlooking the Emerald Pools section of the park. They encountered problems near the canyon’s exit when Arvig overshot a small rock ledge, where he needed to re-anchor his rope for the final rappel to the ground. The other two climbers were able to reach the ledge and called for help, but poor reception delayed their connection to search and rescue. By the time rescue crews reached them on Sunday morning, Arvig was dead.

Heaps Canyon is known to be one of the more dangerous sections of the park, and in 2015 a man died after falling 100 feet through the slot canyon.

The incident is the latest in what has been the busiest year on record for the park’s search-and-rescue crews. By early October, crews had recorded more than 160 operations—five involving fatalities—well above the annual average of 110.

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