What is the best ascent? What is the best form of mountaineering? If this were the only thing worth searching for in an award such as the Piolet d'Or then it would certainly be impossible to go any further than the mere results list. Or rather, it would be impossible to avoid the sinking sands of controversy that, punctually, accompany this Oscar-style award, above all when the award itself is interpreted as an absolute judgment. And if, as was the case this year, the candidates belong to categories so diverse as to almost seem incompatible, then the one-way street of "opposing views" could seem even more inevitable. But, thinking about it, what marked the Piolet d'Or 2004 most of all was exactly this diversity. Because it doesn't take much to understand that the style of ascent chosen by the Russian team climbing Jannu, and awarded the Piolet d'Or as best mountaineering achievement of the year, is poles apart from the solitary ascent of Steve House on K7, voted "best" by the numerous spectators gathered together on Friday evening at Grenoble.
And so the question arises spontaneously: who is right? Who has made the correct decision? The enthusiastic crowd or the jury, presided by none other that Krzysztof Wielicki, a man and mountaineer of utmost quality and competence? On the one side of this game of opposing poles lies the Russian team, with its true mountain assault. A "heavy" 50 day attack, launched by 10 mountaineers commanded by a "deux ex machina" expedition leader, on a wall where a redefinition of the word impossible seems not too far fetched. On the other side lies Steve House and his "light" solitary ascent (his rucksack weighed a mere 4kg) on the beautiful, complicated, remote and difficult wall. A trip - not merely in the sense of a journey - which the young American attempted 4 times, like an acrobat without a safety net, exploring the thin tightrope above an incredible void, fraught with technical and psychological difficulties.
You'll certainly agree that there is nothing more different than these two approaches to climbing a mountain. Just as you'll almost certainly agree that both experiences represent, in their own way, the best there can be. The wall the Russians climbed had resisted 35 attempts from the the best mountaineers in the world, prior to their appearance under the motto: an assault, fixed ropes and a total sacrifice of individuality as the only means by which this impossible objective could be climbed. And K7, prior to Steve House's 40 hour push, had seen off an attempt by a large Japanese expedition which had employed hundreds of meters of fixed rope.
It seems logical therefore that this wasn't an easy choice to make, and the Jury needed many hours to decide. And it seems logical that the spectators made a different decision, motivated strongly by their emotions. But there were many other possible and plausible candidates to choose from, because House and the Russian team were not the only strong contenders for this Piolet d'Or. Never before were the nominations so important. And this became increasingly obvious as the images flickered across the screen, as each of the six candidates presented themselves for the golden ice axe. All diverse, all particular, all which, in their own peculiar way, left a mark, a stimulus and way of carrying out (and dreaming) of mountaineering.
What certainly left a mark was the long journey undertaken by volcanic Thomaz Humar and young Ales Kozelj, who for six days climbed alone on the immense and difficult south face of Aconcagua: a gamble for specialists at climbing friable rock and loose ice, something you wouldn't recommend to even your worst enemy. Another great, impressive climb was the beautiful ascent of the iced wall on Moose's Tooth by the American duo Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore. Their ascent is the success of two (incredibly strong) mountaineers who have climbed together for ages and will continue to do so in the future, who work as a complete team, sharing the weight of difficulties. Put in other words, this is the success of the purest form of partnership, the one that all mountaineers aspire to but almost never achieve.
An opposite success is the one obtained by JC Lafaille, who climbed the great 8000m south face of Shisha Pangma, demonstrating once again his worth, speed and the lightness of his style. At Grenoble the French mountaineer once again confirmed his conviction that this is the first winter ascent of the mountain. But this neither adds nor subtracts anything: despite the fact that we remain convinced that mountaineering convention (i.e. calendar) has always determined the start of winter as being 21 December (Lafaille reached the summit on 11 December), we consider his ascent by no means inferior, in any way whatsoever.
As is by no means inferior that of Elio Orlandi, Fava and Horacio on Fitz Roy. Their intensely emotional ascent emerged overbearingly on stage in Grenoble, and these emotions helped overcome even the difficulties of this severe route up a wall and mountain considered one of the symbols of mountaineering. This radiant and palpable success represents, for the old-hand Orlandi, one of his many beautiful ascents at the end of the world, while for his two companions it signifies the coronation of an impossible dream. A dream which left speechless even Cesarino Fava, the father of Luca and, incidentally, one of the pioneers of Patagonian mountaineering. Theirs was a dream but above all a joy rendered real by that splendid symbiosis between the rock and what then three managed to live, and transmit, onto the stage of the Piolet d'Or.
By now you'll have gathered that it was truly difficult to decide in Grenoble. Just like, to return to the rhetoric starting question, it is always difficult to decide the best route, style and form of mountaineering. Especially when the feats are as impressive as the ones presented here in Grenoble. Perhaps it's almost impossible, there are simply too many variable to bear in mind. It is because of this that the award should not be viewed as something absolute, but rather it should be exploited for what it is: a unique occasion to analyse the different ways and realities (and cultures) of worldwide mountaineering. And what is more... I wouldn't be surprised if the best form of mountaineering is exactly that one that respects all forms of mountaineering, in alll its differing, possible formats! Talking of which , my vote for the spectators Piolet went to Fitz Roy: I dream of that unmissable and at the same time impossible mountaineering, comprised of great joy and emotions. And when I see it (even on a stage) I don't let it escape my grasp.
Whilst we're waiting for the interviews with the protagonists, all that is left is to wish you some great mountaineering!
Photos: photo 1, Alexander Odintsov expedition leader of the Russian team. Photo 2, all Piolet d'Or 2004 candidates. Photo 3, from left: Odintsov, House, Lafaille, Mahoney, Gilmore. Photo 4, from: Kozelj, Humar, Codo, Fava, Orlandi.