Asian Piolets d’Or Awards Recognize Outstanding Alpine Athleticism

On November 4th, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) held the 11th annual Asia Piolets d’Or awards, commemorating outstanding achievements in rock climbing and mountaineering. Considered by many to be the Oscars of alpinism, the awards have motivated progression in Asian mountaineering culture over the last decade, contributing to an ethos of safety, respect and athleticism in alpine and glacial environments.

The awards honor athletes who employ lightweight, alpine-style tactics in their expeditions, rewarding a commitment to technical face climbing and positive environmental stewardship while in the mountains. These alpine style expeditions generally use less gear, leave less waste on the mountain and exemplify respect for the outdoors.

At this year’s event in Seoul, Korea, six winners of the Piolets d’Or Asia were announced (comprising two climbing teams) along with recipients of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award and the coveted Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement accolade.

In an interview with GlacierHub, American Alpine Club lifetime member Edward Rinkowski spoke to the prestige of the ceremony by stating, “Winning a Piolet d’Or is arguably the highest of achievements in climbing beyond one’s personal climbing goals. No one really sets out to win one, but if the academy recognizes you, it means you’re doing something right. ”

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View looking towards the south face on the Gangapurna Glacier (Source: Google Earth Commons).

Award recipients belonged to a pair of teams, one from South Korea and the other from Japan. Led by Chang-Ho Kim, the Korean team of three successfully established a new route on the south face of Mt. Gangapurna, a glaciated 7,455 meter (24,459 feet) peak in the west Nepalese Annapurna region. Gangapurna was first climbed by a German expedition in 1965. Since then, only eight teams have successfully reached its summit.

Kim, along with his climbing partners Suk-Mun Choi and Joung-Yong Park, ascended  Gangapurna’s south face via a new, technically demanding route full of glacial ice and loose rock. They managed to leave no trace of their climb, having recovered all of their gear and expedition waste from the mountain.

Rinkowski, who has climbed in this region, told GlacierHub, “The combination of technical climbing and high altitudes can be absolutely brutal. Hearing that the team recovered all of their gear is extremely impressive.” The expedition’s leader Kim is a laudable recipient of the Piolets d’Or award, having completed all 14 of the Himalayan Giants Earth’s peaks looming taller than 8,000 meters by 2016.

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An example of a hanging belay on a big wall, where no major ledge exists to rest upon (Source: Jimmy Chin).

The Japanese team that received the Piolets d’Or honor also consisted of three members: Koji Ito, Yusuke Sato and Kimihiro Miyagi. The group of athletes successfully climbed the Golden Pillar in the Tsurugidake Kurobe Valley, a 380m near vertical rock face in Japan. Their climb required a dangerous snow-covered bivouac (a temporary camp without tents) overnight, which subjected the team to hypothermia and frostbite. Additionally, the climb involved nine hanging belays, meaning that the team rarely had the opportunity to rest on ledges and solid ground after they set off from the ground.

The Kurobe Valley is considered by many alpinists to be more difficult than climbing Himalayan peaks of comparable prominence and is known for experiencing unpredictable, powerful winter storms. The team lived in the snowy region for 22 days, spending much of their time trapped in a tent awaiting a safe weather window to attempt the climb.

Having been on many alpine expeditions himself, Rinkowski talked to GlacierHub about the Japanese team’s climb. “Being stuck in such a desperate situation not only puts stress on the climbers physically, but even more so mentally,” he said. “Riding out such a long storm window can be demoralizing.”

Despite the adverse conditions and difficulty of the ascent, the three men reached the peak’s summit and returned home safely. Less than a dozen teams have successfully climbed the Golden Pillar, especially in the kind of weather conditions present during Koji Ito’s team’s attempt.

Winners of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award included Keita Kurakami, who free-climbed in traditional style the Senjitsu-no-ruri route on the Moai Face of Japan’s Mt. Mizugaki (without the use of bolts or pitons except at belay stations), and Han-na-rai Song, this year’s women’s ice climbing champion from the Rabenstein World Cup event. The golden shoe award is presented to athletes who have achieved exemplary success in the realm of competitive climbing and sport/trad climbing, recognizing great achievements outside of the Piolet d’Or’s alpine realm.  

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An ice climber works their way up the wall at a World Cup ice climbing event (Source: Max Res).

Capping off the evening at the ceremony was the second annual Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, which was gifted to 84-year-old Tamotsu Nakamura from Japan. Nakamura has participated in thirty-eight successful expeditions in southeast Tibet and China over the last twenty-five years. He has attained numerous first ascents in the glaciated Cordillera Blanca range of Peru. In addition to his climbing efforts, Nakamura has discovered, documented and mapped countless unclimbed peaks in some of the most isolated mountainous regions in the world. As a product of his climbs, maps and photographic stories, he has attained hero-status in Japan, where he motivates the nation’s youth to pursue their dreams no matter how big the mountain that lies ahead.  

On the evolving state of climbing and exploration as a whole, Nakamura stated, “Some convince themselves that veiled mountains in the greater ranges are an experience of the past, but Tibet has an incredibly vast and complex topography that holds countless unclimbed summits, and beckons a lifetime’s search.”

Although many of the world’s glacial and alpine realms have been explored in the last few decades, Nakamura reminds the youthful generation of climbers that “peaks are stunning and magnificent” and “many of them will remain enigmas for generations without the motivation to go forth and explore.” This ideology epitomizes the spirit of the Piolet d’Or awards in Asia, promoting exploration and ascent through the lens of positive environmental stewardship.

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