Piolets d’Or 2021: mountaineering under the sign of adaptation and creativity

After a year 2020 marked by lockdown and closure of borders, we awaited the Piolets d’Or 2021 prize list with impatience mixed with curiosity. The result? A heterogeneous list of achievements, witnessing the tribulations of the last season of high level mountaineering. The winners are the young French team Fine-Welfringer for their ascent of Sanu-Pakush (Pakistan), the Anglo-Saxons Berman (USA) and Hawthorn (GB) for their new line on Mount Robson (Canada) and a special mention for Silvia Vidal (ES), a relentless solo climber who has been discreet for the past twenty years. A surprising 2021 vintage that reminds us in its own way of the mountaineers’ capacity to adapt. Celebration planned in Briançon (french Alps) from November 26 to 29, 2021.

Like every year, we wondered which ascents would be highlighted thanks to the Piolets d’Or. The climbs yes, not their authors since the Piolets d’Or celebrate not the climbers themselves, but their climbs, for the spirit and the alpine style they convey. This year, the jury was made up of a panel of international mountaineers of all generations: Victor Saunders (UK), Valery Babanov (RU), Ines Papert (GE), Kelly Cordes (US) and Hélias Millerioux (FR). And for their 30th anniversary, “these Piolets d’Or are a special vintage!” confirms Christian Trommsdorf, president of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (GHM), organizer of the event. After three editions celebrated in Ladek, Poland, it is in Briançon that the Piolets d’Or will take place at the end of November.

the climbers had to be reactive

Exploring at a time of pandemic

Not easy to climb far in 2020. Between confinements and border closures, one had to be clever to find a large-scale project. As these take place mostly on the high peaks of the Himalayas or the Karakoram, the climbers had to be reactive. After the sudden closure of the Nepalese borders, and thus the access to the Himalayan peaks, Pakistan became for a short period the land of big projects.

Symon Welfrynger and Pierrick Fine were not mistaken. Their project of Sani Pakush (6952m) in Pakistan was decided in less than 15 days. Their ascent was made on a huge and unknown south face, the summit having been climbed only once by its northwest ridge by a German team in 1991. For the details, read the story by Symon and Pierrick themselves on Alpine Mag.

Revers Gagnant (2500 m, ED+ / 90° / M4+ / WI4+) climbed from october 16th to 20th 2020 by Pierrick Fine and Symon Welfrynger. ©Welfrynger

Domestic mountaineering

The great “domestic” mountaineering is also rediscovered. A rare thing at the Piolets d’Or: an ascent of a peak of “only” 3954m, Mount Robson (Canada), was awarded a prize. A major departure from the commitment associated with high-altitude expeditions on remote summits, this award rewards the creativity of Ethan Berman (USA) and Uisdean Hawthorn (UK) in finding a line of magnitude and logic in Emperor Face, which has already been scratched from five routes. But the rare ascents of this face make it a great goal in its own right. Judge for yourself: 20km of approach walk (and return), 1800m of face, 3 bivouacs. And, more surprisingly, without having to use a helicopter for the approach or the descent, which had not happened for 40 years on this side of the Robson. The Anglo-Saxon team opens Running with the shadows (2300m, US VI, M6 1I5 A0).

Running with the shadows (2300m, US VI, M6 1I5 A0) by Ethan Berman and Uisdean Hawthorn. ©Berman

In the “Big List” which lists the significant ascents of the year, Piolets d’Or experts Lindsay Griffin (American Alpine Journal), Dougal MacDonald (American Alpine Journal) and Rodolphe Popier (Himalayan Database) have pointed out other teams playing at home and opening up lines that are nonetheless significant through this domestic alpinism.

Let’s mention the ascent of the southwest spur of Pik Mechta (2590m) in the southern Muyksy range, in Siberia (Russia) by a Russian team, a new route in the Tian Shan (Kazakhstan) on the west face of Pik Trud (4636m) by two Kazakhs the Daddomain West (6296m) in the Minya Konka range (China) climbed by a Chinese climber or the North-West face of Ushba Sud (Georgia) climbed by a very talented Georgian climber that we follow with attention at Alpine Mag: Archil Badriashvili.

Finally, we can note the beautiful ascent on the north face of Epéna (French Alps) by Manu Pélissier, Jessy Pivier and Luc Mongellaz, told on Alpine Mag (in french)


Selfie of Silvia Vidal. ©Vidal

Special mention for authenticity

This year the Piolets d’Or jury is showing its attachment to a form of discretion and authenticity; mixed with determination.

By awarding a special mention to Silvia Vidal, 20 years of solo climbing in big walls over the world, with a stackhanovist purity, are highlighted. The Spaniard is indeed experienced in terribly long approaches to remote summits. She doesn’t hesitate to spend weeks on these routes, before launching herself into solo climbs that would repel the average climber. She is also capable of spending two weeks fixing the base of a wall as in Chile, in Serrinia Avalancha (2012). She then spends 32 days alone on the wall! At Shipton Spire, she climbs alone for 21 days (Life is Lilac, 870m, 6a, A4+, 2007, Pakistan). In India, she climbs 25 days alone in Nafragi (1050m, 6a+, A4+, Raldang massif, 2010).

More recently, in 2020, she spends 16 days in Chile, dropping gear and fixing the first 180 meters of Sincronia Magica (1180m, 6a+, A3+, El Chileno Grande range), before climbing, again alone, for 33 days…

Silvia Vidal is a monster of abnegation and determination. She is also a unique look at mountaineering and solo climbing.

These Piolets d’Or 2021 are exciting because they highlight once again a particular form of mountaineering in particular and exploration in general. But also because it shows how much this mountaineering remains alive in times of crisis, which bodes well for the future.