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The 2012 Piolet d’Or: The Envelope Please…

Posted on: April 19th, 2012 by Pete Takeda

It’s a gross understatement to say that the AAC was well represented at the 20th annual Piolets d’Or. For those of you living who’ve been under a rock, AAC President Steve Swenson, Past President Mark Richey, and member Freddie Wilkinson won the international climbing award on March 24th for their ascent of what was the second highest, unclimbed mountain in the world—Saser Kangri II.

Also in the Piolet finalist lineup were past Board Member Conrad Anker and AAC members Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk for their ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Meru Central.

Courmayeur and Chamonix annually bathe in an Oscar-like Piolet buzz and this year was no exception. Six climbs by Norwegians, Slovenians, Kazakhs, and Americans were represented. The annual mountaineering award has been presented by the magazine Montagnes and The Groupe de Haute Montagne since 1991. The purpose of the Piolets d’Or awards is, “to raise awareness about the year’s greatest ascents across the world.” It’s the closest thing to an Academy Award in the climbing world, intended to, “celebrate the taste for adventure, the bravery and sense of exploration that lie behind the art of climbing in the world’s great mountain ranges.”


The 2012 jury—headed by American climbing legend Michael Kennedy—awarded the Piolet for two ascents this year, “not in a spirit of competition but to encourage a sense of shared purpose and common values among the climbing community world wide.”

Sharing the platform with the Saser Kangri team were the young Slovenians Nejc Marcic and Luka Strazar, for their three-day alpine style ascent of the previously unclimbed north-west face of K7. 

We caught up with American Alpine Club President—and now Piolet d’Or Winner —Steve Swenson for a few questions:

Pete Takeda: To quote the award statement, “(Saser Kangri II is) another example of exploration and committed alpine style at high altitude.” Can you tell us anything else about the climb?

Steve Swenson: “Our success came after two expeditions with the seed of the idea planted way back in 2001. It took two expeditions to recon and figure out how to get to the base of the mountain, much less climb it. As Freddie said, ‘It’s a political wilderness,’ and there were times when we felt like modern day Shipton’s exploring one of the last blanks-on-a-map. In that way, it was very satisfying.”

Pete Takeda: Tell us about the Award event?

Steve Swenson: “I just got back a week ago. It’s a big event with big sponsors including the towns of Courmayeur and Chamonix. It’s great—the suspense was high through the opening, the events leading up to the final ceremony, all the way through the opening of the envelope at the awards.”

Pete Takeda: What were you thinking prior to jetting to Europe?

Steve Swenson: “I’ve been climbing for 45 years, the Piolet has been around for 20 and I’ve only been paying attention for the last ten. In terms of this years award? I feel it’s good to have AAC members doing big routes. The visibility, recognition and attention provide inspiration to others.

Pete Takeda: Any thoughts on how the 20th Annual Piolets d’Or reflect on the AAC?

Steve Swenson: “The nomination of Freddie, Mark, Conrad, Jimmy, Renan and I carries on the tradition of mentoring and inspiration. The routes nominated reflect the adventure, exploration, and values of the AAC.”

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