Garibotti knows the danger firsthand. By his tally, more than 30 people he has roped up with have later died climbing. The Piolets d’Or twice tried to nominate Garibotti for the award, once in 2006, for a new route on Cerro Torre, in Patagonia, and once in 2009, for the first traverse of the entire Cerro Torre massif. Twice he refused.
Most shocking was whom the jury decided to honor in 1998: a Russian team that made the first ascent of the west face of the Himalayan peak Makalu in 1997. Two of the climbers on the expedition died in the process. The organizers introduced a new criterion after backlash that year, requiring, according to Trommsdorff, “that you have to come back in one piece.”
The problem, in Garibotti’s opinion, isn’t that the awards encourage climbers to take more risk, but that in awarding risky climbs, they validate risky behavior. “If you have representation of climbs that are reckless, there are going to be more reckless climbs,” he said.
After winning a Piolet d’Or in 2019 with his Slovakian teammates Ales Cesen and Luka Strazar, the British climber Tom Livingstone wrote in an essay on his website that the award “plays on my human ego” in worrisome ways.
“I already have a devil on my shoulder at the end of a run-out” — a section of sparsely protected climbing that can result in dangerous falls — “who whispers, ‘uh oh, you’re gonna take a big one!’” Livingstone wrote. “I don’t want another offering me a golden trophy.” He accepted the award only because his teammates wanted to.
Of course, for many climbers, danger is a big part of the sport’s appeal.
“We have to recognize that in traditional mountaineering, death is a possibility,” said Reinhold Messner, 77, one of the most lauded alpinists of the last century. “If it’s not a possibility, it’s not mountaineering. The art of surviving is just that. It’s an art.”