Slovenian Andrej Štremfelj has been awarded the Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018, becoming the first Slovenian and the 10th climber to receive the award. The most prestigious of the Piolets d’Or (“Golden Ice Axe”) awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award was first given to the Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti in 2009, and most recently to Jeff Lowe in 2017. Other recipients include Reinhold Messner and Chris Bonington.
According to its website, the Piolets d’Or 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.” Piolets d’Or are awarded based on criteria such as style of ascent, level of self-sufficiency, technical ability required, commitment, and the climber’s respect for the native peoples and peaks in which they pursue their ascents. The Lifetime Achievement Award is bestowed to climbers whose lives and ascents, as a whole, are seen to embody these values.
Born in Kranj, Slovenia in December 1956, Štremfelj began climbing in the early 1970s with the local mountaineering group, the Kranj Alpine Club. In 1977, at the age of twenty, he made the fourth ascent of Gasherbrum I (8,080 meters/26,510 feet) via the virgin southwest ridge, a climb he completed with his partner, Nejc Zaplotnik. Two years later he and Zaplotnik became the first Yugoslavs to climb Everest. This was still in the early days of Himalayan mountaineering, when fewer than 100 people had made Everest’s summit. The first woman to conquer the peak, Junko Tabei, had done so only a few years prior. Štremfelj’s ascent was the first successful Everest ascent via the Lho La col on the mountain’s West Ridge. Zaplotnik later perished in an avalanche on Manaslu (8,163 meters/26,781 feet) in 1989.
Štremfelj went on to embark on a string of wild ascents, including many on other 8,000 meter peaks. Notably, the Slovenian pioneered a new route on the southwest face of Shishapangma (8,027 meters/26,335 feet) in 1989, and completed a 32-hour blitz of Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters/26,362 feet) in 1986. Along with fellow Slovenian mountaineer Marko Prezelj, Štremfelj climbed to the the south summit of Kanchenjunga (8,476 meters/28,169 feet) via the South Pillar in 1992, earning the first Piolet d’Or ever awarded.
Štremfelj also put up a new route, Born Under a Wandering Star, on the North Tower of Paine, in Patagonia, and has a laundry list of Himalayan first ascents to his name, including Nyanang Ri (7,071 meters/23,199 feet), Boktah (6,114 meters/20,059 feet), Palung Ri (7,012 meters/23,005 feet), Siguang Ri Shar (6,998 meters/22,959 feet) Lashar I (6,842 meters/22,448 feet), Menlungtse (7,181 meters/23,560 feet), and Janak (7,041 meters/23,100).
An introduction to Štremfelj’s Piolet d’Or career biography, written by Prezelj (himself the recipient of four Piolets d’Or) stated, “Only special people can successfully maintain a genuine enthusiasm for life into their later years. In this regard, Andrej Štremfelj may be unique. His attitude to alpinism, including life, preserves both a freshness and maturity. In spite of huge social changes, the values he transmits to our whimsical tribe have not changed.”
In 2002, he celebrated 30 years of climbing. Štremfelj’s idea of a party consisted of ascents of 30 separate routes on 27 Slovenian peaks, all in a span of 40 days. Talk about a kickass anniversary.
Štremfelj still lives in his hometown of Kranj, still works as a mountain guide and still climbs hard. Follow his exploits on Instagram, and if you’re heading to climb in Slovenia, perhaps consider using his guiding services.
To read more about his ascents, see his award page on the Piolet d’Or website.