Kilian Jornet is a man going places, fast. He runs in summer and skis during the winter. He is arguably the world’s top endurance athlete and, aged 27, has achieved more than many world-class competitors achieve in a lifetime. He wins races hundreds of kilometres long, runs across glaciers, speed-climbs mountains then skis down them. He has conquered some of the world’s iconic peaks at speed, unassisted, using minimum equipment and setting improbable records. When he can, he will stop, admire the view, eat berries, drink from streams. Mostly, however, he’s racing against himself.
To some, the Spaniard is the pioneer of speed-climbing, a new and admirable sport; to others, he is demeaning the long tradition of alpinism and encouraging reckless behaviour in the mountains. He says he is just a mountaineer having fun. Having fun in Jornet’s world is running up and down Mont Blanc in 4 hours 57 minutes, and the Matterhorn in 2 hours 52 minutes. Or running the length of the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, 850km and 42,000m of elevation, in eight days. Most recently, he tackled Mount McKinley in Alaska – at 6,186m, the highest peak in North America – climbing up on foot in snow and fog, then skiing down in 11 hours 48 minutes. Another record, another extraordinary feat of mountaineering.
He is ideally built for what he does, weighing 58kg, 1m 71cm tall, with a resting heart rate of 34bpm and a lung capacity of 5.3 litres. Top cyclists and other endurance athletes fall within these parameters, but what makes Jornet unique is his range of achievements. As well as his speed-climbing feats, Jornet is a multiple world champion in ultra-trail running (long mountainous distances, typically 80-160km), sky running (shorter mountain races at 20-42km) and vertical climbing (lung-busting 1km sprint climbs). He has won most of the major ski mountaineering events held across the Alps, setting records for many of them.
He plans to tackle Aconcagua, in the Argentine Andes, before the year is out, with Everest and Mt Elbrus in Russia on his to-do list. The Red Bulletin talked to him in the village of Le Tour, near Chamonix, while climbing a steep path to find a suitable location for the photoshoot.
THE RED BULLETIN : What makes you run up mountains?
KILIAN JORNET : I am just following what people did in the past, and what people will do in the future. It’s nice that there are so many ways of approaching a mountain: really fast and technical solo climbing, BASE-jumpers, who have a completely different interpretation of the mountains, then there is me with my running approach. We’re all in the same place, but in different ways.
What first inspired you to do this?
My father is a mountain guide and the guardian of a mountain refuge. He has a classical approach to mountaineering: big boots and backpacks. My mother is a teacher, loves racing, has a lighter approach to mountaineering, and has a deep sense of nature. She transmitted to me the desire to understand nature and how things happen. From the age of three to maybe 10 years old, after dinner, before going to bed, in our pyjamas, we would go and walk in the forest. I remember the first times I was afraid, my sister and I would cling to my mother’s legs and try and stay with her. But after a while we got used to our surroundings, and though you don’t know what is around you, you can’t feel the earth, there’s rain and wind, you start to feel more confident to walk in the forest at night and to start having fun. My parents gave me a great sense of responsibility. When we went hiking, it was never the case that they would be ahead of us. On the contrary, my sister and I were ahead and had to decide the route. When we got it wrong, they would go over it with us, help us analyse our mistakes. It was fun, as we had to remember landmarks, flowers and animals.
Do you have the same sense of fun in the mountains now?
I think it is important to be happy. To do things that lead to unhappiness is stupid. It does not mean that everything is carpe diem and just have fun in the moment. You must also search for things that make you happy. This means many times it will be hard and there will be suffering, but there will also be fun.
What about the parts that are no fun?
The suffering is always dramatic, because you are the one who is placing yourself in this situation. Suffering is tough, but if it comes from outside, it is a different mental state. For example, you are on an expedition and it’s really cold and stormy: you suffer, of course, but it is your choice, so you deal with it. Mountaineering is not just sport, it is a style of life.
How much of what you do is talent and how much is skill?
It is beautiful to see when animals move. They move so smoothly and it looks so easy. For us humans, it is very technical, you have to focus on where you put your feet, and you struggle, then you see a chamois [mountain goat] running and realise that we are not really built for this. Running downhill is more about the approach than the step, more about the mind rather than the body. You need to think where and how you will put your feet, you have to keep running and playing with the terrain. It is about vision and co-ordinating it with the muscles. It’s about taking bigger risks, pushing all the time.
Were you taking a big risk when you tackled Mount McKinley?
Yes, it was bad weather. We were there 20 days and only had three days of sunshine. When we heard there was going to be a window of good weather, we decided to go for it. Early one morning the weather was really good, then at 5,000m it changed: I was in the clouds and the wind was blowing strong. It started to snow and I couldn’t see more than 20m. So the last 1,200m were really hard because I was on my own.
That was tough. I didn’t know if I could get to the summit. When I did, it was such a great feeling to get my skis on, as the climb had been very hard – but the weather was getting worse. I was in dense fog, I could see just 2-3m ahead and it was snowing hard. I had to descend fast, to beat the record, so I was going straight down, practically on my back, as I really did not know what was ahead of me. I had memorised some landmarks, and as I descended I followed my tracks and those of other climbers who had walked up, and when I lost the landmarks, or the tracks, I would just veer left or right until I found them again. But I was really trying to go as fast as possible. And then I suddenly saw the tent at the finish line, 5m ahead of me. That was such a relief.
Do you ever feel fear?
It’s not fear, but there is an ongoing sense of worry. If we don’t like risks, or don’t accept them, we should not do these things. However much we go to the mountains, train and live in them, we will never know everything. We can only know a small part, and we need to accept that. When you are young, you look at a mountain and you see its beauty, you don’t see the risks. The more you grow in years and in experience you see the mountain through different eyes. You see the dangers and these are not the ones you expect, or that the books warn you about. It’s always the strangest things, the unexpected, the illogical. This you need to know and understand if you want to be in the mountains.
You can be afraid when it is really icy and steep when you are skiing. You wonder to yourself if your skis will hold, but then you tell yourself the skis’ edges will dig in because I have the right technique. Same for rock climbing. People know their technical levels; what we don’t know is whether the rock is loose and will crumble in your hand, or if your skis are really on thin ice under a light covering of snow. You have to look to yourself, your technique, and when you are older, you add to that the knowledge of what is around as you learn to read the mountain and not just rely on your strength and technical ability.
Why did you start the Summits Of My Life project?
I started it three years ago, but it has been in my mind for a very long time. When I was a kid, I had a big poster of the Matterhorn in my room and I read mountaineering books so I knew the names of the summits, their histories. These mountains have always been in my culture as a kid. So when I started doing my sports at 13, I became fascinated by the story of Bruno Brunod and his speed record on the Matterhorn, or Stephane Brosse when he did the Mont Blanc record: these were feats that made me dream. These mountains, and these feats were both beautiful and aesthetic.
How did you select the mountains?
The Matterhorn, well, because it is there. And because of Bruno Brunod’s record, which was an incredible achievement. Then Mont Blanc, because of its place in the history of mountaineering. The Aconcagua is the highest in Latin America. Mt Elbrus is the highest in Europe and I also like the fact that in Russia they have this culture of selecting the best people for mountain expeditions by getting them to speed climb this mountain. Can you imagine a race from Chamonix to the summit of Mont Blanc? Impossible, but this is what happens in Russia, and that is why I like going there so much. McKinley is a polar mountain with really tough conditions and Everest of course is the highest summit and now, with all the commercial expeditions, it is easy to climb. But if you don’t go up the normal route and avoid the fixed ropes, well, it is a huge mountain.
How do you feel about going up Everest, after the fatalities and problems there earlier this year?
Much of the trouble arose from how most people in the West approach climbing, in a very commercial way. When Ulie Steck and Simone Moro were there they were climbing fast, so it was not in the mind of the Sherpas that climbing like that was possible. With Everest, if you go up the normal route, when everyone else is climbing, then you could have issues. We will avoid the normal route and be alone on another side of the mountain. There will be just four of us, no porters. We might have some problems among ourselves, but not with others.
Why no porters?
I don’t think I enjoy it at an intellectual level, but the fewer things you have, the fewer problems you have, you have a simpler life. For example, I am used to moving house; I’ve done it often, maybe 16, 17 different times. The good bit is you need to pack all your belongings, and that is when you see what you use, and what you don’t. I don’t like to have things I don’t use. I prefer to give to people who can use these things.
Do you apply this philosophy to your sport?
I see no real distinction between ski mountaineering and running. For me it is all about being in the mountains, so why have running pants and ski mountaineering pants and climbing pants? One piece of clothing should work for all. And I say this to my clothing sponsor, but I do believe simplicity and lightness are the way to enjoy the mountains. Do I take one ice pick with me,or two? Maybe I am a bit extreme in this thinking, but it is interesting because mentally it is the same: do I need a car or not. It’s the same thinking. Maybe the level of engagement is different on the mountain, as in one or two ice axes, but the fundamental philosophy is the same. I love to be self-sufficient. I don’t want Sherpas carrying my equipment. I prefer to think through everything I need. When I go on holiday with my girlfriend, or friends, this is how we travel. We share, one spoon for both, for example. Going to the Himalayas, everyone thinks is so expensive, paying Sherpas, cooks, and all the other extras, but once you have paid for the flight and you carry all your equipment, well, you may end up being a little more hungry and you may suffer a little along the way, but it will be much cheaper, and crucially, a very different experience.
Mont-Blanc crossing (altitude : 4 810 m)
Route linking Courmayeur and Chamonix. 8 h 42 min
Matterhorn (4 478 m)
Beat the ascent and descent record set by Bruno Brunod, his childhood hero in 1983. 2 h 52 min
Mont-Blanc (4 810 m)
The highest mountain in the Alps. 4 h 57 min
McKinley (6 186 m)
Summit of North America and subject to Artic weather. 11 h 48 min
Aconcagua (6 959 m)
Highest peak in South America. Attempt end of 2014.
Mount Elbrus (5 642 m)
Europe’s tallest and toughest. One attempt failed, next attempt in 2015.
Everest (8 848 m)
Top of the world. Attempt in 2016.