Ski mountaineer and ultrarunner Kilian Jornet is re-defining what it means to climb mountains with minimum gear and maximum speed. The first time the Spaniard summited Everest in 2017 he did it in 26 hours, from base camp, setting a new world record. But he had a stomach virus and thought he was too slow, so he went back six days later to climb it again – in 17 hours, despite summiting alone without using fixed ropes, and taking no supplementary oxygen. It usually takes mountaineers, with teams of sherpas, several days to climb to the top of the world. Unsurprisingly, Jornet is a monster for the training, clocking up 1,200 hours a year with twice-a-day sessions – but how did he climb Everest so quickly, and without using oxygen, something only around 200 others have managed to do? RISING caught up with him to find out…
RISING How did you prepare for this audacious assault on the world’s tallest, most oxygen-thin mountain?
Kilian Jornet ‘For one month I trained in the afternoons in a hypoxic chamber. I would do long outdoor training in the mornings and then 45 minutes to one hour at home. I also went to the Alps for acclimatisation before heading to Everest. [And spent two weeks on another 8,000m mountain, Cho Oyu]. It seems that this type of express acclimatisation works because the body tires less, and as a result we’re stronger when it comes to the challenge.’
‘I was sick with stomach cramps and vomiting, and very slow down because I had to keep stopping’
RISING Why did you end up summiting Everest twice in one week?
KJ ‘Well, it wasn't the first plan, I just wanted to summit it one time. But this first time I was sick with stomach cramps and vomiting, and very slow down because I had to stop all the time – I wasn’t feeling very good. However, I felt really good at the altitude, so when I came down I wanted to try it again, to see how were my feelings and to see if I was capable.’
RISING Describe the challenge of ascending alone, without fixed ropes or supplementary oxygen – was it your hardest-ever climb?
KJ ‘What was harder was the altitude and this lack of oxygen, that slows you down. The route isn’t technical and the conditions were good, so mostly I had to struggle with altitude. I wouldn’t say it was the hardest thing I’ve done but it sure was a challenge. Reaching the summit of Everest without fixed ropes isn’t something you’d do every day.’
RISING Do you have any psychological tricks that you use to push through adversity when things get tough and do not go to plan?
KJ ‘Yes, I'm very stubborn and I try to go even if my body doesn’t. I used to race ultrarunning as well and this is a bit what happens in every race. The psychological training is as important as the physical.’
RISING What was the most important thing you learnt in this project?
KJ ‘That this way of practicing light alpinism is possible, doing short expeditions and acclimatising very good before, and being in the mountains with very light gear.’
‘My bag was 7kg for the ascent, and I used everything I carried’
RISING You have to wear an amazing number of layers to climb Everest, where temperatures are -20ºC and lower – what was the one most useful piece of kit you took with you?
KJ ‘Everything I had was necessary: my bag was 7kg for the ascent, and I used everything I carried. Probably the boots that the engineers at Salomon developed for me were very useful, as they allow me to run and climb at the same time, and still be very warm up in the mountain.’
RISING What’s the next record in your sights?
KJ ‘For the moment I’m focused on the trail running season and haven’t planned anything yet for the upcoming future, even though I’m always looking for new projects and challenges. Now I have to sit and decide which ones I want to try.’
RISING How do you cope when you hit the wall? Do you just believe you are unstoppable, or are you aware that there is a breaking point?
KJ ‘I’ve trained this for a very long time, and I know my limits so I know how far I can go. However, I’m also very aware that there are some times that I just need to turn around and go home.’
WHAT NEXT? Check out Jornet’s other record-breaking climbs on iconic peaks since he began his Summits Of My Life project in 2012.
Kilian is sponsored by Salomon and Suunto @salomonrunning #timetoplay