Kilian Jornet has run up Everest. Twice. In the same week. And that’s just one of many records the athlete has set on the world’s highest peaks over the past 15 years. A portrait of an exceptional sportsman who jogs up the world’s highest mountains.
It’s May 2017 and Kilian Jornet is on the verge of his greatest triumph. In a few hours, if everything goes to plan, he will be the fastest person ever to have climbed Mount Everest. Although “climb” isn’t really the word for it – “run up” would be more accurate. But now, suddenly, he’s wracked with stomach cramps. A stomach bug at over 8,000 meters above sea level. For 12 hours, he battles with abdominal pains, struggling to the summit in the pitch dark with no oxygen. Around him, the wind gusts at nearly 60 km/h. But Jornet doesn’t give up and reaches the top in just 26 hours. Returning to base camp, he says, “I had to stop every few meters with cramps and vomiting. But I felt OK with the altitude.” Running up Mount Everest with crippling stomach pains in squally weather would finish most people off. But not Kilian Jornet. He made another attempt that same week and this time he did it in 17 hours. Mount Everest twice in one week – it seems nothing is impossible for this athlete from Catalonia.
Jornet describes himself as an introvert. “I’m not very sociable,” he says. He could happily spend a month without seeing a single person. His great passion has always been the mountains. Jornet’s family moved to the mountains shortly after he was born in 1987. His father worked as a mountain guide and ran a small mountain hut in the Pyrenees, while his mother was a ski instructor. So Kilian Jornet grew up in a ski resort around 2,000 meters above sea level. He didn’t have many friends and that’s something that hasn’t changed much over the years. “I have a few very good friends,” he says, “and they share my passion for the mountains.” Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, it was one of these friends he planned to climb Everest with. It was meant to be the highpoint of his Summits of my Life project.
Jornet was just 13 when he entered his first skiing competition. In 2004, at the age of 17, he won his first junior ski mountaineering world championship. No one could stop Jornet even then. No one could beat his time up the steep 1,000-meter ascent in Val d’Aran in Spain. But it wasn’t until some years later that Jornet realized he also enjoyed climbing mountains without skis – practically running up them. By this time, he had already moved to France to study sport. Mountain running was something Jornet started doing to train for the winter season, but soon he was travelling all over the world to indulge in his new passion. And the world soon realized that he not only enjoyed what he did, but was also one of the best at it.
Within a few years, Jornet had won almost every competition there was to win. He became one of the world’s top ultra runners. He has won the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc – a 46-hour, 170-kilometer ultramarathon with a total elevation gain of around 9,000 meters – on two occasions, and has won the Hardrock 100 – a 100-mile endurance run through the Rocky Mountains – four times But even this wasn’t enough for Jornet. He wanted more.
In 2012 he set himself the target of breaking the speed records for the world’s best-known and highest summits. The pinnacle was to be Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth at 8,848 meters. But first, in 2013, he conquered Mont Blanc (4,810 meters) in under five hours. The same year he scaled the Matterhorn in Italy (almost 5,000 meters) in under three hours. For Jornet this was a childhood dream come true because he broke the record held by Italian mountain runner Bruno Brunod. With his game-changing style, Brunod was a hero for many mountain runners. He was also Jornet’s greatest role model. “He inspired me with everything he did,” Jornet recalls. Brunod’s Matterhorn record had remained unbroken for 18 years, before Jornet came along and smashed it. In 2014, Jornet set two more new records – for the highest peak in North America (Denali, 6,186 meters) and the highest summit in South America (Aconcagua, 6,962 meters).
Jornet gradually raised his sights. In 2015, he decided to conquer Everest with a friend, the Spaniard Jordi Tosas. But nature got in the way when Nepal was rocked by a severe earthquake. Some Nepalese villages were entirely cut off by avalanches and rock debris. Jornet and Tosas decided to travel to the area anyway, intending to help the local people. But what happened in the Langtang Valley was to leave a lasting impression on Jornet. Instead of helping the local people, he found them helping him, collecting material so they could offer him accommodation for the night. “They had lost everything,” he says, “even members of their families, but they looked after us with the little they had.”
Jornet decided to set up a project to collect donations for the affected areas. He managed to raise 60,000 euros (around USD 67,000) to rebuild the houses that had been destroyed in the Langtang Valley. This is another side to Kilian Jornet – and one that is often forgotten. Inside the introverted exterior is a good man and a fair sportsman. At a ski mountaineering world cup in Valtellina he wanted to share his victory with a local hero and they crossed the finish line holding hands. However, the race managers still declared him the winner – a decision that made him very cross. “Fair play is more important than the result,” says the athlete who delivers results like no other. Results that include his achievement in May 2017: conquering Mount Everest twice in the space of a week.
Jornet has no plans to stop. “The list of things I’d like to do keeps growing much faster than I can keep up,” he says. He and his girlfriend Emelie Forsberg have already created their own mountain race. The Tromsø Skyrace in Norway covers mountain ridges, rocky sections and glaciers. But that too is just another stage in the life of Kilian Jornet. The next mountain is out there, just waiting for him to set a new record.