Kilian Jornet has recently completed his epic ‘Summits Of My Life’ project, in which he recorded fastest known ascents up the world’s most iconic mountains including Denali, Aconcagua, Matterhorn and Everest, which he climbed twice in a week this May, without supplemental oxygen. He got from Advanced Base Camp at 6,500m to the summit and back again in 29 hours and 30 minutes. The climb to the roof of the world normally takes, on average, four days. During this expedition an avalanche swept his legs away underneath him on a 55° slope at 7,800m – only his ice axes embedded deep in snow saved him from death.
RSNG caught up with the Salomon athlete in London, ahead of the release of his new movie, to find out how he pushes his mind and body into the Death Zone, while staying calm enough to make the right decisions...
RSNG Did your motivations for doing the ‘Summits of My Life’ project change as you progressed?
KJ ‘It was very interesting. I think mostly because it started really in a purely competitive way. When I started the project in 2012, it was about being fast and the time, the clock, was motivation number one. Through the process of meeting different people and climbing with different people, it has evolved from that to try to climb summits in a certain style; really minimalistic and without assistance.’
‘I planned to see if I was able, me, my body, to do things without any support. So then the time was something very secondary. This project has changed the way I do the activities I do.’
RSNG You enjoy making films of your adventures – is part of your motivation sharing your stories, to get people outside?
KJ ‘Yes, it's mostly that – if it helps people to go to the mountains to practise a sport, I think sport is good for health and it's good for the mind. Being outdoors is a way to understand how nature works and to want to take a bit more care of that.’
‘Going to the mountains is like going into a big mirror and you cannot hide from yourself’
RSNG So, what are the benefits to your mindset of actually just getting outdoors and facing these challenges?
KJ ‘Practising a sport, it's good for the mindset. It relaxes you and it makes you think about problems from another perspective. Going to the mountains is like going into a big mirror and you cannot hide from yourself. When we live in society, we are always talking and talking. We look far, we look near – we have so many inputs and we don't find the time. In processing all that, we are always in a hurry and we don't find the time to look at who we are, what are the things that are important for us, that have some meaning or that make us happy. I think that going to the mountains puts that into perspective, to see that we are really not important at all.’
‘That's really liberating, in a way, because we realise that anything we do in life will not be important. Everything that happens or that we are, is nothing. That it makes these things very important for us because it's what we do for ourselves. It teaches you about yourself and about nature, too, I think. Like realising we are a part of the world.’
RSNG How do you look at the experiences you have?
KJ ‘I don't like to look to the past. I think it's things we learn in a single race, any single training day, when it's victorious but also when it’s a defeat and when it's a failure. I think probably failure and defeats are more important than success, because you learn more. So all these are things that you learn, that make you dream more to have different projects for the future. The best day is always tomorrow.’
RSNG Was there a specific defeat in the process of the project that you learned a lot from?
KJ ‘I think in the project, the most I have learned was from the 2016 Everest expedition. We were there in the summer, so we were the only expedition on the mountain. That was beautiful because climbing alone, 8,000 metres (26,247ft), nobody on there, you feel so small and you need to learn because you are by yourself – you need to really take on the mountain.’
‘One day we were climbing with Sebastian and Jordi. We were planning to do a new route in the north-east face [of Everest] and when we got to around 7,800 metres (25,590ft), a big storm was coming and we had a lot of problems. Some avalanches covered us. We had to make good decisions, quickly.’
‘I was going first because I don’t have kids and the other two climbers both did’
RSNG The avalanche actually hit you?
KJ ‘We reached this point, with bad weather coming, snow, wind and we needed to decide: what are we going to do? So we decided to cross, to go and find a ridge and go down there but, doing this crossing, it was snow to the waist on a 55° slope – open, very wind-affected.’
‘I was going first because I don’t have kids and both the others did. As I crossed I broke the snow. I was lucky that I had my two ice axes buried deep, so I could hang on my hands, but the avalanche took my feet away and I was going. I hung on there. So this was the first avalanche.’
‘Then when Jordi and Seb came to me on the ridge, another avalanche covered us to the waist and then, going down, it was really foggy, so I was lucky at the top. Two days before that, I was climbing the normal route of this ridge up to almost 8,000 metres and I had the GPS tracker, so we were following that down, but another avalanche came to us, not very big but it covered us. Then we found a way out, but we really had no control over a situation like this.’
RSNG A survival situation?
KJ ‘Yes, it was like, OK, we are down, we are alive. We were really close to not being. So those are moments when you realise and you learn a lot about feeling comfortable in situations you are not supposed to – to take away the emotions and just act rationally.’
RSNG Can you train your mindset to perform without emotion in that kind of scenario?
KJ ‘You can train a bit. Last year, for example, I was doing some things. You go to do long days and you find a situation, like being in the night, doing an activity that's outside my comfort zone, like ice climbing solo [alone with no ropes] at my limit, technically, on a place that's a bit exposed so you know that it's there; it's in the zone. But it's not a thing you can do very often because then you die. So it's not something I can advise anyone to do but, if you want to do some kind of projects, you need to do.’
RSNG You have to balance the risk?
‘In the mountains, if you overestimate yourself, it's not that you will have a cramp – you will die’
RSNG As you get older do you find out more about your own abilities but also the mountains, and the objective risks of rock falls and crevasses that you can’t control?
KJ ‘You are less afraid for yourself and you are more afraid about the mountains. It's not like a race – if you are in a race and you feel tired, you can drop out and it's like: “OK, drop out, go home.” In the mountain, it's not that. If you overestimate yourself, it's not that you will have a cramp – you will die. So, it's important never to overestimate yourself.’
RSNG When it comes to pushing to ascend as fast as possible, it must be important to know your capacity in terms of your endurance because as you get higher, it gets harder?
KJ ‘Yes but I love to train and to explore my capacity at home. When you are in a safe situation like training at home, you can really push your limits – of course your speed, but also in terms of endurance. You can run for 40, 50, 60 hours at home. You can see when you get to these different zones.’
RSNG Can you give us an example?
KJ ‘When I was in high school or in university, I trained without eating. I said, “OK, I am going to stop eating and I kept training normally, morning and afternoon.’ I saw how the body was changing through the days until, on the fifth day, I just passed out. I was close to home, so I was thinking if I pass out, somebody will see me in the next hour, so it wasn't any risk.’
‘It's very interesting because then you know that, when you are in the mountains, OK it's not because I haven’t eaten an energy gel that I will die. It's really to create this picture of yourself when you are in safety and then you know how far you can push when you are in races or in other situations.’
‘The less gear you have, I think, the closer we are to being our true selves in mountains’
RSNG Has that helped shape your ethos about mountaineering with minimal kit and equipment?
KJ ‘What motivates me is to see if we can do something like racing to the summit or doing a record fast. Climbing with oxygen or with thick ropes or with a lot of people helping you, it's not a helicopter but it's not yourself alone, either. If I have an idea to climb a summit or to do this endurance thing, it's to see if I can do so. We are a bad animal in terms of capacities. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth and he runs 40kph for 100 metres. A cow can do that!’
‘We are far from being super-fast. When I go to a high mountain, I need to have a big down suit and I have a backpack with crampons and food, and then you see a yak is just there, standing. He eats one time a week; a piece of grass. Not cool. So, the less gear you have, I think, the closer we are to it being ourselves and the mountain. The fewer things there are between us.’
RSNG I guess, if we are built for anything as humans, it's to endure over long distances, because we've evolved to hunt?
KJ ‘Yes, I think the only good thing, that we excel on in performance as humans, is long distance because we sweat, so we can really manage the energy through a long period. That's what is different from other animals. They run much faster, they can be in colder situations than us, but we can endure runs for longer.’
RSNG You’re known for blurring the boundaries between running, climbing and mountaineering because you move so fast in the mountains – how do you train for that?
KJ ‘I like going into the mountains running or climbing or skiing but they are only tools. I don't think of running as a sport or skiing as a sport. I see running as a toolbox of techniques and things that I can use to go to the mountains, the same as skiing. You have a project and it’s: “Which tools do I need to do that?” Then you take your planning [and training] from there.’
RSNG Who do you learn from in terms of mountaineering? Who are the people that you've learned most from?
KJ Well, in mountaineering, I think that 80% – 90% is only by myself. So it has been a lot of learning about doing things and failing a lot, then saying OK, now I need to do that in a different way. It's slow, it's very slow. It's the way to learn because if you always climb alone, you are really sure of the degree you have because you don't want to fall, and you always need to lead, but it's a very slow way of progression. Climbing with some friends, like I did Jorasse's north face with Simon Elias, or some climbs in the Himalayas and on the north face of the Eiger with Ueli Steck. That was like a masterclass, climbing with him, seeing how he climbs. I was always learning a lot.’
‘I have at least 50% in terms of failures because that is when it's challenging – it's an inner exploration’
RSNG You talk about the motivation for the project changing in the course of it, can you just explain what is the motivation that drives you?
KJ ‘Well, I think the motivation is that the final goal is to be happy. I think ‘life as a legacy’ is stupid – to live for something when you will be dead anyway. So I think it's to be happy and I find happiness in exploration, and exploration is outside so just visiting places – they are beautiful, it's great. Then there are inside explorations like challenging and doing things, having ideas; “OK is that possible?” You need to be on the edge of what is possible, but I have at least 50% in terms of failures because that is when it's challenging. It's kind of an inner exploration.”
RSNG What would be your top tip for our readers who want to go and do some mountain running, who want to get into the high terrain?
KJ ‘Prepare yourself and don't overestimate. Look at the weather, look at the conditions, look at the gear you need. Always take more and then, the more experience you have, you can take away items.’
RSNG So, don't try and emulate you, and go fast and light, first time?
KJ ‘No. The thing is you can go light but, before that, you need to go heavy and then take off items. Then keep the pleasure – when training becomes an obligation or something you feel you need to do, then there's something wrong. Just go out because it's fun.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Kilian Jornet climbing in the trailer to Path To Everest which is available to watch in the USA and is being screened across Europe.
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