SUMMIT OF STRENGTH
Kilian Jornet breaks records. Earlier this year, he not only conquered Everest twice in one week, but became the first person to do so without supplemental oxygen. Attempted by any other, this would have resulted in one more body on the mountainside. But
What does it take to achieve the impossible? Jornet, the record-breaker who conquered Everest twice in one week, divulges
He is not like us, you or me, Kilian Jornet. On 22 May 2017 the Spanish mountaineer, adventurist and ultra runner astounded experts and obliterated past milestones by ascending Everest without so much as an oxygen mask in just 26 hours. Irked that a stomach bug had hampered this first ascent, he set out to do it again five days later; this time he reached the summit in just 17 hours. That he completed both climbs with just two litres of water, 10 energy gels and a pair of mittens is testament to his preternatural resilience. That he raced up the world’s highest mountain without oxygen twice in the same week – coming within 15 minutes of setting a new speed record in the process – is little short of remarkable.
Eight weeks later, Jornet, then 29, embarked upon another herculean challenge: the notorious Hardrock 100 Endurance Race. An ultramarathon held annually on the alpine ridges of Southern Colorado’s San Juan Range, it covers 10,000m of elevation over 100 miles. Fresh (in his world) from his Himalayan endeavours, Jornet did not immediately enjoy the same success – 13 miles in, he tripped and dislocated his left arm. His legs, however, were feeling just fine. With a race still to run, Jornet popped his own shoulder back into place and ran the remaining 87 miles in a makeshift sling. A little over 24 hours later he won the race – his third win in four years. (He turned in a disappointing second in 2016.) Meanwhile, when he’s not winning ultramarathons, he also speed-climbs, competes in duathlons and holds records in ski mountaineering and mountain running. More often than not, whatever extreme activity or challenge Jornet decides to pursue, he excels at.
Alpinism, in particular, is a sport that deals in extremes – of altitude, mental fortitude and endurance. But even in a field that’s crowded with exceptional athletes and noteworthy accomplishments, Jornet’s innate ability stands apart as something profound. So what is his secret? Genetics? Training? Or something less tangible? Before he set off to conquer yet another mountain, MH travelled to Jornet’s home in Norway to find out what it takes to push beyond the wall.
Mount Everest stands at 8850m, making its peak the highest scalable point in the world. At this height the availability of oxygen is just a third of that at sea level. Consequently, for those able to even make it that far, blood oxygen levels plummet from around 99% to just 40%. The average climber will notice these effects at around 3500m. Pulse and heart rates will become elevated as the body attempts to make up for the deficiency. Nausea and headaches are common; vision and balance become impaired. Left to his own devices, a climber in this position is at risk of developing either High Altitude
Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE), in which fluid leaks into the alveoli of the lungs and compromises breathing, or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE), in which fluid leaks into the brain. Both can be fatal. The easiest way to prevent them is to carry enough 2.7kg oxygen canisters to sustain you. Unsurprisingly, most do. After all, the risk of not doing so is vast: 22% of deaths above 7900m are those climbing without oxygen. In short, only someone of singular determination and athletic ability would purposefully set out to submit body and mind to such conditions. And only a madman would do it twice.
“Actually the plan was not to try and climb Everest twice. My goal was to climb to the summit quickly, on my own, and to light a fire without oxygen,” says Jornet, an affable, easy-going speaker with the air of someone recalling a brisk jaunt around the local park. “But the first time I climbed to the summit I had some digestion trouble and was vomiting. Afterwards, with another week left in the Himalayas and nothing else to do, I thought, ‘OK, if I can recover it would be nice to try to go up there again.’”
This natural affinity with altitude is in the blood. Born in 1987, Jornet grew up in Refugi de Cap de Rec, an alpine resort in the Pyrenees where his father worked as a mountain guide. Here Jornet spent the first 13 years of his life above 2000m. It was an active upbringing: he experienced his first seven-hour hike aged 18 months and completed his first crossing of the Pyrenees aged 10. As a teenager, ski mountaineering became a passion and a place on the national team beckoned. By his early twenties he had achieved renown as a long-distance runner, winning competitions across Europe, America and Australia. Such an upbringing was evidently the perfect incubator for developing Jornet’s extraordinary athletic prowess.
But early glory led to Jornet growing, if not complacent, then certainly apathetic. To retain his interest in his sport, he knew that he would have to push himself in new and challenging directions. “I’d been trying to find motivation by opening up new fields,” he says. “I don’t like to do the same thing all the time, I always need to do something else to keep motivated.” From this period of stagnation, a new obsession developed. “I grew up in the mountains and had a Matterhorn poster in my bedroom, so I thought it would be nice to try and climb some of these mountains,” he says with keen understatement. “Just in a lighter, more minimalist way.”
Freedom To Roam
This initial spark set light to the ‘Summits of My Life’ project during which Jornet set out to claim fastest ascent and descent records on six of the world’s most famous mountains, from the Matterhorn to Denali. Beginning in 2012, the dual Everest ascent represented the culmination of this venture. His principal objective, he tells MH, was to re-define how climbers approach mountains, with an emphasis on fast movements and minimal equipment, as opposed to the traditional long, slow slog to the summit. In other words, he wanted to take trail running discipline and apply it to vertical routes.
“For me the mountain is a space of freedom,” Jornet told Spanish newspaper El Pais ahead of this year’s Everest attempt. “I try to go light so I can move quickly. In this way, we spend less time in altitude and our body fatigues less.”
Jornet’s theory proved correct. On the final summit push above 8400m, he averaged an incredible 330 vertical metres per hour. His slight frame – he weighs in at just 59kg – certainly helps, but there is far more at play. In mountaineering and trail pursuits, Jornet estimates that he climbs 600,000m of total ascent per year. As a result, his VO2 max level – the measurement of oxygen distribution throughout the bloodstream under effort – comes in at an almost unfathomable 85-90ml/min/kg. Meanwhile, his lung capacity has grown to 5.3 litres – almost 1.5 litres greater than an average male of the same height. “Kilian has one of the biggest bases of aerobic fitness of any athlete, probably in the world. He’s been logging over 1200 hours of training per year since his late teens,” says Scott Johnston, coach to Nordic World Ski Championship athletes and mountaineers, and co-founder of training resource uphillathlete.com. “And this is not randomised exercise he’s doing. He studied and graduated with a degree in exercise science [from the University of Perpignan] and worked with top coaches for many years.”
But while Jornet’s commitment to training is laudable (he actually estimates
“For me the mountain is a space of freedom”
his training hours to be higher, around 20-30 hours per week, preferring to stay fit all year round rather than go all- out for a specific event) many professional athletes also work with top coaches and likewise train as often as possible in their relative sports. And yet still the vast majority will fail to achieve truly noteworthy feats. Even among the top 10% of athletes, Jornet seems to occupy a division of his own. Beyond innate fitness, determination and discipline, most agree that there must be another factor behind his extraordinary abilities – something altogether quite different.
The Upper Limits
Jornet has always had an inquisitive nature, often to the detriment of his own wellbeing. “I once stopped eating to see how long the body can keep going without food,” he recalls. “I was training for three to four hours in the morning then doing another session in the afternoon.” After five days without food, he collapsed while out running, but was nevertheless overjoyed with the results of his experiment. “[Afterwards] I knew it was possible to go for five days without food and not die,” he says.
Recently, he experimented with the effects of not drinking over the course of a 20-hour run. He is currently playing with 30-hour training weeks of long interval runs and climbs in an attempt to see what effect this will have on his racing speed. His Everest feat was perhaps the riskiest experiment of them all. “I knew that I didn’t have hypothermia so I wanted to explore,” he says of his push to the top of the world. “I wanted to try and find out how the body performs in different situations.”
Putting one’s life at risk with such a climb, or running for the best part of a day without hydration, might seem like excessively punishing and dangerous undertakings. But in Jornet’s view, it is only by exploring the limits of endurance that performance can be advanced. Unlike the majority of his competitors, he doesn’t view competitions as the worst place to roadtest new theories for the first time. “There are a lot of theories [about performance] but it’s important to actually try things,” he explains. “The worst case is that you lose races – I think that’s worth risking if, in doing so, you find out something interesting.”
More than a pursuit of summits or records, Jornet’s career is a pursuit of knowledge. He explains that the first thought that crosses his mind after a race is how he can go faster next time, whether that is by augmenting performance, or developing a new tactic. “It’s good for your motivation to want to break a record, but afterwards what’s more important is how you have learned from it,” he says. While he admits that he has always been competitive, it is the push to see not just how far his body can go but how far we can all go that drives him, “I think it’s important to explore what is possible, both for me and for others. Maybe I can get to a summit by climbing in a certain way and then think ‘OK, so my limit was there, but the other person can do this or that.’ It’s interesting to explore outside of what is [thought to be] possible.”
Though he may be the one generating the most headlines, Jornet is not a lone figure in the mountaineering community when it comes to exploring new avenues. Adrian Ballinger, 41, has climbed Everest seven times. He summited without supplemental oxygen for the first time this year after a failed attempt in 2016. Determined to discover exactly what had let him down, Ballinger began training with Scott Johnston. The first step was to undergo a metabolic efficiency test. “I found out I was really metabolically inefficient when climbing,” says Ballinger. “I actually shifted from burning fat to carbohydrates at a heart rate of about 115bpm.”
When you’re high on Everest, Ballinger points out, it’s almost impossible to stop and eat. With no new calories coming in, the body switches to burning through stored carbohydrates for energy. Not only is this a less efficient energy source than fat, but once it’s gone, all calorie reserves are depleted. This is precisely what happened to Ballinger in 2016. By contrast, Jornet’s body is geared toward fuelling itself differently; on his own attempts, this switch to using carbohydrates didn’t occur until much later in his ascent. By following a carb-restricted diet and ensuring that half of his workouts in the build up to Everest were fasted,
“Kilian climbs 600,000m of total ascent every year”
low intensity and long distance – in other words, the very conditions he would experience on Everest – Ballinger encouraged his body to switch to burning fat first, increasing the limit at which his body switches to carbohydrate stores to 143bpm.
“Exploring new technologies and training is part of what fascinates me with this sport,” he says. “When I started big mountain climbing, I felt like it was being done the same way it had been since the 1950s; the system, the schedule, the acclimatisation process, everything had stayed the same.” By approaching the sport as a multi- discipline athlete, Ballinger believes Jornet had the freedom to approach the mountain with a much fresher mind-set. “My opinion of Kilian and that of the community is one of real excitement. When well-trained, aerobic athletes from sports like running come into climbing, I think there’s just so much potential. Many alpinist climbers – and I would include myself in this – tend to be untrained. There’s a belief that this sport is all about suffering, and the more you suffer the more you achieve. But the past few years have seen science, data and athletes such as Kilian come in and show that it is possible to excel with a smarter approach. It’s like he’s breaking through a mental barrier, showing people what’s possible.”
But while Jornet’s inquisitiveness, lateral thinking and genetic advantages undoubtedly help fuel his dominance, like any athlete, it is a life-long dedication to his sport – starting with that first hike aged 18 months – that has seen him excel. Whereas Ballinger was in his late teens before he climbed his first mountain, Jornet has been climbing them ever since he could walk.
“The training history of an athlete is the best determination of his performance. It takes years for the physiological adaptations and developments known to enhance endurance to maximise their effect,” says Johnston. “If a 35-year- old suddenly decides he wants to emulate Kilian – whether that’s starting to run ultras or climbing Everest – he will never reach his ultimate genetic potential for endurance because the ageing process will be working at a faster rate than the training process works. There just is no magic high-intensity shortcut.”
Mind Over Mountain
Perhaps Jornet’s most closely guarded weapon is also his most unexpected. Unlike most athletes, he claims that everything he does is ultimately meaningless. It’s a kind of nihilism that befits one who spends his life among the cold majesty of mountaintops. “Racing is fun and it keeps you motivated, but it is nothing important,” he says. “Even if you are Olympic champion, all that means is that at this time, in this race, you were faster than the other guys. In general we put sport on too high a pedestal. We are not educating people. We are not investigating ways to make the world better through new medicines or new energies. It’s just a game.”
From this comes Jornet’s most salient piece of advice, and one that is equally applicable to summits both real and metaphysical. “Thinking that what you’re doing isn’t that important actually makes things much easier,” he says. “I have seen people who are really well prepared, but then on the day of the race they put themselves under so much pressure that they don’t perform. If you relax, you don’t have the unnecessary stress of thinking, ‘OK, today I can be a hero.’ Instead, you complete the race the way you want.”
We all have our own heights to scale and limits to test. We may not all aim to sample the rarefied air of snowcapped peaks or to embark on 100-mile runs for fun. But as Jornet has demonstrated, whatever the challenge, preparing thoroughly and being open-minded about how you tackle it is likely to yield results. In the meantime, the extraordinary Spaniard has a short race in Switzerland coming up, followed by a 100-mile race in the French Alps. After that, his schedule is open. “The list of ideas is very big,” he says, reflectively. “Now is the time to take it down and choose which one is next.”