The world’s biggest mountain vs the world’s best ultra runner: Kilian on Everest

Last updated: 30-Nov-18

By James Eacott

When Kilian Jornet decided to take on Everest, it was always going to be a meeting of giants. His first attempt was due to be in 2015 but had to be cancelled following the tragic earthquake of April that year. This year, he took on the monster, but it was not to be. In this contest between man and mountain, the mountain was to win.

The Man

We’ve all heard of Kilian Jornet and most of us are familiar with his exploits. The 28-year-old (yes, he’s still only 28) is a six-time Skyrunning World Series Champion. He’s won everything there is to win: UTMB, Hardrock 100, Grand Raid Reunion and Western States 100. His Suunto Movescount account is always good for a gawp!

He’s an exceptional ultra runner – perhaps the best there’s ever been – but is morphing into a mountaineer. His roots, after all, are in the mountains. He spent much of his childhood at a hut at an altitude of 2,000m in the Pyrenees where his father was a keeper and mountain guide. At age six he’d already climbed to 4,000m. In 1999 – aged 12 – he started ski mountaineering.

He’s also a very pensive and humble individual and rather than try to describe his personality, this interview provides an insightful view into the man, his values, opinions on death and how he deals with the solitude and danger of the mountains. It’s well worth a read to understand him as a person.

The Mission

The Summits of My Life is Kilian’s personal project to attempt to set the ascent and descent records on what he deems to be the most important mountains on the planet namely Mont Blanc, Cervino (Matterhorn), Denali and Aconcagua, culminating with Mount Everest.

The team originally wanted to attempt the speed ascent of Everest in 2015 but the attempt was cancelled after the earthquake in April of that year.

As with all other SOML expeditions, Kilian not only intended to complete the climb in one hit – true Alpine style – without stopping at high altitude camps, but also to set off from the last inhabited place and not stop until he returned there. That point is the Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet.

From the Monastery, Kilian would have had to cover 30km before even reaching the advanced north base camp at 6,500m (aptly called Zombie Camp). From there, it’s straight up to 8,850m via either the Norton or Horbein route.  Kilian being Kilian wanted to do it as simply and cleanly as possible….

With nothing but crampons and ice axes.

No fixed ropes.

No emergency team on the mountain.

It would have been the first time Kilian had been over 8,000m (known as The Death Zone).

Another factor is that there are very few people on Everest at this time of year. The monsoon is still in the neighbourhood which means all the fixed lines that classic climbers use are covered in snow.

Kilian was aware that reaching the summit depended on a lot of factors, none more significant that weather. However, when asked about his chances of success before the mission, his response was classic Kilian:

Whatever happens, if we don’t make it, for me it’s not a failure. On the contrary, it’s a lesson. I know that whatever happens we’ll return from Everest having learnt something. In the end, it’s the mountain that’s in charge and we have to be humble. It will always be there, waiting for us, for another chance.”  
Everest is probably one of the most demanding climbs I’ve ever faced. All this will be a great learning experience to see how my body will react in height, and to apply this way of facing the mountain with the style we use in the Alps [i.e. fast ascent / decent]. Many months I prepare for this challenge and cannot wait to begin. The Summits of My Life project has always led me to go further and I think this time will be no different

The Team

Considering most Everest expeditions amass teams of up to 100, Kilian’s assembly of just three individuals to crew the attempt was stripped back to say the least but that is how he likes to operate. Minimal environmental footprint, as little impact on the local culture as possible and a small, bonded, intimate team. “He’s facing the challenge in a very natural way” said team mate Jordi Tosas before they started.

So, the team was small but perfectly formed.

Seb Montaz-Rosset: Cameraman and talented mountaineer. Kilian described him in two words: “Creative” and “Hyperactive”!

Vivian Bruchez: Very experienced French mountain guide and talented skier. In two words, “Reason” and “Humbleness”.

Jordi Tosas: the voice of experience in the Himalayas, having climbed multiple 8,000m peaks and other technical ascents. In one word, Kilian said he embodied “Passion”.

He also made his packing list public on Instagram if you fancy a peek. It certainly didn’t look like much.

The Training

Kilian has always spent a great deal of time at altitude and, as you’ll see from his Movescount account, measures his runs in terms of altitude gained/lost rather than us mere mortals measuring in time or distance. He even climbed Mont Blanc twice in one day as one training session.

For the challenge, he adopted the ‘train high, recover low’ approach to best acclimatise for the team’s planned continued training in the Himalayas. Rather than waiting to acclimatise once they got to Nepal, Kilian was aiming to be partially acclimatised before even leaving Europe. This meant lots of days training above 4,000m and sometimes as many as four ascents of Mont Blanc in one week, as well as some sleeping at high altitude (above 4,000m).

The Expedition

The question for many people with an expedition of this sort was how much risk the team would be willing to take. Everest is not a safe mountain. Commercial tours have made it more accessible in some ways as the number of people who summit grows ever greater. However, the mountain takes her victims. Around 280 people are believed to have died attempting the climb (not all bodies have been recovered) and the last year when no fatalities were recorded was 1977. Avalanches, falls, exposure, ice collapse and surviving on no oxygen in the Death Zone are all very present hazards.

Kilian was trying to attempt something even more difficult and arguably dangerous, than a regular ascent, relying on speed and superb physical ability to get him up and down quickly.

But this year was not to be for Kilian and his team. They decided that the unstable weather conditions and the very high risk of avalanches made the attempt foolhardy and had to return without attempting the summit.

As ever, Kilian has returned positive and confident of a successful return in the near future. Read his full account of the expedition on his website.

Will he do it? We hope so and wish him luck in his quest.

Further reading and watching

On a previous visit to Nepal, Kilian visited the region of Langtang – an area utterly devastated by the 2015 earthquakes. The rebuilding of homes in the valley became an integral and motivational feature of his Everest expedition. The team made a video on a previous trip to the valley, which you can see here:

All profits raised from the film premiere in Barcelona will go to the NGO SOS Himalaya, which the team are working with to rebuild 116 homes in the Langtang Valley. Besides the cost of materials (which is all of $180 per house), the next largest cost is transportation of materials which must be taken by air due to the inaccessibility of the area. In total they aimed to raise $58,000.

On July 20th 2016, Kilian announced the target had been reached and that the charity SOS Himalaya has travelled to Langtang to coordinate the start of the project on the ground (and in the air). However, further donations can be made right here.

"whatever happens we’ll return from Everest having learnt something"

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