When Kilian Jornet lines up at this weekend's Red Bull Elements, he will be doing so with the recognition that he's undoubtably one of the most complete mountain athletes on the planet. This summer, he's blown minds with his record-breaking speed ascents on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
Boundaries aren't just being pushed here, they're being leaped over and left in the dust with a single bound of his trail-shoe clad feet. Let's make one thing clear, however, this goes far beyond simply running trails. Far, far, beyond...
“It's important to say that it's not trail running just because you're in trail running shoes,” stresses Kilian. “It's alpinism. It's still dangerous.” Yep, It is alpinism, that's for sure, but it's an evolved genre of ultra-fast, ultra-light alpinism – a kind of bare-bones, über-alpinism with the 25-year-old Catalan at the helm.
Take Kilian's Mont Blanc and Matterhorn exploits – two iconic mountains; one being Europe's highest with the other being the poster-child of Alpine peaks – both extremely challenging and dangerous climbs. That he set the speed record on each peak in the space of six weeks is awesome enough. The fact that he pulled it off in the middle of an already hectic race calendar pushes it into almost mythical territory. He has more ascents planned as part of his Summits of my Life project.
In comparing the two records, Kilian tells Redbull.com/adventure that, “Mont Blanc was more physical. It's not technical but it's still dangerous with the glacier, snow and you're at 5,000m.”
Technicality is subjective but time is time. He stopped the clock – Chamonix-Mont Blanc-Chamonix – in 4 hours and 57 minutes. In doing so he carved 14 minutes off the record that stood for 23 years. Impressive stuff. He then set his sights on his beloved Matterhorn and, more specifically, Bruno Brunod's 'impossible record'.
Brunod's speed record on the Matterhorn is the stuff of legend. Completed in a time of 3:14:44 in 1995, it's the record that many believed to be, quite simply, unbeatable. Kilian knew that to have any chance of bettering the time would require complete focus and total commitment to the great peak: “I was there for three weeks trying to understand the conditions,” he recalls, “taking time to understand the mountain”.
It's that deep understanding, nurtured through many hours on the route that enabled him to just flow come record-day. “I felt really great,” he says: “It was enjoyable and it's the kind of thing I love the most — physically technical and psychological.”
He adds: “It was not technically difficult but it's exposed!” Exposed and dangerous – seeing Kilian running down the mountain, his gloved hand sliding along a fixed rope as his only protection from a fatal fall, puts it into stark perspective. He's red-lining.
By the time Kilian reached the village he'd sliced 22 minutes from the 'impossible' record.
Born in a mountain hut in the Catalonian Pyrenees, one of Kilian's characteristics is his humility and knowledge that the mountains are the real masters. It's something that was brought into sharp focus last weekend when he and fellow champion trail runner Emelie Forsberg required a rescue after being caught in deteriorating weather while climbing the Frendo spur on the Aiguille du Midi. The rescue also brought home another fact – not everybody approves of Kilian's ultra-light approach.
Some guides are angry that Kilian's antics are inspiring people to go into the mountains ill-equipped — but it's a trend that Kilian himself is keen to discourage. “The dangers are the same as alpinism and you do need to take care,” he says. “A high price can be paid for our failures, especially when travelling light.”
But all that should hopefully seem a distant memory as he lines up on the start line of Red Bull Elements. “It's always fun and a great party,” he says.