The Catalan mountain and trail-runner Kílian Jornet has achieved some truly spectacular feats of endurance in his career.
Jornet grew up in the Pyrenees. By the age of three, he had climbed his first mountain. At 12, he was ski mountaineering for fun. Then, in the 2000s, he burst onto the mountain trail running scene, rewriting every record in the book, before turning his attention to three great peaks: Matterhorn, Denali and Everest.
The first two were a walk in the park. Well, kind of. The Himalayan beast required slightly more of Jornet but he still managed to reach the summit twice in six days without oxygen, radio communication, or fixed ropes. Read the last sentence again, if you need to, such is its mind-boggling beauty.
How is this possible, we hear you ask. The answers can be found in the first episode of season two of How To be Superhuman, in which Rob Pope talks to Kílian to find out.
The roots of Jornet’s incredible journey to the top of the world, lie in his upbringing in the Spanish mountains.
Jornet grew up 2,000 metres above sea level in the ski resort of Lles de Cerdanya in north-eastern Spain, meaning the mountains were his playground. “I started in the mountains as a young kid so from that point I learned to adapt, how to put my feet on the rocks, and on the snow,” he explains on the podcast. “The physical training is an adaptation of this over the years.”
Without realising it, he started racking up the achievements before he could even speak properly; a five-hour hike with his mother at the age of 18 months being a case in point.
His mother would often take Jornet and his sister on night walks in the forest and then leave the pair to see if they could make their way back home.
“Many times we were afraid when we were in the dark, but there was nothing to be afraid of, just rabbits and foxes who are not dangerous animals,” he says. So we understood that we belong there and that was the point of those evening walks.”
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Jornet was an extremely energetic child, given the very outdoors nature of his upbringing. But it was his endurance levels and willingness to step out of his comfort zone which marked him out as a bit different to other mountain kids.
“When I was 12 or 13, I cycled with older friends and I told them ‘I wish uphills were endless’ because I love the feeling of going up,” he says. “You’re suffering, and pushing yourself. That’s what I was like when I was a teenager.”
But it was only when he joined the Ski Mountaineering Technical Centre (CTEMC) in Catalonia at the age of 13, and began winning competitions that he started to realise he was operating on a different level to other athletes.
When he was 18, however, Jornet was injured in an accident while walking home from school - “running in the cities is dangerous, much safer in the mountains” - and it was during his recovery that he made his plans to take on the world in the shape of the toughest races, across all terrains.
Six years later, the Spaniard had ticked off every box on his list, around 20 years ahead of schedule, as he was hoping to win those races by the time he was 45 years old.
Among his successes were winning the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) three times, and America’s notoriously challenging Hardrock 100-mile race four times in a row, shattering the course record for fun.
Jornet was undoubtedly helped by his extraordinary VO2 Max (aerobic capacity) of 92ml/min/kg, one of the highest ever recorded, and his ability to recover quickly. “If you recover better, you can train more - that was probably my gift,” he says.
I had a huge picture of Matterhorn in my room when I was a kid. I’d been dreaming of those mountains since then
At that point, Jornet decided to return to his first love - the mountains, and so began his epic project ‘The Summits of My Life’, which was an attempt to run up and down Matterhorn, Denali and Everest in the traditional Alpine style. That meant no communication with the outside world, no fixed ropes, and no supplementary oxygen.
“I had a huge picture of Matterhorn in my room when I was a kid,” he says. “I’d been dreaming of those mountains since then.”
Although Jornet was haunted by seeing his friend Stéphane Brosse fall to his death on Mont Blanc, he believed the adventurer was with him every time he set foot in the mountains, and used his memory to inspire him to break speed records on both Matterhorn and Denali.
There was only Everest standing between Jornet and legend status, but it proved to be far from straightforward, even for this uncanny Catalan, who treated every challenge with the respect it deserved: “I hate words like conquer or dominate mountains. It’s more like being able to be in them and to ask them if we can pass. That feeling of realising how small we are, it’s overwhelming, and it’s the beauty of being up there.”
Taking on Everest
His first attempt, accompanied by Jordi Tosas and Sébastien Montaz-Rosset, ended in failure as extreme weather triggered avalanches conditions, but Jornet remained positive: “I expect misery on the mountain, it’s about finding the happiness to overcome the misery. If you want to climb a summit, 50% of the time it will be a failure.”
Every step is a battle. The lack of oxygen affects the brain, cognitive aspects slow down a lot, so thinking takes a lot of effort
Undeterred, he returned to base camp of the world’s highest peak in 2017 and this time, he went alone – nobody does that. Just like nobody climbs Everest in one go, because they do it in three stages to acclimatise to the altitude. But, Jornet is not like anybody else. “I’m a lazy person so I don’t like to carry a tent,” he says. “It’s easier to carry a couple of things and just go up and down.”
Jornet’s first task was to tackle 25km of moraine (the rocks deposited by a glacier) but by the time he’d reached 7,200m, he began to suffer from severe diarrhoea and vomiting. “Every step is a battle,” he explains. “The lack of oxygen also affects the brain, cognitive aspects slow down a lot, so thinking takes a lot of effort.”
Due to what he suspected was food poisoning, Jornet had not eaten for around 12 hours, so he struggled back to base camp as quickly as he could. His round-trip had taken 26 hours, some way off the record which was under 17.
It was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement, given he had not used supplementary oxygen, even at the 8,850m peak. And most people would have been happy with that. Of course, Jornet is not most people. And four days later, he summited Everest again, this time in 17 hours, just fractionally outside the record.
On his descent, he blacked out, and came round to find himself hallucinating and 500m off course on a deathly-steep precipice. “I don’t remember anything,” he explains. “When I kind of woke up, I didn’t know where I was. I started to have some hallucinations but I was conscious that they were hallucinations.”
My path is in the mountains. It was always about this vision of being free on the mountains, being connected with the mountains
Jornet allowed himself time to stop and get control of his mind before completing his descent, and sealing his place in history.
The following year, he destroyed the record for the fabled British trail-running challenge – the Bob Graham Round – which requires participants to scale 44 Lake District fells, with a combined ascent of 8,200m, and a distance of around 106km.
More recently, Jornet has tried his hand – well, foot – at road running, something he never thought would happen. “I thought it was the dumbest thing that someone could do, the most boring thing,” he admits. “So it was super fun to explore that and see what I was able to do. But of course my path is in the mountains. It was always about this vision of being free on the mountains, being connected with the mountains.”
You get the feeling he’s not done yet.