Kilian Jornet

Kilian Jornet. Mountain poetry

Photo: Jordi Saragossa | Kilian Jornet.

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t the end of January, many of us felt a mixture of anguish and admiration for the efforts made by Urubko and Bielecki to try to get Revol and Mackiewicz out alive from Nanga Parbat. This great show of humanity serves as a starting point to kick off a conversation with Kilian Jornet in which we have left aside more familiar aspects to delve into his mountain philosophy from more of a climbing point of view.

The loss of friends such as Stéphane Brosse or Ueli Steck help us to reflect on death and on the risks we are willing to take in order to live life to its full. Kilian searches deep down and reveals feelings that only those closest to him know.

Messner will go down in history for revolutionizing modern mountaineering and demonstrating, among many other aspects, that it was possible to ascend an eight-thousander without artificial oxygen. Steck will do it for his climbs of very great technical difficulty at unbelievable speed. The activities that Jornet is doing, together with a different mountain philosophy, are making him write beautiful lines in the history of mountaineering.

Kilian draws admiration and is a source of inspiration for many. We also wanted to find out who sparks those feelings in him.

 

Kissthemountain: A few weeks ago we saw again one of those episodes that will go down in the history of mountaineering. Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki, Jarek Botor and Piotrek Tomala rushed to the call for help from two other climbers, Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz, who after reaching Nanga Parbat´s summit, suffered terrible problems in the descent. The story is widely known. I imagine you followed the rescue … What incredible principles! Without a doubt, taking it beyond just a sport. On occasions like this we see that money and goals are shelved for much more transcendent issues as is human life…

Kilian Jornet: Yes, I was following it. The truth is that this rescue has been particularly interesting in two aspects. Firstly, for the almost live streaming of all the advances and good use made of technology as a means to get help. From the moment that Eli [Elisabeth Revol] called for help, a crowdfunding campaign was launched that, thanks to social networks, managed to collect the money needed in just a few hours. Also through the networks it was possible to follow the rescue in a very up-to-date way and with important and interesting information, not morbid with the sole objective of getting clicks. I think it was a very good example of how networks and online cooperation were used to follow and finance the rescue.

Secondly, there is the work and principles of Denis [Urubko], Adam [Bielecki] and the other climbers who were in K2. I believe that helping is a natural instinct in humans, as well as trying to do your best without putting yourself in excessive risk. Unfortunately, in many situations or places, this doesn´t seem normal anymore. In a small town, in an unpopulated area, when someone has a problem, usually people come to help naturally. I would say the same thing happens in mountain regions with few people around. In cities or populated areas, and also in busy mountains such as the Himalayas in spring or some areas of the Alps, we have this idea that if someone has a problem, their friends or a rescue squad will be there to help. As there are many people around, it is not our “job” to come to their aid, since we think that others will do it and that we have better things to do. This, which happens very often and almost naturally, is a pity.

What Denis, Adam… did is heroic because of the difficulty. It´s really complicated to get there that fast, but what we should contemplate is that it shouldn´t be considered heroic but the natural thing inside all of us, not only in remote areas where of course there are fewer options to find the necessary help, but in any mountain or in any city. They´ve shown us that the heroic should be the normal human thing to do, and in our individualistic and self-centered days, this is important and admirable.

 

K: Once again Urubko … I´ve not been able to stop thinking all weekend about another rescue of a spectacular human dimension. I speak of the unsuccessful one of Iñaki Ochoa de Olza. I wanted to talk to you about someone who participated very actively in it. I mean the great Ueli Steck. I know you had a great relationship with him and shared time in the mountains. He was without a doubt a spectacular mountaineer. Probably one of the best in history…

KJ: Ueli was someone with an awesome level who moved exceptionally in the terrain. For me he has been a source of enormous inspiration since I started in the mountains. Ueli, Denis, Simone, Tomaz, Valeri, Iñurra, Steve, were some of the climbers who did amazing activities when I started out. Then, through mutual friends, and through a similar way of understanding the mountain, Ueli and I met. We skied a couple of times in the Alps. The first time we climbed something together was, in fact, in the Himalayas. He was with Colin Haley to try out the Babanov route on the south of Nupse. Helias Millaroux and Ben Guigonnet were also there to attempt a new route. We coincided in Chukkung. One day we went to climb a summit around 6,300 meters. A nice mixed ridge with Ueli and Helias. Descending we were surprised by his technique of climbing down an 80 degree slope with an ice ax, to traverse a glacier looking for a safe place… Afterwards, every time I went with him to the mountain, they were moments of great learning. He was someone that interested me a lot because, apart from the technique he had, he prepared things very well. He planned his trainings in a scientific way, and also took care of food, psychology… We talked a lot about very specific topics and geeky aspects, and also about the vision he had of mountaineering, of various activities in this environment, combining sports to make ascents and chaining… The things he did were only possible because he had a very advanced technical level that allowed him to scale (and climb down) alone in a very fast way at difficult altitudes. When we went to the north of Eiger, he climbed as if he were walking along a path. There was a lot of strength and resistance training behind him… He trained specifically for goals for around 1,200 hours a year.

Emelie and I heard about his accident while at Cho Oyu. It was really tough. Losing someone close is very difficult, but if it´s also someone who does a type of mountaineering you identify with and with whom you share a set of values, it´s even worse. You´re shattered in the moment. And it makes you think about things. Is it worth taking certain risks…? Because nobody wants to die, besides knowing that you have people around you, a partner, family, friends… Moments like those are where you stop to think and weigh up the risks you are willing to take. Without a doubt Ueli´s death influenced me in the Everest expedition, where I decided to go the normal route and not take unnecessary risks.

 

“What Denis, Adam... did is heroic because of the difficulty. It´s really complicated to get there that fast, but what we should contemplate is that it shouldn´t be considered heroic but the natural thing inside all of us, not only in remote areas where of course there are fewer options to find the necessary help, but in any mountain or in any city. They´ve shown us that the heroic should be the normal human thing to do, and in our individualistic and self-centered days, this is important and admirable”.

 

K: Since we are discussing Ueli Steck I´d like to take the opportunity to get to a really delicate issue. The other day whilst chatting with a friend, we talked about the overused phrase of “at least he died doing what he loved”. Kilian, maybe your opinion is very different to mine, but I wouldn´t like to die on the mountain. I´d prefer, when the time comes, to be somewhere else. Death in this environment must be surrounded by great loneliness and in many cases, the wait, knowing that it is inevitable, must be endless. I imagine that on some occasion you have felt it creeping up on you. Do you run away from these thoughts when they appear on the mountain or do you prefer to reflect on them? What is risk to you?

KJ: Well, the truth is that I haven´t thought much about it. On the mountain I try not to die, in the same way or maybe more so than in other activities, because in commonplace ones, like driving, we don´t have the same consciousness or precaution. If I could choose, like almost everyone, I would prefer to die as an old man and without any suffering. But to achieve this I don´t want to stop living and be shut away and protected to preserve a life without experiences. And of course, if we go out to live life, there will be risks we take. Therefore, if you have to die in an accident, I haven´t thought about whether it´s better or worse in the mountains or in the city, at home or elsewhere. I think in the end it´s not that important either way. If I could choose…, that it be quick and direct, rather than waiting and  knowing full well there is no other option than to die.

I don´t reflect on death, I don´t think about it. Yes I do think about the risks and what you have to do to stay alive. I think you have to be cold and objective and try, on the mountain and in committed ascents or situations, not to be influenced by emotions, good or bad, by fear or happiness, but to be proactive and look objectively at what lies ahead, the mountain, the conditions, the difficulty of the route… and also be real about ourselves, our technical and physical level, our knowledge, the material we´re carrying, so as to, from this standpoint, see if it can be done or not, and if we are prepared to take the risk knowing what could happen to us.

 

K: Recently a friend bumped into Alberto Iñurrategi on a plane on route to Granada. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest mountaineers in history and who still loves the mountain even though it took his brother´s life. Death is something that those who take big risks have to coexist with. “An instant, that’s what separates happiness from pain. Everything is decided in millimeters, in tenths of a second.” I think those are your words referring to the death of your great friend and companion Stéphane Brosse. Apologies for delving into something very personal, but I wonder how you overcome this. If I lost certain friends that way, I don´t know if I would ever be able to return to the mountain. Can I ask you if you went back to that place where the snow cornice collapsed under him? Does not giving up on the mountain, and returning to it with more strength if possible, a kind of tribute to Stéphane?

KJ: I return to the mountain because it´s what gives us life, even though sometimes it can also snatch it from us. Maybe you will take different risks depending on the moment. It doesn´t feel right to take certain risks in the same way on two different days. There are days when it seems reasonable and others where it doesn´t. And here emotions come into play, if you’ve lost someone, if you’re in love, if you’ve had a good day or a bad one…. Undoubtedly everything influences the risks we take to a greater or lesser extent. I returned to Aiguille d’Argentiere about a year after his accident. I think it’s important to deal with it. Without a doubt, after Stéphane’s death, I had a difficult year. I may not have realized it for a while. I don´t think I accepted it. I don´t know if I have still accepted the fact he departed when it would have been much easier if I had fallen, because at that time I had no family, no children, no plans. If I had died, my parents and some friends would be sad, but that´s it. The following year I did a lot of solo climbing close to my maximum level, which was low. I climbed 6b routes when my maximum then was 6c. It was the first accident in which I understood the difference between knowing there is a risk and really being aware of it.

 

“Emelie and I heard about his accident while at Cho Oyu. It was really tough. Losing someone close is very difficult, but if it´s also someone who does a type of mountaineering you identify with and with whom you share a set of values, it´s even worse. You´re shattered in the moment. And it makes you think about things. Is it worth taking certain risks...? ”

 

K: Messner will go down in mountaineering history for having revolutionized it and having shown it was possible to ascend an eight-thousander without artificial oxygen. Ueli Steck, will be remembered for those tremendously technical ascents at dizzying speed. I have a feeling, Kilian, that it´s highly possible you´ll be known for other types of ascents in which lightness and simplicity, the “alpinism of man”, and also speed, are characteristics that will define your career in the high mountain. Do you agree with me? Do you know yet if you´ll continue other mountains which you started as part of the Summits of my Life project and in particular Everest?

KJ: I haven´t ever thought about what legacy I want to leave. I like being active. It´s not important talking about it or being part of something, because often, if we dwell on these issues, we waste time that we could have used in training or doing other types of activities. What I like most is versatility and being able to continuously move as opposed to difficulty. I like running, doing ultras, vertical kilometers, skimo races, skyraces, crossings, summit ascents, chaining mountains, and I don´t believe that one of these activities is superior or more laudable than another. All of them give me different and enriching aspects.

Speaking of high mountains, the learnings over the last five years in the Himalayas and through Summits of My Life, have helped me understand a little better the logistics, how to acclimatize… Last year was very interesting for me. Firstly to find out if I could climb to 8,850 meters without oxygen (beforehand I didn´t know if my body would be able to handle it), and also to see that, despite harsh conditions or discomforts that don´t place your life in danger, it´s possible to continue moving and doing activity. And finally, to prove it´s possible to do long activities, chain peaks and make different ascents in just a few days. I would definitely like to keep doing it, but, yes, without focusing exclusively on this type of activity, because I like to compete, do other things in the Alps, Norway, downhill skiing…

 

K: You are probably one of the closest people to all-round mountaineering, understood as the ability to move with great ease, among the best in the world, in many sports disciplines related to the mountain. Maybe I’m wrong, and if so I apologize, but I think the “great” mountaineering, which doesn´t necessarily mean the “eight-thousanders”, will see how your name started to write the pages of history in the near future… Where are your steps directed?

KJ: I don´t believe there is such a thing as all-round mountaineering. We don´t even know with certainty what mountaineering is. Nor that there is a better or purer way to climb mountains compared to others. What you have to do is be honest when saying how you climbed. What I do is go up hills or climb mountains. I don´t know where my steps are going, but as I said before, I prefer to be able to do a bit of everything than to focus on something specific.

 

“Without a doubt, after Stéphane’s death, I had a difficult year. I may not have realized it for a while. I don´t think I accepted it. I don´t know if I have still accepted the fact he departed when it would have been much easier if I had fallen, because at that time I had no family, no children, no plans”.

 

K: “Mountaineering had been the traditional form, then climbing difficulty was sought and I decided to expand to mountaineering of renunciation. Renunciation because it meant leaving behind the rope, a companion and oxygen bottles. Only in that way did mountaineering become valid for me. That’s my philosophy.”  These are Messner’s words and I think they are very close to your own way of understanding this activity. Here is another: “Competing doesn´t make sense in mountaineering. That’s why you can´t talk about records either. Progress in alpinism lies in the way it´s executed. I strive to perfect my style, to exercise my sight, to increase my capacity for resistance.” I think here we can see some differences, although perhaps I´ve misunderstood something. I’m talking about FKT [Fastest Known Times]…

KJ: Let’s see, I think I’m going to get geeky here. I´ll try to explain it to you. There is a difference between a record and FKT. A record is a mark under certain conditions and rules. Like in a race where they are the same for everyone: assistance, materials, and the circuit. Even in athletics there is no mention of a record if, for example, there is more than x wind assistance, if the race fulfils certain conditions (Boston marathon), or if pacemakers or help is made available (sub 2 hours of Nike in Monza). That´s why it´s difficult to talk about records in the mountain. First, because conditions are constantly changing, and then because of the different ways to go about it. When we talk about FKT it’s something else, and I think this is interesting on two levels. An overarching one, of knowing when and up to what point a man can reach his full potential through certain training methods and technique. And, at an individual level in two aspects. Such as motivation, to have a goal or something that pushes you to train even on the bad days, and knowledge of oneself, to measure if we are progressing. Looking at the stopwatch in a terrain with certain difficulties and conditions, can help us know if we´ve improved. For example, a more efficient movement with better technique and thus greater assurance, will naturally move us quicker, and this can work as a reference point for ourselves: knowing we are capable of running 1,000 meters in x conditions between 1,000 and 2,000 meters in 30 minutes, or in two hours between 6,000 and 7,000 meters, or climbing 1,000 meters in AD [Fairly Difficult, according to the French grade system for alpine routes] in an hour and a half, or TD [Very Difficult according to the same grade system] in three hours. Therefore, the FKT are interesting if all the conditions are known (assistance, material from the start and weight, pacemakers, leading footprints, knowledge of the route, existence of communication, time of year…). The point lies in discovering new preparation methods and finding the motivation. Therefore, to compare two FKT’s without knowing conditioning factors, I don´t think is very useful. For example, the same Ueli on Eiger with a marked track/attached to two fixed ropes compared to no markings/without taking anything, signifies, I believe, a 30 minute difference. The conditions are not comparable. You can´t say that one is faster than the other. The importance is in knowing that with markings in TD you can climb at 680 m/h whilst freestyle without any markings at 600m/h. But I think this is getting very geeky, it´s difficult to explain and comprehend outside this circle. For the media and people in general, it´s much easier to understand that someone is faster than another and match up, when the real point of this type of activity is quite different in my opinion.

 

 

K: Vanity. Returning to the great Alberto Iñurrategi, probably one of the most humble people in this world and who, nevertheless, recognizes the fact that more than “because they are there”, he wanted to conquer the mountains for vanity. Another great mountaineer, Ferrán Latorre, told us that his motive was a mix between the conquest of beauty, challenge and curiosity. I know it´s a difficult question to answer, but I would like to know why you do it.

KJ: No doubt, part of it is vanity. We do egocentric activities to feel an individual, intrinsic pleasure that potentially puts us at risk. I believe I climb mountains for the beauty of being there, for the landscape, the light, the challenge, progression, imagining things and seeing whether I´m capable of doing them, the emotion or sensation of the moment, the feelings when climbing, the snow sliding under your skis, running with a fluidity of movement… Without a doubt it´s dedicating a lot of time (which brings life) and effort to an activity that is not productive (you´re not producing anything of material use for yourself or others, like food, a roof… ) and that implies a more intrinsic search than anything else.

 

K: Kilian, you draw admiration and are a source of inspiration for many people throughout the world. Can you tell us who invokes that feeling in you? I´m not just referring to their “results” but rather their way of understanding the sport.

KJ: Many people, close friends with whom I go to the mountain and learn from every day, like Seb Montaz, Vivian Bruchez, Jordi Tosas, Jordi Canals, the people who I go out with in Norway…, all these people. Then there are people who are doing interesting activities now, like Colin Haley, Alex Honnold, Marc Andre Leclerc, Paul Bonhomme, Simone Moro, Denis Urubko, Nick Elton, Eli Revol and Tamara Lunger; also trail athletes such as Mejía, De Gasperi, Max King, Rickey Gates …; and athletics, long distance runners, biathletes …; coaches who share workouts, and people that you meet who tell you their story. And from the past, people who when I started out were doing incredible activities like Lucas and Bohigas, Mark Twight, Messner, Bonatti, Preuss, Comici, Brosse, Elmer, Greco, Meraldi, Pep Ollé … I think that each person brings many things from which we can learn and be inspired.

 

 

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