Extreme sports

“You have to let your craziness out to feel something:” Kilian Jornet

Spanish climber who scaled Everest twice in a week talks about a life lived in the mountains

Kilian Jornet, pictured in Madrid. (Spanish audio in video)Video: JAIME VILLANUEVA / CARLOS MARTÍNEZ, ÁLVARO DE LA RÚA
Juan Morenilla

Kilian Jornet made world headlines recently, thanks to his record-breaking double ascent of Mount Everest in just a week, without the help of supplemental oxygen. The athlete is an anarchist who rejects Catalan nationalism but has little faith in Spanish politics in general. Reading in Spanish, Catalan, English, French and Italian, his literature list at base camp for the highest mountain in the world includes works by Czech novelist Milan Kundera and Catalan writer Josep Pla. Here, the 29-year-old from Spain’s Catalonia region talks about his extraordinary life lived in the mountains.

Question. How does the world look from the top of Everest?

Answer. On the summit, there is so little oxygen that your brain goes into standby mode. I only use things that keep me alive. You are thinking about where to put your hands or your feet to survive. Everything else – including your emotions – doesn’t matter. They require energy, which you don’t have. You are living in the moment. Up there, the future doesn’t exist.

Everyone has a mountain inside of them; it is a mirror that shows your fears and strengths

Q. Were you afraid?

A. Not this year. The conditions were good and I had undergone psychological training for difficult situations. Once upon a time I might have been afraid but now I have learned to accept it. More than fear, it’s the tension that comes with trying to survive, and when you have come down it’s the joy of being alive and the feeling of “I am an idiot for doing what I did.”

Q. Do you think about death?

A.Yes. When you are climbing you know that one wrong movement can lead to your death. You have to let yourself imagine these things and not make yourself out to be a hero. You have to be humble and not take more risks than you can handle. You have to be sensible.

Kilian Jornet in Chamonix in 2014.
Kilian Jornet in Chamonix in 2014.

Q. Do you see yourself as a mountain runner or a mountaineer?

A. I consider myself a human being. We like to put labels on things and every person is a combination of ideas, values and paradoxes. I love the mountains. I like exploring. I don’t consider myself a specialist at anything, rather I like being an all-rounder.

Q. There is a debate over what mountaineering is.

A. There is an American climber [Steve House] who says: “Talk minus action equals zero.” It doesn’t matter if it’s mountaineering or climbing. You have to get out and explore. There are a lot of people who prefer talk to action. If you look at what climber Alex Honnold is doing [he has climbed the iconic El Capitán wall in Yosemite without ropes], it’s really interesting. I will never do it because it would kill me, but you can pick up ideas from his training methods. You don’t need to think about the definition of mountaineering: you have to climb each mountain the way you want to.

You have to climb each mountain the way you want to

Q. Is this a mountain for everyone?

A. Yes. Everyone has a mountain inside of them. It’s a mirror. It shows you your fears and your strengths: who you are. It helps you to know who you are.

I haven’t set myself up as an example for anyone. I go alone and I don’t put anyone else at risk. Some people have more idea of their limits than others. I have been called crazy many times but you have to live out your craziness to feel something.

Q. What equipment did you use on Everest?

A. I set out with a down suit, a headlamp, two liters of water, 10 gels, mittens and at Advance Base Camp I picked up crampons, an ice ax and trekking poles. I didn’t use fixed ropes.

Q. Running up mountains or climbing them – where does the future lie?

A. I am going to do both. Last Saturday I did my first half marathon on asphalt in Norway, with a climb of 1,700 meters. Mountaineering, if you want to make progress, requires two things. If you do climbing training you win in terms of explosiveness but you have to have endurance too.

On the summit, there is so little oxygen that your brain is in standby mode

Q. Are you interested in other disciplines, like Olympic sports?

A. When I started skiing, I was very excited about the idea of being an Olympic athlete. Then later you look at what the Olympic Games are and you ask yourself if you want to be part of that. The Games destroy the mountains. The Olympic spirit is left by the wayside. For me, sport should be more a sport although I’m very competitive.

I am also very relaxed and optimistic. I am passionate about everything. I don’t look backwards and I don’t like to dwell on things. You shouldn’t dwell on things: you need to live.

English version by George Mills.

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