Kilian Jornet is, simply put, a force of nature. A world-class runner and ski mountaineer, he moves through mountains with the surefootedness of a mountain goat, the easygoing endurance of an antelope on the veld. On a typical day, he’ll run for hours eating nothing more than wild berries and slaking his thirst in glacial streams. During multi-day races, he’ll curl up beside the trail and take “micro siestas” on his way to winning them.
One of the world’s leading endurance athletes, Jornet dominates the competition at altitude. His VO2 max, the rate at which he consumes oxygen, has been measured at 89.5, a full five points higher than Lance Armstrong’s at his peak. He’s won dozens of footraces that traverse as many as 100 miles of mountain terrain, and has seven world championships (including 2014) in Skyrunning.
In 2012, having already won most of his races of interest at the tender age of 24, Jornet embarked upon an ambitious and daring project that would challenge him in exciting new ways. His “Summits of My Life” project is a four-year effort to set speed records climbing and descending some of the world’s best-known peaks, from Mont Blanc to Mount Everest. He’s already set records on Mt. Blanc, the Matterhorn and Denali (this June he did it in 11 hours and 40 minutes, shattering the previous record by an incredible 5 hours and 6 minutes). Next up is South America’s 22,837-foot Aconcagua, followed by Elbrus and, finally, Everest.
Jornet grew up in the Spanish Pyrenees at 6,500 feet, where his athletic parents had him skiing before he could walk and later brought him on days-long hikes into the mountains. All the while, they instilled in him a deep respect for the landscape, and today it’s where he feels most at home. In fact, observers swear he draws his strength and endurance directly from the wilderness, as though the scent of alpine wildflowers and the feel of the rock underfoot are what fuel him. It’s said that he can’t stand cities — with all of their artifice and bright, buzzing confusion — for more than a few hours at a time.
It’s funny, then, that the last time we encountered Jornet was in the glass-and-concrete heart of Midtown Manhattan. In town to accept a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award, he was being whisked frantically from one event to the next when we met him at Le Maraís, an unremarkable French restaurant where he was eating his last meal before his long flight back to Chamonix, France: roasted salmon filet, ratatouille and chive oil. Over lunch with Jornet, we discussed mountains, his speed climbing project, and the nature of risk.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Every man should know that he really doesn’t know much at all, and have the desire to learn.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. It depends; when you’re prepared for a big challenge, it doesn’t feel so hard. On the other hand, it can be hard to walk down stairs the day after a 100-mile race, harder even than the race itself. But, of my challenges, probably crossing the Pyrenees in eight days; it was a hard week.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I’m preparing for the last Skyrunning races of the season. Then, as part of my Summits of My Life project, to set the record on Aconcagua in December.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. Mountains and silence.
I don’t want to be remembered. All I want is to live my life according to my values.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Every person I meet influences me. I admire some alpinists like Ueli Steck, Steve House, Mark Twight, Christophe Profit, Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner. Writers, too, including José Saramago, Ramón Sampedro, Gabriel García Márquez and Alessandro Baricco.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Forbidden Colors by Yukio Mishima and Nubosidad Variable by Carmen Martín Gaite.
Q. Name one thing nobody knows about you.
A. I can’t. People already know too much about me!
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. I probably wouldn’t spend my last moments drinking or eating, but I like Italian foods like pizza and pasta, and prefer drinking just plain water.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year-old-self something, what would you say?
A. I think life is all about learning from our mistakes, so I would probably say nothing.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I don’t want to be remembered. All I want is to live my life according to my values.
Q. What is it that draws you to the mountains?
A. It’s the terrain where I grew up, so it’s where I can feel comfortable and explore. Mountains are special because every day they’re different, and because they challenge you in many different ways.
Q. What caused you to embark on your “Summits of My Life” project?
A. I’d accomplished a lot of the things I wanted to in racing, so I wanted to find new motivations. Plus, this project has been on my mind for a long time, from back when I started the sport at 13 years old.
Q. You recently set the speed record on Denali, but you still have Elbrus, Aconcagua and Everest to tackle. Which summit do you anticipate will be the most challenging?
A. Everest for sure. Aconcagua and Elbrus are mostly about the physical challenge of climbing and dealing with the altitude, but Everest is so much higher, and a lot depends on the conditions of the mountain.
Q. How have you trained yourself to eat and drink so little during your record attempts?
A. Simple: I almost never carry water or food in training.
Q. How do you manage and justify risk while you’re running, skiing and climbing on exposed alpine terrain?
A. Taking risk is not playing the lottery; it’s a decision you make while weighing your abilities and what you stand to lose. So when you take a risk, it’s because you think you’re skilled enough that it will be safe. Anyway, accidents happen and risks are everywhere in life; if you want to avoid it, you’ll be sitting on the sofa all day.
Q. What do you think about while you’re running alone through the mountains?
A. Many things. Sometimes it’s just another day in the office, and I think about the groceries I need to buy later or about the next day’s meetings. Other times, I lose myself in the flow of the moment and revel in the freedom.
Q. Of your many accomplishments, which ones mean the most to you?
A. The ones of tomorrow.