Mountain endurance athlete Kilian Jornet set a new speed record on 20,322-foot Mount McKinley, or Denali, in Alaska, on June 7, 2014. The 26-year-old Catalonian’s ascent and descent took 11 hours and 48 minutes, which was five hours faster than the previous record of 16 hours 46 minutes set by Ed Warren in 2013. Jornet used skis to skin up the mountain and then ski down from the summit. He wore crampons for the technical portions of the peak and avoided fixed ropes by taking the Rescue Gully route, followed by the West Buttress. “In alpinism, people always find speed as a kind of safety,” says Jornet, who was voted our People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year in 2014. “It is great to see that we can go faster in higher mountains, and this opens a lot of possibilities.”
During Jornet’s record-setting ascent and descent, the weather changed from clear to strong winds, falling snow, and very low visibility. “I could not see ten meters in front of me … I was skiing more with my feet than with my eyes,” recalls Jornet. He drank just one liter of water during this endurance event. (See his full gear list below.) When he returned to base camp, alone, he ate a dehydrated meal and some chocolate bars, rested the night, then returned to camp at 14,000 feet to meet his friends.
A world champion sky runner and ski mountaineer, Jornet is leading a new generation of mountain endurance athletes capable of moving fast and light through varied terrain on foot or skis. He loves high adventure in the mountains and shares his experiences with good friends. His Denali team—filmmaker-photographer Sébastien Montaz-Rosset and climber-skiers Vivian Bruchez and Jordi Tosas—climbed and skied in the mountains every day, including summiting Denali prior to the record and skiing Orient Express under the midnight sun, which was a highlight for Jornet. “The Alaska Range is one of the most beautiful glacier lands I have seen. It’s big mountains, a huge range, and really wild,” says Jornet. “You’re far away from routes, cities … just you and the mountains—and this is a rare feeling in European mountains.”
Denali is the sixth peak in Jornet’s Summits of My Life project. In 2014, he will next attempt to set new speed records on Russia’s Elbrus and Argentina’s Aconcagua. In 2015, he will attempt Everest.
Adventure: Is the future of speed records on mountains in all-terrain endurance athletes who can run, climb, ski as required for the terrain, rather than traditional mountaineers, who primarily use fast climbing for their strategy?
Kilian Jornet: The mountains are a space of freedom—maybe, with the sea and some deserts, mountains are the last places of freedom on Earth. Mountains are a place for everybody and every style. I think speed records or speed climbing can bring a new style for going into the mountains. Speed records are not new—the speed records on Mont Blanc started in the 1800s. In alpinism, people always find speed as a kind of safety. It is great to see that we can go faster in higher mountains, and this open a lot of possibilities.
A: People might be surprised that you were mostly on skis on Denali to set the speed record. You skinned up the mountain, used crampons for a bit, then skied down. Why did you use this approach?
KJ: Yes, in a summit like Denali that is 100 percent on snow, I skied down from the summit to base camp. With good ski technique on the descent, there is not one part where you need to take off your skis. This made me go faster on the way up. It also is fast on all the flat parts and moderate inclinations up to 14,000 feet. And, of course, on the way down, it was much more fun!
A: You said that the Denali record “has been a great adventure.” What were you referring to?
KJ: We were four people with really little weight equipment—300 p for all four of us. All the expedition time, in the airplane they said that we could carry 200 more p. We said we didn’t want to carry more. We arrived at camp at 14,000 feet two days later, and we started doing activities. The weather this June was not great—just three days of sun in three weeks. But we said that if we were waiting for a great window in the camp to try our goals, maybe we will come down without anything, so we did something every day with no rest time. We climbed and skied down West Rib and Rescue Gully. Then for the record, I started with sun but after four hours it started to snow and wind. The day after the record, I climb again to 14,000 feet, and we did Orient Express, West Buttress… So it was a great non-stop adventure.
A: You also said “it wasn’t technically difficult.” What did you mean?
KJ: For the record, I skied up on normal route and Rescue Gully to avoid problems on the fixed ropes, and West Buttress to the top, and down the same. It is not a technical route, you can speed as you can from the altitude, the big difficulties on Denali came from the weather conditions, really hard, the wind, the temperatures…
A: You took the Rescue Gully route to avoid some fixed lines on the frequently used West Rib route to maintain the purity of your quest. How did you travel through it?
KJ: It was mostly to have not problems crossing people and to go on my way without obstacles. Rescue Gully has the same inclination as the fixed ropes—it is a 40-degree slope. With one ice ax and crampons, it is pretty safe. On the way down, only the first 50-feet are a bit technical to ski, then is a great slope to enjoy.
A: You only had a liter of water and 300 cl of energy gel. That is amazing. Have you conditioned your body to need less water and food?
KJ: I don’t drink or eat much during my training. I know is not the “good” way, but it has always worked well for me. I can run for seven to eight hours without drinking. Here at altitude is important to drink and have energy. Two days before the record, I did the West Rib route and I drank less than half a liter, so I was thinking that one liter would be enough for the record. I take the gel and one bar in case of needing more food, but I didn’t use the bar.
A: Did you have a celebration dinner afterward? What did you eat?
KJ: Actually I arrived alone in base camp—all my friends were staying at camp at 14,000 feet to keep doing things the following days. I had a small tent at base camp and one dry food box and some chocolate bars. I ate that, slept in the day, then skied up again to 14,000 feet. Then we had some more food and energy for doing things. Two days later we skied Orient Express under the midnight sun—this was the best celebration.
A: Why was it important to be surrounded by friends? Were there any good anecdotes from the speed record?
KJ: It’s really important to be with people you love and have the same vision of the mountains. Ours was a small team but perfect. All four of us love to do activities, to travel light, to ski steep. Vivian is one of the most talented steep skiers in the world—possibly the best. Seb, the cameraman, is also a talented alpinist and steep skier. And Jordi is one of the most talented and versatile alpinists of Europe.
We were making a lot of jokes comparing our expedition to others. We didn’t have a cooking tent, so we needed to cook and eat every evening with the snow falling on us. Our snow walls protecting the tents fell down every day. We didn’t worry much about our camp. We spent all our days out in the mountains. We were the gypsies of the camp.
A: What was the best moment during the record-setting ascent/descent?
KJ: There were probably two best moments setting the record. One, the summit, because I realized I made it and the suffering stopped there. Two, the Rescue Gully ski down—it was such great snow! But I enjoyed the whole expedition experience—skiing the West Rib was really great and the midnight sun on Orient Express, too.
A: What was the worse moment during the ascent/descent?
KJ: After Denali Pass, the weather was really bad. It started snowing and blowing really hard. I needed to stop several times to warm my feet, and I was doubting if I could do the summit that day. It took really much longer than in other training days to get to the summit. And then in the downhill, after 14,000 feet, there was no visibility. I could only see for ten meters in front of me, so I was just back on the skis trying to anticipate the way and not fall. I was skiing more with my feet than with my eyes.
A: Did the extreme weather slow you down?
KJ: Yes, more the wind than the cold, but for the last part I lost around one hour compared to training times, mostly because of the snowfall and the wind.
A: The weather was bad, but you went for it anyway. Why didn’t you decide to try later when the weather was better and you could have been fully acclimatized … you may have gotten an even better time?
KJ: I tried on our seventh day on the mountain. My acclimatization was not perfect, but the weather forecast said there would be one day of good weather and then one full week of snow, so we decide to try it this day in case the weather was worse after. Now I think it was a good decision—there was not another window after.
The weather window on record day it was too short, though, just a half a day, not perfect conditions. But on this mountain, if you’re just waiting for the perfect conditions, you will just wait. For me is more important to do things than wait.
A: What element of your training helped you the most during the ascent/descent?
KJ: I think knowing the route so I could ski confidently on the steeper parts of the mountain and that I had been on the summit before.
A: You and your friends did several mountains while in Alaska. How did you find this mountain range compared to others you have experienced?
KJ: The Alaska Range is one of the most beautiful glacier lands I have seen. It’s big mountains, a huge range, and really wild. You’re far away from routes, cities … just you and the mountains—and this is a rare feeling in European mountains. And it has endless possibilities to ski, climb…
A: How does Denali prepare you for Elbrus and then Aconcagua?
KJ: Aconcagua has great steepness and altitude. Denali helped me start to experience high altitude and conditions—it is great to know how the body reacts to the altitude and acclimates. And not to speed too much down because then the altitude effects are much higher.
A: Which route do you think you’ll use on Everest and what time of year?
KJ: It is not decided. It will depend a lot about the conditions!
A: You seem to accomplish all your goals. Have you ever had a major failure or set back?
KJ: Yes, I have a lot of failures. While training, maybe the 50 percent of the days I start climbing and think I don’t feel ready or the mountain says “Today, no,” and I need to turn around to come back another day. The failure is all the friends lost, all the problems, all the bad days—but those days are important to learn from. For me, I enjoy the experiences, it doesn’t matter if it’s an “exploit” or not, it’s a success.
Kilian Jornet’s Gear for Record-Setting Ascent-Descent of Denali, June 2014
- mountain skis
- ski boots with “cover”
- ski poles
- piolet (ice ax)
- ski suit
- waterproof trousers
- waterproof jacket
- feather anorak
- second layer Jacket
- 25L Backpack
- 1L of water
- 300cl energy gel
Start and finish point: Base Camp McKinley (2,000m)
Highest point: McKinley Summit (6,194m)
Ascent time: 9 hours 43 minutes
Ascent and descent time: 11 hours 48 minutes
Postivie slope: 4,732m
Negative slope: 4,729m