Kilian Jornet Conquers Everest (momentarily)

In December 2014, while I was on a two-week mountaineering expedition in the Andes to climb Aconcagua on the border of Argentina and Chile, I met the Spanish skyrunner Kilian Jornet and witnessed him running up and down the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. It was jaw-dropping. Kilian’s daily training consisted of sprinting between mountain camps, ascending and descending thousands of feet at a time while all at an oxygen-depleted elevation. An Argentine ranger described Kilian as “a monster.”

He then proceeded to run up and down the mountain from the park entrance — ascending and desceding 13,327 vertical feet over about 25 miles — in less than 13 hours to set a new fastest known time (or F.K.T., in running parlance). My subsequent story about Kilian appeared on The New Yorker’s website in January 2015 under the headline “Sky Runner Kílian Jornet Preps for Everest,” because he was next planning to run up and down the world’s tallest mountain.

Kilian succeeded on Sunday, May 21, running from Tibetan base camp to the summit of Everest in 26 hours without the use of supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes. It was another F.K.T, another jaw-dropping feat.

But here’s the thing that I learned from Aconcagua: Kilian’s record won’t stand very long. A month after he set the speed-record on Aconcagua, an Ecuadorean mountaineer went and beat Kilian’s time by nearly an hour. So the question now is, How long will Kilian’s record stand on Everest? He deserves credit for fearlessly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in mountaineering, perhaps taking up the mantle that was left void last month when Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck died in a fall near Everest. But Kilian’s record is sure to fall. He’s not an unbeatable machine, in more ways than one.

In my article for The New Yorker, Russell Brice, a longtime Everest guide and the owner of the mountaineering-guide company Himalayan Experience, told me that Jornet had the ability to set the F.K.T. on Everest. He also warned Jornet to have ample support staff. “For mountain runners like Kílian, they just keep pushing the limits until one day they say that is enough,” Brice told me. “Or, they in fact have an accident and do not survive.”

In fact, Kilian suffered such severe altitude sickness on Sunday that he was repeatedly vomiting during the summit descent and had to take refuge at Advanced Base Camp, quitting his initial plan to run all the way back to the Tibetan monastery where he had begun.

Others might try to follow Kilian or replicate his show of endurance and strength on another mountain, without realizing that, in a way, he failed in his original mission to run up and down Everest and is perhaps only alive now because he was willing to quit his initial plan. This underscores another problem that I highlighted in a story for Americas Quarterly published in February 2015, which is how the growing popularity of mountaineering — and the wide attention to feats such as Kilian’s run up Everest — brings with it new concerns:

Jornet, at 5’6” and about 130 pounds, is a pair of oxygen-tank lungs atop two huge piston-like legs. Yet as different as he looked from petite Marlina, they shared something in common. In many ways, both are a product of the booming popularity of climbing and mountaineering worldwide, which is pushing climbers of all abilities to new heights—as also seen when two Americans in January conquered the world’s toughest rock climb in Yosemite National Park, or in the speed-climbing feats of “the Swiss machine” Ueli Steck. Aconcagua is no longer just the tallest peak of the Western Hemisphere; it has turned into something of a Summit of the Americas, a meeting place for people from around the world, which brings new risks and challenges.

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