Just after three in the morning last September 18, Spanish runner Kilian Jornet set out from the small Italian town of Courmayeur, at the base of 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, and headed for France. Jornet, who at 25 is the world’s top ultramarathoner, was wearing only running shoes, spandex tights, and a windbreaker. On his five-foot-six, 125-pound frame he carried a small backpack with crampons, some climbing rope, water, and a few other essentials.
Over the next six hours, Jornet ran, scrambled, and climbed more than 12,000 feet up Mont Blanc’s south face. After running past two common stopping points—the Monzino hut, at 8,402 feet, and the Eccles bivy, at 12,631—he traversed along the Innominata Ridge, a technical section of mountain that features an expanse of glacier with a 60-degree slope, where Jornet donned his crampons and used his ice ax. Most climbers who ascend via the Innominata do so over three days, carrying tents and food. Just getting to the summit can take as long as 20 hours, and it’s technical enough that guides often won’t take clients up it. Jornet reached the summit at 10:15 A.M., then took two more hours to run and scramble down the French side to Chamonix. All told he covered more than 26 miles and 24,000 feet of elevation change in eight hours and 43 minutes.
“What Kilian did on the Innominata Ridge is pioneering a new style of alpinism,” says Nebraska ultrarunner Anton Krupicka, 29, a two-time winner of Colorado’s Leadville 100. “To solo that stuff in eight hours—it’s three, four times as fast as anyone’s ever done it. It’s crazy.”
Indeed, crazy may be the best way to describe this hybrid of running and climbing, which doesn’t really have an established label yet. In the past couple of years, Jornet and a cadre of other top ultrarunners have begun using small amounts of alpine equipment to make record-breaking solo ascents of mountains only recently dominated by speed climbers like Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck and American Chad Kellogg. Last summer, Jornet and Colorado native Andy Anderson, 36, traded speed ascents on Wyoming’s 13,770 Grand Teton, dipping below three hours on a route that often takes 20. In October, Krupicka set a new speed record on Wyoming’s 13,804-foot Gannett Peak. Then, in September, Jornet ran Mont Blanc. So what to call them? Ultrarunners who climb? Climbers who run?
“In the past those were separate sports,” explains Colorado runner Dakota Jones, 22, another of Jornet’s peers. “Now they’re not.”
Traditionally, ultrarunning is defined by distance, not altitude. The guiding mantra is masochism, embodied by the sport’s biggest names, including Scott Jurek, 39, a vegan who has won some of the most grueling 100-mile races multiple times, and Dean Karnazes, 40, known for running 50 marathons in 50 days in 2006. Ultra-distance events are more popular than ever, thanks in part to Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, Born to Run: a record 36,000 people participated in them in the U.S. last year.
Mountainous courses have long been a mainstay of competitive ultrarunning—the Western States 100, which climbs 18,000 vertical feet in California’s Sierra Nevada, was first held in 1977. But Jornet and others aren’t just running on mountain trails; they’re charging up peaks along mixed-terrain routes that feature sections where most climbers tie into ropes and swing ice axes. Jornet was born to lead the effort. Raised in the Spanish Pyrenees, he grew up running the trails around his house and backcountry skiing. When he was 18, he took up mountain racing and created a long list of ski-mountaineering and ultrarunning events he wanted to win. Buoyed by a fast, light frame and a strong aerobic capacity—most of his 125 pounds are in his legs, and he has a VO2 max of 92, among the highest ever measured—he quickly started crossing races off his list. He won a series of World Cup ski-mountaineering championships and then, in 2008, at age 21, dominated the prestigious 103-mile Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) race. He has been all but unstoppable since, winning Europe’s SkyRunning mountain ultra-distance series five times and the UTMB two more times, along with the Western States 100 and the Pike’s Peak Marathon—all while crushing it on the ski-mountaineering world-championship circuit.
In 2011, Jornet decided he needed a new challenge, so he focused on solo climbing. He had no desire to become a classic climber; he wanted to develop alpine fundamentals while training his body to tolerate extreme exertion at high altitudes. After Jornet’s Mont Blanc traverse, the alpine-climbing world took note. Steck, himself an accomplished trail runner, marveled at what he might be able to accomplish with Jornet’s endurance. “Can you imagine what I could do if I had the physique of Kilian?” he told Rock and Ice. Still, Steck doesn’t consider Jornet a true peer. “He’s an incredible endurance athlete,” says Steck. “But he’s not an alpinist yet.” For his part, Jornet resists labeling. “I don’t think I do this or that sport,” he says. “I basically just enjoy being fast in the mountains.”
He’s not the only one, which is why some organizers in the U.S. are looking to capitalize on Jornet’s buzz by launching a new generation of mountain footraces. Big Sky, Montana, will hold a 50K mountain run this September, and Jones is trying to get the U.S. Forest Service to approve a similar competition in Telluride, Colorado. Slated for August, the race would include steeper climbs and rougher terrain than events like the Western States. Still, Jornet and his elite peers are more interested in solo speed records, which means their most impressive efforts over the next few years will take place somewhere in the high backcountry, without spectators.
That’s part of the appeal. Jornet and his counterparts are exciting precisely because it’s hard to say what they might do next. Jones is working on his ice climbing. Last year, Krupicka tried resoling his New Balance trail runners with the sticky rubber used on climbing shoes. This summer he’s planning a 90-mile traverse on the Continental Divide in Colorado that will take him over 14 different 14,000-foot peaks. And Jornet has turned his attention to a project he calls Summits of My Life: a three-year series of ascents that will include speed-record attempts on peaks ranging from Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua and Alaska’s Denali to, eventually, Everest, via the South Col, in 2015.
“I think he’ll go really fast,” Krupicka says, “and the mountaineering community will be forced to pay attention.”