The Top Adventure Stories of 2012: Kilian Jornet's Down and Up Year

After the death of his expedition partner, the Spanish endurance phenom pushes on, in several different disciplines

Jornet in the Alps.     Photo: Seb Montaz Video Blog

On Sunday, June 17, legendary French ski mountaineer Stephane Brosse and Spanish skier and ultrarunner Killian Jornet were on the Aiguille d’ Argentiere in the Alps when a cornice broke under Brosse, leading to a 2,000-foot fall and his death. The pair were attempting to cross the Mont Blanc Massif for the first expedition in Jornet’s Summits of My Life series, a four-year-long project to ascend and cross several of the world’s highest peaks as fast as possible. Brosse, 40, held the speed record for the fastest traverse of the Haute Route, won three World Championships of Ski Mountaineering, and was Jornet’s idol.

Jornet returned to the city a day after his friend’s death to mourn. He announced he was pulling out of an upcoming ultramarathon, the Western States 100, which he had won in 2011. Then the 25-year-old returned to the mountains. “It is important because that is where it happened and it is there where you can find the answers,” he said. “If you rest in the city, thinking about injustice and people and condolences, I think it is impossible to continue.”

A couple of months later, he was setting records and winning races. On Saturday, August 11, Jornet smashed the 30-year-old Grand Teton speed record by climbing and descending the 13,770-foot mountain in 2 hours and 54 minutes. On Sunday, August 19, Jornet won the Pike’s Peak marathon, a 26.21-mile race with 7,815 feet of elevation gain, with a time of 3:40:46. On September 18, he took on the second project in his Summits of My Life series, a 20-mile run and climb, covering roughly 24,000 feet, crossing from Courmayeur to the summit of Mont Blanc via the Innominata Ridge and then down to Chamonix, in 8 hours and 42 minutes. The climb was not on the same technical level as something alpinist Ueli Steck might complete—think scrambling versus scaling—but the speed combined with the difficult terrain led many to marvel. "Can you imagine what I could do if I had the physique of Kilian?" Steck told Rock and Ice.

Jornet isn’t inventing a new discipline as much as he’s combining old ones—ultrarunning and alpinism—in order to attempt minimalist high-altitude ascents and crossings. Along the way, he’s winning ultramarathons, trail races, and ski mountaineering competitions that don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. He’s won long ultramarathons, like the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in 2008, 2009, and 2011 and the Western States 100 in 2011. He’s won shorter trail races that include a lot of vertical, like the Pike’s Peak Marathon. He’s also racked up victories on a European trail running circuit, winning the Sky Running World Championships in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012. After notching a number of different ski mountaineering titles over the course of the last decade, in 2011 he won the World Championships of Ski Mountaineering in Europe. 

Jornet said running, hiking, skiing, and cycling in the mountains from an early age and an intense training schedule have led to his success. On an average summer day he will run three to four hours in the morning, return home to rest, and then run for another hour in the late afternoon. His ultrarunning competitor Anton Krupicka agrees that his passion is super high and that he trains a lot, but said two other factors must be considered when thinking about Jornet’s accomplishments. The Spaniard has a VO2 max that’s been measured at 92mL/kg/min, one of the highest ever. VO2 max is a measure of the body’s maximum ability to utilize oxygen during sustained and intense exercise. Krupicka also points to Jornet’s ability to master different sports. “He is somehow able to do all of that training without getting injured,” said Krupicka. “I suspect this is further facilitated by him almost exclusively skiing for half of each year.” 

Jornet agrees that switching between skiing and ultrarunning limits injury, since he’s changing the stresses on his body. He also believes the variety inspires him to train harder. “If I run just trails and ultras then it is boring because it is the same movements every time,” he said. “For me, the perfect season has some ski races, some vertical incrementals, and some ultras.”

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