Kilian Jornet Survives an Avalanche Below Mount Everest
The legendary trail runner and mountaineer was trying to climb the world’s highest mountain from the West Ridge
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Legendary trail runner and mountaineer Kilian Jornet was attempting to summit Mount Everest from the seldom-climbed West Ridge on May 24 when he was caught up in a small avalanche.
He survived without injury after the slide carried him 50 meters down the mountain, but that was enough for him to curtail his solo summit attempt after a journey of 30 hours climbing above Camp II (elevation 21,300 feet). Jornet said he triggered the avalanche himself as he walked over a wind slab section of snow in the Hornbein couloir.
The 35-year-old Catalan athlete, who lives in Norway, was trying to approach the 29,035-foot summit from the West Ridge along the Hornbein couloir—a route named for Tom Hornbein, who opened the route in 1963 along with fellow American mountaineer Willie Unsoeld.
The West Ridge route to Everest is the least common route for mountaineers to take because of its technical difficulty and long exposure to altitude. It’s a very vertical route, too, with considerable amounts of exposed rock and ice terrain. Jornet, as in his previous Everest climbing odysseys over the past seven years, was not carrying supplemental oxygen.
(Watch Jornet’s video as he treks across a high-altitude ridge wearing crampons, a full-body down suit and a helmet while carrying an ice axe.)
“I didn’t reach the summit I was aiming for, but everything else,” Jornet said in a post on Instagram. “I’m a big believer in the how is way bigger and more important than the what, and in that sense the climb was just perfect. Like a big puzzle with all the pieces but one, the summit one.”
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Jornet had made several previous expeditions to the Himalayas, the last two in 2019 and 2021, which helped him explore the terrain and check the different possibilities before attempting the West Ridge.
He made his first expeditions to Mount Everest in 2016 and 2017, the latter of which culminated with an alpine-style double ascent in a single week without assistance or supplementary oxygen.
Hornbein and Unsoeld’s West Ridge route begins by gaining the ridge from a couloir a little bit above Camp II on Everest’s normal route. Jornet’s journey to Hornbein started by climbing a steep couloir to reach the west shoulder, where he reported the conditions to be “horrible, blue ice underneath with a top layer of deep snow, two steps up and one down for 1,000 meters.”
“When I reached the ridge it was very windy so I stayed under a cornice for three hours to calm down while enjoying watching the queues of climbers from both Nepali and Tibetan normal routes making their progression,” Jornet said. “After the wind calmed I continued the ridge and traversed on mixed terrain towards the feet of the Hornbein couloir. I felt great and conditions were perfect. After a few hundred meters on the couloir, a wind pocket (I suppose recently created from the morning winds) broke and I got carried down in the avalanche for about 50 meters. I doubted whether to continue or to turn around and decided the latter.”
Jornet said he descended in a heavy snowfall, a challenging downhill climb that he called “interesting.” He said he used the “back to start” feature on his Coros watch to guide him through low visibility that only allowed him to two to three meters in front of his face.
“Many of us would be infinitely happy to walk a single footprint of the open path through Hornbein and the Unsoeld, and you have walked many more,” said Joan Maria Vendrell, a fellow Catalan ski mountaineer and climber, in a comment on Jornet’s post.
“What a project! It’s the journey that counts,” said renowned adventure film director Julie Raison. “Well done for a great performance and incredible ride. Very happy to have been able to share these moments with all of you and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Hornbein passed away on May 6 in his home in Estes Park, Colorado, at the age of 92. Unsoeld died in an avalanche during an Outdoor Education Winter Expedition climb of Mount Rainier on March 4, 1979.
Jornet said he was thrilled to see the route first-hand after he had been dreaming about it for so long. He said he knew very few details of the exact route, mostly learning what he could from photographs or descriptions in mountaineering books.
“It was a pleasure to follow their footsteps for a little,” Jornet said. “It was a great day in the mountains, where everything is beyond perfect except I didn’t reach the summit.”.
Aside from his mountaineering exploits, Jornet is also a world-class ultrarunner, mountain runner and ski-mo racer. He’s a four-time winner of the 104-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Chamonix, France, and a five-time winner of the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado.
As a mountaineer, Jornet has set numerous Fastest Known Times on the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, The Matterhorn, Denali, Aconcogua, and Mount Everest. He’s also won world championships and high-level races in ski mountaineering and high-altitude skyrunning.
In early 2021, Jornet launched a new trail running shoe and apparel company called NNormal. He’s also known for his environmental activism through the Kilian Jornet Foundation.
According to a new story called “Pure Alpinism” on NNormal.com, Jornet arrived in the Himalayas on April 19 accompanied by his wife, Emelie Forsberg and their two young daughters, ages four and two. Together, they progressively trekked from the Nepali village of Namche Bazaar (elevation 11,286 feet) to Pheriche (14,340 feet) to acclimatize to the altitude. From Pheriche, Jornet did four solo rotations that worked as training and helped him acclimatize for his climb to higher elevations.
In the last rotation before approaching the West Ridge, he reached Camp IV (26,000 feet). He then had to wait several days for an optimal weather window before he began climbing toward the Hornbein couloir.
“Besides being the best MUT [mountain ultra trail] runner of his generation, and mountain athlete, and starting a new running company, Kilian traveled to Nepal with his wife Emelie, who is also one of the best MUT runners, along with their two daughters ages one and four,” said renowned American trail runner Buzz Burrell, co-founder of the Fastest Known Time concept. “So they can go for family walks and play board games together. That’s next level.”