Kilian Jornet summited Mt. Everest (8848m) twice in one week via the North Col/Northeast Ridge–on May 21 and 27–in an attempt to set a new round-trip speed record without using fixed ropes or supplemental oxygen.
Jornet is a 29-year-old Spanish climber renowned for his ability to maintain a fast pace over long distances at high altitude, often covering technical terrain with minimal equipment. He has achieved ultra-marathon records in addition to speedy ascents that include Denali (11:40 round-trip), Matterhorn (2:52 round-trip) and Mont Blanc (4:57:40 round-trip), to name a few.
On May 21, he reached the top of Everest at midnight, 26 hours after leaving the lower base camp near Rongbuk Monastery (ca. 5000m). His blog reports this as a “fastest known time” (FKT) to the summit from the lower base camp–no other time for this particular distance appears to have been recorded. Previous north face record-holders began timing their ascents from advance base camp (ca. 6500m).
On this first attempt, Jornet felt sick but decided to continue.
“Up to 7,700 meters I felt really good and was making progress as planned but then I started to feel unwell, probably from stomach virus,” he wrote on his blog. “From then on I made slow progress and had to keep stopping to recover. I finally reached the summit at midnight.”
By then, he gave up on pursuing a round-trip record, and he stopped at advance base camp to recover after 38 hours on the go.
Sebastien Montaz-Rosset, who filmed Jornet’s ascents, told RedBull.com that they expected the climb to go even faster: “We didn’t expect Kilian would take so long to reach the top. Normally, he always sticks with his plans and I know the exact time he is supposed to arrive. But during the first attempt, above 8000 meters, Kilian got stomach problems. He had to stop every 10 meters. He spent 12 hours alone in the dark with no oxygen and with hard weather conditions. It was a real blackout period. We didn’t know where he was. I couldn’t see him from the base camp. We had to manage the fears with his friend and his team in Spain.”
Jornet told Alpinist that he had good, “quite warm” weather on his first trip, with hard snow, but that it was windy above 7500 meters.
“On the second ascent,” he said, “it was very windy from 7000 meters, with strong wind and snowfall from 8000 meters, not super cold, but colder and really windy.”
Jornet’s report may be understated, however.
“For both attempts…the weather conditions were really difficult,” Montaz-Rosset told RedBull.com. “We expected no wind. In the end, the forecast was wrong. There were a lot of clouds and a 60kph facing wind. This is one of the main reasons why Kilian took more time than he expected to reach the summit.”
Jornet’s second attempt at a new speed record started at advance base camp. This location is about 1300 meters higher and 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) farther from his original starting point.
On May 27, he reached the summit from advance base camp in 17 hours, and returned to camp for a total round-trip time of 28:30.
Pembra Dorji Sherpa still holds the overall speed record to the summit via the South Col route from base camp–8:10–which he set in 2004 using fixed ropes and bottled oxygen. Christian Stangl’s 2006 record for the North Col route without using ropes or supplemental oxygen also stands, with a summit record of 16:42 and a round-trip time of 22:42 from advanced base camp. The previous North Col summit record of 16:45 without fixed ropes or bottled oxygen was set in 1996 by Hans Kammerlander, who skied down. In 1986, Swiss alpinists Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet’s made a “night-naked” ascent of the Supercouloir on the North Face, completing a round-trip to the top and back in 43 hours without using any ropes, oxygen bottles or tents.
Climbing around people, fixed ropes and ladders
The Northeast Ridge is the second most popular route on Everest, which means it is equipped with fixed ropes during the climbing season. There are also three fixed ladders at the Second Step, which were installed by a Chinese team in 1975.
Jornet avoided all the fixed ropes on his way up and down the route, as well as two of the three ladders. “I did not use fixed ropes…climbing the Third Step more to the left,” he told Alpinist. “On the Second Step, the first two ladders are possible to climb around, but not the third ladder, which I used.”
Jornet said the route was not very crowded with other people on the days he climbed.
“Both times I was alone in the summit,” he said. “The first time it was around midnight and the second time around 9 p.m. On the first ascent there were people on the North Ridge and going up to Camp III, but since I did not used fixed ropes I was climbing on the side. When I went down from summit there were people going up (I encountered people on the Second and First Steps) but I was going down to the side, so no problem. On the second ascent, I met people going down from Camp III to the Second Step, but I was going up on the side so it was no problem, either, to cross.”
To acclimatize, Jornet spent two weeks climbing Cho Oyo (8188m) before going to Everest.
“In four weeks we have reached two 8000-meter summits, so it seems our acclimatization has worked,” he said in his blog. “We had been training in hypoxia for a few weeks before and we went to acclimatize in the Alps before coming here. It seems that this type of express acclimatization works and the body tires less and as a result we’re stronger when it comes to the challenge.”
Montaz-Rosset told RedBull.com that he expects Jornet will be back for another shot at the record.
“On a performance level, he didn’t go as fast as he expected,” he said. “Kilian has the potential to go 30 to 40 percent faster, but it wasn’t necessarily his primary goal. He first wanted to accumulate experience and understand his body better at such a high altitude. I think the Himalayan scene hasn’t heard the last of this little guy in the future.”
Jornet sent a list of everything he carried with him on the ascent in an email:
Boots (prototype with running liner and crampons)
Thin down jacket
2 Buff [headband/neck-gaiters]
Beanie [warm hat]
1 ice axe
Gels and water
Sun cream and lip [protection]
1 extra battery
When asked how he was feeling the week after his second climb, he said: “Great, feeling recovered soon (after three to four days I think is complete recovery) and motivated to do more things; this opens the mind to a lot of possibilities…”
On June 10, Jornet ran his first-ever half-marathon road race in Norway (his previous races were all on trails), which he won by 12 minutes.
Matters of style
In 1988, Ed Webster, Robert Anderson, Paul Teare and Stephen Venables made the first ascent of the Neverest Buttress up Everest’s Kangshung Face without bottled oxygen, radios or high-altitude staff assistance on the mountain. They used fixed ropes on the bottom third of the climb, then proceeded in alpine style above that point. In a recent interview with Alpinist, Webster noted that achieving a true alpine-style ascent of Everest–from base to summit and back, in a state of complete self-reliance–is nearly impossible by his definition on the normal routes these days.
After Jornet’s May 21 summit day, Webster said he was impressed that Jornet pushed on in spite of the nausea and vomiting, and that he ascended both Cho Oyu and Mt. Everest without bottled oxygen within a one-month time period. But Webster was reluctant to label it a pure alpine-style ascent.
He shared his thoughts with Alpinist in an email:
There are long sections of fixed ropes along most of the Mallory/North Col Route. If things go wrong (illness, injury, bad weather, bad conditions), you can bail back down the fixed ropes that other climbers installed on the mountain before your ascent…. The fixed ropes give you an easy, reliable, ready-made escape route, which minimizes the commitment level that a true alpine-style ascent requires.
In the history of Mt. Everest, from base to summit, how many people have made an alpine-style, or semi-alpine-style, ascent of Everest? Very, very, very few.
The two absolute purest ascents of Mt. Everest were made by Reinhold Messner in 1980, and Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet in 1986. Messner accomplished Everest’s first solo ascent in five days round-trip, without bottled oxygen, radios or Sherpa assistance. And with zero fixed ropes on the mountain. Loretan and Troillet achieved their remarkable “night-naked” ascent of Everest’s Japanese and Hornbein Couloirs (aka, the Supercouloir) up Everest’s North Face in 43 hours round-trip, also without any fixed ropes, and in pure “fair means” Messner-like style, [without] bottled oxygen, etc.
In 1984, the top half of the Australian route up Everest’s North Face–White Limbo–was also climbed alpine-style, without oxygen, after using fixed ropes on the lower half….
The Neverest Buttress, done by our four-man international team in 1988, was also climbed in alpine-style above fixed ropes that were used on the lower third of [the] route….
Otherwise, the proliferation of fixed ropes on Mt. Everest on the popular South Col and North Col Routes, plus the hordes of climbers, have obliterated any chance of making a pure alpine-style ascent of those routes–except during the monsoon, or in winter!
On his website, Jornet explained that even though he strives to set records, his pursuits are personal endeavors above all else.
“I define myself as a lover of mountains,” he wrote. “I like competing, as it was a way to meet friends and to self-improve. But, above all, I conceive sport as a way to discover landscape both inside and outside you.”
In a recent interview with MensJournal.com he was asked if his second Everest speed climb was another attempt to set a record, to which Jornet replied, “Not really for the record, I just wanted to go fast to see if it was possible.” MensJournal.com also asked him if he had plans to reclaim the speed records on Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, which were broken by Karl Egloff in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and Jornet said no.
“This [Summits of My Life] project is finished, he said. “There are so many things out there to do. It’s a pity to repeat things. It’s good to feel different experiences in the mountains. I don’t look too much to the past. I’m mostly looking forward.”