‘La tertúlia proscrita’

Kilian Jornet: ‘The summit of Everest is but an anecdote for me’

  • The Catalan alpinist and runner believes that the referendum for the independence of Catalonia is a good opportunity ‘to get away from Spain’

Josep Casulleras Nualart Josep Rexach Fumanya
13.06.2017 - 15:24
Actualització: 15.06.2017 - 15:29

Two weeks ago, Kilian Jornet climbed to the top of the world non-stop in twenty-six hours. An amazing feat. Insatiable and non-conforming, seven days later did it again and left everyone gaping, finishing just 15 minutes off the record. He has set the times in mountain racing, cross country skiing and now he has shown he has a promising future in alpinism.

He recognises that he feels out of place. In the city he feels like a fish out of water, but he is infinitely patient and shows he is comfortable when we ask about his field: the mountains, his last expedition to Everest and Summits of my Life, the project he has just finished. And he does not avoid anything. He reflects on the risks of alpinism, as the death of Ueli Steck made him reconsider things, and he talks to us about politics. He says he will vote yes at the referendum because it is necessary ‘to get away from Spain’.

What did you feel when you made the summit?
— The feeling of a goal achieved. I got there, which is what I had wanted. There is no strong emotion. When you make the summit here in the Pyrenees or in the Alps, depending where you have gone up it is like getting a dose of adrenaline. But I didn’t have that sensation because I was very tired and my brain was working in reserve, at minimums, because you know you cannot waste energy, and excitement doesn’t make you survive, you don’t feel it. You are happy. You are relieved because you don’t have to climb any further.

Both times you reached the summit at night. Was that your initial intention?
— The first time the idea was to go much faster, but I had gastroenteritis and in the end I had to go slowly because I had to stop every ten steps due to the vomiting and the cramps. And the second time, the idea I had was to reach the summit in the afternoon, but the conditions were very bad. In fact the weather forecast said the weather would be good; no wind and a clear sky. But it was quite windy and it snowed all day. This meant I had to open up the path, the wind was very uncomfortable and I was still a little tired after the first climb. In the end I ended up watching the sunset on the summit.

A moment you will remember.
— It was very pretty. You are up there, alone, you see the sunset and you think you have all night up there for yourself.

Even though you were alone on the climb with darkness facing you, a stomach ache … Didn’t you consider going back?
— No, because I was climbing and saying, as long as you don’t have a big problem like altitude sickness or freezing, what real danger is there? The fact of not feeling well made me go slowly, which is a nuisance, but I thought what better can you do than this? And I carried on upwards. In these last years I have prepared myself a lot psychologically for the mountains to be able to overcome difficult situations and feel comfortable.

And how do you train that?
— By doing long treks in areas completely alone, on highly technical terrain. In the Alps or in Norway. The aim is to be able to experience an extreme situation in my area, but to feel comfortable with it. This preparation is progressive. In the end you do things that you were frightened of years before. And maybe the same situation, three years before, would have made me frightened and I would have done it with a rope. But now I was going solo and I felt good, without tension, and if you don’t feel tense, you don’t waste energy.

Above 7,000 m, where Sébastien Montaz left you, did you find any technical difficulties on the way to the summit?
— Actually you walk all the way to 8,400. I was using two sticks. And then you come to the three steps. The first is very easy, you hardly put your hands down. The second is more complicated. There are three steps. I was able to climb the first two along the side, but I had to catch on for the third. But this is terrain which, compared with other steps I have done, was not very difficult. On the third step I found a few ice ramps on the left and I got past all right. There is technical difficulty, but you don’t suffer.

Sébastien said that you were all right when you passed seven thousand metres. After this you went on for many hours with no one knowing about you. Did you choose to do that?
— Yes, that is what I wanted. Reaching the summit was something extra. For me the way I did it was more important, and success for me was knowing whether it was possible to do a specific kind of mountaineering; one without oxygen, without fixed ropes, without Sherpas and without communication. I wasn’t carrying a satellite telephone or a radio. And in the end, the decisions you take when you are up there, when you take some alone because you have no help from anyone. If you feel a paranoia, you get over it yourself. You have no one to tell you you are hallucinating, and no one to tell you that bad weather is on the way. That was my choice.

Is it well viewed to take that kind of risk in the world of classical alpinism?
— All forms are valid and good. I do not believe there are good ways or bad ways to go to the Himalayas. Everyone knows what they’re doing, how they are doing it and why. In the end everyone has specific reasons for taking more or less risks or for doing it one way or another, and they are all good. And in fact it is interesting to see the ways people climb, the reasons why and how they train.

All of these hours that passed created a situation of social nervousness at what might have happened to you.
— That is something that I have never wanted. When I go with expeditions, I want to climb, and I always say I am going and when I come back I will tell you what happened. As there were more expeditions and these also report what the others do, we reported the first attempt.

But you preferred it not to be said.
— That’s right. On the second ascent I said not to say anything. We didn’t say anything, but in fact the rumour began to spread. But I didn’t tell anyone anything, not even my mother. There were only two people who knew, and one is my partner. They were the only two people who knew I would go up that day. You go there, you climb and if anything happens, what importance is there in knowing whether you have died immediately or in the following two days?

But you have a social dimension, and whether you like it or not, you are a reference for many people, and that Sunday and part of Monday many people were worried about your climb.
— I was fairly disconnected. When I got back, my partner said, ‘Do you see these grey hairs? They are your fault.’ But well, I chose it like that. Doing alpinism in this way means accepting certain risks, like not wearing a localiser to let them follow me or Sherpas saying how I am by satellite telephone every twenty minutes. When I’m in the mountains, I want to have this experience. I don’t want to be connected to the world. I want to experience what I feel up there and be aware of it. I want to take the decisions I think are right without being influenced, and that is why I take this decision not to say anything. Sébastien didn’t know how I was until he saw me five hundred metres from base camp.

Before you tried the second ascent, we were surprised at some words from your mother. She advised you not to do it. ‘It is pretty tough for a mother’, she said. Do you worry about the fear of those around you?
— You try to forget about it, and it is easy because you are doing an activity that requires you to be concentrated at that precise moment, and being concentrated makes all the rest disappear. And not only the people at home, but also what you have done five minutes before and what you will do one minute later.

There is also a process of identifying yourself with values you are very careful to transmit.
— Of course. It is like when we were at Cho Oyu when Ueli [Steck] died. On the one hand, there is a system of values that collapses because, apart from the friendship and the personal relationship, from outside everything that Ueli represented collapses in one moment, and that affects you. This whole system of values and the way you look at the mountains, you wonder whether it was valid. Was it right?

Did it make you hesitate?
— Yes, it makes you hesitate. You wonder. Is it really stupid to risk my life trying to climb a summit in this way? Is it worth doing it in this new way, knowing that you are making it even more risky? Of course, when you get there you know it is possible to climb in this way, and you feel great satisfaction because it opens a lot of doors for you. But on the other hand, you make the descent and feel that you are blessed because you have taken a great risk. There are days for everything. In the end, what drove Ueli was that, this style, this way of understanding the mountains, and obviously when someone dies, you wonder whether or not it was valid.

And how do you reply?
— I went to Everest knowing that I did not want to take any risks.

Just two weeks after Ueli Steck’s death.
— Yes. We had climbed together, we had projects together. We were with Emilie on Cho Oyu when we found out. You look to one side and think of Ueli’s wife and… No one wants to end up like that. But you want to climb and you want to do things, new things. There are times when you take more or less risks depending on the situation of your life and your emotional state, and that was one of the times when I didn’t want to take any. For instance, my idea was to climb [Everest] by a different route and the first day I got to base camp I started to go up. But there was blue ice and I saw that it was better to come down. I wanted to go safely. Surely in another situation, if Ueli had not had his accident, I would probably have accepted the risk. Mentally I would have believed it was worth it.

— The alpinist Ferran Latorre recently said in an interview with VilaWeb: ‘I hope it is not misinterpreted that Kilian has to decide. He has demonstrated a unique talent and he has to decide whether he wants to do real alpinism or not. Committed alpinism, doing very difficult routes, because it is when the terrain is complicated that it is difficult to be fast.’ Do you agree?
— I like something of everything. I enjoy myself as much climbing Everest as I do running at Zegama or doing a vertical kilometre, and I know I don’t want to spend two months at base camp and that if I want to do expeditions, they will be short. I have seen that acclimation works well, but after seven or eight days you can do an eight thousander and you can line up summits like this. This way satisfies me because you can train at home, you come back from the expedition and you are all right. In fact on Saturday I did a race and I ran as normal. I have seen that it does not mean a great waste of time or energy. In the end the problem with expeditions is that what counts is whether you make the summit or not, and making the summit is an anecdote. A consequence, but not the final objective. In other words, intrinsically there is only a tiny difference between making and not making the summit. What is of value is that the activity is interesting.

For example?
— Look, last year we tried to open up a new route on the north-east face of Everest. We climbed to 7,800 metres. But the bad weather came and we had difficulty, but we managed to do highly technical activity of a great level and highly committed. We were alone and it had snowed during the monsoon and intrinsically, that activity brought me exactly the same as reaching the summit twice. But that time I was not interviewed, and now I am. In other words, externally value is placed on whether or not you make the summit, and normally alpinism projects very rarely end with success. But they do bring you a lot of things. From this last trip in which I climbed Cho Oyu and Everest, the day I am happiest about is when I climbed to 8,400 metres.

— For the way I did it, for the speed and for the previous days of acclimatisation. That day was great and it was a day of training when I left the advanced camp, I took six hours to reach 8,400 and I came back down in three. Things like this make you see what possibilities the mountains offer you. We talked about this with Ueli Steck; that in the end great value is given to whether or not you make the summit, but it is not the most important thing. In fact I had already been in the Himalayas in the winter, trying a difficult face and doing extreme skiing trying a new route and making difficult parts on mountains of just over seven thousand metres. These are high-level activities, but as they are not eight thousanders they have no repercussion. I like everything. I would not stop competing to do the fourteen eight thousanders. I don’t want to do them. I am motivated by a race, and after two weeks doing an eight thousander, and after two weeks more doing a technical route in the Alps and the vertical kilometre a fortnight later.

Ueli Steck wanted to connect Lhotse and Everest, something you have defined as futuristic. Is this one of the routes you will take, in other words doing alpine traverses that imply being at a high altitude for several days, for instance?
— Yes, these years in the Himalayas have given me a few experiences. For instance, last year I gained the experience of being able to do technical routes alone, with very light material and on unknown terrain. And this year’s learning is that it is possible to spend many days over eight thousand metres on long stretches. Every time you go to the Himalayas, you try something new and new possibilities open up to you.

— During your career, you have set different goals and projects. You have burnt out stages. At the end of 2011, you reached a saturation point and had to drop out of the Cavalls del Vent. In an interview you explained that you did not feel filled by what you did.
— Yes. I am a very asocial person. I have never invited anyone to dinner at home. People have better things to do. When I arrange to meet someone to go to the mountains, I go to the mountains. That thing about going for a beer afterwards is a waste of time. Yes, I am like that as a person, I generally find it difficult to be with people because it requires a lot of energy for me. Now I will be in cities for four days and then I will go home because I will need two weeks without seeing anyone. I will only see my partner. I want to feel the silence, to feel the solitude and fill myself with energy. I found it very difficult to get used to people recognising me and telling me that I do things very well, that I am a champion. And it is not true. Everyone does what they do because they have chosen a path in life. As you put everything into it, then you do things well. But this thing about people recognising me was difficult.

Can’t something similar happen to you now? You are in a situation of enormous media exposure. Is it better?
— I think it is. A few years have also passed since then and I have learnt to deal better with this more social part. I also live where I live precisely for this reason. When I returned from Everest, I wanted to go home, to spend two weeks training there alone before coming down here. I hardly looked at the social networks in those two weeks and I tried to say, ‘Let’s get back to normal before this.’

Do you do this out of the need for survival, for modus vivendi, or is there also a will to transmit values to people? What weighs more?
— When you start, when you are an adolescent you want to show yourself. This is the age of knowing who you are, of showing yourself and getting onto the map. Ego plays an important role in it. Then, depending on what you are like, there are people who maintain this and people like me, who hate it. But on the other hand you have the need to know whether you want to continue doing this, so you have to continue working to one side. And then you realise that the influence you can have reaches the people and you can transmit it, and that is nice. Today, via the social networks, we are capable of influencing and being influenced. There are very interesting things out there that reach us and which we can interpret and be inspired by, and say, wow this person is interesting. Like Alex Honnold, who does free climbing. It’s amazing what he has done, what can he give me? Well they can give you things, ideas. All the things that scientists do, that is really interesting! How can I apply this to life? It is true that it is a lot of information we receive and then need to find the time to digest it. I think that today’s networks are really good, their interactions, but we need time to assimilate them. With the influence I have as a person having won races, well projects, like the Langtang with which we have managed to get the money to build one hundred and sixty houses. I am also concerned at ecology, the future, the new generations, how things will go for them. There is a hypocritical part, because I travel a lot by plane and an awful lot of petrol is used in them, but then you try to be coherent. At home we have a vegetable patch. We grow all of our own vegetables, I don’t eat meat … We try to travel as much as possible by train or bicycle this is why we have no heating or air-conditioning at home. In other words, everyone can be influential in some way with their convictions.

And now you need another project like Summits of my Life?— I will not feel unprotected by not having a project, I am also very ordinary. I like to get up, look out of the window and see whether the weather is good to go out and train. I will put the same interest into going to do an ordinary summit as going up Everest, and will give my best in both cases. There are lots of ideas and projects. Then it is true that sometimes you need to structure things if you want to go on with larger projects, but for the moment this one is over and I want to do a season’s running, then we will see what happens.

In fact you will be doing the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) again, even though you said you would not go back.
— Since the first year I did it and the way they treated me, I have not had a good relationship with them. But this year basically I will do it because there is a very good level. There are very few ultra trials with a good level. Jim Walmsley, Sage Canaday, Tim Tollefson, Luis Alberto Hernando… The best are going. In the end I am a competitor and I enjoy races where there is level.

You like to be got at don’t you?—[He laughs] Yes, yes I love it! I love to train with the young and challenge them. In the end competition is nothing but a game.

Have you already reserved time for 1 October, the day of the referendum on independence?—[He laughs] I found out two days ago! As I am running in the Cavalls del Vent, I think I will be around. Yes we will go to vote.

Do you know how you will vote?
— Yes, obviously. But I have never been an independentist or a nationalist. When I was young I did want Cerdanya to be independent because I was fed up with the people who came for the weekend from Barcelona. But after this I began to travel and I realise that I have no strong feeling for my country. I have lived in Catalonia, France and now in Norway. I can feel at home in many different places. But I am one of those who will vote yes, because Spain … Where is Spain going? What does it do as a country? In other words, in all of the ways that progress should be made, it is going backwards. Seeing the problems they make over many aspects that could evolve, I don’t think they could do things worse. This is the kind of independentist I am. I don’t do it out of national feeling, but rather to get away from Spain and its treatment of Catalonia.

How could we politically define Kilian? We have seen him showing a liking for ICV, with the CUP but with touches of anarchism.
— Look, I have voted very few times, very few. I could count them on one hand. In fact what I believe is that the final goal should be to abolish politics, which is why a very different and very deep education would be needed to make people much more responsible and supportive of the rest. You can see this in countries where there is a smaller density of population, where there are fewer problems. There are no robberies or conflicts, but we are very far from anarchism. There was a time when I felt close to ICV for the ecology and then to the CUP in the social arena.

Today, Guardiola is still in the news because on Sunday he read a manifesto in favour of the referendum. In the coming months, do you think you will be doing something similar, or don’t you like to expose yourself in the media?
— More than in the media, I think that sport is generally excessively mythicized. I don’t feel that I have the moral superiority to tell people what they have to do. I am just a bloke who runs a little faster than the others. Let me be told by a philosopher who thinks, a teacher, who are those who create the future; I would listen to a scientist, who can talk about a lot of things … I have no moral superiority to say what has or has not to be done.

But although you are a sportsperson, you have never avoided talking about politics.
— Because in the end we are people, and you have to say what you think. If I am asked, I give my opinion. Everyone has to be free to say what they think. This is something basic

La premsa lliure no la paga el govern. La paguem els lectors.

Fes-te de VilaWeb, fem-nos lliures.

Fer-me'n subscriptor
des de 75€ l'any