The 29-year-old Catalan mountain runner has just returned from Everest, where he was plagued by surprise 60kph winds and an upset stomach. Despite this, he raced to the summit twice within a week, hoping to set a speed record without using fixed ropes or oxygen. Sarah Stirling interviews to find out how he got on and what his Bob Graham Round plans are.
“Ueli Steck was a big inspiration and a mentor. I was very shocked by his accident, and I think this affected me a bit on my Everest speed record attempt, so I didn’t take the risks I’d usually take,” Kilian told me last week. Reflecting, he added: “It’s good to have goals because it makes you push harder, but you always need to trust your instincts when you’re out there.”
So, did he succeed in setting a new speed record? It’s complicated.
Kilian had originally planned to climb either Everest’s Norton or Hornbein Couloirs, but because these routes were icy, he’d taken the longer, easier-angled Normal Route. It had always been his plan to choose his line on the day depending on conditions. The Catalan famously likes to ‘dance with mountains’ and work with how he feels. However, he hadn’t anticipated the weather forecast being wrong and having to face 60kph winds.
I first interviewed Kilian about his Summits of My Life project – an ambitious goal to break speed records on seven routes on the world’s most iconic mountains culminating in Everest – four years ago. Those mountains are: Mont Blanc, the Mont Blanc Traverse, the Matterhorn, Denali, Aconcagua, Elbrus and Everest. Not to be confused with the Seven Summits, these are routes that appeal to Kilian personally.
As an example of Kilian's style: he jogged up Mont Blanc in shorts in less than five hours, then explained that his running partner had fallen in a crevasse, so he’d stopped for a bit to help him climb out. It helps that, as well as winning a lot of trail running races, Kilian also wins a lot of ski mountaineering ones, so he's very experienced in snow-covered terrain.
Kilian jogging down from Everest for the second time in a week.
In person, Kilian was at first shy, describing himself as a marmot who doesn't like the limelight, then his passion for mountain running poured out in a stream. It was fascinating. Telling me that he preferred not to carry food or water where possible, but to “take what nature gives”, he held out his hand to reveal the stain of wild strawberries, and looked at it with wonder.
Back then, in 2013, Kilian wasn’t the only person planning a ground-breaking ascent of Everest without oxygen or ropes. While Kilian was plotting to set a speed record on one of the mountain's easier-angled snow slopes, Ueli Steck was planning to put up a hard new route.
I wrote an article for BMC Summit magazine contrasting the two athletes. Steck, who was a climber first and a runner very much second, and Kilian vice versa. Steck, with his focus on training and technical terrain. Kilian who doesn’t wear a heart monitor or remember where he came in any races. Ueli seemed so stereotypically Swiss, and Kilian so Spanish.
Then, following that infamous altercation with Sherpas, Ueli took time out from his Everest plans. He focussed on other projects; for example making the first solo ascent of Annapurna, for which he was awarded a Piolet d’Or. Kilian, meanwhile, broke speed records on all of the summits on his list, except Elbrus (he retreated due to bad weather) and Everest.
Then, this spring, chance led both Ueli and Kilian to attempt their very different Everest climbs in the same season. Kilian had been refused a permit for the summer season, which was why he decided to go in May. Ueli flew out to Everest in April but, devastatingly, was killed in an accident on a training climb before he could make his attempt.
Sad and shocked, I wrote an obituary and wondered whether it would change Kilian’s plans, or at least his happy-go-lucky attitude. Four years previously he had told me, without a trace of arrogance: “I think this is the nice thing, to go without camps, without Sherpas, without ropes, of course without oxygen… Just with things for eat and not be cold!”
Kilian's Everest kitlist
This is what the Spaniard did take on his Everest climb (of course he didn’t take food, just a few gels, and only two litres of water):
Full base layer
Soft shell pants and jacket
Lightweight down jacket
Everest attempt one and two: 21 and 27 May
And so it was that, a few weeks after Ueli’s death, Kilian travelled to Everest base camp with Seb Montaz, the French filmmaker and photographer who has become his close friend. Seb set off before Kilian, set up cameras at a serac area, then waited, armed with a drone. And then he waited some more.
Later Seb told Red Bull: “Kilian usually arrives at the exact minute we expect him to come.” This time, however, he didn't arrive. Kilian was alone in the dark with no oxygen, facing strong winds: “We didn’t know where he was and had to manage the fears.”
Kilian, feeling ill with a presumed stomach bug, was having to stop every 10 metres. Later he told me: “After 7,600m I felt pretty bad for the whole ascent.” Starting from Base Camp at 5,100m it took him 26 hours to reach the summit (8,848m). There is no existing record for an ascent from Base Camp to the summit, so it is a fastest-known time. However, as on his other Summits of My Life runs, Kilian had actually planned to set a record for running out-and-back.
Too ill to descend all the way to Base Camp, however, Kilian was forced to rest at Advanced Base Camp for a few days. Then he decided to make another attempt at a speed record. This time he started from Advanced Base Camp (6,500m), and it took him 17 hours to reach the summit. Kilian narrowly failed to beat the record for this route set by Austrian Christian Stangl in 2006: 16hr42. He told me: “It was still very windy, snowy and cold. I was also tired from the other climb.”
Kilian struggling up Everest on his first attempt.
Will he try Everest again?
I was interested to know how Kilian had found the altitude. Four years ago, he told me that his childhood growing up in a mountain hut at 2,000m had probably given him some advantage, but didn't think this would extend to really high altitude: “They tell me that after 8,200m it starts to be really hard. It’s there the difficulty, the last 600m might really hurt.”
Had the altitude resulted in the stomach problems that plagued him? Kilian didn't think so. “I actually felt very good with the altitude and I was impressed. Of course it slows you and it makes you feel strange. I mostly learnt that it is possible to climb there as in the Alps, though. You don’t need to wait to be fresh, perfect weather or timings but just go, it is just harder than in lower mountains.”
And what’s next? “I have been away one month from home (on Cho Oyu and Everest). I don’t like to be in Base Camp for two months, I like to do activity so it feels great to do short expeditions. Now home the first days it feel a bit out shape for running but coming back fast!”
Seb Montaz told Red Bull: “This year was our third attempt on Everest and it's the first time Kílian managed to reach the summit. Kílian has the potential to go 30 to 40 percent faster. I think the Himalayan scene hasn't heard the last of this little guy in the future…”
Kilian's Bob Graham Round plans
In the meantime, Kilian has his eye on a British challenge: the Bob Graham Round: “I would love to run it! It is a traditional run and very inspiring what has been done there. Fell running in Britain has a long tradition and I want to discover it!” Following a tip-off from his girlfriend about how it compared favourably with trail running in Norway, the Spaniard also plans to run the Glencoe Skyline.
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