Kilian Jornet, Ueli Steck and Alex Honnold: a trail runner, an alpinist and a rock climber. All at the very top of their game - climbing mountains fast without ropes - but what are their next challenges? Sarah Stirling catches up with them to find out.
Kilian Jornet: the Catalan dubbed 'trail running's first true breakout star'
Most people take two days to tackle Western Europe's highest mountain, carrying ropes, rucksacks and wearing Gore-tex. This month, Kilian Jornet sprinted up and down in shorts and set a new running record: 4hr57. That includes the distance from Chamonix to the foot of Mont Blanc (4,810m). It's around 3,800m of ascent and a flat earth distance of 8,000m.
Sounds fast? That's not all. Matheo Jacquemoud, who was running with Kilian, fell in a crevasse on the descent. Kilian stopped to help him climb out, check he was OK, discuss whether to continue, then still smashed the previous record of 5h11, set by Pierre-André Gobet in 1990.
What's next for the 25 year old who's shattered every speed record he's tried?
Mont Blanc is on a ticklist – Kilian aims to set speed records on a range of mountains across the globe. The Matterhorn is next in his Summits of My Life project. He told me he'll attempt it in autumn when there's less snow to contend with. The final aim is Everest in 2015, by the Holbein or Norton Couloir.
Kilian has already tested himself in the Himalayas this year. He told me:
“With 10 kilos in the backpack we found that we can climb an 8,000m peak. I think this is the nice thing to go without camps, without Sherpas, without tents, without ropes. Just with crampons, ice axes and things to eat and not be cold.”
And, obviously, without oxygen.
The Swiss Machine: speed alpinist Ueli Steck
Kilian's aim may sound familiar – his quest for bigger challenges is leading him from speed running into alpinism, terrain dominated by Ueli Steck. Back in 2008, Ueli completed his mission to set speed records on a trilogy of great Alpine North Faces: the Grandes Jorasses in 2hr20, Matterhorn in 1hr56 and the Eiger in 2hr47.
Like Kilian, Steck has now raised his sights to the mighty Himalayas, found he can solo 8,000m peaks without oxygen and made ambitious plans on the world's highest mountain. Last year, Ueli became the first Westerner in many years to summit Everest from the south side without using oxygen. That was a warm up.
Afterwards, he told EpicTV that using fixed ropes and oxygen is cheating, and current speed records on Everest don't count or interest him. Instead, Ueli planned to climb Everest by an ambitious new route. Unfortunately, earlier this year, he was stopped in his tracks by the infamous altercation with Sherpas that made headlines across the world.
So what next, does Ueli plan to return to Everest after the brawl?
“You never know....” he told me. And what next? At some point he'll slow down.
“You have to be honest - you cannot always climb harder and higher. I feel already that I am not that driven any more compared to 10 years ago. I don't feel every day I need to climb a hard route. I can really enjoy just being out there. I really love to be in the mountains with my wife. We have a great time together.”
Alex 'no big deal' Honnold
Ueli has soloed rock routes up to 8a but, out of safety concerns, now sticks to what he calls "average technical terrain”. In 2008, around the time Ueli was soloing the average technical terrain of the Eiger North Face, Alex Honnold filled the niche, rising to fame for his hard and fast rock climbing solos on big walls.
Alex got his nickname for being humble about his amazing solos. However, in June last year he soloed the 'Yosemite Triple Crown' (Mount Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome) in 18hr50. Afterwards, Honnold finally admitted: “OK. That was a big deal.”
In the same month, climbing with Hans Florine, Alex set a speed record on the Nose on El Cap. It usually takes fit climbers around 4-5 days to climb. The pair climbed the face in 2hr23, beating the record set by Dean Potter and Sean Leary in 2010 by nearly 13 minutes.
Alex has recently been trying other genres - he's just back from a cycle tour with Cedar Wright, climbing all the highest peaks in California on the way, and earlier this year he went to Alaska. Alex won't be offering competition to Ueli Steck, though. "Alpine climbing will never be my main thing," he told UKC. "I just like real rock climbing too much to sit in a tent that long."
Next: Honnold will solo a skyscraper
So, while Kilian and Ueli focus on the Himalaya, Honnold has equally ambitious plans in terrain where he won't need a tent. This year he'll solo one of the world's tallest skyscrapers. It will be filmed by Sender Films and live streamed on the National Geographic channel. The building's identity is secret until nearer the time. So you'll have to wait till autumn...
Alex said: “It's just a fun opportunity to climb one of the biggest and most beautiful buildings in the world. Legally - which is one of the big hold ups in climbing buildings normally... I've always loved climbing in all forms and this is an amazing opportunity to push my own climbing into interesting new terrain. I've admired the aesthetics of sky scrapers my whole life."