Meet the Two Men Vying to Be the Fastest Mountain Climber in the World
One man dominated in a strange, global sport: racing up mountains in record-breaking time. But now, finally, he has a challenger.
The competition is trying to get Kílian Jornet Burgada drunk. It’s the second week of July, and Jornet, 27, has traveled from his home in Chamonix, France, to Silverton, Colorado— a speck of an old mining town, population about 600—to take on the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile footrace through the surrounding San Juan Mountains. A few minutes ago, a runner wearing a hat that read living the fucking dream told him there would be tequila available at one of the aid stations during tomorrow’s event. Now a couple of runners are proposing a mid-afternoon spirit at the local saloon.
“Want to go do a shot?” one asks.
“Ha!” Jornet says. “Yeah?”
“Yes! It’s my friend’s birthday tomorrow and we need to celebrate.”
It’s a decent strategy to try to slow down Jornet, the Hardrock’s defending champ, but it’s not working. “I actually don’t like to drink,” he tells me. Besides, even a hangover might not stymie the man some consider the greatest endurance athlete of all time.
Jornet has, in just 10 years, won nearly 100 ultrarunning events, which are defined as races longer than 31 miles. Six of the past seven years, he has claimed the Skyrunner World Series title, the most prestigious award in mountain running. In the winter, instead of hanging up his sneakers and taking a sauna, he competes in ski mountaineering races, in which athletes climb several thousand feet up snowy peaks, ski down, and then do it again for hours. In that sport, Jornet has four overall World Cup titles. And he doesn’t just win races; he annihilates course records.
Last year, competing in his first Hardrock—which forces runners to climb 34,000 feet over jagged mountains and is generally considered one of ultrarunning’s toughest tests—Jornet won in 22 hours and 44 minutes, beating the old course record by an hour and 22 minutes. And for Jornet, the Hardrock is a training run. His true passion is setting speed records on famous trails and mountains. In 2009, he ran California’s 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in 38 hours and 32 minutes. During that effort, he slept for 90 minutes and still broke the record by seven hours. In 2010, he tackled Mount Kilimanjaro in seven hours and 14 minutes. The round-trip takes average joes about seven days.
The records are called fastest known times (FKTs). And while Jornet didn’t invent the genre, he has certainly popularized it. In 2012, he laid out plans for an audacious goal. In four years, he announced, he would set FKTs on what he calls seven of “the most important mountains on the planet,” including Alaska’s Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), Argentina’s Aconcagua, and the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s famous pyramidal peak. He calls the project Summits of My Life, and its final test is Mount Everest. He believes he can march up and back down the North Face of the world’s highest mountain, without supplemental oxygen, in just 40 hours.
In July 2013, Jornet took the first step by setting the FKT on Mont Blanc, a 15,780-foot peak in his backyard of Chamonix. Just a month later, he ticked off the Matterhorn with a remarkable time of two hours and 52 minutes, 20 minutes faster than the 1995 record. In December 2014, he bested the record on Aconcagua by about an hour. Once again, it appeared Jornet was unbeatable.
And then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t.
In August 2014, FKT message boards began lighting up with some surprising news. A previously unknown Ecuadorean man named Karl Egloff had raced up and down Kilimanjaro in six hours and 42 minutes, destroying Jornet’s record by 32 minutes. Some considered it a fluke. Then, seven months later, he did it again, beating Jornet’s record on Aconcagua.
“People were shocked,” says Buzz Burrell, an ultrarunner who set an FKT on John Muir Trail in 2000. “Kílian is the best mountain runner—possibly ever. So it was surprising to see him beat.”
Jornet tears up a mountain on a run in France.
Fans weren’t just surprised. They were angry. Jornet, a humble, soft-spoken man with teenager-like stubble and a black tangle of sweat-tamed curls, had spent 10 years winning their adoration. Now his reign was being threatened. Goliath hadn’t fallen; Lou Gehrig had.
“People wrote me and said I was destroying Kílian’s world,” says Karl Egloff, 34, when I reach him over Skype. Egloff has short-cropped, thinning blond hair and an angular face. He seems perpetually, almost perversely happy, with a large smile and doe-like blue eyes. Behind him, the walls of the house in Cumbaya, Ecuador, that he shares with his fiancée, Adriana, are plastered with mountaineering photos. “They said I lied about my time on Kilimanjaro,” he says. “But you can’t react emotionally. Fans can be crazy.”
Unlike Jornet, Egloff doesn’t have a competitive running or mountaineering background. When he was 16, his Ecuadorean mother died, and nine months later he was sent to school in Switzerland. While there, he took up soccer. Egloff stayed in the country for eight years, playing on various regional teams. He also showed the potential of a superior endurance athlete. “I would go to the gym before soccer and for bike rides after matches,” he says. “My teammates always told me to take it easy because I was so hyperenergetic.”
When he returned to Ecuador in 2007, he started a mountain-guiding company, leading clients up peaks around the world. “My father worked as a mountain guide,” he explains. “So it seemed like a natural thing for me to do.” To satiate his restless nature, he also began mountain biking and got good enough to compete on the World Cup tour. But after six years, he gave it up. “I was ranked 80th in the world,” he says. “If I wanted to improve, I would have had to leave Ecuador, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, he poured his efforts into his work as a guide—and began daydreaming about FKTs. “My guiding friends inspired me,” he says. “They told me that I could be good at it and break records.” On a trip with a group of clients to Kilimanjaro in 2014, he decided to go for it.
Once again, it appeared Jornet was unbeatable. And then all of a sudden, he wasn’t.
On the morning of August 13, just three days after leading clients to the summit and back, Egloff checked in at the park-ranger station to record his start time (official FKTs also call for you to stick a flag in the summit and take a photo), then started running. He was armed with confidence. He had been in Africa for four weeks, was fully acclimated, and knew the mountain well, having guided clients up and down it 10 times. But he also held a secret weapon. “I’d read what Kílian had written about his trip up Kilimanjaro, and I knew the places where he went the fastest,” he says. “I knew I just needed to be a little faster in those sections.”
Egloff set off into the fog, worried that he’d get lost. When he made it through Lava Rock faster than Jornet had, he knew he was in good shape. As he passed through the final gate at the bottom of the mountain, he was met with cheers and hugs, mostly from complete strangers. “Porters came by and kissed my hat because they believe they can get your energy that way,” he says.
The rush of the experience consumed Egloff. “I thought, I broke a record,” he says. “I can go for big things.” He began adding mountains to his hit list. Aconcagua. Denali. Everest.
“I’m not purposely trying to beat Kílian’s records,” he says with a chuckle. “But I decided I wanted to try to set records on all of the Seven Summits, and Kílian happens to have the records on a lot of those.”
By the time Egloff had made it back down Aconcagua, six months after his Kilimanjaro conquest, at least one person knew who he was. When he logged onto his computer, he saw that Jornet had left a congratulatory message on his Facebook page.
I’d asked Jornet about Egloff. We were at lunch, and he’d just taken a bite of a breaded-and-deep-fried-chicken sandwich (when you burn up to 7,000 calories a day, you can eat anything you want), wiped grease from his tanned face, and grinned. “It’s a cool thing,” he said of his competition. “And it’s cool for the sport. It shows what’s possible mentally and physically and generates more interest. I’m glad for Karl.”
Mammut, the Swiss outdoor-gear company, noticed Egloff, too, and offered him a full 2016 sponsorship to wear the brand’s shoes, shorts, and jackets. “A lot of these men and women are on the cutting edge of fitness and alpinism,” says Gribbin Loring, the marketing manager for Mammut in North America. “The stories of FKTs tend to be very special, and Mammut likes to support the athletes who are achieving these feats of severe endurance.” Egloff won’t say how much money he earns from his sponsors, but they fund his FKT attempts, which can cost upwards of $50,000. “This is amazing for me,” he says. “If you can eat what you want and not just what you have money for, that’s nice.”
At eight o’clock in the morning on race day, 28 miles in, I watch Jornet bound down the side of a steep, rocky mountain, past sagebrush and columbine, and into the Hardrock’s first-aid station at Cunningham.
It’s impressive to watch Jornet run. On steeper ascents, he’s scrambling, using his hands to propel himself over rocks and snowfields. His movements are smooth and efficient, and he seems to have a preternatural ability to stick to the surface. His descents are almost more extraordinary. He hurtles down 50-degree slopes and over pocked and knobby terrain, his legs spinning beneath him with cartoonish speed.
The day before, I’d asked him how he’s able to run so fast downhill and still stay upright. He said he has very strong ankles, then rolled his right foot on its side and jumped up and down on it four times, a parlor trick he breaks out to prove his durability. “I can’t hurt them,” he says.
Both Jornet and Egloff are physiologically gifted in other ways, too. Jornet possesses a VO2 max—a measure of an elite athlete’s cardiorespiratory endurance—of 89.5, among the highest levels ever recorded. Egloff’s is just a few ticks lower at 87.5. Both men are also built with skeletal upper bodies and massive legs, providing the strength needed to run up mountains without any of the extra weight that bulging pecs and biceps cause. And both have trained themselves to eat and drink as little as possible during runs. “They’ve taught their bodies to use fat for fuel, which is much more efficient than carbohydrates,” explains Meredith Terranova, a sports nutritionist who works with ultrarunners. “And there’s been research to show that most athletes overdrink, and that can dilute electrolytes and cause gastrointestinal distress.”
But the rivals also have their differences. Jornet takes a freestyle approach to training, going out on runs—sometimes all day—when the mood strikes. And he’ll take days off only when he feels he absolutely needs to. Egloff, on the other hand, works with a sports clinic to lock in his training and has specific workouts for specific days. That could be a long, leisurely run or a steep attack, during which he maintains a heart rate of 175 for 90 minutes. But the most glaring difference is the way the two negotiate mountains.
“You can tell that Kílian’s proprioception is more evolved than Karl’s,” says Matt Hart, an ultrarunning coach and columnist for Trail Runner magazine. “He runs over the terrain and scree fields with no wasted movement. Karl is a little less efficient.”
That’s because, unlike Egloff, Jornet was born to climb. His childhood was spent in Catalonia, Spain, atop a 6,500-foot peak in the Pyrenees Mountains. By the time he was 13, he was competing in ski mountaineering races and running 50 miles to the next closest mountain hut. Around the same time, Jornet had an epiphany. His mountain-guide father would often take the family on treks, loading young Kílian, his mother, and his sister with big heavy bags full of supplies. “I hated it,” says Jornet. “So I decided I was just going to go light and would barely carry anything.”
‘I need to be light to go fast,’ Jornet says. ‘And I need to be fast to set records.’
These days, you’ll see Jornet scurrying up and down mountains like the Matterhorn in nothing more than running shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt, eschewing ropes and other safety equipment in areas where a misstep could mean death. This stripped-down approach to mountaineering has been adopted by other runners, including Egloff, but the practice has led to mishaps. In 2012, Jornet and his girlfriend, ultrarunner Emelie Forsberg, had to be rescued from Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix when bad weather rolled in. “I was shortsighted to think that there would be warmer temperatures and not to take more jackets,” Jornet wrote on his website. “At 50 meters [164 feet] from the summit…the weather degenerated quickly and continued to do so. It could have endangered myself and company. I decided to call the [search and rescue].”
But such setbacks don’t deter Jornet. “I need to be light to go fast,” he says. “And I need to be fast to set records.”
The last time I see Jornet before nightfall, it appears he’s on pace to set another record. He’s separated himself from the rest of the field by about an hour and is running up a moderately steep hill. I watch him for a few minutes as he knocks off a seven-minute mile, taking light-footed strides that could be timed to a metronome. Then he drops his head and disappears over a ridge and into the oncoming darkness, soon to be led only by the light of a headlamp and the uncompromising desire to push his body as hard as he can.
At 5:30 in the morning, I see him again as he crosses the Hardrock’s finish line. He’s drenched and muddy. Despite getting lost in a large patch of snow for 40 minutes along the way, he sets another course record—this time in a counterclockwise direction—of 23 hours and 28 minutes. Exhausted from just following the race, I can muster only one question: How? Simply, Jornet says, “I just kept going the same pace.”
A month before the Hardrock, Karl Egloff flew to France to train in the mountains. “I wanted to see Mont Blanc and get a sense of the place,” he says. “To see what it might take to set a record there.” Egloff had never met his adversary before but planned to cold-call him when he arrived to see if Jornet wanted to get together. Two days into the trip, Jornet obliged. “When athletes meet, we don’t get coffee,” says Jornet. “We went for a run.”
Egloff climbing K3 in Susa, Italy. A former soccer player and mountain biker, he makes his living as a mountain guide.
The two men met on Mont Blanc, shared a bony hug, and jogged up one of the mountain’s glaciers, views of snowcapped peaks and the lush green, wildflower-speckled valley below. Along the way, they talked about politics in their respective countries, about struggles on the mountain, and about their lives and what motivates them. “It’s nice to know there is somebody in the world who loves the same things about mountaineering as me,” Egloff says. “Kílian said that he discovered his spirituality in the mountains. It’s the same for me.” Jornet also pointed out the fastest route up Mont Blanc. “Let’s do it,” Egloff said. “Let’s try to set a new record.”
Jornet agreed, and 10 days later the pair set out at six in the morning to, together, try to best Jornet’s FKT. Halfway up and 15 minutes under record time, it appeared they would. Then, bad luck. “As soon as we started going up the glacier, the snow started to break,” says Egloff. “We were sinking in up to our hips.” By the summit, the two men were 40 minutes behind record time. “Well, now you know where to go,” Jornet said. “Now you can try for it another time.”
Before leaving, Egloff brought Jornet to his rental home, introduced him to Adriana, and shared a bite to eat. Egloff asked about Everest. In May, Jornet had planned to attempt an FKT on the mountain, but a massive earthquake hit the region. He flew to Nepal anyway to help with the relief effort. “We weren’t prepared for what we’d find there,” he says. “The valley was completely destroyed, and we went to work finding bodies and recording their location. It gives you perspective on what’s important.”
“Will you go back and try again?” Egloff asked Jornet.
“Yes,” Jornet responded.
“I’d love to join you,” Egloff said. “Maybe pace you. But I’m not ready. You’re probably faster than anybody else right now, but you might be even faster in a few years. Maybe you should wait, too.”
“I can’t,” said Jornet. “I need to finish my project.”
So next year, Jornet plans to travel back to Nepal to try to set the FKT on the world’s highest mountain. Karl Egloff is sure to try to beat it.