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Globe-trotting European athlete sets Mount McKinley speed-climbing record

Craig Medred

Spaniard Kilian Jornet Bourgada is not your normal Mount McKinley mountaineer, and it's not just because he's been written up in the New York Times Sunday Magazine as the "most dominating endurance athlete of his generation."

No, what sets Jornet apart from the hundreds of others on the mountain now is the way he just went up and down North America's tallest peak like an Iditarod sled dog on a mission.

Most climbers figure on taking two to three weeks to travel about 35 miles from Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,300 feet to the 20,237-foot summit and back.

"The average expedition is 17 to 21 days, round trip. It is possible to reach the summit on day 12 or 13," according to the National Park Service . "That said, most groups at a bare minimum opt for one rest day at 14,200 feet and another upon reaching High Camp, which means a bit longer expedition. With a reasonable number of rest days and good weather, it is common for groups to summit in 15 to 18 days."

Jornet made the fastest of those times look like a joke. Earlier this month, he went from Kahiltna to the summit and back in less than 12 hours.

Yes, that's right: Not less than 12 days, but less than 12 hours. He's claiming a record of 11 hours, 40 minutes, according to OutsideOnline.com .

There are no "official" records here. McKinley lacks for course monitors. Climbers pretty much operate on the honor system. But nobody is questioning Jornet's time.

Park rangers saw him powering up Motorcycle Hill above the 11,000-foot camp like a two-legged version of the aforementioned Iditarod husky and ripping through the 14,000 camp not long after.

"I believe that he did it, but I don't have any way to verify it," confessed mountaineering ranger Mark Westman, who was at base camp when Jornet made his run.

"We were in the tent," he said. "It was a decent day," snowing a little but otherwise climber friendly. Jornet had said he planned to leave early in the day if the conditions on the upper mountain looked good.

"It was sometime between 6 and 7 in the morning when he took off," Westman said in a telephone interview from the Talkeetna ranger station to which he had returned after a mountain patrol.

Westman remembers a ranger at the 14,000 camp below the McKinley headwall reporting Jornet going through at 10:25 a.m. -- only three or four hours after he left base camp. Rainer Mountaineering Inc. , one of several McKinley guiding companies, plans on giving its clients a rest day at 14,000 on "Day 11" of their climbs.

Even though Westman got a report from rangers at 11,000 that Jornet was "running up" Motorcycle Hill, an incline steep enough that it killed four Japanese climbers in an avalanche in mid-June of 2012 , the ranger admitted "I was a little surprised he got to 14,000 so fast. I remember looking at my watch. I think it was like two hours after leaving 11,000."

Most climbers take a couple days instead of a couple hours between 11,000 and 14,000. They carry gear up and around infamous Windy Corner to about 13,000 feet, leave a cache there, then drop back to 11,000 for a rest. They make the push to 14,000 the next day.

Jornet didn't even slow down between 11,000 and 14,000 feet.

The next thing Westman knew, he was getting a report the climber had made the summit and was on his way back down the mountain. He skied a good part of the descent which saved a lot of time.

Still, Westman couldn't quite believe it.

The ranger has gone from the 14,000 camp to the summit and back in eight hours himself, but confessed "that was as fast as I could possibly have gone.

"The guy's the real deal," Westman added. "He's got some skills."

And a pretty unique physiology.

The Times reported Jornet's VO2 max -- a measure of a person's ability to consume oxygen -- has been calculated at 89.5 ml/kg/min. That's near twice the lower limit of the 45 to 55 norm for a healthy, average man, and well above the 60 to 70 score for college-level 10,000 meter runners.

"I've not seen any athletes higher than the low 80s, and we've tested some elite athletes," Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Times.

Still, there are athletes who've scored better. Bjorn Daehlie, the eight-time, gold-medal winning Norwegian Nordic skier, scored 96 , and three time Tour de France champion Greg Lemond recorded a 92.5, according to the website TopEndSports.com .

Jornet is, however, clearly in elite company. Westman said the 26-year-old impressed everyone he met on the mountain. The ranger described Jornet as physically blessed and psychologically focused.

Jornet is on a quest to set speed-climbing records around the globe. OutsideOnline.com reported he's already set records on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in Europe and is eyeing 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, the tallest peak in Russia; 22,8370-foot Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America; and 29,029-foot Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

And who knows, having taken about five hours off a McKinley record time set by Vermont's Ed Warren just last year , Jornet might try to go even faster.

"He's still up there," Westman said. "He might try again."

 


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com