Kilian Jornet – The Matterhorn Interview
August 25th, Zermatt, Switzerland.
It’s the day after the Matterhorn Ultraks and just four days after Kilian Jornet’s successful attempt on the Matterhorn Summit record attempt from Cervinia. It has been quite a few days for this iconic mountain and although Kilian has excelled on both occasions, we all know, the mountain is still the boss.
Kilian arrives with Emelie Forsberg looking relaxed and fresh after a late breakfast. I congratulate him (and Emelie) once again on topping the podium at the Skyrunning Matterhorn Ultraks race and ask him how he feels, ‘I am a little tired but feel good. I was certainly tired in the race but I didn’t push too hard. I just did what I needed to do to win the race’.
Our conversation turns the TNF UTMB and we discuss how the race will unfold for the men and women. Kilian and Emelie are animated at the prospect of Julien Chorier, Miguel Heras, Anton Krupicka and the other contenders going head-to-head. Emelie gets excited at the thought of Nuria Picas in the ladies race, it’s her first 100-mile race and of course Emelie knows the Catalan well. We could talk all day but eventually I settle down with Kilian in a quiet corner and we discuss the Matterhorn.
IC: It’s the day after the Matterhorn Ultraks, firstly Kilian, congratulations on your win! Another great race with Luis Alberto Hernando but maybe what is more impressive is that it comes just a couple of days after your Matterhorn Summits. How are you feeling?
KJ: I feel good. It was a super good race with a great atmosphere. To run with Luis Alberto Hernando was super nice. I was very tired before the race, particularly the day before. I used a strategy for the race to take it easy and take the win in the last kilometers. Yes, I think I was much more tired than in other races this year.
IC: We spoke in the Dolomites and we discussed then that your next Summit would be the Matterhorn. You travelled to Cervinia and you lived here for weeks to train. You had the utmost respect for Bruno’s record of 3:14:44. The Matterhorn is a dangerous mountain. You said you needed to learn the mountain, to understand every step. I think in that time you went up and down the mountain multiple times. Just before your attempt you said that the record was in your grasp… what is it like to look at something that is perceived as being an iconic record, a record from 1995, you said in a quote that it was a record you had dreamt of. Something from childhood that you wished you could achieve. It is a massive undertaking. For you it is more than a record, it’s your life.
KJ: I remember it well; I was 13 years old. I entered into a mountaineering center; I was talking to Jordi, the trainer. I said at the time that the record was impossible. I spoke to Jordi recently and he reminded me that I was dreaming about the Matterhorn all those years back and about the record. I thought it was the ultimate expression of our sport. It’s a beautiful summit. It has a logical line. It is a hard record, it is push running and climbing, so, it was in mind for many years… more than Mont Blanc and all the other records. About five years ago when I started to think about Summits of my Life, the Matterhorn was my goal. The other summits were really preparation for the Matterhorn and Bruno’s record. For me, it was the most difficult record in Skyrunning and mountain running. For example, Pikes Peak is not Skyrunning. I was really afraid, not of the mountain as I was climbing a lot but of the time. I summited the Matterhorn nine times before the ascent. The first time you climb you become aware of what is possible. You go up and down and say, wow, this is the time I need to beat. After going up and down nine times I think okay, I know the mountain, I am not going to fall, I know this mountain well. I was aware of where I could go hard and where I needed to go easy. However, the morning of the attempt I was nervous. I thought to myself, will I do this record or will I do four hours?
IC: A few people asked why you made the attempt at 3pm; it seems quite logical that the Matterhorn is a busy mountain so I assume the mountain would have been less busy?
KJ: Yes for sure. It is a busy mountain when conditions are good. When I climbed nine times I saw hardly anyone, just two or three teams. I was alone. The week of the attempt we had good days with warm and dry conditions and everyone was on the mountain. Over one hundred teams! So, I was talking with all the guides and the helpers. We asked the question, what do we do? So many people on the mountain and it would have been impossible. My first idea was to start between 7-8am but it would have been crazy to pass people. We decided to start later. It was the perfect decision. It was warm at the summit and I wore just a t-shirt and nobody was in the way. Everyone was going down or in the hut. I just had the safety guides to help. It was perfect!
IC: In the build up to the record, you actually met up with Bruno Brunod. Did he go on the mountain with you or did you just talk about your attempt?
KJ: Bruno said he never climbed the Matterhorn after his attempt. We met in Cervinia and discussed his record. What conditions he had, how he prepared, how he was mentally and then we discussed the rope, the short cuts and how he made time. It is funny, Bruno stopped running in 2003 but last year he started running again and he is now preparing Tor des Geants. He never ran long distances; he was afraid. I said, c’mon man, you are strong, and you can do well in these races.
IC: So, Bruno has gone from no running to doing one of the longest races on the calendar, I guess when you are Bruno Brunod you don’t do things by half. When you go on the mountain to learn and understand, what process does that involve? Do you have several options to attempt the summit and therefore you try them or do you have a defined route and then you put that route in your mind so that you know every step. You know you can push in one place and you won’t slip in another place?
KJ: It’s one route. The Lion Ridge is the classic route and the fastest. It is the historical route and the same as Bruno used and those before him. You work out the differences but it is a thin ridge, you have several places that you can pass but yes, it is about planning. It is about knowing where to put your feet, knowing where to push and when not. I think you need to understand the mountain. You have parts in the west and north face and they are thin in the ridge and you can have ice. If you go in the morning you will have ice. If you go after 10am then this will be water so you can go there. You need to spend time to understand how it works, to understand the mountain and its life. Always in the north face it was icy, so I was aware I needed more care. On the west side I could push harder as the rock was warm and the rubber of my shoes would have better grip. It is important to spend time and understand that exactly. For example, if it is cold or windy, my shoes don’t grip the same as a warm day. I need to know this so I know exactly where to go. It is super important to understand the mountain and how the weather conditions are.
IC: On the face of it, people look at you and think you are very relaxed and casual. I know, I have seen you work and I have seen you study a mountain, you know the history, you go into in depth research to make sure these attempts are correct and that you know what you are doing. It is obviously very important. You have mentioned a simple thing like shoe rubber. Did you have special shoes?
KJ: Yes I tried different rubbers. I always used the Salomon Sense but I had different soles, different grades of rubber. For the attempt I used a softer rubber for grip. In the snow any shoe glides. You just need the technique of a flat foot and the ability to push.
IC: What is great about these attempts in comparison to Bruno, for example, in 1995 I guess Bruno stood in the square in Cervinia and just a few people were around probably having a beer, but Marino Giacometti and Lauri Van Houten were instrumental in Bruno’s attempt. They helped finance it, they arranged the safety, they arranged a helicopter and of course they got involved in your attempt. Fortunately for us we had the opportunity to have Seb Montaz follow the process, for those who know Seb, he is like your self a master of his craft. We have had some great glimpses of your summit; short videos are already on YouTube. Clips of you running a ridge jumping a crevice, or sliding down snow. It brings what you do into perspective. We can talk about you going up and down the Matterhorn but it’s easy to think, ok! But we may not have an idea of the difficulty or danger. These videos convey this. It is an important aspect. Is it a way to record you achievement but is it also a way to attract people to the mountains and also let people understand the beauty and danger?
KJ: It is the second for sure. It is not about my achievement. When I stop it will be in my mind. It is more a learning process. It enables the people to join us in the mountain and it enables everyone to understand. It’s beautiful, it is nice but it is also very difficult. It takes preparation, we do take some risks but the videos help motivate and inform. The way I go the mountain is possible but you need to learn. For me, my summit was the Matterhorn; I understood my capacity, my ability and my technical skill. I accept the risk. For everyone else it may be here or close to the home. We want to show and share that you can be light in the mountains and hopefully more people will understand. I go naked to the mountain.
IC: The actual record. You started 3pm from Cervinia. You are in Salomon Sense, shorts, T-shirt and a jacket around your waist. You look like you are going for a run… of course that is what you are doing! You start and in the early stages it is easy and then it becomes tricky, technical, you have ropes, ridges, faces to ascend and so on, how do you process the attempt in your mind. Did you have specific targets, so, did you know what time you wanted to be at a certain place or do you go on feel? I know in the early stages you only had about 3 minutes on Bruno’s record, it was maybe a little too hot but once past a certain point you really opened up time. Of course on the descent you came down super quick. You did 2:52:02 instead of 3:14:44. I believe Bruno predicted 2:52! Were you surprised?
KJ: I was really surprised. When Bruno said 2:52 I said, no way. I was thinking, I might break the record by 2-3 minutes maximum. Maybe 3:10 would be a good time? During my practice runs I never ran fast because in the hard parts you don’t want to go hard. It’s like a lottery and taking numbers… you leave taking numbers for race day! The only time I went faster was the second day when I trained. I thought, wow, maybe I can beat Bruno’s time. If I am close to Bruno’s time then I can go faster. I spoke to Seb Montaz on the morning of the attempt, he said if you are at the summit within 2 hours it will be so good, you will have time for the downhill. I said, yeah I will be so very happy. When I started the summit attempt it was the afternoon so this was good at the top because it was warm, however, it was warm in the valley too. I don’t like warm. I started with a good pace but it was hard to find the strength. I saw lots of people and friends. Bruno was shouting at me, ski friends shouted, guides from Cervinia, Nuria Picas was there and so on… they gave me energy. I said to myself, I must keep going, I must push. I had Bruno’s time in my mind but I had no prediction of what I could do.
I was close to Bruno’s time until the Leone Col then the ridge starts and then I came into my own. It is where I love to run. It’s technical, you need to climb and you need to push. It is exposed. I love to be exposed on the mountain. From here I was not moving fast but fluid. This is the way to move in this terrain, if you go fast and you go more than you can you will have an accident. Moving fluid allows me to move quickly. I started to gain time all the way up to the summit. I looked at my watch and I saw I was almost 12 minutes in front of Bruno’s time, I said to myself, wow, this is incredible. It is possible! Okay, I said, I can do it. I was happy but I could not disconnect. It is a long down hill to Cervinia; I needed to be sure of every step. The boss of the guides in Cervinia said to me at the summit, you can do it! I started down in deep concentration. I was enjoying it so much; I love to run the technical sections. You don’t push with your legs; you push with your mind. Where to put your feet, where to put your hands, when to glide, when to go faster, when to stop, this is what I love, I was enjoying it so much. When the most technical part stopped, I realized I was almost 20 minutes in front of Bruno; so, the last part was just pushing to the finish.
IC: Myself and many other people were very worried about the Matterhorn. We respected the mountain and we anticipated that you would push; pushing brings danger, so when you got to the summit and you knew you were ahead of Bruno’s time did that mean that the descent was easier, you took less risks than if the time had been very close.
KJ: Yes of course. If I had been at the summit in 2:10 I wouldn’t have come down at the speed I did. I would have taken more risks. I also think that this doesn’t work! Many people who saw me said that I was going down very fast, they said I looked really fluid and that I wasn’t taking risks yet I was very fast. I think this is the way to go down the mountain. If you take risks the body position is different, you can’t glide as well and so on. You lean back and this slows you. If you feel confident, you can go fast. I think maybe I could have gained 6-7 seconds by taking risks. It’s nothing! These 6 or 7 seconds may have been my life… I knew the route very well and I had no need to take additional risks. I just wanted to be confident. My mother was on the mountain and she had bad memories of when she climbed the Matterhorn for the first time but if you climb again and again, you know it’s risky but it isn’t necessary to take risks, it is about being confident.
IC: When you arrived in Cervinia, it was like the end of a race. It was incredible. The barriers were out. It was almost like the race finish here in Zermatt. Did this surprise you?
KJ: Yes, I was completely surprised. I was in Cervinia for three weeks sleeping in my van in preparation for the attempt. I was surprised by the reception by everyone. For example, the first day I climbed the Matterhorn I was with Emelie. We climbed with running shoes and when we reached the top, the mountain guides said, ‘wow, you are going with run shoes. Congratulations. Do you want to try the Matterhorn record, can we help you? Tell us the day, we want to help you’. There is not another place that is like this, we usually get the response of, ‘What are you doing here in run shoes, this is ridiculous’. Not in Cervinia, they wanted to help us right from the start. Every time I climbed it was so open, the support was great. I was always asked, ‘tell us what day you go and we will help. We want to be on the mountain to help and support you’. It was the same for the hotels in Cervinia, they offered me showers or they said if I needed anything such as Internet that I could use the Wi-Fi. It was an incredible ambience. People were happy that I was in Cervinia to do the record and they got behind me. I think this was the most beautiful part of the record. I went just with my van, I was alone to climb but everyone was supporting the team and myself. It was so easy then to do the record. The day before my attempt, I made a call to the mountain rescue and said, ‘Tomorrow I go’. He replied, ‘Okay, how many people do you need? We will put people in the mountains for safety in case you have a mistake’. He called the mountain guides and they said, okay, we will put people here and here. The guides had finished work at midday on Wednesday and then they returned to the mountain to support me. It is unique. The reception was so fantastic.
IC: It was incredible the level of support you got. Knowing you, you would have quite happily got out of your van, started in the square and returned with no fuss. Marino Giacometti made a very good point, these record attempts do need to be verified, it does need an element of proof that you do go to the top and do come back down. Of course we are not questioning your honesty. But for future records a structure needs to be in place. I guess if we set a standard for the future it can only be a good thing. Does that mean for future attempts such as Elbrus in Russia, will you start to incorporate this system.
KJ: Yes, I know I need someone to do the chrono and I am aware I need someone at the summit. For Mont Blanc, I had people from the Tourist Office to confirm my attempt and I had guides at the summit. I also have the gps files on my Suunto. At the Matterhorn it wasn’t an issue, we had everyone in place and it was almost taken out of my hands. For example, Marino Giacometti did the chrono in Cervinia but the guides etc. were fully behind the attempt and they verified the route. My chrono was radioed to all the guides on the mountain so my progress could be monitored. It is important to be true. It is just like doping control… it is about integrity, my intentions are 100%, it is important to do a record in the correct way. I am aware that many ‘FKT’s have no control, I personally believe in the people but when you see the world and see the problems, I am aware of the issues of how people can not be honest.
IC: What was great about this attempt, because you had a team of people up the mountain, we had time checks back that meant that we could Tweet and Facebook times to the world. This was so exciting. Social media became alive following you. I think we stopped so many people from working. They wanted to follow. It is interesting from my perspective because it is what I do, but I guess the concept of someone running up and down a mountain and that message being sent around the world, some may think, why is that interesting? But it is so exciting; the updates had people glued to your progress. Can you relate to it or do you just think about the mountain?
KJ: When I am on the mountain. I am 100% focused. I need to be in my moment and think about where I put my feet, how fast do I go. If my mind wanders I will loose time or maybe my life, so I was super focused on moving as quickly as possible. It is just the mountain and I. The social media and the photography I leave to others. For example, Seb was in the helicopter but I never saw or heard it even though he was so close. This is because I needed to be 100% committed. I think this is nice. In racing I think for the last three years I have managed my effort and therefore I don’t need to focus as much but this was completely different. It was like the first time I raced ten years ago when I was super focused. It is a super nice feeling.
IC: Certainly social media has made what you are doing so accessible which is great for us but it is also great for you and everyone else involved. I guess now your energy focuses on Russia and Mt Elbrus?
KJ: Yes, I need to relax a little first…
IC: You said that to me last time, when I interviewed you in the Dolomites. You told me you wouldn’t race for a month and then you went to Sierre-Zinal.
KJ: Ah yes, I was close to Sierre-Zinal, it was just the other side of the Matterhorn, so it was good training. Plus it was the 40th edition. Now I take a couple of weeks with no racing but I will train a lot, I love that; I need to do it to be alive. I will train but not race until UROC in the US. I will focus on Elbrus for the next few weeks; I want to go to Russia before UROC, maybe the 15th September. I will plan around that date and train at altitude.
IC: So does that mean you will do the Elbrus summit before UROC?
KJ: Yes, I think so. After UROC I have Skyrunner World Series, Limone Extreme and the then Diagonale des Fous, so, after this I want a break.
IC: You say a break, does that mean ski mountaineering?
KJ: It means one week of no training and then I will be in the mountains for November and December but I won’t race.
IC: Okay, we will follow you and see if you do race… Kilian it has been fantastic for you to give me so much time to talk about the Matterhorn. It’s great to get such an insight. Finally, when are we going to see the full edited Seb Montaz movie of this year or the recent summit?
KJ: We are working on it and of course we will work more after Elbrus. November and December will see much of the work being done in edit, so we hope before the end of the year. Maybe late December?
IC: Perfect. Thank you so much for your time.
The Matterhorn – A history and perspective
“It is a technical mountain. Bruno Brunod has a record of 3:14:44. It is a technical route that is not difficult BUT if I fall, I will die! I need to know the route very well, I need to spend time on the mountain, and I need to learn every step.” Kilian Jornet, July 2013.
Monte Cervino (Italian) or Mont Cervin (French) or Just the Matterhorn is a mountain on the border between Switzerland and Italy. At 4,478 meters (14,690 ft) high, it one of the highest peaks in the Alps. It consists of four steep faces, striking above the glaciers that surround it. Overlooking the town of Zermatt it is an iconic mountain and possibly ‘the’ most photographed mountain in the world. It is a mountain that dreams are mad of. Kilian Jornet is no different, “I have been dreaming about this record since I was 15”.
Ironically, the Matterhorn was one of the last great Alpine peaks to be climbed and the first ascent by Edward Whymper in 1865 brought an end to the ‘Golden age of alpinism (The period between Alfred Wills ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 and Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, this period saw many peaks in the Alps have first ascents)
Since 1865 to 1995 it has been described as one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps, over five hundred lives have been lost in this 130yr period. I guess the first ascent in 1865 showed us the danger potential when four climbers fell to their deaths on the descent.
The Matterhorn has two distinct summit, both situated on a 100-metre-long rocky ridge: the Swiss summit with a height of 4,477.5 meters (14,690 ft) on the east and the Italian summit with a height of 4,476.4 meters (14,686 ft) on the west. Their names originated from the first ascents, not for geographic reasons, as both are located on the border. Each summer a large number of mountaineers try to climb the Matterhorn via the northeast Hörnli ridge, the most popular route to the summit.
Small patches of snow and ice cling to the faces of the Matterhorn, but the faces are steep and regular avalanches occur. Snow hurtles down the four sides and accumulates on the glaciers at the base of each face.
Four main ridges separate the four faces of the Matterhorn and therefore it offers four distinct routes. The least difficult technical climb and by far the most popular is the Hörnli Ridge, which lies between the east, and north faces and it faces the town of Zermatt. The Zmutt Ridge (west), between the north and west faces is, according to Collomb, “the classic route up the mountain, it’s the longest ridge and also the most disjointed.
The Lion Ridge, lying between the south and west face is the Italian normal route. It is the shortest route on the mountain and has fixed ropes in place but many think it to be a far superior climb, particularly when compared to Hörnli Ridge. Furggen Ridge is the final offering, it is the hardest offering and in good conditions is not too difficult, and it does however have a reputation.
J.J and J.P Maquignaz made the first ascent of the Italian ridge as it is climbed today in 1867 but Kilian Jornet had his eyes on Bruno Brunod’s record set in 1995 when he did Breuil-Cervinia to the Matterhorn summit and back in an astonishing time of 3:14:44. In addition, Bruno also has the record for climbing the Matterhorn, again from Breuil-Cervinia just to the summit in a time of 2:10.
Back in 1995, Skyrunning president, Marino Giacometti and Executive Director, Lauri Van Houten were not only present but also helped finance Bruno’s attempt. Lauri still says how the thought of it, “brings shivers down my back”. Lauri and Marino both acknowledge the danger and undertaking that Kilian had given himself. “I remember standing in the square in Cervinia and about 3 hours 10 min had elapsed. There was a real buzz and noise and then somebody shouted, he’s coming! We all ignored it; we thought it couldn’t be possible… but minutes later Bruno appeared. It was a magical moment, one I will never forget”, says Lauri.
Bruno is very much considered the father of Skyrunning. His exploits, to this day seem to go beyond human limit. Without doubt, Kilian Jornet is in the same mold and in real terms, Bruno has lead the way for what Kilian now wants to achieve with his Summits project. Kilian’s final Summit will be Everest. Bruno himself attempted Everest; he however gave up when at a height of 8.200mt (26,900 feet) due to very hard weather conditions.
Bruno’s passion and time is now focused on his construction company, however, just recently he joined Kilian on the Matterhorn as he prepared for his Matterhorn attempt. Two masters together discussing the mountain. Without doubt, Bruno played a big part in the successful attempt by Kilian and ironically he predicted a time of 2:52:00. Maybe Bruno knows Kilian better than Kilian?
- Matterhorn uphill and downhill from Cervinia in 3:14
- Monte Rosa uphill and downhill from Gressoney in 4:45
- Aconcagua uphill and downhill in 5:57
- Kilimanjaro uphill on the Marangu Route in 5:38
- Mount Elbert uphill in 1:54
- Three times winner of the Becca di Nona SkyRace (2002 – 2003 – 2004)
See ISF recognised records at skyrunning.com
READ THE KILIAN JORNET INTERVIEW, pre MATTERHORN HERE
Firstly, a big thank you to Kilian Jornet, for his time, his patience and his inspiration.
Interview conducted by Ian Corless ©iancorless.com no reproduction or quoting without prior permission, all rights reserved.
Images provided by: iancorless.com, Lauri van Houten (ISF) or Seb Montaz – all protected under © copyright. No reproduction without permission.