An interview with mountain racer Kílian Jornet
Ultra-runner Kílian Jornet has climbed the world’s highest peaks and set records at some of the most demanding sports events on Earth. In this interview with UN Environment, the renowned mountain racer reveals how he takes on such challenges, describes the environmental change he has witnessed and lays out his vision for us to enjoy mountains sustainably.
Why are you doing this? How did it all start?
I started to climb mountains when I was a child. My parents love all outdoor mountain sports, so since I was little they have taken me to ski, climb and run … I climbed my first 3,000 metre summit when I was five years old and the following year reached 4,000 metres! When I was 10, we spent 42 days crossing the Pyrenees. So while I didn’t have much choice, my parents really gave me my love for nature and for being outdoors, and an understanding of the environment we live in—which led to me combining this with sport.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for the challenges you face during your outings? What’s the biggest logistical challenge you have faced?
I started to train seriously when I was 13 years old. Since then, I train at least once a day. The only secret to becoming what I am today is to work hard. I have been training for over 1,000 hours a year for the last 10 years. To do so, you need patience and you must accept that you will fail a lot along the way. However, if you have passion, it is easy to be outdoors every day. I mean, when I wake up every morning I like to just look out of my window and think of where I will go. Training becomes a pleasure!
For some projects, it is important to feel really confident and comfortable in difficult situations. After running for 100 miles, your legs hurt and you’re sleepy, or you could be on avalanche terrain on a high mountain—you need to get used to such situations and experience them in a “safe” environment before starting the real project.
What changes have you witnessed in mountain environments over the course of your career? Has this affected how and where you are able to train?
Over the past 30 years, I have seen huge changes in the mountains. When I see pictures of the glaciers in the Pyrenees or Alps taken 10 years ago and compare them to today, I can see that the glaciers have retreated by hundreds of meters. In the Alps, global warming has also started to thaw the permafrost, so rocks the size of cars or buildings can fall at any moment. In the Himalayas, glacier lakes are getting bigger, and sometimes the breaking rocks lead to serious risk.
In your opinion, what is the single largest human impact on mountain environments? Are you frequently faced with evidence of how we are impacting them?
I think that we see two major kinds of impacts. One is more global and relates to the use of fossil fuels and pollution. Local impacts are also taking place—excrement at base camps is polluting streams and rivers, and rubbish in the mountains is still an issue, even though people are taking their rubbish with them more often. In Europe, ski resorts, cable cars, helicopters and highways create a lot of pollution and disturb wildlife.
With the number of mountain visitors growing worldwide, have you observed a change in people's attitudes and behaviour in the mountains?
The majority of people do visit the mountains in a responsible way and not in a “use and discard” consumerist way. When in the mountains, we get the feeling that we’re part of them, and it is only natural to want to learn more about them and protect them. I believe that tourism should go more in this direction.
As a role model for so many lovers of the outdoors, what advice would you give to mountain runners, hikers and skiers to minimize their footprint on fragile mountain environments?
We should be conscientious about the impacts of our activities—not just have fun and achieve our goals, but also ask ourselves what toll this takes on the environment. If skiing on powder means that we need to use a helicopter, it may be better to do less downhill and more uphill power hiking, or find adventures in our backyards rather than go on huge organized long-distance travel. We should ask ourselves where the gear, materials and food we use comes from. During certain seasons, we cannot climb or must avoid trails in some areas as we would disturb birds … It is about thinking twice and at least being aware of the impact we have.
Aside from the general public, do you see a particular role for authorities, tourism agencies, mountain guides, outdoor wear and equipment manufacturers (or any other group) in limiting the damage being done and restoring mountain environments?
That’s a tricky question. In general, in areas that depend on wilderness tourism authorities and businesses want to protect and preserve nature, but at the same time, they want more visitors and easier access. I see that manufacturers are generally pushing to be more environmentally friendly, but this is a big industry and seeing change will take some time. I think things will change when people ask tourism agencies for different experiences rather than just achieving goals. On the other hand, they are helping foundations and doing a lot of clean-ups. I believe everybody is much more aware of the problem and wants to solve it, but we started to realize that the problem exists a bit late.
When you look back from the distant future, what would make you feel completely satisfied with what you have accomplished—not only in terms of sport?
In a way, I believe that I have chosen the life I wanted to lead. I am mostly happy and can live in a way that is coherent with my values. I am happy to be able to enjoy every day outdoors—my happiness does not only come from big projects but also from small tours. In the future, I hope to motivate people following me to make conscientious choices so that we can all be in the mountains for a long time.