The Tragedy on Howse Peak

28 Aug

Howse Peak is a 10,800-foot twin-tipped spire rising from the Continental Divide between British Columbia and Alberta’s Banff National Park. The area is remote, no cell service or snack bars, although Howse is plainly visible from lonely Icefields Parkway, which bisects Banff just a few miles from the mountain. Only the most serious climbers would consider ascending its east face, a sheer 3,000-foot wall of sedimentary rock marbled with an intricate network of snow and ice. Its most fearsome route, M-16—echoing the name of the machine gun, because of the frozen detritus that routinely showers down it—has only been completed once, 20 years ago, by a three-man team during a perilous five-day effort. One of the men, Steve House, later wrote that the climb entailed “one of the hardest pitches of my life.”

On Monday, April 15, 2019, three of the best alpinists in the world—David Lama, 28, from Innsbruck, Austria; Hansjörg Auer, 35, from Umhausen, Austria; and Jess Roskelley, 36, from Spokane, Washington—skied to Howse and set up a tent in a snow-filled basin, with plans to attempt M-16, or a variation of it, early the next morning. The trio had been in the area for almost a month, staging out of a condo in Canmore. All three were members of the North Face climbing team, a storied group of mountain athletes created in 1992 that includes luminaries like Conrad Anker, Peter Athans, Emily Harrington, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin, among others.

Alpinism is climbing’s most demanding discipline, involving the most objective hazards on the most challenging routes of steep, often fragile snow, ice, and rock. It hardly resembles what most people recognize as mountaineering these days, which is to say the sad circus on Mount Everest or the trade routes on Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. To alpinists, style is everything. Proper progression involves climbing light and fast, with minimal gear and maximum self-­sufficiency. First ascents are cherished, though repeating lines of significant difficulty also earns respect. The margin of error is alarmingly thin, and the sport has a long roster of casualties. Roskelley had recently told his younger sister, Jordan, a yoga instructor who works with the Gonzaga men’s basketball team: “If those guys make a mistake, they lose a game. If I make a mistake, I die.”

This trip was the first time that Lama, Auer, and Roskelley had all climbed together. They became friends through the North Face, hanging out at trade shows and company gatherings, chatting enthusiastically about potential trips. The men were set up for a month in Canada—a comfortable base from which they could launch alpine sorties, shake down new gear, and dream up big projects. The three had been discussing an attempt on the southeast ridge of Annapurna III, one of the great unclaimed prizes left in the Himalayas. Lama and Auer had already attempted it twice, in 2016 and 2017, with another Austrian, Alex Blümel. On their first trip, they were stormed off a few thousand feet from the summit. On the second, the project disintegrated before they reached base camp, when they got the news of a friend’s death and lost the desire to continue. For a third attempt, Auer and Lama thought that their new teammate Roskelley might be a better fit. The Canada trip was a chance to sort out any problems.

Jess Roskelley
From left: Roskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak. The image was recovered from Roskelley’s phone. (Photo: Jess Roskelley)

By mid-April, the trio had completed some solid climbs around Canmore, including a dramatic frozen waterfall called Nemesis and the Canadian Rockies classic Andromeda Strain. M-16 was bigger and bolder than those two routes but well within the climbers’ proven ability. They had all completed longer, more difficult, and objectively more dangerous climbs. On Monday evening, Parks Canada indicated spring conditions for Howse, a typical if somewhat vague rating for that time of year: “The avalanche danger is variable and can range from Low to High. Traveling early in the day is recommended, as conditions can change rapidly.”

Around 2 A.M. on Wednesday, April 17, Roskelley’s wife, Allison, texted his mother, Joyce. Jess had not yet checked in by InReach messenger, as he usually did. Joyce tried to reassure her, but Alli spent a sleepless night waiting for news. The next morning, when Jess still hadn’t checked in, Joyce spoke with Jess’s dad, John, a renowned climber himself. John thought there were a number of possible explanations, not all of them dire. He contacted Parks Canada, which promptly dispatched a search and rescue team from Lake Louise, about 30 miles away.

A team member drove to Banff National Park, where he found Jess’s truck at the trailhead to Howse. Then search and rescue dispatched a helicopter to circle past Howse’s east face, where they saw a large swath of avalanche debris at the base of the wall. A few pieces of climbing gear were visible in the runout. Most troubling was the sight of a leg protruding from the snow. There were no other signs of the climbers or further indication of what had gone wrong. The weather was deteriorating quickly, so the team took photos from the air, then swung around and returned to Lake Louise, where they called John and Alli.

I arrived in Canmore on Friday afternoon, flying to Calgary from my home in New Mexico. I had lived in Spokane for a number of years in the nineties, learned to climb there, and visited regularly, since my dad still lived in the area. I’d joined the Spokane Mountaineers, a local outdoors club, of which John Roskelley was arguably the most esteemed member. In the seventies, he was on the first American team to summit K2 and made daring ascents on other major peaks. In 2014, he received the Lifetime Achievement Piolet d’Or, the sport’s highest honor. He wasn’t climbing much while I was around, having pivoted to public service as a county commissioner. We interacted a few times, because I worked for a weekly newspaper, and I always appreciated his common sense and straight talk in the blustery world of city politics.

The Roskelleys are close. They all live in Spokane and get together often for meals, vacations, and holidays. For several years after college, Jess and Jordan, who had been a pole vaulter at the University of Oregon, were roommates and confidants.

I found the family at the condo that Auer, Lama, and Roskelley had rented. A duffel of the climbers’ gear sat on the kitchen floor, and there was some tense discussion about what to do with it. Jordan stood in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open, revealing little more than beer and cookie dough. “What were these guys eating?” she sighed.

The unsettled weather stuck around until Sunday, which was Easter, dropping a foot of snow in the high country and keeping the search and rescue operation on hold. Media attention was in full fervor; Parks Canada had received more than 800 inquires about the incident. Others had arrived in Canmore, including Scott Coldiron, one of Jess’s climbing partners, and Lama’s girlfriend, Hadley Hammer, who skis for the North Face. 

There were murmurs of an Easter miracle. It was not impossible that a survivor, maybe two, was stranded on Howse with no way to communicate. But the mood was heavy. Alli sobbed fitfully, the grim reality of loss crashing down in waves. Joyce cleaned the kitchen, her face drawn. John made calls to correct errors in the numerous stories being rushed out. Jordan left to sit in Jess’s truck, recovered from the trailhead and now parked near the condo.

Growing up, Jess had a conflicted relationship with climbing. “Through high school I was dragged into the mountains as my dad’s fabricated climbing partner,” he wrote in 2014 on the blog of MSR stoves. “It’s as if I was planned with precise timing to be his young partner as he grew older and needed a young guy to keep him energized.”

For a while, he opted for more conventional sports: cross-country, wrestling. He raced mountain bikes. There were years when it appeared he might not climb at all.

But mountains were his destiny. He was built to climb, with long, ropy arms, a narrow waist, and broad shoulders that he decorated with colorful tattoos. At the top of his chest, in a necklace of ink, he inscribed one of his favorite quotes, from Ernest Shackleton: Fortitudine Vincimus (“By endurance we conquer”). He drove big, lifted trucks and favored T-shirts and flat-brimmed ball caps. “He was the American badass,” said Scott Mellin, global general manager for the North Face’s mountain sports.

Jess had a domestic side, too. He doted on his white bulldog, Mugs, and fawned over Alli, filling his Instagram with images of them frolicking in romantic locations—Thailand, Iceland, Costa Rica. He had a playful, irreverent sense of humor, with a penchant for fart jokes. Once, halfway up an ice climb, he radioed his wife, who was ski-touring nearby.

“Are you there? Over.”

“What’s wrong?” she replied, alarmed.

A pause, then she heard a blast of flatulence rumble over the speaker.

“Jess!” she shouted, and burst out laughing.

He had always been bright, but school had been challenging. He developed a keen ethical sensibility and a temper to go with it. Bullies infuriated him. Joyce, a ninth-grade teacher, made more than a few trips to retrieve her son from the principal’s office for fighting. In junior high, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. He had trouble staying focused. “If he was in a quiet classroom, he would hear the teacher at the pencil sharpener in the room next door,” Joyce told me. He was prescribed Adderall, which helped. Even more therapeutic, though, was rock and ice climbing. It channeled the energy and anxiety into his hands, into his ice tools, helping calm his mind.

In 2003, when Jess was 20, he and John climbed Everest together. The expedition was long and grueling, plagued by dodgy weather. When they finally reached the summit, they could see only clouds, and the wind was blowing so hard they were forced to their knees. The pair embraced and wept.

Everest was a turning point. Jess didn’t much care for traditional Himalayan expeditions—on the MSR blog, he referred to Everest as a safari, “a luxury experience for the well-to-do”—but he had proven himself on a serious climb at extreme altitude. Afterward he “decided that alpine climbing was the purest form of the sport.” He dropped out of the University of Montana during his sophomore year and took a welding job on Alaska’s North Slope. It was demanding work but lucrative; most important, it allowed him to climb for weeks at a time. 

For the next decade, Jess tackled icy peaks and walls in Alaska, Montana, Canada, and South America—striving to turn his passion into a profession. On a climb, he always seemed to be at his best when things were at their worst.

“I’ve seen Jess in tough situations where shit’s going down and he’s got this iron underneath,” says Coldiron, a former Army sergeant in Iraq who now works for the Spokane fire department. “It’s this quality you don’t see often, this ability to go to another level and do what needs to be done. I saw it in combat in Iraq. I see it in really intense, big fires when people’s lives are on the line.”

In the spring of 2017, Clint Helander, a climber based in Anchorage, reached out to Jess to try a first complete ascent of the south ridge of Alaska’s Mount Huntington. The ridge rises in a series of steep pinnacles, like a row of giant shark’s teeth, each more imposing than the last. The pair hadn’t climbed together before but had crossed paths in Patagonia and hit it off. “There are a lot of guys who can climb hard ice and hard snow,” Helander told me, “but Jess had the kind of commitment you long for on this kind of route.”

Success on Huntington helped secure Jess a contract with the North Face. “He had really gotten to a place where he was making it,” Alli said. “He wasn’t going to have to weld this year. He could train full-time, which, I have to tell you, over the last couple months the change in his attitude was just significant. He was so psyched.”

On Sunday, the weather cleared and the search and rescue team returned to Howse. There would be no Easter miracle. With the help of an avalanche dog, rescue workers located the three bodies in the debris field.

It would have been news in the climbing community if any one of these guys had been killed, but to lose all three in a single accident sent shock waves around the world. Writing in The New York Times, Francis Sanzaro, the editor of Rock and Ice, said it was like “waking up and learning that Tom Brady, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown had all been killed on the gridiron.”

The next morning, I skied into the base of Howse with a friend from Spokane to have a closer look at the mountain. The wall was a magnificent nightmare of black rock and blue ice, soaring straight up into oblivion. It started to snow, so we retreated while we could still see our tracks. Near the trailhead, we encountered a young woman in sneakers postholing awkwardly toward Howse. She had driven several hours from Calgary, she said. We asked if she knew the climbers.

“No. I just read about it, but for some reason it hit me really hard, and I felt like I needed to come here,” she said. “I guess it’s a spiritual journey.”

If Jess Roskelley was the American bad-ass, then Hansjörg Auer and David Lama were the European superstars. They stood out in an Austrian culture that is obsessed with mountaineering. The Österreichischer Alpenverein—the Austrian Alpine Club—boasts more than half a million members, 5 percent of the country’s population. Top climbers are recognized on the street and routinely have their restaurant meals paid for by anonymous fans.

Auer may be most widely known for a 2018 viral video, shot on his helmet cam, which shows him bailing off a mixed route in Austria, rappelling from a tiny nubbin of rock. But he’d been considered one of the most skillful, audacious climbers in the world since 2007, when he burst into prominence by free-soloing a route in the Italian Dolomites called Via Attraverso Il Pesce. Named for a fish-shaped feature three-quarters up a rock face, the route is a 2,700-foot 5.12c, with a crux that involves handling a powerful, awkward undercling—with no ropes or protection—above a thousand feet of air.

Until Alex Honnold’s 2017 ropeless ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider—which, at 3,000 feet and rated 5.13a, is slightly longer and more difficult than Il Pesce—Auer’s climb stood as the benchmark free solo. He didn’t bring a camera or a film crew and had climbed the route only once, three years earlier. The climb may well have vanished into obscurity had it not been witnessed by two Germans on a nearby route. 

Growing up, Auer was an awkward kid, skinny and shy, with jug ears, a tremendous chin, and a gap in his front teeth. “I was always one of the last ones picked for the football team,” he said in No Turning Back, a film about his climbing life. “I would go hiking alone in the mountains. I felt comfortable there.” In 2017, he published an autobiography, Südwand, that detailed his feelings as an outsider and his struggles with anorexia.

He’d started a career as a math teacher but eventually abandoned that path to climb full-time. By his thirties, he was bringing his formidable climbing skills to big alpine routes. In October 2015, he was climbing Nilgiri South in Nepal with Alex Blümel and his close friend Gerry Fiegl when Fiegl, suffering from altitude sickness, slipped during the descent. Auer and Blümel watched in horror as their friend tumbled backward and fell 2,000 feet to his death. A couple of years later, Auer and Blümel completed a first ascent of the north face of 22,982-foot Gimmigela East, in Nepal. At the summit, they spent half an hour in silence. Later, Auer asked what Blümel had been thinking about. “Gerry,” he said.

Lama’s path was equally impressive if higher profile. He was the son of a Sherpa mountain-guide father and an Austrian mother who had him climbing early. When Lama was five, he went to a climbing camp run by Everest veteran Peter Habeler, who declared him a prodigy. At 18, he was the overall Climbing World Cup champion. It didn’t hurt that he had Teen Beat good looks, with caramel-colored skin, brown eyes, and a lustrous dome of dark hair. At 21, he quit competition to pursue alpine climbing exclusively.

Bringing his peerless strength and technical abilities to the big mountains held great promise, but it got off to a messy start. In 2010, Lama attempted to free-climb—that is, using gear only for protection—the iconic Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. (It was named this because the first to climb it, Cesare Maestri, left a large air compressor that he’d used to drill bolts dangling from anchors on the rock. It remains there today.) A film crew from Red Bull accompanied him on the climb, stitching additional bolts up the face and turning the iconic spire into a glorified climbing wall. When Lama failed, and the crew left bolts and ropes behind on the peak, the critics pounced. “Go home, gym rat,” one climber quipped online.

Lama took the criticism seriously and committed to doing the climb in pure alpine style. It took another two years, but at last he “freed” the Compressor route, garnering Lama and his partner, Peter Ortner, a special mention at the Piolets d’Or awards. “David was an incredible alpinist, but he also was a really good human,” says Hadley Hammer. “He was gentle, had me laughing all day, and could make me feel like I was capable of anything.”

In 2018, Lama pulled off his pièce de résistance: a solo ascent of Lunag Ri, on the border of Tibet and Nepal. He’d attempted the route twice before, in 2015 and 2016, with Conrad Anker. The second year, at 20,000 feet, Anker suffered a heart attack. With Lama’s help, he was able to descend to base camp, where he was evacuated by helicopter. Afterward, Anker said he would no longer climb at altitude. “David saved my life,” he told me. In 2018, Lama returned to Lunag Ri, completing the first ascent on his own in three days.

A few weeks after the accident on Howse, I met with Benjamin Erdmann, 32, a longtime climbing partner of Jess’s and one of his closest friends. Erdmann is a warm, vivacious entrepreneur who lives in Leavenworth, Washington, where he raises bees and runs a kombucha company. When he was 18, his father attempted suicide, and Erdmann got into climbing to help work through his trauma. For several years, along with Jess, he was one of the leading American alpinists, with sponsorships from Adidas and Camp USA.

Like Jess, Erdmann also worked on the North Slope as a welding inspector. They started a welding company, and their compatible schedules and lifestyles allowed them to travel together, bagging hard routes in Alaska, Canada, and South America. Then, in 2018, Erdmann abruptly quit climbing.

Two years before, they’d spent nearly a month on the iconic peaks in Patagonia with a third friend, Scott Coldiron. Of particular concern was the body of Chad Kellogg, a well-liked and highly respected climber from Seattle. In 2014, Kellogg and his partner Jens Holsten had been descending a steep, difficult route on Fitz Roy called the Supercanaleta when their rope got stuck in a stone flake above them. Pulling on the rope dislodged the rock, which hurtled down and struck Kellogg in the head, killing him instantly. There was nothing Holsten could do but descend.

The precarious location of the body prevented any attempt at recovery, until 2016, when Jess, Erdmann, and Coldiron were descending the Supercanaleta and came across Kellogg. Erdmann was the first to reach the body, which was cemented to the wall by snow and ice. He attempted to chop the ice away with his ax but kept striking the limbs, impaling them. It was arduous, gruesome work that quickly became too upsetting and risky to continue.

When Jess and Erdmann went back the next season, the ice had thawed and Kellogg’s body had dropped to the glacier. They gathered the remains and buried Kellogg in a stone grave.

“After that I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Erdmann told me. “I started climbing to help me deal with trauma, but now it was causing it. I was like a heroin addict who turned to methadone to get clean, then the methadone became the problem.”

The east face of Howse Peak (Photo: Aaron Black/Getty)

I’d often heard this kind of language—the vocabulary of addiction—not just in the climbing world but among many who pursue dangerous activities like BASE jumping, wingsuiting, ski mountaineering, big-wave surfing, and so on. I marveled at the power of such pursuits to override our hardwired instinct for self-preservation. How close one needed to stand—or fly, or ski, or surf—to their own mortality was, to me, a question of infinite fascination with no correct answer.

In Walk the Line, a documentary about Anker and Lama’s attempt on Lunag Ri, Anker is seen lying in the snow, incapacitated from his heart attack, awaiting evacuation. “I always wondered when I would get the message that it’s time to let go of this game,” he says to the camera. “And I think I got it.”

Many never do. In the past few years, we’ve seen a raft of fatalities among high-profile climbers: Justin Griffin, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adamson, Ueli Steck, Marc-André Leclerc, Ryan Johnson, Daniele Nardi, Tom Ballard, Hayden Kennedy, Inge Perkins, Kellogg, and Fiegl, to name a few.

In 2018, the North Face hired Timothy Tate, a grief counselor and therapist in Boze­man, Montana, and a friend of Anker’s, to work with athletes affected by tragedy and survivor’s guilt. The program was prompted in part by the 2017 deaths of Kennedy and Perkins. The couple had been ski-touring in Montana’s Madison Range when Perkins was killed in an avalanche. Distraught and traumatized, Kennedy, who was still suffering from the deaths a year earlier of his close friends Dempster and Griffin, went home, wrote a 15-page suicide note, and took his own life.

“It was devastating for everyone,” Anker says. “Hayden had recently moved to town, and I just kept thinking, if someone had been able to get to him, if he hadn’t been alone, things might have been different.

“There’s this sense in our community that shit happens in the mountains and you buck up, take it like a cowboy, and don’t talk about it,” he continued. “But now we’re trying to have a better, bigger understanding of it.”

One afternoon in late May, I went to visit with Joyce and John at their home a few miles north of Spokane Valley. They live in a Tudor-style house on 20 acres overlooking a riparian wetland, with beautiful views of nearby Mount Spokane. It was a bright, breezy spring day, the kind you wish you could enjoy without an asterisk.

The family had recovered Jess’s phone, on which they found a handful of photos from the climb. John, who many years earlier had worked for the Spokane medical examiner analyzing accident scenes, pulled a few images up on the computer in his study. He had used the metadata on the phone to trace the climbers’ route, which had begun on M-16 before they veered left and put in a new line to the ridge. A summit image, the three of them crowding into the frame and grinning, was captured at 12:43 P.M. “I could tell from the summit photo that Jess felt really good about himself,” he continued. “I mean, he was beaming. I knew right then that he had measured up.”

The men were descending when the avalanche hit. Another climber in the area, unaware that the three were up there, had been scouting potential climbs on Howse from the road. He reported seeing a cornice collapse and crash down the face at around 2 P.M. It didn’t seem like they’d done anything to cause the accident. “They got wiped somehow,” John said. “That’s my impression. But we don’t know. It’s all speculation.”

I asked if Jess had been worried about keeping up with the Austrians, given their fitness, speed, and comfort soloing big routes.

“He talked to me about it, and I said, ‘Hey look, Jess. Hang with them. Carry less, go lighter, but don’t take any chances. If you need a rope, or if you feel more comfortable with a rope, put it on. Don’t let them push you to a point where you don’t feel comfortable.’ ”

Whatever issues Jess grappled with as a teenager about climbing with his dad, they had developed a cherished partnership. They teamed up for many climbs after Everest as Jess built his own life as an alpinist. “He always called John to ask advice about routes,” Alli told me. “They were constantly talking about those things.”

“When Jess was younger, I never pushed him,” John said. “I really didn’t want to encourage him to be a climber just because I was a climber. My philosophy was that he needed to find his own way.”

So many people showed up for the memorial, held at a large theater in downtown Spokane, that the organizers directed the overflow to a ballroom in a nearby hotel where they live-streamed the proceedings. The stage was filled with flowers and draped with Tibetan prayer flags. Timothy Tate, the grief counselor, was the emcee. Jess’s elder sister, Dawn, who lives in Reno, Nevada, sang a duet with Jordan of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that left many in the audience weeping. Anker reminded us that Jess’s life was about humility and humor. Alli bravely recounted their too brief time together, ending with a favorite Jess-ism. “Nighty night,” she said through tears, pointing at Erdmann, who was sitting in the front row and clasped his hands over his heart. “Keep your butthole tight!” A raucous after-party ensued, stretching late into the night.

The parents of both Auer and Lama had released statements on social media, noting the love and passion both men had for climbing, but remained out of contact with the public.

The week after the memorial, Alli and I had lunch at the Flying Goat, a tavern a few blocks from her and Jess’s home. On the menu, the owners had renamed one of the couple’s favorite items—a deep-fried dough ball containing sausage, jalapeño, and goat cheese—the Roskelley Dumpling.

Alli and Jess had met when Jordan set them up on a blind date in 2013. Jess wore a T-shirt and his usual ball cap, and he had a flight of wine waiting for Alli. “Whoa, you’re even prettier in real life,” he said when she sat down. In her twenties, Alli had lost a previous partner in an automobile accident, and she understood the brevity of human life. She and Jess were engaged eight months later, and they married in 2015.

Alli didn’t grow up a climber—Jess led her into it. She is strong and fit, rode horses as a kid, and became an expert downhill skier. But climbing steep, wild mountains was a new kind of experience. She immersed herself in a three-month program with the Spokane Mountaineers. “I had become part of this climbing family, and I wanted to be able to speak the same language,” she said. 

After lunch we walked through the house, a craftsman bungalow perched near a bluff in a leafy neighborhood northwest of town. Mugs the bulldog came wiggling up to me so enthusiastically that I wondered if he thought I might be someone else. “One thing you have to know about Jess is how much he loved being at home,” Alli said. It would take him a couple of weeks to transition back to domestic life after a trip—he could be aloof and unsociable—but soon he’d be painting the house and shopping at Costco. They had so many plans: buying a van, traveling, settling down and starting a family.

Alli led me out to the garage in back, where Jess had recently installed a Treadwall—a rolling apparatus studded with plastic holds—to help him train. The space was stuffed with gear and apparel. Mugs followed us and curled up by the door. “That’s his spot now,” Alli said. “He’s always there, waiting for Jess.”

The recovery team from Parks Canada had told her a few more details about what they believed happened on Howse. The climbers had fallen a long way, carried by the slide. They found a rope, frayed and nearly snapped in half. “I’m hoping it would have been quick,” Alli said. “It wasn’t like they were buried under the snow and suffering. I’m holding it in my heart that Jess maybe looked up and was like, ‘Oh fuck,’ but that would’ve been it.”

I asked her if they talked much about the risks involved in Jess’s line of work.

“Oh yes, we talked about it,” she said. “I was aware from the very beginning. I fully accepted the possibility that this could happen. But you can’t really prepare for it. There’s this belief that it’s not going to happen to you.”

That afternoon, on my way back to my dad’s house, I stopped at the small crag where I learned to climb with the Mountaineers more than two decades ago. No one was around. I remembered it as pristine, but now it looked scruffy, with graffiti on the rocks and broken bottles in the weeds.

My heart ached for the Roskelleys and their friends. I never knew Jess, but the grief of all those who did had been intense and unrelenting, and the past few weeks left me deeply unsettled. I walked up to the base of the rock where I’d wrestled through my first climb, a short, simple route called Open Book. I’d spent many hours at the crag but climbed it only once, as a neophyte, when it seemed terrifying and impossibly difficult, even on top rope.

I’d never gone very far with climbing. My tolerance for exposure, risk, and danger was always wimpy compared with those who took the sport seriously. But I loved being in the mountains, and I’ve hiked, climbed, and skied all over the world. These were relatively low-grade adventures, but I’d dodged a close call or two. It struck me that you never really know how lucky you are until your luck runs out.

A few moments later, I was scrambling up Open Book in my running shoes. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy, either. You wouldn’t want to fall. After about ten minutes I was sitting at the top, 40 feet off the deck, heart racing, lungs heaving, legs dangling over the edge. It was a dumb move, but it was over now, and it was a low-angle walk off the back. I returned to my car and sped down the road, both hands on the wheel, jittery with adrenaline. I couldn’t remember the sky there ever looking so blue, or the air being quite so clear and redolent with pine. I drove right past my dad’s place. I kept driving for a long time.

Contributing editor Nick Heil (@nickheil) profiled Kilian ­Jornet in July 2018.

The Indiana Jones of Climate Science

9 May

One spring morning in 2014, before breakfast or even coffee, John All, 49, a Mount Everest climber and then a professor at Western Kentucky University, was walking near his tent on a remote Himalayan peak in Nepal called Himlung when he broke through a thin layer of snow and clattered 70 feet down a crevasse. He would have kept falling, almost certainly to his death, were it not for a small ice shelf spanning the fissure, upon which he miraculously, if painfully, landed.

Stunned and injured—it would turn out he’d broken 15 bones, dislocated his shoulder, and was bleeding internally—All gathered himself in the icy crypt and then, like any good scientist, began to document the ordeal. He thought of his teammates on the mountain, his students back at school, his mother at home in Georgia. They would want to know what had happened to him should he not make it, which seemed likely.

The trip had been fraught since the beginning. The five-member team’s initial expedition to Everest had come to an abrupt end when a massive avalanche struck the Khumbu Icefall and Base Camp, killing 16 Sherpas, including one from All’s team. After much deliberation, they rerouted to Himlung, about 160 miles west of Everest. But his teammates were struggling with altitude and fatigue and had descended lower, leaving All by himself at Camp II, on a small snowfield at nearly 20,000 feet.

Now here he was in the crevasse, peering at a pinhole of sunlight far above. Using his one functioning arm, All fished his Sony Cyber-shot HX7 camera from his jacket pocket and aimed it at himself.

“Well,” he said, his face speckled with blood, “I’m pretty well fucked.”

All’s teammates had descended to Base Camp, at least a day away. He would freeze to death before anyone could reach him, even if he had some way to contact them. (All had brought a satellite phone to the camp, but it was in his tent.) Despite his injuries, and the vertical walls of blue ice surrounding him, he would have to try to extract himself.

For the next four hours, All wormed and squirmed his way toward the surface, wedging himself between the walls, chimneying diagonally toward the surface. He hacked one ice ax ahead, then stabbed his cramponed feet upward, moving inches at a time. The pain was searing, causing him to stop often, hyperventilating, trying not to pass out. During breaks he would film himself, noting his progress. Improbably, he reached the top and punched through the snow, flopping into the horizontal world, the late-afternoon sky brilliant and blue in the thin air. It took him another two hours to crawl to his tent, where he managed to send a text message from his satellite phone, programmed to post automatically to the American Climber Science Program’s Facebook page: “Please call Global Rescue. John broken arm, ribs, internal bleeding. Fell 70 ft crevasse. Climbed out. Himlung Camp 2,” he typed. “Please hurry.” Group members promptly called to launch a rescue.

By the next day, he was at Norvic International Hospital in Kathmandu, having been plucked from the mountain by helicopter, itself a dicey operation at such extreme altitude. While recovering in the hospital, All uploaded an edited version of his crevasse videos to YouTube, where they quickly went viral. The survival story drew comparisons to Aron Ralston’s in 127 Hours and the Everest classic Into Thin Air. All would go on to write his own book, Icefall: Adventures at the Wild Edges of our Dangerous, Changing Planet, published in 2017.

john all
(Courtesy Public Affairs Books)

This April, All returned to the Himalayas for the first time since his accident, bound for Everest. His life has changed considerably since his last visit, but his mission is much the same as it was in 2014: leading a team of scientists into the mountain range, two of whom will ascend Everest, while three others, including All, will attempt Everest’s 27,940-foot next-door neighbor, Lhotse. The team will gather bits of snow and ice along the way, each sample another data point in the growing story of climate change.

The data is intended to shed an increasingly bright light on a complex science—particularly the impact of pollution and dust in high-alpine terrain, what it says about global warming, and how that is affecting water resources stored in big mountains as glacial ice. Black carbon, a sooty residue from coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel-burning sources, gathers easily on snowy slopes, accelerating warming and melting. “The Himalayas are the water supply to a billion people,” All told me recently. “What happens to these glaciers over the next couple of decades is going to have a huge impact.”

Before people climbed for (type-two) fun, they climbed for science. The first ascent of 15,777-foot Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, was pulled off in 1786 by two Frenchmen, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, largely because the preeminent Swiss geologist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who was also a climber, had offered up prize money to the first people to reach the summit. Saussure was obsessed with mountains as a focus of his research; he believed they held the key to understanding the earth. These initial summits—Saussure himself was the third person to ascend Mont Blanc, the following year—are widely considered to be the dawn of modern mountaineering.

Few carry Saussure’s torch these days like John All. He, too, became fascinated with mountains and the stories they could tell about the natural world. Raised in Georgia, he made a false career start as an environmental lawyer before pivoting to science in the mid-nineties. He moved to Tucson, Arizona, to pursue a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources at the University of Arizona, where he hiked, climbed, and volunteered with search and rescue teams. His jones for mountaineering continued to expand, and in 2010, while spending a year in Nepal as a Fulbright Scholar, he summited Everest via the North Col, in Tibet.

As All’s life as a scientist grew and intensified, so did his adventures. He was held at gunpoint by marijuana farmers in Mexico and nearly mauled by a hyena on the African veldt. He traveled to South America and pulled off perilous ascents in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, conducting climate research all along. At six foot five, with long blond hair, blue eyes, and a charming hint of southern drawl, his exploits weren’t devoid of romance; as Icefall mentions, various girlfriends joined him in the field. During one early trip, his partner at the time proposed to him after their car got stuck, stranding them in the desert. He said yes. (They had a son, Nathaniel, now 14, but the marriage didn’t last.)

If you’re thinking that All sounds like the Indiana Jones of climate science, you wouldn’t be far off—though the reality is less glamorous than the Hollywood version. All’s journey back to Nepal’s high peaks has been long and arduous. Despite the modest celebrity he attained in the months after his accident, away from the cameras and reporters, he gulped painkillers to help his body remember how to move again, and he drank to forget how miserable he felt from his injuries; the combination of narcotics and booze erased entire swaths of memory, and he couldn’t work or do much of anything. In the fog of his debilitation, a serious but recent girlfriend left him for someone else. “I was supposed to be this active, lively, adventure guy,” All said, “and I was just this broken-down dude on the couch.”

All eventually recovered, but after a difficult yearlong recovery, he needed a reboot. In 2016, he left his teaching job in Kentucky for a tenure-track position at Western Washington University. At his new gig in Bellingham, All founded the Mountain Environments Research Institute. The organization would help formalize and institutionalize scientific expeditions to study climate change at high altitude.      

The team in Nepal includes two geology students from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu who will return to school when the team heads up to Everest. The Everest climbing squad includes Morgan Scott, a grad student at WWU, and James Holmes, from New York, treasurer for the American Climber Science Program, a Colorado-based nonprofit that helps support science-based climbing trips. (All is its cofounder and executive director.) Joining All on Lhotse—the climbs share the same route until about 25,250 feet—are Chris Dunn, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, and Graham Vickowski, a paramedic from Washington, D.C.

(John All)
(John All)
(John All)

The science program is twofold: During the approach to Everest, the team will collect plant data from more than 850 locations, repeating a study All directed in 2009. Higher on the mountain, they’ll gather glacier samples of snow, ice, and rock in order to analyze deposits of dust and black carbon.

The glaciers play a vital role in what’s known as the planet’s albedo, the reflectivity of the earth’s surface. The more pollutants and dust that cover a glacier, the less reflective it becomes, absorbing solar energy and creating a feedback loop that gradually raises temperatures, accelerating glacial melt and recession. A 2019 report titled “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment noted that by 2100, temperatures in the northwest Himalayas are expected to have risen nearly 50 percent faster than the global average. Another study, from 2013, indicated that glaciers around Everest have shrunk by 13 percent since the 1960s, and the rate is increasing. Some scientists predict that at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone by the end of the century. Because the range is sandwiched between China and India, All hopes it’s possible to distinguish the source of various pollutants, and, in turn, influence conservation efforts in the planet’s two largest countries.

The team arrived in advance base camp (ABC) on April 16 and began sorties above camp. Its summit attempts will take place later this month, when appropriate weather windows open up and the team is rested and ready. Meanwhile, conditions appear to be quiet and stable on the mountain. They are, however, as All recently recounted on the team’s blog, quite warm.

“The morning is clear and bright and the sun beats us unmercifully,” he wrote. “Hats, sunscreen, long sleeves, sunglasses, and lip balm. The snow melts more and more quickly.

Kilian Jornet Breaks the 24-Hour Uphill Ski Record

11 Feb

When news began circulating on Saturday, February 9, that gravity-defying Spaniard Kilian Jornet had posted a new 24-hour uphill-skiing record—23,864 meters—I had to do some quick math. I knew the figure was impressive but not quite how impressive until my imperial-system brain put it into feet: 78,274. That’s more than two and a half trips up Everest from sea level. In 24 hours. Or, as was the case, 51 blazing laps on lighted slopes at the Tusten ski area in Molde, Norway.

Jornet is the mountain-running and ski-mountaineering superstar who, among other things, has set fastest known times up some of the world’s tallest peaks including Denali and the Matterhorn, dominated World Cup skimo racing, and won grueling ultramarathons like the Hardrock 100 and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). In fact he’s already ascended the real Everest twice, though it took him a week. I stopped being surprised by Jornet’s feats of mountain athleticism after writing a profile of him in 2018, but that hasn’t diminished my admiration.

The 24-hour uphill record is an obscure milestone that stood unassailed for a decade, since Austrian Ekkhard Dorschlag notched 60,000 feet in 2009. In March 2018, American Mike Foote nipped that mark with a 61,200-foot effort at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort. Foote’s effort was surpassed in May by Norwegian Lars Erik, who skinned a total of 68,697 feet; that same month, fellow Norwegian Malene Blikken Haukoy set a women’s record of 50,656 feet.

As Jornet himself has pointed out, he doesn’t consider his accomplishment a record but rather a test to “see how his body will perform.” (Um, pretty good?) Technically, records need to be conducted following the same rules regarding location and specifics like gear, support, etc. Still, informally, the endurance community tends to treat them as records, much like FKTs, so long as they can be reasonably verified. (Jornet posted this effort on Strava.) Similar 24-hour endurance tests aren’t uncommon in cycling and mountain running (in Italy, one such contest allows runners to take a lift down between laps), but the personal challenge may be what matters most. “How many push-ups can I do in a minute? How long can I hold my breath? How far can I ski in a day?” says Foote. “In the end, it’s all arbitrary and contrived, but it gets people to ask, What am I capable of?”

On Friday morning, Jornet ate a modest breakfast of two small cinnamon rolls before he and his partner, Emily Forsberg, drove to the ski area, not far from their home in Norway. They met a small support crew, including a few friends and members of the local Romsdal Randonee Ski Club. Jornet blasted off at 10:05 A.M. He was kitted out in ultralight skimo race gear, including Salomon’s Minim ski with Pierre Gignoux Ultimate Bindings, and Gignoux race boots, rotating through four pairs of skins.

Jornet lapped the same circuit at the ski area for the duration of the event, a mostly groomed run that climbs 1,804 feet over 2.7 miles. (During the night he shortened the loop slightly to 1,404 vertical feet and 2.2 miles.) The weather was mostly clear and cool, with temperatures hovering in the low thirties. Jornet, who is known for how little he eats during long endurance events, maintained a steady intake of around 250 calories an hour, consisting largely of sports gels (40 total) but also including a couple slices of pizza, some mashed potatoes, “a portion of a cheese sandwich,” and water mixed with blueberry syrup. He peed four times but didn’t poop once. (Time saver!)

In an email, Jornet told me that he felt great for almost the entire 24 hours, though he got sleepy during the night. He’d prepared a playlist on Spotify—some Hendrix, AC/DC, Kings of Leon, and others—to get him through the dark hours but didn’t turn it on. “I was focused on small goals, so never had that long period of boringness,” he wrote, “and I was accompanied [by other skiers] all night.”

By just after 10 A.M. on Saturday morning, Jornet had sustained an overall pace of 978.8 meters (3,211.3 feet) per hour. A numbers nerd, he points out that if you subtract transitions and downhills this comes to a startling 1,065 meters (3,493 feet) per hour. I thought about how this compared with my PR at my local hill, where I recently managed to ascend 1,700 feet in about 35 minutes. Once. And it almost killed me.

Jornet is skipping the World Cup skimo racing season this year to stick closer to home. He and Forsberg are expecting their first child in March, and Jornet says he’ll focus on less travel for the relatively short World Cup events in lieu of a few longer races, like Italy’s Mezzalama. That is, “If the baby allows,” he says. A whole new kind of endurance challenge awaits. I’ll be surprised if it slows him down.

An In-Bounds Avalanche at Taos Killed Two Skiers

18 Jan

Around 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, a large in-bounds avalanche buried two skiers on Kachina Peak, at Taos Ski Valley, in northern New Mexico. 

The skiers, both men, were recovered following a large search effort that involved Taos Ski Patrol, other Taos staff, and members of the public. One skier, identified as Corey Borg-Massanari, 22, who was visiting Taos from Vail, Colorado, was life-flighted to University of New Mexico Hospital, in Albuquerque. His family announced Monday that he had died of his injuries. The other skier, 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti, from Massachusetts, was transported by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital, in Taos, where he died of his injuries that evening, reports The Taos News.   

The slide occurred in one of a series of steep chutes, known as the K-Chutes, on the north face of the 12,481-foot peak. Historically, the terrain was only accessible by hiking. In 2015, as part of a number of on-mountain improvements, a chairlift was installed to the top.

According to an eye witness, the two skiers dropped into the top of K-3, descending into the couloir. It’s unclear how far the skiers had descended when the slide released. The slide, which broke near the top all the way to the ground, ran almost the full length of the chute, several hundred vertical feet. It created a debris field that those on scene described as 50 yards wide and 150 yards long.

Rescuers form lines to probe for people buried in an avalanche at the bottom of Kachina Peak on Thursday. (Morgan Timms/The Taos News)

A ski patroller with an avalanche rescue dog who was among the first on scene quickly began organizing others nearby into a probe line. The search required rescuers to form a line across the top of the debris and systematically work their way down the slope, poking into the snow to find the buried skiers. Probe poles are stored in a nearby ski patrol hut for emergencies.

One Taos employee who was descending a run close to the incident traversed across to assist the rescues. “From the time the last snowflake of the slide settled to the time we’d organized the first probe line, it couldn’t have been more than five minutes,” the Taos employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told me on Thursday afternoon.

Within 15 minutes, more than 100 people had joined the search. The first skier was located, via probing, within approximately 15 minutes, and was reported to be under about six feet of snow. He was unconscious and received CPR at the site. The second skier was also located by a probe line after approximately 25 minutes, according to some witnesses. He was also unconscious and received CPR on location.

Taos ski patrol does aggressive avalanche mitigation on Kachina Peak and elsewhere around the ski area, and had detonated bombs on Kachina on Thursday morning near the run that slid. Taos Ski Valley opened to skiers this season on November 22, but the Kachina Peak Chair had only been open to skiers since Tuesday.

At a public brief on Thursday, David Norden, Taos Ski Valley CEO, praised the quick response of ski patrol and thanked the volunteers who assisted in the rescue, many of whom were at the meeting. Ted Wiard, a therapist and grief counselor also attended the meeting and encouraged those involved to share their experiences with others who’d been there. “These things are traumatic,” Wiard said. “It can stay with you for a long time.”

Are Kilian Jornet’s Speed Records Too Good to Be True?

12 Jul

Around 2 a.m. on May 28, 2017, Kilian Jornet crabbed across Mount Everest’s North Face, alone, delirious, at nearly 27,000 feet, and far off route. He was descending from the 29,029-foot summit, his second trip to the top without supplemental oxygen in seven days. But now he was lost and couldn’t recall how he’d gotten there; his memory from the past hour was blank. It was snowing, the slope growing icier and more precarious with every move. “I thought maybe I was having a nightmare,” Jornet told me recently, “and that I would wake up in Base Camp. I dropped a rock to see how steep it was, and I realized it was not a dream and that I needed to wait until daylight so I could see before making any more decisions.”

At first light, he discovered that he had strayed more than half a mile from the North Ridge, the route that would take him to the North Col and down to the relative safety of advanced base camp (ABC), at around 21,000 feet. That left him perched dangerously near the top of Everest’s soaring 7,000-foot north wall. Eventually he was able to navigate using GPS waypoints on his watch, traversing slowly back to the route. He had no radio or satellite phone, and no way to alert his lone teammate, the filmmaker Sébastien Montaz-Rosset, or the handful of friends he’d made since being on the mountain. Far below, at ABC, they peered anxiously through a spotting scope in search of Jornet, now hours overdue.

Everest was the culmination of the Summits of My Life project, which Jornet began in 2012 in an attempt to establish speed records on a collection of iconic peaks, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Elbrus, Denali, and Aconcagua. By then, at age 24, racing had lost its luster. He continued to compete—he liked meeting people, enjoyed the milieu—but he’d already won everything there was to win, often multiple times, including marquee pain parties like Colorado’s Hardrock 100, the 106-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), and Alaska’s brief but brutal Mount Marathon. Summits was a chance to pursue more imaginative, independent projects, moving how he liked, fast and free, on his own schedule. It had a tragic start. While attempting the first objective, the Mont Blanc traverse, his partner, world-champion ski-mountaineering racer Stéphane Brosse, was skinning beside Jornet above the Argentière Glacier when a large cornice broke off between them, pitching Brosse 2,000 feet to his death. They had been separated by only a few feet. For months, Jornet could not understand why it had not been him.

Despite the tragedy, Jornet went on to flash up and down the other peaks, setting records, traveling light, deploying his bohemian brand of mountain endurance, and often doing in hours what took other experienced climbers days. With support from his main sponsor, Salomon, and help from his friend Montaz-Rosset, Jornet produced impressive documentation of each mission: photos, blog posts, data, and several films. By the time he arrived at Everest in 2017, his third trip there in as many years, he was one of the most recognized athletes in adventure sports, with a robust social-media following, including nearly 250,000 on Twitter  and more than half a million on Instagram. Some fans even referred to their Salomon running shoes as Air Jornets.

Many people, myself included, had tuned in to his feeds during the Everest expedition, only to find them frustratingly quiet. When the news emerged, on May 28, that Jornet had climbed Everest not once but twice in a single week, and that he was claiming a new speed record, it seemed extraordinary to the point of confusion. Two ascents, back-to-back? Without oxygen? By himself?

I was intimately familiar with Everest’s north side. In 2007, I’d climbed to the North Col, at 23,000 feet, while working on a book about the mountain. I knew the perils of Jornet’s route via the Northeast Ridge and had written about the disturbingly high number of people who’d died there. I’d never heard of anything remotely like Jornet’s achievement—four trips above 8,000 meters in less than a month—which quickly made headlines around the world. There was some predictable grumbling. “The public only understands velocity, they don’t understand climbing,” said Himalayan gadfly Reinhold Messner, dismissing the feat as merely racing, not mountaineering. But the occasion was largely celebrated as a historic milestone.

“I can’t imagine trying to recover and climb again five days later, physically and emotionally,” says alpinist and guide Adrian Ballinger, whose own oxygenless ascent of Everest coincided with Jornet’s. “I climb at altitude and recover pretty well, but this is a whole different level.”

That summer, Jornet went on to notch a string of performances that were, even for him, astonishing. Two weeks after Everest, he set a blazing pace in a road half marathon in Norway that ascended more than 5,500 feet, cranking out miles in under six and a half minutes on an 8 percent grade and winning in 1:30. By August, he had won Hardrock, the Marathon du Mont Blanc, Switzerland’s ultracompetitive Sierre-Zinal, and the Glen Coe Skyline trail race. In early September, he placed second at UTMB, 15 minutes behind his Salomon teammate Francois D’Haene, a veritable photo finish after 106 miles. Jornet won, or nearly won, everything he entered.

The Everest feats, meanwhile, started coming under scrutiny. Where was the proof, critics demanded—the summit photos, the GPS track, the witnesses? Why did arguably his greatest accomplishment, in a career strewn with meticulously documented accomplishments, remain fuzzy? Forums like LetsRun hosted heated threads dissecting the issue in granular detail. In early 2018, the Spanish climbing magazine Desnivel ran a cover story calling Jornet out, stating, “He did not show definitive evidence of what he had done.” When I reached out to Himalayan Database, the Kathmandu-based organization that has been verifying Himalayan mountaineering since 1991, it had not confirmed either of the climbs. It was impossible not to wonder, in a post–Lance Armstrong fake-news world, if something was amiss.

Most people know Jornet as a runner, but that is only half the story, maybe less.  

“I don’t like to put tags on things,” says the 30-year-old. “I like to move on mountains in different ways. In summer it’s logical to go on foot. In winter, in snow, I go on skis.”

It’s January, and I’ve come to Romsdal, on the western coast of Norway, to go on skis with Jornet. He and his fiancée, the Swedish ultrarunner Emelie Forsberg, moved here in 2015 to escape the maddening sports crowd of France’s Chamonix Valley, where they previously resided and are huge celebrities. To friends he is Kiki, to fans he is the Extraterrestrial, but in Norway, he gets to simply be Kilian. Their home, a renovated farmhouse, located on three scenic acres surrounded by mountains, that they call Moon Valley Farm, is quiet and private, the way they want it. They don’t go out much. You can count the restaurants in nearby Andalsnes, the town of 2,300 where I’m staying, on one hand. The closest bar is 30 miles away. “Sometimes after climbing, my friends take a beer,” Jornet says in fluent but heavily accented English, “but I am like, why?”

Jornet training in the mountains near his home in Norway (Matti Bernitz/Lymbus)

In person it’s easy to see how Jornet is so fast. At five foot six and 128 pounds, he’s like a jockey with keg-size quads built from years pistoning up steep slopes. His upper body is slight, streamlined. He does “a little stretching,” he tells me, but largely eschews lifting weights or other types of cross-training. I ask him, half jokingly, what he can bench-press.

“Zero! Nothing!” he says. “I have no absolute strength.”

He’s joking, sort of, but point taken: Jornet has spent most of his life developing the physiology he needs for mountain terrain. Anything else was a waste of time.

I’d first learned of Jornet through my own inexplicable midlife addiction to ski-mountaineering racing—a.k.a. skimo—an Alps-born sport that entails hauling ass up and down wintry mountains on featherweight touring gear while dressed in a skintight onesie. Jornet is a world champion; I’m a flailing amateur who cuts a lumpy profile in Lycra. Jornet rarely slows down long enough to accommodate journalists, but last October he underwent surgery on both shoulders to address chronic dislocations, and was straight-jacketed in matching arm slings for weeks. He’d just started training again when I showed up, and the prospect of chasing the very best around the Norwegian mountains made me as giddy as a teenager.

One morning I join Jornet and two of his local friends on a mission he tells me will last “a couple of hours.” Deep into hour three, there is no end in sight. There is no Jornet in sight, either. He has vanished, far ahead, leaving only a skin track that, in the squally weather, is disappearing fast. Eventually, worried that I could get lost forever in the whiteout, I bail. I don’t hear from Jornet for another four hours. “Still up,” he texts, “but will be back in town in an hour.”

Forsberg laughs when she hears the story. She calls this Kilian Time.

“Friends will visit and ask about a route, and Kilian will say it takes three hours, but for them it’s like 15,” she says. “You learn with him that you have to make your own calculations. If we’re going to the mountains and he estimates seven hours, I pack food for ten.”

Sometimes, Kilian Time turns sketchy, like in 2013, when he and Forsberg ended up on the Frendo Spur outside Chamonix, a technical route of rock, ice, and snow, in running shoes, and required a rescue from the gendarmerie. I ask Forsberg if she worries about her partner.

“Of course,” she says. “I’m not afraid because of his capacities; things that look like risks to others are within his experience and knowledge. But I’m afraid of nature. He’s out there a lot, and I know things can happen in the mountains.”

For all of Jornet’s impressive performances, my record-scratch moment was his appearance in a 2013 documentary about steep skiing called T’es Pas Bien Là? (Downside Up). The film, by Montaz-Rosset, centers on Vivian Bruchez, one of France’s most skilled extreme skiers. But there is Jornet, right next to him, scritching out turns on 55-degree blue ice, downclimbing Class 5 rock and snow, slipping across knife ridges so narrow and airy that his skis stick out in both directions. I’ve watched the film dozens of times, and it never fails to leave pools of sweat under my palms.

“His versatility as an athlete is unparalleled,” says Mike Foote, who has twice finished second to Jornet at the Hardrock 100. “I don’t think there’s anyone who brings his level of imagination and creativity to the sport. I think that’s how he keeps things fresh, how he doesn’t burn out.”

Jornet’s origin story is mythological. He grew up in Refugi Cap del Rec, a backcountry hut in the Spanish Pyrenees, where his parents, Eduoard and Nuria, worked as caretakers and mountain guides. No TV, no Xbox, no internet, just his year-younger sister, Naila, for company and the wild peaks outside the door. At three, he competed in his first cross-country ski race, the 12-kilometer Marxa Pirineu. At ten, he completed a 42-day through-hike of the Pyrenees with Nuria and Naila. His parents had split by then, and Eduoard had moved into a neighboring hut, but soon, Jornet says, it seemed normal, he and his sister rotating each week between the two parents.

At 13, Jornet applied to the Center for Mountain Skiing of Catalonia (CTEMC)—a kind of Spanish version of Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, but for skimo racing. In other countries, skimo is a fringe sport, but in Spain, it is more popular than either cross-country or alpine skiing. Jornet was two years too young for the program, but he didn’t quite fit into a typical high school. Nuria worried about him. “There was a moment when he was a teenager that I saw his attitude had a destructive point,” she told me. “That’s the reason why I look for help at the school.”

She believed CTEMC would provide an outlet for his irrepressible energy. The school agreed. “I remember perfectly when he was explaining to us his projects of great mountain crossings,” recalls Jordi Canals, Jornet’s coach at CTEMC. “When he talked, he had a special shine and determination. We decided to admit him because we thought it was better that he was in our group than just alone in the mountains.”

Athletic training at CTEMC was carefully prescribed and supervised, but Jornet was hard to restrain. He would routinely ride his bike to school, work out all afternoon, and then ride home—25 miles each way. When the snow melted, he began running mostly as a way to stay in shape for skimo. Once, to see how his body would respond, he stopped eating altogether, continuing with his workouts while subsisting only on water. He lasted five days before he passed out, midrun.

Early on, Jornet’s unique qualities amazed and perplexed his coaches, most notably his “extraordinary recovery from strenuous trainings,” as Canals described it. “He has this resistance to osteoarticular and muscular lesions”—the bone contusions and muscle strains commonly triggered by demanding exercise. “A lot of athletes with smaller training loads have lots of trouble.”

Jornet on Everest in 2017 (Sébastian Montaz-Rosset)
Jornet with the late Ueli Steck (Ueli Steck/Courtesy of Lymbus)
Jornet's fiancée Emelie Forsberg (Damien Rosso)

When I spoke to Canals on the phone, I asked him what was the most amazing thing he’d seen Jornet do. He thought for a moment, then told me about the vertical kilometer event at the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships in Chamonix. Kilian had just returned from setting a fastest known time on Denali (11 hours and 48 minutes), where he had spent a month “eating poor meals, sleeping in a tent in snowy and cold conditions, doing long alpine routes.” In other words, not training for an event that is essentially a 30-minute all-out uphill sprint. “When he won, I said to him, ‘You didn’t deserve to win this race.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m very surprised, too. But I felt very well.’ ” Canals recalled. “That is Kilian.”

The downside of excellence is that it invites skepticism, something Jornet encountered early on. In 2008, at age 21, he showed up at his first UTMB having never raced in anything longer than a marathon. He pulled away at mile 40, en route to vanquishing a field of older and more experienced vets. The French organizers were not happy. Ten miles from the finish, at the last checkpoint, they detained him for more than an hour. They accused him of cheating—of using a pacer (he wasn’t) and not carrying the mandatory gear (he was). Despite the delay, he crossed the finish line first, by more than an hour, but was not declared the winner until the next day.

“I was just going to get in my car and go home,” Jornet recalls. “I was like, Fuck you, fuck the race and everything.”

He was still a student then, studying exercise physiology in Font-Romeu, France, living in shared housing, stretching what little money he had to keep him in pasta and olive oil. He’d learned enough at CTEMC, he believed, to be able to coach himself. He lived to race but didn’t race to live. There was little money in his sports: purses were skimpy, and there was no Olympic skimo or trail running. Even after his UTMB win, when Salomon signed him to a full-time contract, it only meant bigger bags of pasta and, at events, an occasional hotel room instead of the back of his car.

He couldn’t know at the time that ultrarunning was poised to take off, particularly in the U.S., where Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run, about the Mexican Tarahumara and the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, sparked a trail--running boom. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of races in the U.S. exceeding 26.2 miles more than tripled, according to Ultrarunning magazine, from 480 to 1,473, and a new cast of stars emerged: Scott Jurek, Krissy Moehl, Anton Krupicka, Jenn Shelton, and others. Jornet would soon eclipse them all.

His rise to fame not only inspired many runners and skiers but invited study and emulation. Some have speculated that the early commitment to skimo built the machine that powered his mountain-running dominance. Splitting his year between the two disciplines helped stave off the overtraining and burnout that has plagued so many talented runners—a strategy that’s now employed by top competitors like Krupicka, Foote, and Rob Krar.

Even among elites, Jornet appears special. In 2012, his VO2 max was recorded at 92, one of the highest values ever seen. He has a near miraculous ability to recover quickly from workouts and races. Until his recent shoulder trouble, he seemed impervious to injury. Echocardiograms revealed that his heart has adapted to the stress of training with very little malformation, such as thickened ventricular walls, that often affects other elite athletes’ performances. And he has cultivated a monklike devotion to training, technique, and equipment that he deploys through 1,200 hours of yearly practice.

“If genes dictating performance are like a row of light switches, all of his are flipped on,” says Eric Carter, 31, a member of the U.S. ski-mountaineering team. “I’ve trained with him, working as hard as I can, soaked in sweat, and the guy is still in his down parka, chatting away.”

Jornet is a private person, but he is a very public athlete, and his workouts are readily accessible on Strava and Movescount (Suunto’s proprietary site). The volume is startling. Three days before the Marathon du Mont Blanc, he ran up and down the Mont Blanc massif—14,000 vertical feet—in seven hours. His “taper week” prior to the Hardrock 100 in July included a 35-mile ascent of Mount Eolus and a 26-mile run up Mount Elbert, both Colorado fourteeners.

I started to question if these feats were even possible without some kind of pharmaceutical or other assistance. It saddened me to feel suspicious, but who could forget the now infamous 2001 Nike ad in which Lance Armstrong says, “What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass, six hours a day. What are you on?” Yet credible doping allegations followed Armstrong throughout his career. There was his relationship with Michele Ferrari, the disgraced Italian doctor, and accusations from former teammates and friends. With Jornet, there have been occasional whispers of foul play but nothing concrete, just garden-variety trolling and speculation that could reasonably be chalked up to professional jealousy.

Doping would be risky to try to hide. As a member of both the World Anti-Doping Agency’s regulatory program and Athletes for Transparency, Jornet must provide records of his whereabouts and doctor prescriptions, and he could be tested as often as once per month by an administrator who shows up at his door unannounced. And while Jornet now makes a six-figure salary through sponsorships, skimo and ultrarunning don’t offer anything close to the financial rewards that tempt athletes in cycling and marathon running, sports plagued by doping scandals.

“There’s no incentive,” says John Gaston, the top U.S. skimo racer, who spent the year training and racing on the European World Cup circuit. “There’s hardly any money in our sport. And now you see people catching up to him. The competition is tight. If you get to know him, I think he loves the mountains too much to compromise the world in that way.”

In recent years, Jornet has transcended traditional endurance sports, establishing himself in an elite club of adventurers that is reinventing high-mountain objectives. In Norway, Jornet showed me a spreadsheet he’d made, prosaically titled “Cronology [sic] of Significant Events Related to Going Fast in the Mountains.” It contained hundreds of entries, covering everything from trail running to steep skiing, tracking all the way back to the year 1040 with a running contest that Scottish king Malcolm Canmore hosted to find a speedy courier. The document was exquisite in its geekiness. Jornet wasn’t merely a participant, he was a scholar.

Three years ago, he began teaming up for occasional climbs with the late Ueli Steck, a.k.a. the Swiss Machine. It was a natural partnership. Steck was the preternaturally talented sport climber who could flash up technical routes faster than almost anyone. Jornet was the aerobic monster who could grind fast and forever on little food or water. In 2015, they joined forces to billy-goat up the north face of the Eiger via the classic 1938 route. A typical round-trip of the route requires three days.

It was Jornet’s first time, but the pair summited in four hours and were back in town in less than ten.

In April 2017, Jornet was on Cho Oyu, in Tibet, when Steck died on Nuptse, Everest’s 25,791-foot neighbor. Steck had been acclimatizing, alone and high on the mountain, when he fell to his death. Beyond losing a friend, Jornet had lost a special peer he could consult with. “We talked a lot about what it means to move in the mountains,” Jornet told me. “Ueli was coming from a supertechnical background—like pure difficulty—and I was coming from endurance. We were both trying to learn from each other.”

Like Jornet, Steck had encountered controversy around certain climbs, including what may have been his biggest achievement: a 28-hour solo ascent of Annapurna’s lethal south face. Steck produced no summit photos (he claimed that his camera had been knocked out of his hand by an avalanche) or GPS data (he didn’t record any). Nevertheless, based largely on the credibility of Steck’s previous accomplishments, he was awarded the Piolet d’Or, climbing’s highest honor, for the Annapurna ascent.

The case leveled against Jornet’s back-to-back Everest climbs is similar: a lack of documentation verifying a historic accomplishment. The dispute is being pushed primarily by a single individual, a climber named Dan Howitt based in Portland, Oregon. After the climb, Howitt produced and circulated a 19-page document that reviewed, in painstaking detail, Jornet’s ascent of Cho Oyu, in early May, and both of his Everest climbs later that same month.

Howitt’s case against Jornet focuses on two main points: no persuasive summit images and questionable GPS data. Given the significance of the claims, he convinced a British website called Mount Everest the British Story, to publish the document in full in the summer of 2017. The report sparked widespread debate. It also prompted threats directed at the website’s staff via online comments and Facebook. “Some people enjoyed the read, but most disagreed with what Dan had written,” Collin Wallace, the website’s founder, wrote me in an e-mail. A few critics warned that they would “give the website a bad name” and that Wallace should “get legal advice about publishing the article.” Concerned about losing the audience it had taken him a decade to build, Wallace promptly removed the piece.

Howitt persisted, however, lobbying media outlets, including Outside, and claiming that he could prove Jornet had come up short, at least on the first Everest ascent. When he compared Jornet’s summit track on a topographic map with Adrian Ballinger’s, Jornet’s route appears to terminate in a different location, presumably below the summit. (Jornet’s watch had inexplicably recorded part of the descent for the second climb, but nothing more.)

Howitt’s report raises legitimate questions, but it mainly delivers uncertainty—by no means proof that Jornet is a fraud. That’s a common phenomenon in our digital age. Wade into the online record-keeping of nearly any endurance sport and you’ll encounter a few obsessives who’ve made a hobby out of endlessly questioning and parsing the latest FKT. Howitt has assumed this role in the mountaineering realm for nearly two decades. A climber who has claimed speed records on Mounts Rainier, Hood, Adams, Shasta, and others, he had waged a years-long crusade against the late Chad Kellogg, a well-respected mountaineer from Washington who claimed FKTs on Rainier and elsewhere.

Jornet remained largely quiet as his accuser continued his media campaign. He eventually responded to the allegations in December, but the defense was thin: his GPS had malfunctioned, and photos and video were embargoed until a documentary film, The Path To Everest, was released in the spring. That same month, he appeared on the Talk Ultra podcast, hosted by Ian Corless, and offered up additional details, but it hardly put an end to the controversy. The cover story in Spanish climbing magazine Desnivel, which relied on Howitt’s report, was published the following month.  

One evening in Romsdal, I join Jornet, Forsberg, and their friend Ida Nilsson, the elite Swedish runner and skimo racer, for dinner. Forsberg grows much of their food on the property. For dinner she’s prepared a rich lentil stew and fresh bread made from locally produced spelt flour.

After the meal, I ask Jornet to walk me through the Everest climb. I expect the question to mark the immediate end of the dinner party’s convivial vibe. Instead, Jornet seems happy to go over it in detail. We settle on the couch next to a wood-burning stove, in front of his laptop, where he shares his collection of photos and videos.

Jornet tells me that they spent less than a month total in Tibet, the first ten days on 26,864-foot Cho Oyu, before moving on to Everest Base Camp, at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier. It was a small team—just Jornet, Montaz-Rosset, Forsberg, and their Nepali cook, Sitaram.

Back in Norway, prior to the trip, Jornet and Forsberg had pre-acclimatized for one month, cranking out high-intensity intervals on a stationary bike while sucking reduced oxygen through a face mask. It seemed to work: Jornet arrived in the Himalayas feeling better than he had on his previous two trips. Forsberg eventually turned back before the top on Cho Oyu, but Jornet reached the broad plateau on May 14. Howitt and others have said it couldn’t be claimed as a summit, and Jornet agreed: he acknowledges that he merely reached the plateau. But that was enough. Cho Oyu was only a preamble for the two weeks ahead.

Forsberg returned to Norway for a race, while Jornet, Montaz-Rosset, and Sitaram set up on Everest’s north-side moraine. It was a comically tiny headquarters: a mess tent and three small personal shelters, nothing like the sprawling expeditions that bloom around Base Camp each spring. On May 18, after a one-night layover at advanced base camp, at 21,300 feet, Jornet made a trial run—literally—on some sections. He was ascending nearly 1,000 feet an hour, an impossible pace, all the way to 27,500 feet. “I did some stupid sprint on the North Ridge,” he laughs, “because I could.” The summit glistened temptingly less than 2,000 vertical feet above and Jornet felt great, but he stuck to his plan: descend to Base Camp, recover, and make an actual attempt in a couple of days.

As he narrates, Jornet cues up a series of images and video clips he took with a GoPro along the route. On May 20, he departed Base Camp at 10 p.m. to make his first try for the summit. By the time he reached the North Col, at 23,000 feet, he felt terrible and began wrestling with stomach problems. He was moving, as he says into the camera at one point, “So. Fucking. Slow.”

It was almost sunset by the time he turned onto the Northeast Ridge, the nearly horizontal mile-long approach to the summit that includes three prominent steps. He was alone now, plodding forward. There is a dimly lit final photo on the ridge and then video of his face in the darkness, illuminated by the GoPro’s small bulb. In the clip he’s sitting, breathing hard. Over his shoulder, briefly catching the light from his camera,

I glimpse prayer flags, the only evidence that it’s the summit. “It was hard to film,” Jornet says. “It’s the last thing I was thinking about.”

Next he took me through his second climb, including getting lost on the North Face. The weather was worse—windy and cold—but he felt better and moved more quickly, again summiting in the dark. He shows me another clip, but just of his face, no flags this time. He’s wearing a face mask and seems profoundly tired. I’d watched a lot of footage of Jornet in the preceding months, from various races and climbs, and I realized that this was the only time I’d ever seen him looking exhausted.

He never claimed a speed record, he tells me. Early reports of an FKT were based on hasty press releases sent by his media team. (The FKT honor remains with Christian Stangl, who made the ascent in 2006 in 16 hours and 42 minutes, about 18 minutes faster than Jornet.) What he’s certain of is that he summited both times. When I ask what he made of all the questioning, he only offers casual indifference—it’s the media making hay.

Jornet sits back in his chair. Outside the window, the January supermoon is rising above the fjord, bathing the landscape in a monochrome of blue and white. “You don’t think about much up there,” he says. “You only really think about moving. I remember I could see lights from the south, people just starting their climb from the South Col. But that’s about it.”

My last morning in Norway, I load into Jornet’s Mercedes Marco Polo camper van for a short trip to a jeep road along a nearby fjord. Jornet wears ski boots while he drives. We park and he’s ready to skin in minutes, while I fumble with my gear.

“So, I think I go ahead and do some trainings now,” he says. It’s almost a question. Would I mind?

“Great!” I say. “I’ll see you up there.”

I know my way. It’s the same zone we skied on the first day of my visit, a soft snow cone of a summit 3,000 vertical feet above. The sky is overcast but unthreatening, and I’m relieved to ski at my snail pace. Jornet has done his best to be accommodating, and I’ve tried my best to keep up. After four days, I’m beat.

I watch Jornet glide away on the snow-covered road, graceful, weightless. After an hour of steady effort, my base layer soggy with sweat, I reach the top. There are 360-degree views of the valley, the undulating fjords, the craggy peaks of the Troll Wall to the north, stabbing the sky. I look behind to find Jornet blasting up the slope toward me. As we remove our skins, I ignore the fact that this is his second lap. For the moment, I’m his equal, another friend in the mountains, gliding off the summit and down onto an apron of spongy snow. It’s blissful being back on the right side of gravity, swooping and whooping through clusters of scrub oak and fir. I encounter him again, briefly, back at the road, skins on, poles pumping, chugging back uphill for his third run.

If Jornet was anything other than what he would have us believe, I found no evidence of it. Perhaps there was another, simpler explanation for his back-to-back Everest summits. Steve House, the alpinist and author, believes Jornet is an example of what happens when you log an average of almost 1,000 hours a year for 17 years—the compound interest of nearly two decades of progressive training. “All this volume allows him to do such a wide range of things,” House told me, “and to do them well.” They are collaborating on a book for uphill athletes.

I spoke with Jornet again a few weeks after my trip to Norway. He’d been busy. He sent me a thorough rebuttal he composed to address the Everest claims, including numerous details about the GPS data, photo and video analysis, and a timeline of events. He was circulating his response to the media and the Himalayan Database, which still hadn’t confirmed his climbs.

I read through the report. As with Howitt’s, there was no single piece of information that closed the case. But as a whole, it was the most convincing argument he’d made yet, laying out the intricacies of GPS tracking that help explain why his and Ballinger’s summit routes don’t align. Still, Jornet seemed resigned to the fact that clarity might be impossible. “I think there will always be fans, and there will be those who doubt,” he said. “I don’t want to spend time on the haters, but I understand about proof.”

Jornet had also stormed back to racing, climbing, and skiing. In February, he placed first in the vertical and fourth in the individual race at the Puy Saint Vincent Ski Mountaineering World Cup in France, his first competition since surgery. A week later, not far from his home, he logged a first descent on a 55-degree pencil couloir on the Troll Wall that set the extreme-skiing world convulsing with adulation. And he’d started planning Summits of My Life 2, a preliminary list, at least, that included “projects bigger than Everest.”

In March, Jornet competed in the Pierra Menta, a four-day race often touted as the Tour de France of skimo. On the fourth and final stage, he and his teammate, Jakob Herrmann, were leading and poised for the overall win when Jornet crashed on a downhill section and fractured his fibula. The injury would keep him in a cast for six weeks, but the prognosis was favorable. When I last heard from him, a few weeks after the accident, he sounded upbeat and optimistic, and he intended to be racing again by July. He was, it seemed, superhuman, but also human, after all. 

Contributing editor Nick Heil (@nickheil) wrote about Bulletproof Labs in April.