Sometimes, I veer off my beloved scientific topics to explore another of my passions — human endurance.
Although there are many ways to push our limits, few come close to extreme mountain running, conquering incredible vertical ascents in the shortest possible time, often under formidable weather conditions. Of the current heroes of the sport, the 29-year-old Spaniard Kílian Jornet is absolutely superhuman. Some consider him to be the greatest mountain runner and alpine climber ever. His 2013 book, Run or Die, describes some of his extraordinary feats and his passion for the mountains, in often moving terms.
A few years back, Jornet set off to climb some of the world's highest peaks in record time, culminating in Mount Everest, with as little equipment as possible. He called the series Summits of My Life, and his feats have been well-documented in video. He is almost done. The stats: In July 2013, Mont Blanc (15,780 feet) in the Alps in 4 hours and 57 minutes; in August 2013, the Alps' legendary Matterhorn (14,692 feet) in 2 hours and 52 minutes; in June 2014, Mount Denali (20,236 feet) in Alaska in 11 hours and 48 minutes. In 2013, he tried Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet) in Russia but had to turn back because of bad weather. In December 2014, he conquered Aconcagua (22,830 feet) in Argentina, in 12 hours and 49 minutes. In February 2015, that record was broken by Karl Egloff, who completed it in 11 hours and 52 minutes.
And, now, Mount Everest (29,029 feet). Jornet made an attempt in September 2016 but had to give up because of bad weather and the high risk of avalanches. But he returned this past May and, trying a new route starting at Base Camp without fixed ropes or oxygen, succeeded on May 21 in 26 hours, fighting stomach cramps and vomiting. (Here's another view sponsored by Finnish sports instrument company Suunto.) There was no known fastest time on this route. Amazingly, he then tried again on May 27, his second attempt in a week, reaching the summit in 17 hours. This was through the North Face route, different from his previous attempt. As detailed in the Trail Runner magazine article, two runners had completed this route in a bit under 17 hours. It remains to be seen if Jornet will try again, or if he will be satisfied with his amazing ascent from Base Camp at 26 hours.
Remember that at the top of Mount Everest, there is only 33 percent of the amount of oxygen available at sea level. Try climbing some stairs breathing only once in the time you would normally breathe three times to see what it feels like.
One may think that Jornet has this giant ego and wants to show off his physical prowess. That couldn't be further from the truth. Jornet is an extremely humble, quiet fellow, who grew up running across the Spanish Pyrenees with his family. To him, the mountains are a sacred realm, one to be revered, a portal to a spiritual dimension that enlarges our human experience in this world. He wants to set an example of simplicity, of minimal materialistic attachment, inspiring people to face nature's grandiosity with a level of confidence they don't even know they have. We are capable of achieving much more than we believe, ultrarunner or not.
As Jornet wrote in his website, "I want to show that we are part of this world, neither less nor more important, but complementary."
Failure, for him, is an opportunity to try again. He says he fails about 50 percent of the time in his most daring projects, either because of adverse weather conditions or to physical limitations. That only motivates him to try harder the next time.
This is a lesson we can all take home, whatever mountains you choose to climb in life — real or metaphorical.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser