In Summits of My Life, Kilian Jornet brings his epic mountain project to life by documenting the awe-inspiring, record-setting attempts of the ascent and descent records for some of the world’s most important mountains. 

Records and Friendship on Mont Blanc

After adjusting our watches and starting the stopwatch, Mathéo and I shake hands and set off on a run. It’s 4:50 a.m., but it’s not cold out as we leave from the plaza in front of the Chamonix church. We set off in shorts and thermal shirts. Following the principles of the project, we head off with as little gear as possible: a headlamp, 50 feet of rope, 16 ounces of water, two energy gels, and a windbreaker. Mathéo is wearing a hat, but it’s not his usual hat with a pattern that mimics the red polka-dot jersey given to the best mountain climber in the Tour de France; he lost that one in a gust of wind on the Bosses Ridge the last time he attempted the record. The one he has on today resembles the rainbow jersey, with its striped pattern only worn by reigning world champions in cycling. He’s not so sure about this change: “I hope it doesn’t bring me bad luck,” he says to me.

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Hats aside, the nerves and the emotions we’re feeling in this moment allow us to concentrate on one thing only: the challenge ahead of us. We know that conditions are good and that today is the day to go for it. Mont Blanc, majestic as always, is only just waking up. It’s still dark out in Chamonix, but from the plaza we can see the headlamps of all those who spent the night at the refuge and are today making their way to the summit. Less than four hours ago, Seb and Vivian headed up ahead of us on skis with their recording equipment to get ready and, on the way, check up on the snow conditions.

We start our climb off well, taking just the amount of time we’d planned. This is a mountain that we know well; we’ve been up and around it so much it feels more like home than anything else. We’re able to follow the usual route up, which we’d checked out a few days before. We have the advantage of running a familiar terrain and a route that we’ve been able to establish in advance. We leave the trees below us as we approach the ever-more rocky terrain that will lead us to Jonction. Then we hit the ice on the Bossons Glacier. Given the heavy snow accumulation over the year, we tie ourselves together for safety as we approach the bergschrund at Grands Mulets. Halfway up we spot Seb and Vivian, who’ve come to cheer us on and film us.

The sun is just now coming out, and it’s an incredible sight. The two of us are using poles to help us ascend more quickly and lightly. The path we carved out a few days ago has held up well, and we continue to follow it; this allows us to make it to the summit faster.

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In the last section of the ascent, the headlamps we’d seen from down below become groups of people who are about to do the same thing as we are: make it to the top of Mont Blanc. Once we make it, Mathéo and I stop for just a moment, but we look at each other and immediately know what the other is thinking: After days of planning, intense preparation, and some large doses of hope, we’ve made it to the halfway point of this adventure. It’s been three and a half hours since we left Chamonix, and without losing another second, we start our descent.

Mathéo and I fly down the mountain and make good time on our descent. These are moments of pure joy, and Seb and Vivian are there filming us—us on foot, them on skis. Halfway down, we once again tie ourselves together, but even then we don’t slow down, probably because we’ve made this trip so many times and know it inside and out.

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Just when the record seems within our reach, we make a misstep and Mathéo falls, tensing up the rope that unites us. For a few moments we’re worried, but we soon see he’s okay. He’s tripped and fallen into what is thankfully only a small crevasse in the glacier. He’s able to get himself out, and he hasn’t hurt his leg badly. He wants to go on. We continue our descent. Mathéo tries his best; he keeps on running, but after just a few minutes he signals to me and says that he won’t be able to finish the adventure with me. He won’t be able to keep up with the pace we’d set. It’s a tough, unexpected, and emotional situation. We really wanted to make this journey together, and it’s always hard to have to chase a dream like this alone, but Mathéo makes me promise I’ll finish for the both of us. In a moment like this, decisions have to be made in a matter of seconds. I tell myself that I must go on, that I’ve got to give it my all . . . but it’s a sad, painful moment. We’d been together up until then, and we wanted to finish together, too.

We embrace, and I prepare to resume the descent. I move quickly, but now I don’t have Mathéo to keep me company, to laugh with when we stumble over the rope, or to trade quick words of encouragement with. Seb follows me through this last phase of the descent. I make it back to Chamonix at 9:22 a.m., having left 4 hours and 57 minutes earlier. I’ve set the record, but with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth since Mathéo isn’t here with me. I know how much he would have loved to have been able to stop our watches at the same time. If I had to describe this day with one word, it would be friendship. It’s been amazing to be able to share this with a friend, and I know that even though I’ve finished alone, I share this record with him.

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And yet another surprise upon arrival: One of the men waiting for us in the plaza walks up and gives me a red polka-dot hat! He explains that he heard how Mathéo lost his and makes me promise that I’ll give him this one as soon as I see him. I do just that. As soon as we see each other after he arrives in Chamonix, I wave to him with the hat in my hand—what a smile! We hug again, overcome with emotion. Who’s that man who gave me the hat for Mathéo? His name is Jacques Cousin, and he’s the brother of Pierre Cousin, the man who had the Mont Blanc record before Pierre-André Gobet and, by extension, us.

In Summits of My Life, Kilian Jornet brings his epic mountain project to life by documenting the awe-inspiring, record-setting attempts of the ascent and descent records for some of the world’s most important mountains. 

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