The entire mountaineering world knows Kilian Jornet had not one summit this year on Everest without oxygen, but two. The first of them was record-breaking – a mere 26 hours after leaving the Everest Base Camp at 5,100m. The second was ‘just for fun’ – he was there, he felt good, so, why not do it again?
A lot of things are different at 8,000 m and above. It’s politely referred to as ‘the death zone’ with good reason – people die there, simply because they are there. In the death zone, the human body simply can’t survive for long periods of time. An extended stay without supplementary oxygen will result in deterioration of bodily functions, loss of consciousness, and, ultimately, death.
Getting into it is not a decision to be taken lightly – and getting out of it is imperative. So when record-holding Kilian Jornet lost his way while descending from 8848 m on Everest, his next few decisions would be crucial – his life would literally depend on them.
“Going down from my second ascent on Everest I got lost. It was a heavy snowfall and in the middle of the night and around 8300 m and I was traversing on technical terrain. My brain wasn’t working really well, and I had no clue where I was. Visibility was poor – I could sometimes only see about five meters in front of me – sometimes just two.”
He had left the normal route around 8300 m – and infact, he is not even sure why. “I have a sort of "black moment" where I can't remember anything. In that time I left the normal route, but I can't remember exactly when or why.” He was clearly suffering the effects of high altitude. And of course, it was snowing: a half a meter during the night, further increasing the difficulty of navigation.
Lucky for him, he had a tool, and the presence of mind to use it: his Suunto GPS watch, which had been recording his path since he left Advanced Base Camp at 6400 m 23 hours ago. Accessing the trackback feature, he realized that he’d made a 90º degree turn to the left, and continued to traverse for one kilometer off of the normal route, and leaving him in the middle of the North Face. It was clear: he had to move in the entirely opposite direction. He did so, until he got back to the normal ridge.
In the new era of fast, light alpinism, going solo has its benefits: you’re quicker, and often, quicker is safer. "I use it about a dozen times in a year,” says Jornet. “When it’s really bad weather or really foggy, if I’m going somewhere with a lot of ridges and cornices – often, it’s really about reducing risk as much as it is about finding the way home.” This brings us to a curious realization – it’s not a last-ditch, all-odds-are-against us survival tool – it’s something to keep you from getting into that situation entirely.
That said, Jornet recognizes clearly the severe potential consequences of his situation on Everest. Without Trackback, he likely would have hunkered down in the cold for four or five more hours until daylight – and the consequences of that could have been severe. “There’s no question for me,” he says. “This feature saves lives. For sure.”