Books Worth Reading: Above the Clouds – Killian Jornet

This is an odd little book, sort of a mess. It reads like a laundry list of things Jornet has done and people he knows all stuck together, sort of haphazardly, in order to package up for publication. It has the distinct whiff of an editor having nudged him along by saying, “Just write whatever you can think of, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Having said that, there are a lot of interesting ideas here too.

What you already know is that Killian Jornet is not like other humans either in inclination or capacity. He dreams up adventures no one else would, like seeing how long he can move continuously without taking in any nutrition at all, pushing himself until he passes out. And then of course, he can do more than anyone else, more kilometers, more peaks, more days, more.

Everest twice in a few days? Yup.

And don’t get me wrong the stories are good ones, and the writing is good. You get the sense he really enjoys writing a sentence (and his translator did a nice job, too). It’s just that there’s no real coherent narrative. It’s a collection of stories circling the central point that Jornet isn’t all the way comfortable with the demands of his profession.

He loves climbing mountains. He recognizes that he has to promote himself, to serve the needs of sponsors, and to occasionally do something performative in order to maintain a living and to facilitate taking on the adventures that really light him up.

If this book was just a variation on the auto-fellatio that so many elite athletes put out in the guise of memoir, it would not be worth reading.

But Killian Jornet is self-aware. He mulls the possibility that glamorizing Everest, going there at all, may not be best for the mountain. He recognizes that global travel is not climate-friendly. He wrestles with the notion that the people who live in regions we associate mainly with epic adventure struggle to survive and mostly get treated as a means to an end for wealthy summit baggers.

Most of all, you can see that Killian Jornet would really rather be left alone, that he has stopped caring about winning, and mostly thinks about the nature of his experiences instead. He’s more of an aesthete than an athlete, a picture clouded by the fact that he wins nearly every event he enters.

Above the Clouds is worth reading, because it’s a peek at a new kind of outdoor athlete. Killian Jornet is maybe not the finished product yet, and he would acknowledge that. But here we have someone at the apex of nature sports looking for meaning beyond money, exploits, fame and adulation. Getting a little window into that process is fascinating and inspiring.