Summits of My Life

From the Headmaster's Desk, September 6, 2017

I hope that you all had inspiring and restful summers.

This summer, I have been inspired by someone who is incredibly famous in some circles, but rather obscure in most. I wonder – have any of you ever heard of Kilian Jornet?

He is not a household name, and yet he is possibly the greatest athlete in the world – and whilst it is hard to prove such a claim by objective measurements, he is most likely the greatest athlete that you have never heard of. For starters, he has a VO2 max greater than that of Chris Froome, and 20% larger than that of Seb Coe.

Kilian Jornet is a 29-year-old Spaniard. He was born and raised at high altitude (2000m) in the Pyrenees, in a mountain hut, where his father was a mountain guide and caretaker. By the age of three, Kilian had climbed a mountain over 3000m, and by the age of five, he had climbed the highest peak in the Pyrenees.

Growing up in the mountains, he is also an accomplished skier, and he started racing on skis from a young age. He has won six world championships in ski mountaineering, which is a type of racing that involves climbing up the mountain with your skis, and then skiing down. Besides his world titles, he has won more than a dozen national and European championships in the sport.

In the past decade, Kilian has become well known as the most accomplished and successful long-distance runner ever, competing almost exclusively in ultra-marathons or mountain races. He has won races like the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, which is a race around the base of Mont Blanc. It is over 100 miles long and involves over 9000m vertical climbing, which is more climbing than the altitude of Everest. He has won this event three times, and finished 2nd just this past weekend in the latest edition of the event. He has won races around the world, often setting course records, from Malaysia to Colorado, and Australia to Africa.

There was a point a few years ago when Kilian realised he had won all the races that he had wanted to win, set the course record in many of them, and needed to accomplish something else.

So he challenged himself to set records on all the most famous climbs around the world in an endeavour he has called ‘Summits of my Life’. In 2013, he set the record for climbing both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. In the same year, he set the record for climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the tallest mountain in Africa. I have climbed this and it took me five days to get up and down; he did it in 12 hours. In 2014, he set the record for climbing Denali, or Mt McKinley, in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. Then he carried on to set the record for summiting Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere.

What’s left? Well, yes, Everest. And he set the record for that climb this summer. No oxygen, no ropes, he just climbed/ran to the top, realised he missed the record for the fastest summit, so climbed to the top for a second time in the same week, just five days later. He set a new fastest known time, making the normal four-day climb from base camp to the summit in just 17 hours.

Kilian has produced films about this journey, as part of his ‘Summits of My Life’ endeavour. I thought you might enjoy seeing a trailer.

He’s pretty extreme, yes, but often people at the extremes are the most inspiring. In interviews, he is humble, modest and respectful of the mountains. He admits that he is often afraid, and turns back, and that fear in the mountains is important – it keeps him alive. He first attempted a summit of Everest in 2015, and did not make it due to weather and altitude sickness.

After one of his most famous feats, setting yet another record on the 165-mile trail around Lake Tahoe, he said modestly, ‘When things are difficult, you must persevere to even continue. I’m convinced you must stay humble to progress. If you think you have already achieved something in this world, then you are foolish.’

So this morning is a new year, a first day back at school. An exciting day with so much opportunity and promise.

The race around Mont Blanc that Kilian ran last weekend was 170km, and the school year in front of us is 170 days.

My challenge to all of you this year is to make the most of every day, and make progress, the same way Kilian makes progress with every kilometre he runs, often uphill.

My challenge to all of you this year is to make the most of every day, and make progress, the same way Kilian makes progress with every kilometre he runs, often uphill.

Every step is important, and each day allows you to make small steps closer to your goals. For Year 13, this is an incredibly important year, but each stage of education is important, and you do not make it to the summit of Year 13 unless you successfully complete the stages below.

There are times when the challenges may be steep, a bit like climbing a mountain, and even Kilian often walks the steepest parts, being careful to have sure footing. And he is not always successful in his first attempt at something, but as Confucius said, ‘the greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising each time you fall.’

Many people do not challenge themselves, choosing instead to stick to routines and stay in their comfort zone. They play it safe, they wait until tomorrow to do that thing they should do, or want to do, and, as it was described to me earlier this week, they under-live their lives. What a horrible idea – to under-live your life. And in the end they have only regret, rather than fulfilment.

Your teachers here will give you every chance, they will communicate their passion, they believe in you, and they will give you their time.

What might you become? What might you accomplish? Set goals this week with your parents and tutors, and work towards these goals.

What might you become? What might you accomplish? Set goals this week with your parents and tutors, and work towards these goals.

This is a new year: be resolved, be stubborn, always do what is right, and do your best.

Mark Twain, the famous American author, once wrote, ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’

Here Mark Twain talks about exploring on water, whilst of course Kilian Jornet prefers the mountains. But whether you prefer the sea or the mountains, the message is the same.

Be bold in your ambitions, work tirelessly to actualise your dreams, and take advantage of all the support around you. You will have hiccups and setbacks on the way, but failure is not bad – it is part of the learning process. Pick yourself up, brush that dirt off your shoulder, stay determined, and move on. And eventually, when you accomplish great things and achieve your goals, then you find fulfilment. Take advantage of all that this school has to offer, especially the committed and inspiring staff sitting here alongside you.

My best wishes for the coming year. Let’s begin.

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