Running the Bolivian Andes with Jenny Tough Interview

© Jenny Tough

Trail running guide Keri Wallace catches up with adventurer Jenny Tough to hear about the most recent part of her project to 'Run the World's Mountains' - a 600km fast-packing solo journey through Bolivia. When the going gets tough, the Tough gets going...

Have you ever fancied a journey into the wilderness, to experience a world without the trappings of modern living? Have you ever wondered where your limits lie and wanted to explore them? Maybe, like me, you have a constant internal battle with your wanderlust. So what is it that stops most of us from striking out for the horizon on a challenge of epic proportions? Is it just too much planning? Or perhaps you need to be a certain type of person?

"I had very little confidence that the route would go..."  © Jenny Tough
"I had very little confidence that the route would go..."
© Jenny Tough

Jenny Tough is, well, pretty tough! She has travelled six continents and run marathons on four. She has cycled around Europe, paddled through the South American jungle, hiked throughout Asia and trekked in Patagonia. Currently, she is halfway through a major project, attempting to run solo and unsupported across a mountain range on every continent, where indigenous mountain people live isolated from the outside world. In 2016, she ran 900km in 25 days across the Tien Shan Mountains in Central Asia. Then last year she ran 860km in 22 days across the High Atlas Mountains in Northern Africa. On her most recent endeavour, completed a few months ago, Jenny ran over 600km in 17 days across the Bolivian Andes.

Run the World Mountains takes the form of a series of expeditions, where in addition to the physically challenging task of running over mountain ranges, Jenny has to arrange her own logistics in a foreign country, navigate the wilderness, carry all of her own equipment and find a way to survive.

Here she is doing her thing closer to home:

A central part of the challenge is engaging with indigenous mountain people. Running solo and unsupported comes with obvious logistical as well as physical challenges, and travelling in this way forces my dependence on the small communities inhabiting these remote regions

"The Bolivian Andes are at really high altitude..."  © Jenny Tough
"The Bolivian Andes are at really high altitude..."
© Jenny Tough

Keri: So where did it all start?

Jenny: When I was 10, my parents led by example, taking leave from their day jobs, and moving our family of four onto a small sailboat to explore the Caribbean, and learn about far-flung cultures. We didn't return back to normality again until I was 12. What happened in that period undoubtedly sealed my fate as an explorer and adventurer!

Back in 2016, I was inspired by the Tien Shan Mountains, and I decided that I wanted to do something gruelling and amazing in Kyrgyzstan. Running across that range was the hardest thing I had ever done at that time, and it took me months to recover. After that recovery period (in 'Type-2 Fun' fashion), I decided that it was actually the most fun I'd ever had, and wanted to do it all again! So I came up with a list of mountain ranges that I wanted to explore in this way, and whittled that down to one per continent.

"Running has helped me build an instant rapport with local people"  © Jenny Tough
"Running has helped me build an instant rapport with local people"
© Jenny Tough

For me, a central part of the challenge is meeting and engaging with indigenous mountain people. Running solo and unsupported comes with obvious logistical as well as physical challenges, and travelling in this way forces my dependence on the small communities inhabiting these remote regions. In Kyrgyzstan I met the Kyrgyz nomads, who live a traditional lifestyle in yurts and were overwhelmingly friendly towards me. In the Atlas Mountains, the Berbers were an essential support network, who welcomed me into their communities and helped me survive in the incredibly hostile desert environment.

Running is a universal language - all people around the world do it - and throughout my project so far, it has helped me build an instant rapport with people.

How did the Bolivian Andes challenge compare to the other so far?

It was much harder. The Bolivian Andes are at really high altitude, and the terrain of the route meant that I was going up major mountain passes, sometimes three or four times a day. So I did a heck of a lot more climbing! I also got hit with a lot of brutal weather, making navigation difficult and things pretty uncomfortable.

The weather wasn't all this good!  © Jenny Tough
The weather wasn't all this good!
© Jenny Tough

There must be a lot of planning involved. How did you come up with the route?

There were a couple of known tracks in the middle that I could use, but for the most part it was unknown and I relied on satellite maps. There aren't many good maps of remote parts of Bolivia, and the trails certainly aren't marked on them. Locals could usually suggest a cool trail as far as the next pueblo, so I could change things on-the-fly sometimes too.

Was the route 'in the bag' from the get-go or was the outcome genuinely unknown?

It was very, very unknown. I actually had very little confidence that the route would 'go'. I'm used to planning these kinds of endurance journeys, knowing I can handle huge daily mileage. But looking at the elevation profile of the route through the Andes, I knew it was going to be really slow going and I was worried that it might prove too hard. I was also really concerned about the lack of supplies and towns, meaning I would have to carry a lot of extra weight. There was also little chance of help if I needed it.

One of many high pueblos passed en route  © Jenny Tough
One of many high pueblos passed en route
© Jenny Tough

Can you break-down your journey for us?

STAGE 1: Snow and condors

The first three days were spent running through the Cordillera Apolobamba, which is close to the border with Peru. My route took me over three passes, all above 5000m, and it snowed on all of them! Along the way, there were some mining pueblos, where people let me sleep under a roof. It's one of the most important areas in the world for condors and I saw these amazing birds all the time.

STAGE 2: Vertical climbing and danger ahead

Next I travelled towards the Cordillera Real, and although my route lacked big mountains it had a relentless vertical climb profile. This was a really hard stage and mentally broke me. I experienced several thunderstorms, day and night. I passed lots of small pueblos; all of whom told me I was going to get murdered by the neighbouring one! It seems to be a global truth that communities don't trust their neighbours. For this reason I kept a knife in my pocket the whole time (coca is the main industry here and there a high-risk of smuggling activity across the nearby border).

STAGE 3: Stunning but slow

The Cordillera Real is the only range in Bolivia which is much visited by 'gringos,' with lots of incredible peaks to climb - but I didn't see any other non-locals the whole time (I actually only saw three people in four days). It was really high altitude and really beautiful, but again the constant bad weather made things difficult. Due to the low visibility in storms, I was often navigating by compass, which made progress really slow and I fell behind schedule. I also got altitude sickness quite badly, and I had to make on-the-fly changes to my route to avoid any more passes over 5000m (until the fluid in my lungs cleared). At this point I figured the whole expedition was in jeopardy, which was stressful and upsetting.

"It was really regenerating to just sit in the presence of such a huge mountain and star-gaze"  © Jenny Tough
"It was really regenerating to just sit in the presence of such a huge mountain and star-gaze"
© Jenny Tough

STAGE 4: R&R with stars

I went through La Paz for some recovery and resupply, before coming back up to Illimani, the mountain that shadows the city. I made an amazing campfire on Halloween night and sat up star-gazing and drinking hot chocolate. This helped me get my mojo back (before another storm came and put out my fire, but it was good while it lasted!)

STAGE 5: Downhill and doms

I had to run all the way down to 1700m! It took an entire day of downhill running, which was fast and it was a big mileage day, but holy crap I was in a world of pain the next morning!! Then I had to get back up to 4000m to hit the last string of mountains, the Quimsa Cruz.

STAGE 6: Hailstorms and llamas

The Cordillera Quimsa Cruz is an isolated, gnarly, and beautiful mountain range. There are lots of small mines, but it was a holiday weekend when I went through so I didn't see a single person in the two days it took me to traverse them. I did meet loads of wild llamas though. I got hit by the worst hailstorm I've ever witnessed and it was really painful being pelted by huge balls of ice with nowhere I could get shelter! I climbed the last pass in this storm and then ran downhill until I was out of the Cordilleras and into the Yungas - my finish line!

Just do it...!  © Jenny Tough
Just do it...!
© Jenny Tough

What was the high-point, physically and psychologically?

Literally, my high-point was 5200m. But psychologically, my high-point was the night I camped under Illimani by starlight - it was so stunning! I usually push myself hard and run late into the night and then I'm usually too tired to even bother setting up my tarp. This was the first time I stopped early for the sake of setting up a really nice campsite, with a campfire and properly enjoying myself. It was really regenerating to just sit in the presence of such a huge mountain and star-gaze so far from any light pollution. It was a really memorable spot and I felt a lot better about things in the morning and then put in one of my biggest days.

And what was the low-point?

I started the run really scared, and I genuinely wanted out of it. The weather was really bad (climate change hit the Andes hard this 'dry season'). The regions I was planning on travelling through were known to be outrageously dangerous. On top of this, the altitude was really scary, and I wasn't convinced I was fit enough (I had just finished the Silk Road Mountain Race). It took a lot to get me out the door on the first day, and it was hard pushing myself up the first big climbs in the snow, when mentally I just wasn't happy about being there.

What was the biggest 'lesson' you learned in the Bolivian Andes?

Fear can rule your life. I went into the run scared, and it affected everything - my running, my ability to meet other people and my enjoyment. Ironically, everyone I met always asked me the same first question: "no tienes meido?" (aren't you scared?). Everyone I met thought that the world outside of their pueblo was a scary place, filled with murderers and danger. I was always being told that the route ahead was too dangerous and that I shouldn't go there! It made me sad to realise that the locals were really ruled by this fear of their neighbours and also of their mountains.

What would be your top tip for other potential 'adventurers' looking to plan their own challenge-of-a-lifetime?

Make it happen! There will always be lots of reasons why you shouldn't do it, but if it's important to you, then you NEED to make it happen. Make a list of the things that stand in your way - maybe time, money, skills, etc. And then figure out how you can solve each of those barriers. Then just GO! Go find an adventure

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About Keri Wallace

Keri Wallace is an experienced fell runner and a fell/trail running guide with Girls on Hills in Glencoe. She is also a keen rock climber and member of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. She is a qualified summer mountain leader and climbing instructor, with Fell/Trail Leadership in Running Fitness (FLiRF) accreditation from the Fell Running Association (FRA).

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