What I learnt from running solo and unsupported across six mountain ranges
I have a serious love for looking at maps. I can lose untold amounts of time scanning places I’ve never been, zooming in, tracing lines, exploring virtually. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But maps only tell you so much. Eventually, you have to jump into the page and go there yourself.
I spent weeks and months gazing over maps of Kyrgyzstan, a small central Asian country that I was sure I wasn’t pronouncing correctly. I had started with a curiosity that became a dream and that dream became a goal – I would be the first person to run solo and unsupported across this remote mountainous country.
So many sessions were spent looking at maps, finding villages where I could buy supplies, lakes where I could swim, mountain passes to cross and views to admire. When I flew to Bishkek, I had a tenuous plan to run about 1000km with my backpack full of backcountry camping and survival equipment.
People believe it hasn’t been done because it can’t be done
“No, that’s not possible,” the man at the local mountaineering office sternly explained to me when I relayed my plans to him. “The mountains are too big and it’s a very long way. It just can’t be done.”
What no one tells you about doing something that’s never been done before is that most people believe it hasn’t been done because it can’t be done. I was surprised with this attitude when I starting sharing my dream, both at home and in Kyrgyzstan.
I quickly discovered that I would have to truly believe in me – because it often felt that few others did. It became a significant experience for me to set out on my first proper expedition against so much doubt, learning how to truly be my own cheerleader.
My goal? To run across a mountain range on every continent
Every day on my first expedition I was told by someone that what I was trying to do was impossible. On a good day, I could shrug them off. But on a bad day, their doubts echoed my own.
The feat of endurance that running across a mountain range posed was nothing compared to the endurance of keeping your own mind focused on the positive and the fact you can make it.
As a solo woman, it felt like a very relatable experience to my real life and a good training exercise for mental resilience, too.
So, not content to stop after Kyrgyzstan, I set a goal to run across a mountain range on every populated continent, solo and unsupported. I would carry my own equipment, navigate my own routes, take care of everything myself.
I carried a small backpack with essentials for outdoor survival
It’s a niche project, as far as ideas go. But it was authentic to me and I was totally hooked on the concept of finding a route along the length of a mountain range, from its start to its end, meeting the small communities along the way and finding commonalities in humble high-altitude landscapes all around the world.
Life on the trail is remarkably simple. The complication only exists in getting there in the first place – the training, the planning, the saving up, the making time. Once you’re there, everything becomes minimal, basic, simple.
I carried a small backpack with only the absolute essentials for outdoor survival. No luxuries, not even a change of clothes. The daily decisions on what to wear in the morning or what to make for dinner were gone from my life for a few weeks. Instead, I could focus all my energy on the place and the experience it offered.
It’s a refreshing way to live, totally dialed in to nature and simplicity
I slept in a bivvy bag and collected some of the most incredible camping memories along the way: nestled in the mountains, often completely isolated in wild landscapes, under starry skies, next to cool mountain streams.
My daily routine mostly consisted of packing up my small camp, running in the same direction for most of the day, washing in a river and then making a campsite once again. It’s a refreshing way to live, totally dialed in to nature and simplicity. Your mind is left free to wander, to soak in a new place and to learn about it – and yourself.
Local communities were essential lifelines throughout all of my six adventures. With such a small bag and such a long way to go, I relied on these places to resupply my food, charge my devices and have social conversations.
There is so much fear that you can give in to
I have been truly humbled by the hospitality I’ve been shown in small mountain communities around the world. The Amazigh (Berbers) of Morocco helped me find water in their hot and dry landscape. Beyond that, they often invited me inside for sweet mint tea and relief from the sun. In Bolivia, the local cholitas helped me with my awkward Spanish and pointed me to ancient Incan footpaths that I could run along.
But all of these incredible people who helped me along the way always shared one reaction: aren’t you afraid, travelling solo? The truth is that, even to this day, I am. There is so much fear that you can give in to – and solo women especially are constantly reminded of this.
There were also, of course, the very real fears that come with travelling through inhospitable mountain environments, including bears and wolves, thunderstorms and long stretches that wouldn’t have medical evacuation.
I was totally afraid but I found my way forward regardless
I spent nights freezing in snowstorms, crossed neck-high glacial rivers, and shared paths with grizzly bears and drug cartels. There was a high line of risk in all of my mountain expeditions and I never ignored that fact.
Yet fear has little use in expeditions and in life. I decided that it would be okay to be afraid – to not feel the emotion would be to not be fully human. But I would have to work alongside that fear: I’d have to meet it, speak to it, negotiate with it. I’d have to find a way to do big things in spite of all my rational fears.
And I’m glad I persevered, because the moments on my project that I feared the most are the memories I’m now most proud of. Not because I was ‘fearless’, but because I was totally afraid and found my way forward regardless.
We’re all capable of so much more than we think
I’ve always been a runner, but I never considered myself to be any good at it. The world of adventures and expeditions fascinated me, but I never saw myself in that realm. Until I placed myself there. No waiting for permission or my excuses. I booked myself a ticket and I went.
I learned countless lessons and made beautiful memories that have enriched my life beyond words. And while all of those experiences may be unique to my journey, what I know to be universal is that we’re all capable of so much more than we think. To seize it, all you need is to be a little bit brave.
Travelling solo and taking on new challenges will almost by definition be an experience fraught with discomfort, risk, uncertainty and fear. But you can handle all of that. Tap into your bravery and believe in yourself enough to go.
Jenny Tough is an adventurer, writer and filmmaker who ran solo and unsupported across six mountain ranges. Her new book SOLO is out now.
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Images: courtesy of Jenny Tough