Exposing the cracks within ourselves
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Rachel Keenan
‘Be brave,’ I whisper to myself, adjusting the beam of my head torch to its brightest setting, and folding my trekking poles away. A sliver-thin moon has risen in the sky. Around me, the cloak of darkness feels imposing.
My small torch can only show a few metres ahead, but it looks like I’ll be scrambling down a steep, bouldered descent for some time. No logical route presents itself in the darkness, and I’m wasting time making decisions: should I jump there, or does the scree over there seem stable? It doesn’t matter – just keep moving.
A large blister on the bottom of my left foot makes my movements timid and awkward, but I can’t stop and address that now – darkness has come upon me, and this is the worst possible place. I need to get down off this mountain and find a suitable place to camp, ideally one with a water source, as I haven’t had a refill in many hours and have completed just over a marathon for the third day in a row. Thirst rakes at my throat. I need to take better care of myself. I know this. And yet, here I am.
‘Shut up and keep moving,’ I snap to nobody but my own inner dialogue. The more time I spend dithering about which way to go, and reflecting on the ‘failures’ of my day that have left me summiting one of the tallest peaks in Transylvania at sunset, the longer it will take me to get anywhere. Wind rips across the ridge, reminding me to get lower, soon, before I freeze in the night.
The slope is endless. Scattered boulders flash past in the beam of my lamp. It’s awkward terrain, and the technical scrambling takes far longer than I expect. Occasionally, I allow myself a little break to admire the night sky: stars have come out to join the sliver of the moon, and it’s a bewitching display even though I only have moments to enjoy it now. The Transylvanian Alps stretch out on all sides, giants in the night. Soon the ridge tapers to a knife edge and black abyss falls away to either side. Focus. Be brave. And keep moving, I remind myself again and again. I don’t need to think about anything else right now aside from where my hands and feet are going.
It takes two hours of negotiating the descent in the dark until the earth levels out and I finally hear the faint trickle of a mountain spring. Now, with relief, I throw my pack down and set about my familiar routine: find a flattish place to roll out my bivvy, inflate my mattress, and grab some water to boil something for dinner. In between that, get all the warm layers on and – most importantly for the moment – get the shoes off my swollen and blistered feet. My process is seamless and well honed, and I’m settled into my warm sleeping bag in minutes. At least some things are going smoothly.
Sitting upright in my sleeping bag, leaning against a rock in my ultra-minimalist sleep system and waiting for my noodles to cool down, I can finally admire the starry sky in all its glory. This part always feels good. Being out too late after sunset always feels like an error in the moment, but it’s one of my favourite parts of pushing myself so hard – I end up in wild places at any hour of the day, getting to experience the landscape in moments I would otherwise miss if I were moving at a more casual, ‘enjoyable’ pace. The desperate mood I’d spiralled into while descending the mountain has evaporated, and I’m back to loving the foolish things I do in the mountains.
Gently I massage my leg muscles by rolling my Nalgene bottle against them, and wince at the pain from even the slightest touch of the hard water bottle. My legs are holding too much fatigue – I’ve been pushing myself hard. Not only have I just fastpacked 130km on rough trails in big mountains, I came into this journey having completed the Silk Road Mountain Race, a gruelling mountain-bike race in Kyrgyzstan, just two weeks before. There was a point in the summer when I told myself this schedule would work, and that if I did things this way I would limit how many flights I needed to take. But my throbbing feet and aching legs are now telling me otherwise. I still have 315km to go, and some serious climbing (and descending) in that.
Staring up at the stars, I’m aware of the doubts I’ve pushed aside all day beginning to crowd my mind. Now, in this moment of stillness, I have no choice but to hear them.
—You can’t keep this pace.
—But you have to keep this pace.
—Yeah, but you can’t.
—The alternative is failure.
—You can’t fail.
—So you’ll have to brave, then.
—It’s going to get ugly.
—You can handle that. Just be brave.
‘Be brave’ was a new mantra that I had stuck with on the SRMR. I had gone into that race with the intention of riding competitively, and I told myself that I just needed to be brave enough to handle the discomfort needed to achieve a result in one of the hardest bike races in the world. In that mountain challenge, I knew that I had the experience and ability to tackle any of the difficulties I would encounter – the only question was how much discomfort I was willing to handle. The same is true of the mountain challenge I am currently worrying about. It is only a question of mind over matter, of what my mind is really capable of. In the SRMR, could I push myself to that place? And now, am I brave enough to handle this? I want to be, but I am being tested, and I’m feeling weak and uneasy in my little blue sleeping bag. I keep staring up at the stars, searching for peace in my anxious mind.
I’ve heard it said that people choose extreme challenges to expose the cracks within themselves. Only when you push yourself so hard – too hard – do you really find out what you’re made of. Out there, out in the space far beyond your comfort zone or your personal limits, that’s where you meet yourself in elaborate technicolour. Everything you love and hate about yourself, your abilities and your weaknesses, will all be undeniably presented to you. It’s a test, but not one that is pass or fail. The test results will tell you where you have cracks in your structure. Perhaps that’s why people do extreme challenges more than once; they take the test the first time to expose the cracks, and then they come back to see which of those cracks they’ve filled since the last time.
This is my sixth time trying to run across a mountain range solo and unsupported. My project to run a mountain range on every continent has taken me to different environments and adversities around the world – but every time the one constant has been my mind and my legs and the battle between them. The Transylvanian Alps is my final segment of the challenge, and I want to put in a good effort, and show myself how many cracks I had filled in the years since starting this project. My mindset leading in was partly inspired by my recent win on the SRMR, where I had shown myself that I could be brave, and I was eager to see if I could be even braver now. I set myself a goal to complete the 430km route in 10 days while maintaining my ethos of unsupported adventure.
I am better than I was five years ago when I started doing these things. I have to be. I’ve filled in so many cracks in that amount of time. And so I expect more from myself as a result.
The next morning, when dawn wakes me, I roll over to find myself and all of my things covered in frost, but I am still cosy and comfortable within my sleeping bag. I take the briefest of moments to acknowledge this – not too long ago, I would have been terrified at the prospect of sleeping alone on a ridge with no hard shelter in a night below freezing, but that morning I find the layer of frost merely an amusement, and no physical or emotional threat.
I’ve got this, I whisper to myself as I stretch a cold arm out of my cocoon to start my stove and get my day going.
Rolling up my frost-crusted sleeping bag, standing in the grass in my bare feet – which are wrapped now with fresh duct tape to protect the tender blisters already formed – I go over my plans again in my mind. The fatigue and destruction to my body do not factor in. I still plan to do what I came here to do. Every day is a new opportunity, and today is going to be a good day. Because I have said so.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 22
On September 20th, 2021, after 11 days of fastpacking 430km across the Transylvanian Alps (see route below), Jenny Tough completed her five-year project to run across a mountain range on every one of the world’s continents. The overall project saw her cover 4,582km on six continents.