New on Sidetracked:

El Miedo

A 17 day solo and unsupported 600km run across the Bolivian Andes
Words and Photography: Jenny Tough

‘No tienes miedo?’ Aren’t you afraid?

The growing crowd of cholitas falls silent, waiting for my answer. I get asked this question in every pueblo, these small Aymara or Quechua communities, isolated in the highest regions of the remote Bolivian Andes. I shrug, smile, and say ‘Si, un poco’. Yes, a little.

The truth is, I’m not a little afraid. I’m very afraid.

Fourteen days ago, in a small town near the Peruvian border, I stood at the start line, the base of the Bolivian Andes, sheltering from torrents of freezing rain that curtained the town. I stared at the washed-out mud roads that led out of the village, searching for a reason to abandon the whole thing entirely. For the first time I could remember, I was literally paralysed by fear, standing under a tin roof and refusing to take even the first few steps. I had two options. The first, a 12-hour, rickety bus ride back to La Paz, which actually seemed just as uncomfortable as running the first segment to my next chance to quit; the second, four passes over 5,000m, a forecast for stormy weather throughout, and no civilisation aside from coca growers and gold mines. I chose the muddy trail over the bus ride home, but it was pretty close for a moment.

For 14 days, this fear has remained. It has taken a look around, found a cosy spot, and settled down inside my mind.

12.30. As in every pueblo I’ve run into so far, a crowd has gathered around me within minutes of my arrival. I’m a rare sight in these parts, a solo gringa, running with nothing but a backpack containing everything I need to survive for three weeks in the mountains. I can’t slip through these communities inconspicuously – my sporty trucker cap and pale legs stand out from the local women, always in traditional cholita dress, long dark braids swinging by their hips and colourful ruffled skirts proudly sporting mud and dust from a day of working the coca fields nearby.

‘No tienes miedo?’

There are plenty of reasons, the concerned cholitas always tell me, to be afraid. Altitude, storms, isolation, rough trails. A broken leg could be a death sentence. But that doesn’t bother me – I’m experienced and well equipped. I sheepishly display my two-way satellite communicator that will magically page a helicopter should the trails conspire to break a leg (I often reflect, as I run them, that there’s a good chance of this happening). It’s the other stuff they’re more afraid of that burrows deep into my mind and infects me: the pueblo down the road, I’m always told, is full of very bad people. Robbers and murderers, they say. Don’t speak to them; they’re all drug smugglers and kidnappers. And don’t go there without a gun, don’t even dream of it. Most people here always travel with a gun.

I don’t have a gun. I have a small pocket knife, and I’m pretty sure the blade is frozen stuck again.

‘No tienes miedo?’

‘Si, un poco.’ Actually, I’m bloody terrified.

I’m a rare sight in these parts, a solo gringa, running with nothing but a backpack containing everything I need to survive for three weeks in the mountains. I can’t slip through these communities inconspicuously.

I push into the ground with my trekking poles, spurring bursts of jogging, my tired feet dragging through mud and tripping on rocks. My breathing is laboured and my muscles are screaming.

I know the fear doesn’t help. I have enough to handle without having to do battle with my own mind every day. On top of this growing mental storm, I have the physical burden of running through some of the highest mountains in the world, attempting a world-first traverse from end to end of the Bolivian Andes, alone.

13.22. Leaving the pueblo, I start the long slog uphill towards the highest peak in the range, Illimani. I descended into the valley to get a resupply and now, my backpack heavy with a few days’ worth of food, I must return to altitude and get back on route. Due to the poor conditions and some early struggles with altitude, I’ve fallen far behind schedule, and I’m now unlikely to finish with time enough to make my flight home. And I really need to make my flight.

The very real threat of failure, on top of my overarching fear of this place, have sucked a lot of the fun out of my adventure. It’s turned into a suffer-fest. I wake before dawn every morning in a freezing bivvy, and push myself all day to meet my strenuous mileage targets in order to give me any hope of success. I slog uphill, unwilling to stop and catch my breath or adjust the heavy pack that digs deep into my shoulders, blistering my skin. I push into the ground with my trekking poles, spurring bursts of jogging, my tired feet dragging through mud and tripping on rocks. My breathing is laboured and my muscles are screaming.

16.43. I glance at my watch: finally I’m above 4,000m. Back at height. With the rise in altitude comes a drop in temperature, so I finally allow myself a break to pull on a base layer. While doing so, I take in my surroundings: green, alpine meadow flanks the muddy trail on both sides, and not far above me the green fades at the treeline. This then gives way to grey, lifeless rock. Higher still it transitions to blue and white glacier towards Illimani’s summit, which reaches into the slate sky above me, foreboding in her dense presence. In my peripheral vision, I spot something worth stopping for: a break in the green meadow, a stone circle, almost hidden under the tangles of flora pulling it back into the earth. This region of the Andes is specked with Incan ruins, many of them not marked, protected, celebrated, or even taken note of. They just sit there, weathering the years, somehow surviving, forgotten by time, slowly reclaimed by nature.

I decide it’s time to relax and allow a short break in the suffering, to remind myself why I’m doing this, why I love mountain running and exploring so much. It’s time to have some Type 1 fun. Just beyond the Incan ruins that lured me off the path is a perfect, isolated campsite – a flat pitch next to a clear stream, under the watchful presence of Illimani and, the thing about which I am most excited, the bountiful presence of dead, dry wood. I stop my watch and begin collecting firewood and designing my campsite.

20.23. I prod my small yet proud fire, stoking the flames before throwing the stick on top. The dry wood ignites in a flourish of sparks, and the warming effect on my skin is instant. Blood rushes to my cheeks; I shuffle back on the short grass to spare my shoes from melting. I retrieve my tin mug from the edge of the flames and carefully sip on my small cup of hot chocolate, a daily ration I savour every night, although this is the first time with a real fire. Craning my neck to look up, the stars are now completely out, sparkling constellations of the southern hemisphere. The freezing blue glow of the snowy peak seems to reach into their midst, and the mountain that had seemed so intimidating while I was climbing its flanks during the day now appears a hospitable shelter for my isolated campsite, stoically watching over me and my small fire. To my left is a clear mountain stream, its soft gurgling stifled by the crackling of my fire. To my right are the crumbling Incan ruins, witnesses to centuries of mountain-dwellers – which now includes me. Most of the wood I collected to build my fire came from the dead branches of the trees growing up from inside the stone circles, their roots forging through the once carefully laid shelter. I take a deep breath and, for the first time in two weeks, feel completely at ease.

Eventually, the rain that has plagued my expedition returns, putting out my fire and forcing me under my tarp. It’s a warm night, and the rain doesn’t turn to snow this time.

05.00. Alarm. Tentatively, I test my legs to see if they will move. Sluggish, but hopeful. The build-up of 14 days of mountain running pins me to the ground. I loosen the hood of my sleeping bag just enough to let one arm out into the cold night to investigate. I hit my tarp above me, held precariously in place by one of my trekking poles and a few rocks I found, and a shower of snow falls from the ice-covered sheet. The stars still glitter, but it’s time to get up. Time to get back on the move. Without leaving the warm cocoon of my bivvy, I turn on my stove and wait patiently for something warm to get my body moving. It’s an effort just to pull myself upright, and I’m glad I bought more coffee in the pueblo yesterday.

I whimper as I hoist my full backpack onto tender shoulders. With the aid of my trekking poles, I gingerly begin day 15. First tiptoeing, then walking, jogging, and, when I hit a steep downhill path, full running. It feels good to uncurl my sore legs and let them spin down the slippery path. Ahead of me, I can see the path widening and eventually leading into another pueblo. I recall yesterday’s warnings about this place. My heart races as I near the cluster of tin roofs, and I hope that I can just slip past quietly without any problems.

‘Gringa! Grriiiiiiiinnnnngggggaaaaaaa!’ A cholita is waving frantically and running down from her small patch of coca crops towards me.

‘No tienes miedo?’

This story was first featured in Sidetracked Volume 14
View the route from this journey on FATMAP.

Jenny Tough is making her way around the globe, running across a mountain range on every continent.
Instagram: @jennytough
Twitter: @JennyTough