Mountains of Heaven
A solo and unsupported 1000km run across the Tien Shan mountains
Jenny Tough // Photography: Jenny Tough & Matt Traver
I roll over under the covers, trying to reach for my phone while keeping as much of my arm as possible inside the cocooning warmth of my sleeping bag. It’s after 6am. I never sleep this late, but it’s pitch black inside the yurt, the only window in the top covered up to keep the warmth inside during the freezing night. Normally, I’m alone in my small tent, the silver nylon illuminated by the first light of the sun and waking me to another mountain sunrise. Normally, I’m already awake because I’m freezing. I should be packed up by this hour, ready for another full day of running.
I don’t want to stir too loudly and wake my hosts: a family of six, all sleeping in a row on the floor of the yurt alongside me. Together with the lingering warmth of the dung-fuelled oven in the corner, I’ve had the best, cosiest sleep I can ever remember. When I finally build the courage to get out of my sleeping bag and emerge from the yurt, I find the ground outside covered in frost, and I am even more grateful to have been taken in by this nomadic family last night. It would have been a brutally cold night for me out there on my own, and I realise that this frost is a warning: summer is ending, and I haven’t crossed the halfway mark yet. Each night will be noticeably colder, and I risk snow in the high passes I need to cross to complete my mission to run across the Tien Shan.
I bid farewell to my hosts, offering too my deepest thanks and leaving some cash for the meal they shared with me, along with some medicine for Bakytbek’s wife who suffers from migraines at this high altitude. There is no pharmacy, and certainly no doctors live up here. They are some of the few remaining Kyrgyz shepherds still living the traditional way, and with all of their children already living ‘down’ in the city for their education, Bakytbek worries his generation will be the last. It is a common story I’ve heard as I run across the Tien Shan, where friendly shepherds on horseback run out to greet me and offer their hospitality as I run across their jailoos, like Bakytbek did last night. I wish I could do more for the family, who did so much for me. Aside from providing a warm place to take shelter from the freezing alpine night, their kindness and hospitality saved the expedition: I had been firm in my resolution to quit the previous afternoon. Bakytbek insists I take some kymyz for the road, assuring me that this fermented horse’s milk, spooned out of an open wooden barrel kept in the corner of the yurt, is essential to good health.
I begin my run along the lakeshore where the cluster of yurts belonging to Bakytbek’s family and their small herds of sheep, cow, and horses set up every summer for grazing. Soon, when snowfall comes, they will pack up their yurts and descend to the village for the long winter. I need to be on the far side of the country by then. I’m not prepared to get stuck in the snow.
The first few kilometres of every day are the worst. My legs hardly get enough rest to recover completely each night, being pushed to run nearly a marathon over steep nomad trails every day, carrying a twelve-kilogram pack to add to the difficulty. Gratefully, today starts on a rare flat, skirting the lake shore before I will begin climbing my next mountain pass. Mid-morning, I stop to rest my feet in the icy lake. The long days of running and the extra weight of the pack have left my feet swollen and blistered, and I have taken to regularly dipping them in cold, alpine water for relief from the throbbing. I watch as the redness slowly fades from my toes, and splash some water on my shins, washing the dirt out of the multitude of cuts that criss-cross my legs from the previous day’s mistake. My mind returns to the fear that I had felt, and I quickly shake my head to stop it. I can’t think about yesterday now. If I think about it, I’ll quit. To be fair, I probably should quit. The locals, while incredibly friendly, are unanimous in their opinion that my expedition isn’t possible, and I’m nearly proving them right. My mistake nearly cost me everything, and now I’ve momentarily lost confidence that I can survive out here.
The first few kilometres of every day are the worst. My legs hardly get enough rest to recover completely each night, being pushed to run nearly a marathon over steep nomad trails every day, carrying a twelve-kilogram pack to add to the difficulty.
But I have to survive. Even if I did quit, I’m two days of steady running away from a road where I could maybe flag down a vehicle and start making my way to the nearest airport – a few days more on these remote roads. Even quitting would take perseverance in this part of the country.
I won’t quit. I put my shoes back on and keep running, following a narrow dirt goat track. The track widens and I pass another cluster of yurts, from which young children rush out to run alongside me, one of them mimicking a horse’s gallop. The kids make me giggle, and when we reach the edge of their imaginary territory we part with handshakes and high fives. These brief interactions with other people, even lacking any common language, reinvigorate me. I am reminded why I came here – to have an adventure.
Tears flood my eyes as I remind myself how serious it could have been. The landslides that cut me off from turning back. The fast-flowing gorge that cut me off from moving forward. The gnarly climb out of the no-way-forward/no-way-back valley that I had to make.
As I reach the southern shore of the lake and begin climbing once more, a gentle rain settles in. I pull my hood up around my face to protect my eyes and continue, enjoying the eerie silence that rain brings the mountains. Periodically I remember yesterday. Tears flood my eyes as I remind myself how serious it could have been. The landslides that cut me off from turning back. The fast-flowing gorge that cut me off from moving forward. The gnarly climb out of the no-way-forward/no-way-back valley that I had to make. The steep face I crawled up without any decent holds. The ledge that I literally dangled from. If I had slipped… well, let’s not think about it. Stupid mistake, stupid runner, I keep repeating to myself. I should have never turned down that valley. I should know better. I do know better.
The negative inner voice doesn’t help, I know this. Running alone for weeks in the mountains has many challenges, but none greater than being alone in your own head. I fumble for a positive mantra, but find it hard to believe myself today, so instead settle for putting in my earphones and listening to Fleetwood Mac. Rumours will be better company than the thoughts in my head today.
On schedule, the daily thunderstorm comes and goes. This late in the summer, the days are usually hot, building up to impressive thunder and lightning displays during which I’m almost always running across the most open spaces for some reason. The storm lets up as I simultaneously come across a glittering mountain stream. I stop to take off my jacket, fill my bottles, and eat a squished and melted energy bar while basking in the warm afternoon sun. Twelve days of running up and down the mountains of the Tien Shan have passed now, and I’m hungry all of the time. I dig around the top pocket of my pack to check what chocolatey goods I have remaining. I know that in two days I’ll be at a resupply point, and I have more than enough rations to get there. At least some things are going to plan.
As dusk arrives, I am on a long descent – so long that I don’t count on finishing it before sunset. For hours I run steadily downhill, and sometimes, just for kicks, briefly jump off the switchbacked trail to sprint down the scree in between. I slip once doing this, slicing my knee open and precariously rolling my ankle, creating an avalanche of rocks along with the fear of yesterday rushing back to my mind once more. I vow to take it easy for a couple of days, and just run safely. There’s no glory in risks here. Just being out here and crossing these imposing mountains, creating a trail where no maps exist, should be enough for me. Just run like a normal person, I scold myself.
The sky lights up pink and tangerine as the sun disappears behind the jagged peaks, lighting up the amphitheatre of mountains around me in a stunning dusty purple glow. I blink and forget where I am: I must be home. The rocks, the flora, the alpine smell all reminds me of the Canadian Rockies where I grew up, where I first developed my love for mountains. The only difference is the circling falcon ahead. She glides effortlessly on her impressive wingspan, scanning the ground below for dinner. I see these majestic birds every day out here, and I always stop to observe them.
I continue my steady downhill run until I descend below the tree line, and with less than an hour left in the sunlight I begin searching for flat ground to camp on. As the stars begin fading into the sky, replacing the clear blue, I find a small patch of grass next to a river: perfect. As I reinforce my tiny tent with rocks against the wind, always strong at this hour, I think about the wolves that the shepherds warned me about. This looks like a perfect hunting spot for a pack of wolves. My eyes and ears play tricks on me and I see shadows in the trees. But I decide that I’m done with fear. I’ve had enough for an entire expedition in the last twenty-four hours. I boil my evening meal – couscous, again – and begin the process of emptying the contents of my bag inside my tent. This is by now so routine I could do it with my eyes closed. I have only the things I absolutely need here with me, not a single item extra, and I love the simplicity. Although my tent floor is only slightly wider than me, I never feel crowded. It feels like home now, and I lay my head down on a pillow of my rain jacket and tomorrow’s porridge and shut my eyes, the wind swaying the ceiling above me as I immediately fall asleep.
The next day I will follow the same routine: up at dawn, pack quickly, and run steady, crossing the halfway point of the journey by mid-morning. The milestone gives me new hope that I’m going to make it. Every day locals tell me that my expedition isn’t possible, and I have to find a source of resilience within myself that is constantly being tested, even up to the last day when I finally run into the southern city of Osh, where cars will constantly pull over to offer me a lift for the last few miles. But I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and nearly 1,000km and 23 days later, the naysayers will all be wrong. An impossible idea will be proven possible.
In September 2016, Adventure Fund winner Jenny Tough completed a solo, unsupported run across the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a distance of approximately 1000km through unmapped terrain, becoming the first person to do so.