Running solo 620 miles across the Andes

Planning a mountain running expedition can be a daunting task. In addition to organizing logistics from the other side of the world, sourcing and organizing appropriate kit to last four weeks in extreme conditions, and actually training the body for nearly 620 miles (1000 kilometers) of trail running with a heavy pack, I have to do my best to create a route where no trail exists. Even in the modern age of satellite images, street view and, of course, komoot Highlights, finding an unbroken line that ‘goes’ — a route that can be accomplished on foot, has regular access to water and supplies, accessible passes, escapes to safer altitudes if the weather changes, and a host of other safety requirements — is actually a bit of a bang-head-on-keyboard experience.

This October, I’ll be setting off from the eastern limit of the Bolivian Andes with nothing but 6 kilogrammes of equipment on my back and an idea that I hope will work: to run across the Sierra Oriental, some of the highest and most isolated mountains in the Andes, from the border of Peru to Central Bolivia where the mountains give way to the Altiplano. It’s my third run in a global project to run, solo and unsupported, across a mountain range on every continent.

Where did my route come from? Well, no one has (to my knowledge) attempted this before, so no real route exists. There are some trails and known routes that I’ve tried my best to include, but there are also plenty of unknowns and seldom explored areas that are simply blanks on the map. Those unknowns make me nervous, but also excited. After all, how often do we get the chance to feel like real explorers in 2018?

How did I start? Quite simply by looking at a map of Bolivia. In Cycle View, you can see the terrain, and that’s where my eyes are going first: find the big, burly mountains. Then look for Highlights (they are currently quite scarce in these parts… big surprise), villages, roads, or anything that can help orientate you. Then I simply plot lines between all of these points — although that’s far from simple.

Finding the trail: Komoot now lets you plan routes where there are no known ways, which is an essential tool when plotting a long run where there is no known way! Switching the view to satellite, I now spend a lot of time zoomed in very far, literally searching the ground for any indication of a trail or gravel road. Sometimes, this actually works. But, as most of my trails will be llama paths up the sides of the mountains, they’re quite hard to see from the sky, so a lot of the time I’m just hoping for the best. I pick the lowest grade between the mountains (so I’m not rock climbing), watch out for large rivers that I might not be able to cross, and try not to get stuck at too high an altitude for too long (it’s cold at night, and I only have a little tarp for shelter).

I might point out that I went through this intensive process twice for this expedition. My Plan A, which I had been dreaming of for months, was not getting very far past the second step: I couldn’t find water, supplies, villages, or hope anywhere. It was a genuine heartache to admit that I couldn’t do it — that the route simply could not be safely done without vehicle support, which breaks my (entirely made-up and self-enforced) rules of doing this thing solo and unsupported. So, gutted and deflated, I had to let go of that dream and look for another mountain range. It took me quite a while before I found something that both excited me and seemed vaguely possible — just a heck of a lot harder than Plan A. Due to this problem, it was actually only two weeks before my flight date that I even started researching Plan B. Even now, the route I’ve stuck into komoot is fairly vague, and involves a lot of straight dotted lines – indicating I have actually no idea if there’s a trail, so the line just indicates a general direction of travel.

Route plotted, now what? The adventure begins! I’ve arrived in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, which sits 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level. I’ll be spending a bit of time here letting my body get used to that altitude before I head up into the mountains and begin running! I’m incredibly nervous at this point, but it wouldn’t be an adventure if I thought it was going to be easy!

Komoot on the run: Some segments of the run will be up to five days without any towns or villages, meaning little hope of 3G, and zero hope of a plug socket. Komoot is, obviously, an online platform so it may seem to be an issue that I’ll be without signal or means to recharge my power bank… However, with komoot you can download the regions and routes offline and luckily, navigation and recording work while your phone is in airplane mode, which I’ve found to be really gentle on the battery use (although I must write a note on my hand to remind me to save the route to my mobile before I leave La Paz…). I will also export my route file and plug it into my satellite communication + GPS device, which I carry for safety, so I have a backup if I drop my phone in a river.

Some of the areas which I plan to travel through could be dangerous so I won’t be publishing my planned route beforehand. I will share my route on my return, however — and if you’d like to follow me as I go, you can do so on komoot here: https://www.komoot.com/user/385673470997

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