Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist: Jenny Tough runs across Kyrgyzstan
Scotland-based adventurer and writer Jenny Tough was the first person to run across Kyrgyzstan solo and unsupported. It took her 23 days and involved crossing some of the world’s most beautiful and treacherous mountains, the Tien Shan range.
In an extract from a book which regales tales of grit, courage and determination, she needed all those qualities on her terrifying run across Kyrgyzstan to survive.
The length of time – milliseconds that go on for minutes – it takes until I hear the dead tree I’ve just pulled out of the mountainside splash into the river below is all I need to confirm the thought that was previously swirling, and now screaming, inside my head: one mistake, and I’m dead. The tree, now being carried through the impassible gorge by the raging white river, was meant to be my break on the climb. On an otherwise bare, precipitous, scree mountain flank, baking in the hot Kyrgyz summer sun, the small lone tree was the only feature I could rest on. And I really need a rest. Limbs shaking, sweat dripping, and the realisation of my current consequences, I have no choice but to push onwards and upwards. No. Other. Choice.
It was my mistake. I know this. This isn’t a mountain accident or an unfortunate turn of events. No, this was all me this time. I took a bad route. Chose a valley without thoroughly studying the contour lines. I followed a goat track – usually my only hope of decent footing – until I hit some landslides, which I delicately picked my way across. Up here in the Tien Shan, landslides are not out of place, and with the summer almost over, at least the avalanches have mostly settled. I’m not alarmed, and I continue on my course. But with an ominous rumble from above, the landslide I just picked my way over is awash with new boulders. I realise that I am not in a stable area. The boulders are not ankle-breakers; they’re femur-breakers – not to mention the instant consequences should another landslide kick off while I’m in its path. There’s no chance I’m going back that way, no matter what happens.
If I do break a femur, my hope of rescue out here, in the central Tien Shan, is quite limited. This country doesn’t even have one single helicopter to send out. I know this, and I’m comfortable with the risk… Most of the time. But most of the time I don’t make navigational errors like this one. Speeding away from the scary landslides, I turn the corner of the valley, and my heart drops all the way down to my shoes. The valley turns suddenly into a gorge. The slope I’m currently following goes all the way to 90 degrees, the thin goat track literally ending at a cliff edge. There is no way forward, and no way back.
I consider my options. There are really only two: go down into the river on my right, and swim through the gorge, or go up and over the mountain on my left, where I know it’s a little gentler on the other side. I tiptoe down to the water’s edge: it’s deep, but moving fast, and not so deep that I wouldn’t crack my skull on a protruding rock if I tried to float down it. I look up at the mountain: it’s steep. Super-steep. I spend no more than a few minutes making my decision: death is slightly less likely on the mountain than the white water. I pull my GPS safety device out and put it around my neck, prepared if I need to drop my backpack at any point. I take a deep breath, and place my hands on the rock in front of me. Don’t look down.
I have no idea, to this day, how long that climb took. It felt like two hours at least, but it’s likely that it was less. I don’t know how long it took, how high it was, or if there had been another option. I refuse to look at my gpx track for the day. I don’t want to know. What I do know, is what my mind went through. They say your life flashes before your eyes, but it was my future that I saw instead. I realised all the things I wanted to do, clear visions of goals I wanted to accomplish, places I wanted to see, and more memories to be made with people I love. I focused on the placement of each foot and hand to ensure I had a chance of still getting to do them. I promised myself that if I survived this climb, I would call the expedition off. I would go home. They were right – I can’t do this.
My hands are sweating and blistering, and grabbing reliable holds is getting more and more difficult. I get stuck at one point, unsure where I can make my next move. I still haven’t looked down – always look up. Look where you’re going. And that better not be down. The long wait for the tree to hit the river below flashes in my mind again. That’s how many seconds I’ll be falling for if I miss this next move. With a grunt more akin to a battle cry, I push myself up the next ledge. I can see the top. I’m so close. Just get there, and this whole expedition is finally over. Going home! I scramble to the top, and on a curiously even, completely safe ground that gives way to a gentle, green, welcoming slope on the other side of the death-scree I’ve just climbed, I collapse into a heap. I cry harder than I can ever remember crying in my adult life. Adrenaline empties from my body in seconds and now I’m just a blubbering mess, letting the weight of everything that just went through my mind over the course of my climb really come out. I had to stay focused at the time, but the second it’s over, out the emotions flood.
I didn’t expect to cry like that, and while crying, I didn’t expect the next thing I did either. After some time of full-on ugly-cry, I stopped, wiped my tears, fixed my ponytail, stood up, and continued as I had for the last 12 days. Just like that. I simply carried on running. I didn’t fulfil my promise to quit, and it would be some time before I ever told anyone what had happened. I decided I should finish first.
I found my toughness for the first time in the mountains. Pursuing challenges that excited me but also scared me, and somehow getting through them, I showed myself that I actually deserved my name, that I was Tough. I still look at a looming mountain pass and shiver with a fear that I can’t get up there. I’ve taken a few wrong turns over the years, like that valley in Kyrgyzstan, or looking up from my bivvy sac to see ten armed men in Morocco, or sprinting through illegal mines and coca fields in Bolivia, or limping on an infected wound in the desert… The list really goes on. And I will continue to add to it – that’s part of the path of life I’ve chosen, in truly challenging myself and the limits of my comfort zone. Any of those scenarios sound scary to me even now, but when the time came, I rose to it, and later reflected that I had been so much tougher than I ever thought I was capable of. It grows my confidence and encourages me to expand the limits of what I think I’m capable of, in all areas of my life – and I want that for everybody, especially women and girls.
Jenny Tough is an accomplished adventure athlete currently part way through a solo challenge to run the length of a mountain range on every continent. She is also Race Director of the Type 2 Events ‘Type 2 Fun Run’ ultra and on 30 October will be at Trail Skills for Ultrarunners with Nicky Spinks in an event led by Girls on Hills Ltd. For tickets see www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/trail-skills-for-ultrarunners-with-nicky-spinks-and-jenny-tough-tickets-99908803922
Tough Women Adventure Stories; edited by Jenny Tough. Summersdale, £9.99
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