Exploring the High Andes was written by . This article originally appeared in ATRA’s Trail Times newsletter published in December 2015. Highline Running Adventures is an ATRA corporate member.
Exploring the High Andes: Trail running has always been a way of training for me. Working as an expedition climbing guide, the long days on trail has always been a perfect way for me to condition myself to any kind of endurance outing in the mountains.
Guiding has allowed me to visit many of the major mountain ranges of the world, as well as some of the lesser known corners of Alaska, South America, Antarctica and the Himalayas. After many years of slowly hauling heavy backpacks up the sides of mountains, the light nature of trail running has become far more alluring. No matter where I am in the world or how beautiful the area, the desire to break free from the constraints of climbing ropes and heavy loads has always brought me back to my home trails in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado. In a sense, trail running has always seemed to be the purest form of exploration to me. With nothing on my back I have always been able to go farther, see more, and visit places that might normally require a multi-day backpacking trip. With no summits or true objectives, trail running in the mountains can be nothing more than simply enjoying the beauty of your surroundings.
Throughout my travels to climb big mountains, I have noticed that all of these areas have one thing in common — amazing trail systems giving access into the heart of the mountains. Recently, while most are staring at the towering peaks above, I have been paying more attention to the beautiful trails systems below. Taking advantage of rest days in base camp to get out and run these trails have become some of the most memorable days. Leaving everything behind and thoroughly exploring the unknown corners of the high mountain valleys is an experience hard to put in words. It was on one of these trail runs that the idea of Highline Running Adventures was born.
There is no doubt that trail running has grown in popularity of the years. This love for challenging outings has pushed runners deeper and deeper into the mountains in search of adventure. With abundant running tours available throughout the world, the idea for Highline Running was to offer something uniquely different and provide guided trail running adventures to non-traditional areas. By offering trips to these alpine scenes — typically only visited by climbers and trekkers — we could take people into the heart of big beautiful mountain ranges and give them a once in a life time experience.
With some many beautiful places that could host our unique trail running adventures, I had to spend some time narrowing down the options. In the end, choosing the San Juan Mountains (my home) was a no-brainer. Tucked away in the quiet southwest corner of Colorado, the San Juans are home to hundreds of stunning peaks above 13,000 feet. In addition, the area hosts hundreds of square miles of National Forest and wilderness with a rich silver and gold mining history dating back to the late 1800s. Encompassing small historic towns such as Telluride, Ouray and Silverton, the Uncompahgre National Forest provides endless options to run through dense aspen forests with quick access to some of the wildest high alpine terrain in the country. With popular races such as the Hardrock 100, San Juan Solstice 50, and the Imogene Pass Run, it’s no wonder that the San Juans have become a destination for trail runners wanting to experience what the area has to offer.
The real dream, however, was to take this trail running adventure idea international. The high andes mountains of Peru was on the top of my list. It has been a popular destination for trail runners for years primarily featuring the Incan Trail. However, with the Cusco and Macchu Pichu areas becoming over commercialized and extremely crowded over the years, my hopes to offer something new and unique took me further north to the city of Huaraz and the stunning peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and Huascarán National Park. Situated at 10,000 feet above sea level in the Andes, Huaraz is nestled between the colorful mountains of the Cordillera Negra and the high glaciated peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. It is the proximity to these mountains, beautiful hiking trails, and world class trekking circuits that make this area a trail runner’s dream. Imagine visiting a famous multi-day backpacking route through the High Andes and running the entire trail in one day with nothing but the essentials on your back.
Despite all these inviting attributes, running in the Cordillera Blanca has one major set-back – it’s high…really high! Surrounded by 20,000 foot peaks, trailheads that start at 12,000 feet and mountain passes over 15,000 feet, anyone in their right mind would believe that this is not a place for trail running. For me…this is paradise. With fifteen years of high altitude guiding experience, taking hundreds of people to the summits of high peaks, the process of properly acclimatizing people to perform at higher altitudes is nothing new to me. There is a proven process in the mountains that has gotten regular people to mountain summits for decades. This philosophy is built on slow introductions to new altitudes, while climbing high and sleeping low. Though slow paced mountaineering and trail running have very different demands, I wanted to test a theory that this acclimatization program I have used in the mountains for years could be applied to running as well.
In 2014, I visited Huaraz Peru, with the intention of testing my theories on the high trails of the Cordillera Blanca. Almost immediately this trip had a significantly different feel to it. Leaving Colorado without the heavy bags typically associated with climbing expeditions already felt lighter with only one small bag, a couple pairs of shoes, and a trail map. The first couple days were spent around the Huaraz area (between 10-12,000 feet), running secluded country roads below the impressive snow covered peaks of Huascarán. I soon headed up into higher elevations, visiting new high points between 14-15,000 feet. After a almost a week of these acclimatization hikes and runs, I was feeling fairly strong and often found myself running along flat and down hill sections of trails. Like most mountain trail runs, I found myself hiking the majority of the uphill sections which were typically followed by significant enjoyable sections of down hill. By the second week of the trip I felt fully acclimatized and began running many of the longer trekking routes that included higher mountain passes. These included two separate traverses of the entire Range; the 26 mile Santa Cruz Trail, and the 28 mile Olleros to Chavin trek. After almost four weeks of exploring the running trails of the Cordillera Blanca, I had one last goal to finish the trip on a high note- running the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. This 75 mile circumnavigation of the entire mountain range crosses 11 mountain passes over 14,000 with a high point of 16,500 feet at Punta Cuyoc. Completing this circuit was the culmination of all my hopes and dreams of running in the Andes. I had the freedom of moving quickly through this beautiful high mountain range without the constraints of a traditional trekking expedition. With such a successful trip and confirmation that a well thought out acclimatization program can allow runners to visit these high mountain trails, it was time to start sharing this experience with others
Since this first trip to the Cordillera Blanca I have continued exploring more of the trail running options around the Cordillera Blanca. I have even started sharing this special area with others through guided adventures. As you might imagine, guided trail running tours have not yet gained a lot of popularity and our exploratory high altitude offerings have had even less. Today, racing events seem to be “in” and not many people know anything other than competitive running. Whether you race competitively or just for the heck of it, race events are incredibly fun. However, it is hard not to notice all of the little things you miss out on by solely racing. By slowing down and running purely for the enjoyment, you have the time to sit down and take in the scenery from an overlook, swim in an alpine lake or take a detour on a side trail. On paper, the itineraries for most of our Peruvian tours look intimidating to say the least. Our hope is that soon people will venture out of the norm and opt to try a running adventure that has no finish line. When participating in a trail running adventure like ours, runners will find that exploring these intimidating places with the company of experienced mountain guides is a truly unforgettable experience. Over the years, I have learned that when people step out of their comfort zone and challenge what they think they are capable of — they typically surprise themselves.
For more information about trail running the high andes mountains in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru or the trail running adventures offered by Highline Running Adventures, please visit www.HighlineRunning.com.