Alex Roddie reviews SOLO: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me about Life by Jenny Tough, who traversed six mountain ranges on six continents.

The adventures of Jenny Tough will be familiar to many readers of The Great Outdoors. Her long-distance fastpacking journeys have featured in this magazine several times, and with her previous book Tough Women Adventure Stories she explored the concept of toughness through the stories of remarkable women. She’s also written widely about adventure elsewhere. But I think that in SOLO: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me about Life, Jenny Tough’s writing has reached new heights.

This is a book about big journeys, big mountains, the joy (and sheer terror) of running in them, the decisions we make and the lessons we learn. It’s about someone who does not consider herself an elite athlete doing something extraordinary. The plan is simple: to run solo and unsupported across mountain ranges on six continents. Doubt stalked her right from the start. Developing the self-belief needed to cope with challenges that seemed insurmountable is a key theme: ‘Only you can decide what you can and can’t do.’

If you look no further than the cover, and the name Tough, you might assume that this is a gung-ho account of conquering mountains and laughing in the face of fear. But it’s nothing like that. Jenny prefers to travel quietly, respecting the culture and people, and there is a humble undercurrent running through each of these stories. She grows more aware of her position as a relatively rich and privileged Westerner compared to the people who live in many of these places, and this awareness changes her outlook on many things. It also makes her determined to use this privilege for good.

Solo by Jenny Tough

She likes her privacy and is uncomfortable with publicity, but is also eager to create a new career for herself in adventure – a process facing many barriers for a young woman. One of the most important topics SOLO covers is negative behaviour from men: sexual harassment, doubt that she is strong or competent enough, and (in one memorable chapter) a level of hassle from police officials that astonished me.

There’s a sense of solidarity between Jenny and the other women she meets in countries where women live with their freedoms restricted by men. She completes her journey with a determination to do all she can to improve women’s opportunities – especially in adventure.

I can’t pretend full objectivity here, because the author is a friend and colleague, but for me SOLO has been one of the best books about adventure I’ve read in a long time. It has everything: an inspiring quest, a main character we can root for, and more hard-earned wisdom about life, the universe and everything than I’ve seen in one place for quite a while.

Resilience, learning to control fear, empathy, pain and injury, being ‘constantly pursued by questionable men’, acute altitude sickness, the tension between goals and enjoyment, social consciousness, and some damn good mountain views: it’s all here.

‘I hope I always remember to live my life on my own terms,’ Jenny writes. And, finally: ‘You’re tougher than you think.’

SOLO: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me about Life by Jenny Tough is published by Octopus (£16.99, hardback)

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