Pedalling The Andes - Anna McNuff

Meet Anna, a British born adventurer, motivational speaker and writer. Anna was recently named by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the 50 most influential travellers of our time, and by the the Guardian as one of the top modern female adventurers. If you're looking for some inspiration to get out into the outdoors, you need to follow this incredible woman, she urges people to leave their fears at home and get outside. We caught up with Anna in between pedalling through the Andes mountains, on a mission to ascend over 80,000 metres, more than 7 times the height of Everest, on a bicycle.

In 2016 you were voted as one of the top 10 most inspiring contemporary female adventurers by the Guardian! Eeek! What sparked your interest in leading a more adventurous life?

Eeekkkk indeed!! It was very nice to find myself on the last next to some other personal heroes. I grew up surrounded by a family of sport-nuts - so I’ve always been a sporty, outdoorsy sort of gal, but I lost my way in my twenties. I found myself on a career path, well, a life path really that I didn't seem to have any idea quite how I’d got there. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my days, and so had my an ‘ah-ha’ moment while sat at a desk in 2012.

I realised that my life was topsy turvey. I was spending every hour, day or holiday around work doing some bonkers adventure challenge. And that those were the bits of my life that made me happy, so I decided that it was time to turn things on their head. To let a passion for the outdoors and travel bubble to the surface and have it take centre stage in my life.

I had an inkling that ‘normal’ travel wasn’t for me - I’m too much of a fidget to sit on buses! But I had a deep wanderlust and urge to see the world. I never knew that ‘adventure travel’ existed until I started to read about people like Rosie Swale-Pope, Sarah Outen, Al Humphreys and Dave Cornthwaite and thought ‘now there’s a way to see the world that I can really get in to!’. The idea of combining a physical challenge with seeing new places l just seemed too good to be true.

I came up with what seemed like a ridiculous idea to ride a bike through the 50 states of the USA, and I went for it. I was honouring that little voice in the pit of my stomach that was telling me I had 'more' than this. I could do more, be more and ultimately give more to the world. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing day in, day out for the rest of my life - it wasn’t living. Scary as it was taking that first leap, it wasn’t as scary as the thought of leading an unfulfilled life.

That trip was the start of me discovering that thing that truly makes my heart thing. Out there, on my bike, pushing my body, meeting new people, getting battered by the elements, stopping into schools to chat to kids - that’s when I truly felt like me. Like the me I really wanted to be.

You’ve had an office job before, how did you fit in time for adventuring whilst holding down a 9-5?

Ah yes, I am a half-blood. Or rather I was… now I’m more full blood adventurer, who dabbles in the office every now and then. I actually found having a full time job rather ‘useful’ for many adventures. It added a structure and a place to be every day, and so I could fit in training for adventures around the job. I prefer A to B type or ‘commuter’  training than running around in circles anyway!

The run I did through New Zealand needed a fair bit of planning (and saving of money) so I couldn’t leave the UK right away. I spent 4 months getting up at 4.30am and running for three hours along the riverbank - from my home to my workplace. Sometimes I’d collect my mum along the way! She lived a bit further down the river so I’d find her on the banks at 6am eery Tuesday morning - grinning and with her head torch blinking. My mum is called Sue so I labelled every Tuesday as ‘Suesday’ :) I’m really grateful for the structure that a 9-5 gave me her those months. I saw the world at its most peaceful in the early mornings and I got to hang out with my mum and put the world to rights with her running at my side.

As for the actual adventuring itself - with a 9-5 I found it encouraged me to get creative, and I loved that challenge! I spent 25 consecutive weeks sleeping out on hilltops around the city of London once a week - just to squeeze in that little bit of extra outdoors time when I could. Because I had a 9-5 it meant that other 9-5ers joined me. They thought ‘If she’s sleeping wild and is back at her desk by 9am, then I can do that too’ - so we had a little adventure movement going. That also meant I explored my own back yard - seeing tiny snippets of a country I’ve lived in my whole life but don’t really know at all.

In your latest travels you explore South America - can you tell us a little more about that? What’s the best way to follow your adventurous travels?

Yes indeed - I am typing this from a small town in central Argentina, surrounded by stunning landscapes and wineries. Ooo errrr! Just over two months ago friend and I set off from La Paz in Bolivia, on a mission to spend 6 months cycling along the Andes mountains. rather than take the shortest, most direct route - we’re gunning to take on as many high altitude peaks and passes as we can. By the time we’re done we should have ascended almost nine times the height of everest on bikes! All because we just LOVE mountains. And I like going up far more than I like going down…

It’s been the most insane journey so far… spending weeks at 4,000m above sea level brings its own challenges (any cuts or scrapes don’t heal for a start!) but the people and the landscapes are making it a trip of a lifetime. I’’m also learning a huge amount, travelling with someone else this time.

I love sharing stories as I go along, and you can follow on Facebook (‘Anna McNuff’), Twitter (@annamcnuff) or Instagram (annamcnuff).

What was a particular highlight from your latest trip? Was there anything you found peculiarly interesting?

The highlight from the current trip I’m on is the sheer variety! I just have to look at my instagram feed to see a rainbow of colours. So far we’ve pedalled through a chunk of Bolivia, dipped into Chile and are now in Argentina. The high altitude landscapes, able 4,000m high in Bolivia look like you’ve landed on mars, and now I find myself in lush lowlands surrounded my greenery and vineyards. I just can’t get enough of it. Every corner brings a new scene or sight and it blows me away out here.

What advice would you give to women who may read your stories and be filled with inspiration but don’t know where to start?

Just start. However and whenever you can, just take the first step. Create a folder on your desktop. Get a map out and draw a line, put £20 a week into an adventure pot, tell three friends of your crazy idea. Whatever it is, take a step beyond where you’ve gone before and be honest with yourself about what it is in your life that truly makes you feel like the best version of you. We are all so wonderfully unique, but somewhere along the way our curiosity about the planet and our belief that it’s a playground just waiting to be explored gets squashed out of us.

And for goodness sakes ignore anyone who tells you you can’t do something - they are so very wrong. The only difference between the me at the start of the NZ run, and the me at the finish line was that the me at the finish line knew that I could do it. The me at the start was sorely hoping I could, but was mostly definitely bricking it with fear. The only failure in life is a failure to begin. Take a deep breath and just freakin’ go for it!

Rowing, cycling, running, rollerblading - you seem to be up for any activity! Is there anything you won’t do? Any fears?

Hmmmm. I don’t think I’d ever say ‘never!’ to anything. Because I know that fear and risk can be managed away if you really want to do something that badly. I have to say I like staying on dry land, surrounded by people. I don’t have any desires to row an ocean solo (I like chatting too much!!) or do anything grand like climb Everest - and if I’m honest those things frighten me. It always comes down to choice. I honestly believe I (and that means we) can do anything we set our minds to. So then all that’s left is the choice about how we spend our days. I get such a kick out of meeting people and seeing how they live - so I’ll always stick with adventures that offer an insight into that. I would like to do more rollerblading adventures though, and friend introduced me to a longboard this year - I love it!

Tell us a little bit more about ‘Adventure Queens’ and who they are?

Oh the Adventure Queens! How I love them so! They are a group of first time, rookie adventurers who I’ve profiled on my website. I have known them since before they took on their first big challenge, and I have watched each of them grow from fearful and apprehensive to competent, badass adventurers. So I decided to interview them all. Because I’m close to them I could get right in there, down to the nitty gritty, and ask them about their fears before the trip. The hope is that other first time female adventurers realise that their fears are the same as everyone else’s. And, in turn, see that all fears can be overcome. The Queens have done some awesome adventures too - from rowing the Pacific ocean, to cycling across Australia, to running home from Rome and even running around the entire coast of the UK. They are truly Queens of adventure - because they have embraced eery hurdle that planning and executing an adventure brings. Every single one inspires me still.

Raising awareness of charities such as Right to Play and The Outward Bound Trust and getting more children outdoors and exploring appears to be one of your big passions- can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Yes! I love to do that where I can. It’s hugely important to me that adventuring offers something to the world beyond just personal gain. I had the most awesome childhood - with access to sport and the outdoors. And that has contributed hugely to the person I am today. It took me until I was a bit older to realise just how lucky I am, and that not all kids have that chance. Especially young girls. I grew up with two brothers so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t just do what theboys did… but I know lots of youngsters suffer with low esteem issues. So I like to do what I can, when I can, to show kids what’s possible when you dream big. And not to let anyone else derail your plans. Sometimes I do that through school visits or talks on the road, and sometimes I do it through fundraising - to help kids have adventures of their own. That purpose really helps me along. When I’m on an adventure and I feel like giving up I think: “How can I stand in front of these kids and tell them to step out of their comfort zones if I’m giving up on stepping out of mine?” That spurs me on.

Any favourite workout tracks or podcasts?

Ooo, let’s think. I love anything classic 90’s - like ‘Iike to Move it, move it!’ or ‘Rhythm is a dancer’, but equally you can’t beat a ruddy good 80’s ballard to pick up your mood. Bonnie Tyler and Tina Turner ROCK. I can belt their tunes until the cows come home!!

Anna, you have undertaken so many adventures! Long ones. Short ones. In betweeny ones. People may assume that getting started is the tricky part, but what’s it like to wrap up an adventure and have something you’ve planned, executed, and in many cases suffered through, draw to a close?

It’s like a break up. And I mean that honestly. Coming home is actually more difficult that the adventure itself, but (having done it several times now) it’s also a hugely important part of the journey. On the adventure you have purpose, you have daily goals and freedom on how to execute those goals. Heck, even before you leave your goal is purely the adventure for a long time!

When you come back home, you are confronted with what we perceive to be ‘reality’. That is a feeling that you ‘should’ be doing all of these things, you ‘should’ be earning good money, saving, being sensible, honouring appointments - at home there is a lot of pressure and very little freedom to think about what you actually want to be doing. Life on the road is simple, you ride/run, you eat, you sleep and you think about loved ones. Those are the things that really matter. At home - things can get a bit jumbled.

So I normally hit a period of blues for a few months when I’m home, which is pretty horrendous, but every time I come out the other side - life is clearer, and I understand my place in the world better. You truly have to grieve the adventure, to remember it fondly and all it has given you, and then to build on it from a new foundation.

I’ve learnt enough now to try to replicate my adventure life in my home life - that is, a simple one. I recently moved out of the city to the country to slow life down a bit. I have less in my diary, more time to think and more time to be a human being rather than a human doing! I like life like that. It’s when I’m happiest.

Some of your travels have taken you into remote places where there aren’t many, or sometimes any, people. How does your mindset change to cope with being alone to being surrounded by others?

I’m an extrovert, so it is a bit bizarre that I’ve chosen to do so many travels alone. But I think being alone is good for the soul. You have to be pretty good mates with yourself to be alone.

When I’m alone I sing! And I dance! All the time. I know that days on the road / trail when I'm not singing or dancing, those are the tough days. In New Zealand, which was the place I’ve experienced the most isolation - I remember that I was up once mountain pass and 'hey ya' by Outkast came on my iPod shuffle. So what did I do? I stopped and shook my ass like a freakin' polaroid picture!! I danced like nobody was watching, because they weren't.

Your mind does do funny things when you've been on your own for a long period of time.  At one point, I had three full days and nights where I didn’t see a soul. If I would bump into someone after a few days of isolation, for some reason, even though all I craved was a chat, I wouldn’t want to speak to them. I’d withdraw, cut the conversation short and move along the trail. The same would happen when I approached a back country hut. I’d be feeling lonely, but for some reason I’d want to turn the handle and find that there was no one in there, so that I could be alone. It was bizarre.

On the plus side, being alone I learnt to make space to listen to my thoughts. If I felt myself getting too self-critical or down - I'd do something to flip my mindset. For example one day it was pouring with rain, and it had pretty much been raining solidly for 3 weeks when I took this video. I screamed over the wind: "Here's the thing, I'm soaked to the skin, and freezing, it's tipping with rain, but I've decided that I can either get miserable, or I can get happy - and I'm going to get happy!" That day suddenly became bearable after that.

Running the Te Araroa trail unsupported was blummin’ tough at times, especially when I was carrying up to seven days worth of food through the bush between towns, but I loved the freedom and the added challenge that being self supported brings to a journey - and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I don’t feel the need to be that isolated again, but I am so glad I did it.

What’s the best thing about yourself you’ve discovered whilst adventuring?

Ooooh good question!! I’d say the two key things are that we are capable of far more than we know, and the only limit of possibility are those that we decide upon. Every time I achieve something I never thought I would, I stand there and think: “Man, I did that?!” And then I’d set my sights on something even bigger and scarier than before. I’m not sure you ever reach a limit on your capability.. I think in the end it comes down to choice - and whether you choose to keep putting yourself through the mill, or to have the aim to simply enjoy life! (although these two things are sometimes one and the same).

The other thing I’ve realised is that is that we are incredibly hard on ourselves. We are our own worst critic 99.9% of the time. Being alone for so long on the run - I really had to listen to a lot of self criticism in the first month of running… I’d really give myself a hard time that I wasn’t running fast enough. One day I just got sick of it. I thought: “Im running the length of a country and I’m telling myself it’s not good enough?! I am officially bonkers.” From then on, I labelled it a ‘cheerleaders only day’ and the only thoughts that were allowed to surface were the good ones, the ones that cheered me on. If destructive thoughts appeared, the cheerleaders would jump out and kick those thoughts in the NUTS! The run became far more enjoyable from that moment on.

Who's your most favourite person you have met whilst adventuring?

My favourite person I’ve met in all my travels is a woman called Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson. I met her in New Hampshire, USA when I was staying with her son in an awesome house in the woods. She was 93 years old and every year she enters the Manchester New Hampshire 5km race in a bid to break the record for the 90-99 years old age group. And she runs the race surrounded by her 19 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Every morning she goes on a 2 mile training run to her mailbox at the end of the drive, and back. I got to join her on a morning’s run and I left so inspired. Here’s a woman at 93 still in search of being the absolute best she can be. What a rockin’ bird. When I grow up, I want to be Betty ‘The Hutch’ Hutchinson.

Can you share one of your favourite travel pics with us?

I’ve attached one from this trip!! It is a day cresting a pass at 4,700m high. I am absolutely done in. My lungs are burning, I feel sick and I am dizzy with exhaustion. But I love this picture because I know that in five minutes I went from the depths of despair to elation at having conquered the pass. It’s a reminder that things can always, and will always change - for better or worse, but northing is permanent.