The Andes Challenge: Extreme Sports, Tourism and Science in Peru

run on glacier
Running on Vallunaraju Glacier in Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

Four extreme athletes gathered before dawn on August 28 at a glacier in Peru to start a 170 kilometer race. Setting off from the foot of Mount Vallunaraju in the Cordillera Blanca range, they ran up to its summit at 5625 meters and down to the Llaca valley. They then alternated cycling and running, passing through the regional capital of Huaraz and over a second mountain range, the Cordillera Negra, before completing a descent of over 3500 meters through the coastal desert to the port of Huarmey on the Pacific Ocean. They finished the route in under 16 hours.

“It was really very moving. I received them at the port, along with regional mayors and other political authorities,” Benjamin Morales, the director of the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM) wrote to GlacierHub.

Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source:AccesoPeru)
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: AccesoPeru)

Described as one of the most challenging ultramarathons of the world, the Andes Challenge promotes  opportunities for  athletics and also tourism in Peru, showcasing the great ecological diversity of the Ancash region. The race passes through snowpeaks, forests, grasslands, farmland and desert— areas where INAIGEM conducts research on endemic plant species, glacier processes, and environmental issues such as water management and disaster risk reduction. The route provides a window into the region’s cultural diversity as well, since it includes indigenous and mestizo settlements of the highlands and coast. And the event organizers encourage participation, not only by top athletes in the one-day ultramarathon, but by others who move at slower paces, completing the route in two or more days, or simply hiking different sections of it. An additional goal of the event is to promote sustainable development of the region.

This event builds on earlier efforts dating back over 10 years. The head of Huascaran National Park, in which Vallunaraju is located, encouraged a Peruvian runner to complete a similar route in 2010. In the following year, over a dozen runners, including one woman, also ran the course. It then fell into abeyance until Benkelo Morales, an athlete, hotel owner and event organizer from Huaraz, decided to revive it. The full name which he bestowed on it, “Andes Challenge: The Route of Mountain Ecosystems and Climate Change,” signals his concern to build awareness of environmental issues. He drew support from the national park, INAIGEM, the regional office of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, several municipal governments, an environmental NGO, the Peruvian mountain guides association, and two mining firms. A much larger version of the Andes Challenge will be held on June 29, 2017.

GlacierHub recently interviewed Benkelo Morales about the event.

Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)
Three athletes running in the Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GlacierHub: What were the most important successes of the Andes Challenge this year?

Benkelo Morales: The Andes Challenge was born as an athletic initiative in 2004, with the idea of linking the snowpeaks of the Cordillera Blanca with the sea in less than a day, combining climbing, cycling and running. We tried it out a few times but never had much of an impact on the population of the region. This year, INAIGEM came up with an interesting idea – sport and science could work together. They suggested that the route of the race could be an area for tourism and for research on ecosystems. This way, tourists could visit the region, seeing an area where athletes race and scientists conduct research. Put simply, the most important success is that we achieved promoting science through sport and tourism.


Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source:Benkelo Morales)
Steep downhill section of the Andes Challenge in the Cordillera Blanca (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What support has been most important in the preparation for the Andes Challenge and in its operation?

BM: All activities require a budget. Since this was the first offering of the race, we did not have registration fees or private sponsorships. Because of this, the logistical support of INAIGEM was invaluable for us. INAIGEM helped us with vehicles and staff, so that we were able to gain Support from municipal governments along the route and from mining companies. In this way, we were able to launch the project. And we wish to thank the athletes who took part as well, the Ecuadorian Nicolas Miranda de Ecuador, Jenn Hrinkevich from the US, and three Peruvians, Emerson Trujillo from Huaraz, Hernan Henostroza and Richard Hidalgo.


GH: What was the biggest surprise of the event?

BM: There were many surprises, including the way the community members along the route came out to applaud the runners. But the most important surprise was that the Minister of the Environment showed herself to be so interested in the project. It is very difficult to make contact with ministers in Peru, but thanks to INAIGEM and the international forum which they organized, we had the opportunity to present the project to many groups, from major government figures to universities, students and the media.


Biking in the Cordillera Negra sction of the Andes Challenge (source:Benkelo Morales)
Athletes biking in the Cordillera Negra section of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What was the greatest joy of the Andes Challenge?

BM: Extreme races have their risks. It was an enormous joy to see the athletes run into the ocean after 16 hours of uninterrupted effort, without any accidents at all. And also, seeing so many people along the route and at the finish on the beach were great incentives to keep on going, despite the fatigue.


Athletes biking in the coastal desert portion of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)
Athletes biking in the coastal desert section of Andes Challenge (source: Facebook)

GH: What do you anticipate for the Andes Challenge in the future?

BM: Well, I think the main thing is to position the entire route as a tourist corridor where people of all types and interests can take some time to cover the route. It’s such a diverse route that it could please all kinds of tourists. On the level of sport, we hope that it will become one of the most challenging in the world. We would like to see the world’s top runners and cyclists coming to take part. They could become “sports ambassadors” to promote awareness of climate change and adaptation.


arriving coast
Athletes reaching the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Andes Challenge (source: Benkelo Morales)

GH: What importance does the Andes Challenge have for the communities along the route and near it?

BM: To have an extreme race like this requires going through isolated areas that are difficult to get to, the same places where ecological research is often carried out. So these communities are the ones that are least favored by the government. So we can state that the Andes Challenge can bring different types of benefits to these communities, from tourism and economic activity, to training in environmental issues and in athletics, to education and employment. Stated simply, the Andes Challenge will put these communities on the map.

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