In 2014, Jared Vilhauer visited one of the Peruvian Andes’ tallest, most beautiful, and remote mountain ranges, the Cordillera Huayhuash. Being both pressed for time (his flight back to the U.S. was in three days) and an ultra runner, the Ridgway, Colorado, resident decided to pack a small backpack and tackle the 85-mile circumnavigation in one go.
Built on that model of moving fast and light through spectacular mountain terrain, Vilhauer has designed a business, Highline Running Adventures, to take clients on adventures of a lifetime. He currently guides running tours in Peru, Patagonia, and his own backyard, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
“As trail runners, we typically want to carry less, go farther, and see more,” Vilhauer said. “We can run in these mountains with little to nothing on our backs and cover twice as much terrain as the normal hiker. There is an incredible sense of freedom that comes along with moving through these types of places in this style.”
Vilhauer honed his guiding skills over 15 years of taking clients up some of the highest slopes of Alaska, the Himalaya, and Antarctica. But a few years ago the 35-year-old decided to scale back the mountaineering in favor of starting a business that combines his two true loves: trail running and sharing his favorite trails with others.
The Fort Collins native is an instructor at Rigging for Rescue and a member of the Ouray County Search and Rescue team. But his most valuable skills are organizational–planning logistics for multiple-day trail running trips. He will test out those skills this fall as race director of the inaugural, point-to-point Sierra Andina Trail Marathon on Peru’s Santa Cruz Trail. And Vilhauer recently tackled the daunting task of planning six days in the remote Huayhuash for seven trail runners, including lodging, food (restaurants and trail food), camping supplies, cooks, arrieros (donkey handlers), assistant guides, route finding, and transportation. He pulled it all off without a hitch thanks to his laid-back, easy-going demeanor and his simple passion for sharing beautiful places.
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for work, what would you tell them?
I am an adventure trail-running guide. I organize trail-running vacations around the world to beautiful places that I think people might enjoy running. It’s just like being a trekking guide but you run from camp to camp (or hotel), go twice as fast, and carry nothing. Typically, I do these trips in mountainous places that are known for great hiking, like Colorado, Peru, and Patagonia, but I’m constantly exploring new adventure running possibilities around the world.
What is a typical day like for you, starting when you got to work and ending when you got home for the day?
Most field days at home in Colorado are fairly laid back and casual. I typically meet clients early in the morning so that we can finish our runs before the afternoon thunderstorms start up. Logistics are easy and usually require coordinating a shuttle driver to drop us off at whatever trailhead we decide to run and pick us up where we decide to finish. Runs can vary from a couple of hours to a 20-mile loop through the alpine tundra that includes multiple high-mountain passes. It really all depends on how the individual or group feels that day or what they would like to see. The majority of the real work takes place well before participants arrive, with hotel reservations, airport shuttle scheduling, trip cook coordination, buying food, etc.
International trips are significantly more complicated and I find myself typically organizing things from the moment I get up until I go to bed. Most of our Peru trips are about two weeks long and include a week of acclimatization day runs that are based out of hotels and eco-lodges. These days are fairly easy with little coordination needed other than transportation. Some days might include a short hike to an alpine lake at 15,000 feet or a long, rolling run through a grassy, flower-filled river valley.
We then spend the second week doing a multi-day run on one of the many famous trekking routes in the area. This is an ongoing effort from myself and staff in Peru to coordinate all of the logistics so that this runs smoothly. Typically, there is more that goes on behind the scenes that magically makes this whole thing work. Scheduling all of the transportation, hiring camp staff (cooks and assistants), arranging arrieros, donkeys, and horses, planning menus: it all seems endless–until it’s time to get on the trail and just start running. That’s when it all stops feeling like work.
How does your job affect someone’s day?
People always love to get outside and it’s great to be someone who can help facilitate that. Participants typically don’t have any objectives other that having fun, seeing some beautiful scenery, and running terrain that they might not have available where they live. If people are taking pictures and smiling, I am too.
More often than not people don’t really need a guide to go for a trail run. Sometimes a person is visiting town and they just want a little company on the trail or maybe someone to show them around. I really enjoy doing that. Wanting to share my home mountains with others is truly the reason why I started my company.
There are many reasons they might choose to go on a guided trip but the common response I hear is, “It’s just so much easier.” Most people spend their days at home and work constantly organizing and planning. When it comes time for a vacation the last thing they want to do is spend more time doing this. People really enjoy having all of the little details figured out ahead of time so they can focus on what they came for–amazing trail running. This is really the “guided” aspect of the trip. On the trail, participants can choose to run with or without me and at a pace that suits them best.
What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
My first job in the outdoor industry was as a mountaineering guide and instructor in the Alaska Range and on Denali. I was 19 and in college in Colorado with no real direction. I was given the opportunity to spend the summer in Alaska working for Alaska Mountaineering School and took it without a second thought. I have now spent a good part of the last 15 years guiding big mountains there and all over the world, including the Himalayas, Andes, and Antarctica.
How does someone get your job?
First of all, you definitely need to love running a lot. After that, the mountaineering guiding industry will teach you a lot of the basics for traveling with people in the mountains. Despite sounding fairly straightforward, it requires a sizable skill set that doesn’t have much to do with actual running: knowledge of various mountain hazards, weather forecasting, first aid, and international logistics organization.
I feel the most difficult part of both guiding and trail running in the places I go is dealing with the altitude. The mountains in Colorado are high and the Peruvian Andes are really high. Most of our trips there regularly visit elevations of 15,000-16,000 feet. Anyone in their right mind would believe that this is not a place for trail running. In reality, this where I have found some of my favorite trails and where I am constantly pulling from my years as a high-altitude climbing guide. There is a proven process that has gotten regular people to the tops of mountains for decades. It is true that slow-paced mountaineering and trail running have very different demands, but the philosophy is still the same. I have been able to adapt acclimatization programs based what we are planning and what I have learned over the years and it works!
What are the pros of your job?
Being able to go outside and simply run around in the mountains with people is tough to beat–it’s really hard to have a bad day at work.
One of my favorite parts of my job is actually creating these trips. In most of the outdoor guiding industry, there are trips that are proven to sell based on client demand. Mountaineers are always going to want to climb Mt. Rainier, trekkers want to see Machu Picchu, and rafting the Grand Canyon is a guaranteed sell. There are a small handful of trail-running companies similar to mine out there that have latched onto these popular trekking destinations, for good reason.
As a whole, however, the adventure trail-running industry is a fairly new thing, which gives me a lot of freedom to create unique trips to interesting places that might not be on people’s radar. I have spent a good part of my life traveling the world for climbing and exploring many of the lesser-visited areas of the big mountain ranges. I really love being able to offer these new ideas and not just offer something guaranteed to sell. It gives participants, and myself, a true sense of exploration and will no doubt send everyone home with an unforgettable experience.
What are the cons?
Administrative stuff: paperwork, website, emailing, and taxes. There is really no way around this stuff if you are running a business. But I love having a job where I have a hard time thinking of cons.
Photos courtesy Jared Vilhauer and Amber King