Miles for Military: Andy Ellis Treks Across the Salt Flat
Crossing the world’s largest salt flat on foot
Story by Ashley Giordano | Photos by Expedition Rove
When former British paratrooper Andy Ellis decided to walk 50 miles across the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni salt flat, he didn’t imagine doing so while fighting altitude sickness, heat exhaustion, painful blisters on his feet or in temperatures of -12 degrees with windchill. He also didn’t imagine his blood oxygen levels dipping low enough to compromise mission..
All Ellis could think about was disappointing his regiment if he didn’t finish. He just had to crack on, one mile at a time.
“Spanning 10,582 square kilometers across the high plateau of Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It’s a harsh, barren world. At nearly 12,000 feet above sea level (3,656 meters), nights remain cold throughout the year, often dropping below 0 degrees.”
Finding Fulfillment in a Cause
Following his medical discharge from the army, Ellis was determined to make his life just as fulfilling as if he had landed his dream job in the Special Forces. He and partner Mary Hannah Hardcastle had already road-tripped throughout the United States. However, driving from the United States to Argentina seemed like the ultimate adventure. But the couple also wanted the trip to make a difference.
“When former British paratrooper Andy Ellis decided to walk 50 miles across the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni salt flat, he didn’t imagine doing so WHILE fighting altitude sickness, heat exhaustion, painful blisters on his feet or in temperatures of -12 degrees with windchill.”
“I thought, There are other veterans who’ve been discharged from the Army or another service,” says Ellis. “I wanted to show that you can still chase your dreams and make it happen.”
Hardcastle was working for a motorcycle magazine when Ellis tried to convince her to drive the Pan-American Highway with him in a Land Rover LR3.
“It was two solid months of me saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to do it,’” she says. “I was in a good spot in my career and was therefore struggling to break away. I was sitting at my desk, imagining him being on the trip and me still sitting there. It was the ultimate FOMO, so I decided to go.”
Support Our Paras, a veteran-based charity in the United Kingdom, had supported Ellis with his move to the United States, so he wanted to give something back. The couple launched a raffle-based fundraiser whose entries went toward Support Our Paras and U.S.-based foundation Lone Survivor, offering the chance to win a replica prize package of the gear the coupled had packed for their journey to South America.
Twenty days before Ellis’s U.S. visa expired, he and Hardcastle hit the road, bound for Ushuaia, Argentina. Admittedly new to long-term overlanding, they figured the journey would take three to four months.
“We were totally new to this,” Ellis explains. “Ushuaia was 10,000 miles away, and [we figured] we could drive 500 miles a day.”
Several months later, they arrived in Bolivia.
The Unforgiving Salar de Uyuni
Spanning 10,582 square kilometers across the high plateau of Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It’s a harsh, barren world. At nearly 12,000 feet above sea level (3,656 meters), nights remain cold throughout the year, often dropping below 0 degrees. Unforgiving winds put both rooftop and ground tents through their paces, and the reflection of the sun off the white salt surface puts visitors at risk for both sunburn and dehydration.
“Unforgiving winds put both rooftop and ground tents through their paces, and the reflection of the sun off the white salt surface puts visitors at risk for both sunburn and dehydration.”
It was 6:00 a.m. when Ellis set off into the cold darkness, a 40-pound pack strapped to his back. As the sun rose, he trudged through subzero temperatures. A biting wind rushed over ridges of crusted salt. Blisters formed on his feet after 4 miles.
“I set off and thought, I’m struggling to get into this. I was old-fashioned in my mindset and thought altitude sickness was a myth,” he laughs. “I couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm and couldn’t work out why.”
Battling the Altitude
Ellis imagined the trek would take 20 hours. Altitude sickness set in around the seven-mile mark. “I tried to eat so I could get back some energy, but then I’d be sick again.” Next, heat exhaustion took over. “I didn’t even notice at the time, because I was so fixated on the finish line,” he says.
At the 18-mile mark, Hardcastle became concerned.
“He wasn’t making sense anymore. We had a SPOT GPS, and I was messaging my mom, who was talking with people who’d been in the military,” she says.
The couple regularly checked Andy’s blood oxygen levels.
“We either had to call it for the day or find a hospital,” she says.
At that point, Ellis pushed through the final six miles, arriving at the 25-mile mark—halfway across the desolate Salar de Uyuni.
The following day, with a bit of food in his stomach and improved blood oxygen levels, Ellis forged ahead.
Hardcastle drove along in the Land Rover, one mile at a time, while Ellis followed. There were dark stages, he admits, during which he struggled mentally.
“I just thought to myself, If I’m thinking like this and I know this is going to end in two days, this is probably what a lot of veterans out there are thinking, but they could never see an end. That’s why we were doing it.”
At times, the only fluid Ellis could keep down was warm Pedialyte. But, over time, his appetite improved, and when he needed food, Hardcastle would drive two miles ahead to prepare it.
“I made bacon at one point, and he must have smelled it from a mile away. He came up so stoked and said, ‘That’s just what I need!’”
“With his feet wrapped in duct tape, Ellis crossed a finish line marked by the transition of salt to dirt. He had done it.”
With his feet wrapped in duct tape, Ellis crossed a finish line marked by the transition of salt to dirt. He had done it. He had walked 50 miles across the Salar de Uyuni, overcoming altitude sickness, swollen ankles, heat exhaustion and blistered feet.
He and Hardcastle checked in to a local hotel to recover, and the support started pouring in.
“I had loads of messages from guys I really looked up to, such as ‘proper warriors’ in Afghanistan, giving me lots of credit,” Ellis recalls. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Ellis was wide awake at 5:30 the next morning.
His next mission? A 2010 Defender 110 was up for sale in a U.K.-based auction.
“I said, ‘If we win, we’ll go to Africa,’” Hardcastle laughs.
And so, dancing around the hotel room later that day—swollen, sunburnt lips, blistered feet and all—Ellis and Hardcastle celebrated. Two back-to-back victories had never tasted so sweet.
Follow Andy Ellis and Mary Hannah Hardcastle’s journey at expeditionrove.com. To learn more about Support Our Paras and Lone Survivor, visit supportourparas.com and lonesurvivorfoundation.org.