SNOWMAN TREK – 27 days
This is our most challenging trek in Bhutan and one of the finest in our Himalayan program. It is undertaken by only a handful of trekkers each season and accesses Lunana, the most remote region of Bhutan. The trek crosses eleven high passes over 4,500m that define the borders of Bhutan and Tibet. Savouring views of Chomolhari and Jichu Drake, we follow trails through yak herders encampments and isolated farming settlements as we prepare for our trek to Lunana. Amid a constant backdrop of 7000m peaks we discover a region of tiny Buddhist monasteries and secluded villages that are isolated from the rest of Bhutan for many months of the year.
This trek can be categorized as difficult and challenging.
After clearing customs and immigration you will meet our Bhutanese representative and drive a short distance via the main street of Paro to your hotel. At some stage we have planned visits to the main part of town, and a visit to the National Museum. It will depend on our time of arrival into Paro, and when trek preparations are completed.
A really exciting and informative day as an introduction to this wonderful country (described in part above). The Paro valley is truly beautiful, being a location for various farming activities, including commercial quantities of asparagus, strawberries and shitake mushrooms for export, plus various grain and vegetable crops. It is a patchwork of colours delineated by well kept traditional design farm houses that are ornately decorated. All of the slopes surrounding the valley are forested and the hint of mountains beyond is alluring. Simply driving through the willow lined streets is relaxing and uplifting – there is no clutter of people, or traffic. Our morning is spent exploring and appreciating the Tigers Nest Monastery or Taktsang, as it is known in Bhutan, a short drive from our resort. It takes us about one and a half hours to walk up the winding trail steeply through chir pine forest to a tea house and excellent vantage point. Another half hour walk takes us almost directly opposite the cliffs where the monastery is set. The monastery is the divine resting place of the Guru Rinpoche, and although it was once accidentally burnt down, reconstruction is now finished, and the monastery restored. We return back to our resort for lunch and then some touring in the afternoon. *In September 2011 a large earthquake in the area caused damage to the National Museum in Paro. Due to this damage the Museum has been closed in the interests of public safety. A re-opening date is not yet known, if at the time of your tour the museum has not re-opened alternate sightseeing will be arranged.
Distance 16kms, approximately 5-6 hours trek. It is a short drive of approx 15 minutes up the Paro valley to the roadhead at Drukyel Dzong where our trek commences. Drukyel Dzong was originally built as a fortress in 1647 to guard against Tibetans invading the Paro Valley, although it was destroyed by fire in 1951. We also gain our first views of the summit of Chomolhari (7314m) at the head of the valley, while horseman organise their loads. We get under way straight away and take a break for lunch where it suits us, as we are carrying a packed lunch. For the first few days of our trek the weather can be very hot and humid, please make sure you carry enough water – minimum 3 litres, and suitable clothing. Initially the trail is wide and flat, passing through farm country made up of fields of rice, wheat, barley, mustard, potato, and radish as well as herds of cows. The traditional Bhutanese two storey, timber and stone houses form photogenic scenery for the beginning of our trek. It is a reasonable day’s walk today, our first day’s trek, taking us past a couple of settlements including a military post where our permits will be checked. Our camp at Shana is in a grassy clearing among a forest of tall pines beside the river.
Distance 21 kms, approximately 7-8 hours. We are now trekking within Jigme Dorje National Park, the largest protected area in the country (4350 sq kms.) which extends beyond Laya to Lunana in the east and all the territory to the south. Whilst it is a protected wilderness, the park management which is based at Gasa, has to cope with the needs of lowland farmers and semi-nomadic yak herders. There is an amazing variety of species of plants and animals in the park at both high and low altitudes. The forests are tall and thick, comprising a variety of oaks, maple, birch, larch pine and allders that will be replaced by more and more rhododendron and pines as we trek higher. There are numerous different varieties of the former, and depending on the onset of warmer temperatures after winter, flowers will be in bloom, or past bloom, as the lower altitudes flower earliest. As we climb higher the rhododendron species change from the common rhododendron arboreum (Nepal’s national flower) to griffithianum and cinnabarinum. Our camp site is close by the river.
Distance about 4 kms, approximately 45 minutes. Today is a short day to benefit acclimatization to the higher altitudes. We make a short walk to Soi Thangthangkha through the forest. Many of the camps we stop at are not settlements as might be implied by them having a place name. Most are merely clearings beside a water source that is suitable for seasonal yak herders. On this rest day there is the option of a side walk to Soi Yaksa village, which is approximately a 6 hour return trip. Activities this day will depend on the groups acclimatisation and some members may prefer to rest in camp.
Distance 17kms, approximately 6-7 hour. We continue higher to the camp at the base of Chomolhari, a superb alpine setting. Jichu Drake (6794m) rises to our right, with a fine, elegant ridge running down toward the pass that we will cross on our next trekking day. We camp in the vicinity of yak herders from the Paro Valley, who, like their counterparts in Southern Tibet, live in woven yak wool tents throughout the summer months. By now we are above the treeline and the area is characterised by low tundra of juniper and rhododendron setosum, while blue sheep have also been spotted in the higher rocky outcrops.
A reserve day for acclimatization. A side trip up the small valley towards Chomolhari takes us to a dramatic viewpoint and onto the glacier beneath. Alternatively we may make a scenic excursion up to Tshophu lake set adjacent to Nyile La pass, both will be worthy photo excursions. As far as mountaineering is concerned, these two peaks, like the rest of Bhutan, have seen little expedition activity from outsiders.
Distance 21kms, approximately 6-7 hours. From camp we commence our ascent over rolling slopes of grassland and small brush to the Nyile La (4850 metres). This stage is not unduly demanding and if this is your first Himalayan pass just take your time, particularly on the final steeper stages just below the pass, where grasses give way to scree and sand. The views enroute to Jichu Drake will inspire you. From the Nyile La we leave Chomolhari and Jichu Drake behind and make a steep descent through stands of pure rhododendron to the outskirts of Lingshi village. Of particular note is the Lingshi Dzong, built to protect this and the other outlying villages of Bhutan from the periodic raids from Tibet.
Distance 16kms, approximately 6-7 hours. We continue to head northeastward, ascending past the Lingshi Dzong across high alpine pastures dotted with rhododendron and daphne to Chebisa. It is a picturesque valley of pastures and shingle roofed, stone houses. At its head, a short stroll from camp is a tall waterfall cascading from a gap in rocky cliffs with a suspected hanging lake behind. Beneath are stands of very tall, gnarled juniper trees. Above Chebisa are the alpine pastures of the blue sheep (or bharal) that graze to the margins of the snowmelt during the summer months and descend way below the villages during the winter.
Distance 14.5kms, approximately 7-8 hours. From Chebisa the trail gradually ascends to the Gombu La (4450 metres). The views back to Lingshi and the surrounding peaks are spectacular. Here, hill partridges have been sighted, while the lammergeier is seen soaring above the alpine pastures. The descent to our camp beside some yak herder camps at Shomuthang is through a forest of cypress then spruce and birch with large stands of rhododendron – griffithianum and campylocarpum. Iris and edelweiss may also be in flower. Our camp will most likely be beside the river, with soaring mountains at the head of the valley. But we may also hike up the valley an hour to make tomorrow’s hike easier.
Distance 16 kms, approximately 6-7 hours. Our route takes us directly upwards this morning, traversing around many grassy slopes to the Jare La. Blue sheep and lammergeirs can often be seen here. Once at the gap, marked by flags and several cairns we can look expansively across to the adjacent valley and our next pass, the Sinche La. The trail winds down through rhododendron, spruce, cypress and birch towards a broad valley floor where yaks may be seen grazing. This may well be our first encounter with the people of Laya whom differentiate themselves by wearing the distinctive woven conical hats with a spike in the top and colourful beads draped around the back. Their ‘mobile accommodation’ as with all high altitude animal herders in this part of the world, is in heavy woven tents, usually made from yak wool. We trek several hundred metres in height up the opposite side of the valley to our camp in a hollow at Robluthang.
Distance 14kms, approximately 7-8 hours. It will take us approximately four hours to make our ascent of Sinche La. A slow steady pace is essential to gain it comfortably and make the long descent on the other side. At the pass itself there are glimpses of peaks to our left including Gangchenta. Descending, through boulders and grassy slopes, unparalleled views open out before us. Glacial blue lakes and white ribbon streams are set beneath the dramatic peaks of the ‘Tigers Ears’ Gangchenta. Further down, classic glacial erosion is at work, with fresh lateral and terminal moraine filling the valley floor along with an enormous milky grey lake. The forests are thick here, and our lovely riverside camp is surrounded by very tall conifers and the Tigers Ears as our backdrop.
Distance 13kms, approximately 4 hours. This morning we walk directly away from the mountain environment before us, descending the Zamdo Nangi Chhu valley to Laya, the largest village of the trek. The forests are thick for the several hours; and the trail winds down beside the river steeply, until we reach pastures of the farmers of outer Laya. A swing in the trail brings us up to the main settlement which is spread out over a broad spur several hundred metres above the Mo Chu River. There are approximately 1,000 inhabitants in this high set village, and there is a school, Basic Health Unit, several small shops and a gompa (temple) to meet their needs. Life is not easy in this cooler, isolated location that is snowed in during winter. Much of their living is reliant on yaks (meat, wool and dried cheese), and one annual crop of barley, mustard and turnips. Beneath the village is an army post protecting the frontier with tibet, whilst above us to the east are spectacular views ahead to Masang Gang (7194m) and toward the region of Lunana where we will trek for the next 12 days. Prevailing snow conditions will be influential to our journey, as Lunana gets snowed-in at cold times of the year, and your guides will do their best to achieve our trip program without compromising safety. Furthermore, with good luck, we will be able to synchronise our change of animal porterage some time soon after our arrival and we can head off on the trail the next morning.
Some time to relax is most welcome after the exertions of the past few days. After a leisurely start to the day, we will enjoy some additional visiting time in Laya, threshing wheat with the ladies, visiting the school or perhaps enjoying a soda in one of the small shops. Depending on logistics, we will either spend another night in Laya or descend down the forested spur out of the village to the Mo Chuu River and camp at an army post that guards the frontier with Tibet.
Distance 14kms, approximately 7-8 hours. We start hiking early, as today is one of the toughest days of the trek with a lot of steep uphill. After leaving the Army Camp and crossing the river we begin our ascent towards Lunana and the most remote stages of our trek. It will take us more than three days to reach the first settlement of Lunana, Woche. The forest is luxuriant and the steep trail winds up among tall trunks and root buttresses. As we climb higher we walk among pines, oaks and rhododendron, emerging finally to a broad river valley of alpine pastures. The valley is surrounded by steep slopes and rocky crags and being at higher elevations now, our evening camps will be cooler.
Distance 11kms, approximately 6-7 hours. We need to cross the river this morning and ascend the slope of dwarf rhododendron directly opposite, and once this is achieved, trek on through another small valley of alpine pastures to a small pass; Tsemo La (4905m). We descend and traverse around some slopes to be rewarded with a line of snowy peaks; with Gangla Karchung (6395m) the highest. Our camp is on grassy slopes, surrounded by glaciers, moraines and a few small alpine lakes.
Distance 17kms, approximately 7-8 hours. Today’s magnificent hike will take us into the pristine and remote Lunana District. It takes us about one and a half hours to reach our pass at the head of the valley and then we have a very long descent of approx 1200 metres to the valley of the Tang Chuu. At the pass, the Karakachu La (5020m), the peaks of Jejekangphu Gang (7300m) and Tsenda Kang (7100m) can be seen on to our left. These dramatic peaks feed the lakes, hanging glaciers and river system before us. We drop down through lateral moraine and then forests of rhododendron to the valley floor where we walk a further 2 to 3 hours to our camp set in a clearing downstream.
Distance 15kms, approximately 8-9 hours. Following the river, we descend the valley to see the impact of a number of large landslides. They have taken out tracts of forests and left an enormous pile of rubble in its wake. We climb over a ridge to the village of Woche at 3940m, the first village of Lunana. We may see families all helping to thresh their crops of wheat or buckwheat in the fields with traditional rotating sticks. Continuing on, we cross the river and make our way up through dwarf rhododendron towards the pass. There is time to relax and enjoy the views across the cirque like valley that we have just passed through. We camp just below the pass in a clearing beside the lake, overlooking a stunning valley. Each day of trekking in this remote wilderness region of Bhutan should be savored as no two days are the same.
Distance 17kms, approximately 8-9 hours. Having made most of our ascent yesterday, we only have approx 200 metres to trek to the gap of the Keche La (4670m). There is time to relax and enjoy the views across the cirque like valley that we have just passed through. Turning towards our destination, we see distant unnamed peaks but have to descend continually to Thega village and the river of the Pho Chuu, one of the principal rivers of Lunana. The temperatures are warm here and we trek leisurely beside the river and sometimes in the river bed, past the small village of Lhedi and on to Chozo. In recent times there has been a washout of the valley by the bursting of a large glacial lake near Thanza. This means finishing the day with a strenuous walk across the side moraine to reach Chozo so make sure to carry some snacks to support this extra, end-of-the-day effort. Arriving there, we forget all about the hard work. Our camp by the river offers 360 degrees of incredible views. Both Chozo and Thanza are considered the two main villages of Lunana, both are set before a spectacular array of mountains; the most dominating is Table Mountain (7100m) that has an expansive summit that seems to stretch for kilometres! We aim to have a rest day here in Chozo, to enjoy the location and prepare ourselves for the challenging traverse ahead over three major passes out of the Lunana region. Yaks need to be changed and this can present delays if the local people are not in residence.
Time to do washing, relax, or perhaps go for a walk up the moraine to the glacier near Table Mountain and Thanza. There is a small hillock behind the village which offers glimpses of the neighbour of Table Mountain, Kangphu Gang (7212m). You can also snap pictures of Chozo Dzong but, according to legend, the dzong is haunted and you should not make loud noises, go inside or step foot in its courtyard!
Distance 18kms, approximately 8-9 hours. The trekking ahead for two days can be challenging through region where the weather can change easily, from sun to sleet and snowstorms, and we should be well equipped for any conditions. Crossing the river first thing, we commence our steep ascent of a long rolling slope and narrow valley of dwarf rhododendron to the Sintia La at 5200m. It will take us around four hours but the views back towards Lunana are spectacular. The pass is more a passage than a gap, which is long and sustained, almost like a lunar landscape with expanses of rocks and flats that are scattered with small glacial lakes and enclosed by a dazzling array of peaks. Stay close to your guides and trekking mates, as fog can quickly roll in and make visibility quite difficult. Camp is set on a barren plateau where blue sheep or ibex may be seen. Past trekking parties have reported seeing a family of snow leopards here. We do not go to Tshochena via Thanza due to time constraints.
The distance will be approximately 5-6 hours. The trail undulates between snow-capped peaks and crosses the Loju La (5145m). Winding around several ridges, more expansive views open out before us including distant views to our most major pass of the trek, the Rinchen Zoe La (5320m). Few, if any, of these peaks have been climbed, making our panorama all the more special. We camp in a little patch of grassy tundra, wedged between expansive rocks and trickling streams.
Distance approximately 8-9 hours. Leaving our yak herder camp below the pass, we walk through a lunar landscape of rocks, lakes of incredible green hues, glaciers and snowy summits. Today we cross our highest pass, the Rinchen Zoe La (5326m) before crossing a plateau reminiscent of the Tibetan Plateau and descending to our camp set beside the river in a forest clearing. It will take us several hours to gain the pass, and in the final approach the views are unmatched. Vast glaciers run down from a series of snowy mountains into two major glacial blue lakes that have a scattering of small ‘icebergs’ across them. At the gap we take time to take photos and appreciate our achievement, then continue on to our camp. The hike to the camp involves a steep descent beside a moraine and some rock-hopping next to the river where we find our camp.
Distance approximately 6-7 hours. After crossing the river we follow the main valley, entering the forest and warmer temperatures. The scenery is pretty, both immediately around us and to the snowy peaks in the distance down valley. The trail weaves in and out of boulders in and at the side of the river, and then enters thick tall forest of pines, rhododendron, birch and maple. It is soft underfoot; mosses and mud reflect the damp conditions now. A solid day of trekking brings us to a camp just beneath our last pass. We wind up through the forest following a narrow valley to a hanging lake or tarn, this climb is quite sustained and we gain considerable altitude however we are rewarded with a beautiful setting for our last mountain camp.
Distance approximately 7-8 hours. It takes us under an hour to reach the Tempe La (4665m), our last pass of the trek. From here the trek is all downhill to camp. Initially it is quite steep, winding down and past the large turquoise lake of Om Tsho, and then traversing back and forth across cliffs to the valley floor. From now on to Marothang we follow the Nikka Chhu river through rhododendron and pine forest, and yak pastures along fairly level terrain. At Marothang we encounter the first shop since Laya, a lovely little wooden house beside the river. If we are using yaks we will change to horses for the last day’s trek tomorrow.
Distance approximately 5-6 hours from Marothang to Nikka Chhu and about 6 hours drive to Thimphu. The trail follows the Nikka Chhu through thick, lush forest that is cool and pleasant. We emerge into bamboo thickets and patchwork hillsides of crops and houses of the Sephu district. It takes us a little longer than we think to finally descend to the roadhead and a small collection of shops at Nikka Chhu itself. Our transport meets us here and we drive on approx three to four hours to our overnight accommodation in Thimphu. Time permits, we will explore the main street, handcrafts emporium and so on before a final group dinner.
It is approximately 1.5 hours drive to Paro where you will be transferred to the airport for onward arrangements.