We are in Bhutan October 2019 to hike what has been described by many, including the Cicerone Bhutan Trekkers Guide as "one of the most difficult and beautiful of the whole Himalayas’ - The Lunana Snowman Trek. There is no set definition of a challenging trek, it is quite subjective and depends on factors such as length, weather issues, altitude, food, logistics, physical and mental demands, remoteness and technical considerations. These are a few but by no means all points to consider when thinking about how difficult the Snowman Trek is.
There are variations of the Snowman, but the full trek starts in Paro and ends in Bumthang, crossing 14 high altitude passes with close to 15,000 metres of ascent over 28 days and almost 300km. It seems a daunting prospect and many groups who undertake it are unsuccessful.
Before arriving in Bhutan, it is necessary to consider the first challenge - the weather window for trekking is small. The length and nature of this trek means that timing is paramount and it’s successful completion is very much dependent on good weather. In Autumn, if one leaves too early, the rains are likely to pour, the rivers flood and trails turn to mud. If one leaves to late the snows will have fallen and the passes closed for the winter. Add to this the changing weather patterns throughout the world causing greater unpredictability where certainty used to reign, presents a real challenge with regards to choosing the best dates. Luckily The Mountain Company has successfully run this trek 11 times and therefore has a lot of experience selecting the right dates.
Landing in Paro - Bhutan's only international airport, is exciting in itself. Considered one of the worlds most challenging, only 17 pilots are qualified to land there. The runway is out of sight to the pilot until the very last minute, and the approach requires sinuous maneuvering between mountaintains with towering peaks up to 5,500m. If the views aren’t enough for you, the final 45° angle and swift descent onto the runway should do it. No wonder they don’t fly at night or when the weather is bad.
New roads in many countries are changing and often shortening the nature of trekking and although new roads are slowly creeping north in Bhutan, they have not yet cut into the remote environment of this trek. It is however possible to start the trek from Shana on a road which will in the future creap further up this first valley of the trek. However, at present it is a 2 day walk to Chomolhari Base Camp at 4000m which is a rapid ascent to this altitude and if not fully prepared it can result in serious issues of altitude sickness.
As safety was the prime concern for our group on this trek, we didn’t disembark the plane on arrival in Bhutan and walk the next day. Instead we spent a day at the infamous Tiger's Nest monastery which gave us the opportunity to stretch out legs and walk to an altitude of just over 3000m. After that we drove over the Chele La (3780m) to the Haa valley where we spent 2 nights. On our day in Haa we walked at around 3000m visiting monasteries and adjusting our bodies to the thinner air. These extra days also allowed the group - from Australia, USA, New Zealand, UK and Hong Kong, to shake off their jet lag and become a team working on the same time zone.
Having allowed time to acclimatise the team avoided any altitude issues and after a day acclimatising further at Chomolhari Base Camp made their way over to the settlement of Laya. This walk takes 6 days and crosses 4 passes between 4,400m-5,000m in altitude.
We are now 10 days into the trek. Plenty of time to get into the daily routine of camp life. Routine is a key feature of these long treks and meals tend to punctuate this routine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner happen at similar times each day and are served in the mess tent (except lunch on the move). Packing and unpacking the tent each day become a rhythm of life which we either take gentle solace in or we struggle through. And the walking becomes the meaning of life. We walk, we dream, we admire the views. We slowly make our way up towards the passes or down the other side. The contrast between the passes and valleys provide the diversity in trails, awe inspiring views, and enough challenge to tire our bodies and put us to sleep at night.
The advantages of trekking in Bhutan are many. Getting away from the tour groups visiting the same places in buses; getting to know the crew and guides and finding out about the home and families; obtaining a greater insight into the Bhutanese way of life at remote villages. Laya is a beautiful small town and the largest settlement we come across on the trek. It is inhabited by the indigenous Layaps who wear a distinctive conical bamboo hat balanced on the top of their heads, held in place with decoration around the nape of their neck. This rest day is a much needed day of relaxation, showering, washing clothes and shopping for goods (in one of the 3 hole-in-the-wall shops in town).
The day in Laya is essential for logistical purposes as it’s our last chance to resupply stores, which then need sorting and organising by the crew. Good nutrition on a trek this long and remote can be complex to organise with protein and fresh good hard to come by. Luckily we brought dehydrated chicken from the UK and vegetables dehydrated locally for when the fresh good run out.
Laya is also a good place to change pack animals for fresh ones. One of the reasons for the low success rate of the trek by some is due to these logistical challenges especially with pack animals, specifically yaks as these are used to collect the famous yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus. At this time of year they are also used for shopping trips for the villagers to stock up for winter supplies. Mules are far more common these days but must be well cared for on the trail. For these reasons, planning and reserving the change of pack animals advance is essential to the success of any trek.
Laya is strategically important as it is the best location to exit the trek, being where the Half Snowman known as Laya Gasa trek heads south and finishes, which for many is the end of a demanding and rewarding trek in itself. If you have comfortably adapted to the journey and are not facing physical or mental challenges of your own, the thought of a car, shower, bed, internet, just a days walk away will not make you waver from your objective. However the temptation of reaching civilisation can be too great for some and this is a common exit point.
For those that choose to continue the full Snowman, the trail heads East, hopefully leaving behind the last of the monsoon and walking towards the clearer but cooler skies of winter. The monsoon not only brings the rains but shrouds the mountain views in cloud adding a supplemental challenge to the long hard passes.
The pass into Lunana, at a height of 5240m isn’t far away and affords breathtaking views in every direction. The remoteness of the region makes one stop and think. The exit passes are blocked by snow for months on end through the winter and the villages stock up on essential supplies in the Autumn so that they can survive the long period of enforced isolation. Although traditionally, these shopping trips use yaks or mules to transport the supplies, some of those locally with more resources have in recent years begun to use a helicopter service. This has been made possible thanks to the profitable business of collecting yartsa gumbu.
Stepping in to this remote area where there is no phone signal and the only exit is over multiple high passes, the next challenge presents itself. What happens if something goes wrong? How do you react in an emergency? Up until 4 years ago there were no helicopters stationed in Bhutan and any rescues relied on Indian Army flying in from Bagdogra in India. This was time consuming and unreliable so Snowman had even more of an out there feeling compared to Nepal where there are many commercial heli operators. Now Bhutan reassuringly has two helicopters for emergency evacuations.
These combined with a satellite phone which is essential for any remote trek like Snowman, can help in an emergency situation and the only way to make contact with the helicopter service. It is worth remembering however that helicopters can’t fly in cloudy or bad weather and they can only land in certain locations. In Bhutan they don’t take off from Paro after 3pm. Even with a functioning satellite phone and helicopters on standby, it might still take a while before an evacuation can be affected.
Trekking for this long can have a strange effect on you. Two weeks into the trek my mind turned towards the goal of the end. However, it was so far out of sight that I had lost track of the time and had to count the days left. Knowing that we had been away for so long but the end was not yet in sight can be daunting for some, but knowing you have a supportive team with you makes all the difference.
Having trekked through Lunana and over the exit pass we might be fooled into thinking the hardest part is behind us. However the crux pass of the Saga La is one of a 3 pass day. The steep ascent on a trailess slope takes us up to the Phorang La, visible from the previous camp. From there the we traverse and climb until we can see the Saga La. If the conditions are not favourable, the pack animals will struggle to get over the pass and a retreat will be necessary. Finally, a small and easy pass takes us to our camp. All in all, if the stars align this is a challenging but rewarding day with changing views as we progress south. Given some of the challenges with trail junctions, river crossings, disappearing paths and false passes it is essential to find guides with experience and knowledge of the trail. Luckily our guide Dorji has led the trek 10 times and is one of the most experienced around.
The end is in sight and a pleasant relax in the hot springs at Dur Tsachu revives everyone before the final big pass day and descent to the road. From the hot springs it is just 3 days back to civilisation and the comforts we have been dreaming of.
Having trekked extensively in Pakistan and the Nepal Himalaya I can confirm that the Lunana Snowman is it certainly one of the most difficult treks in the himalayas, however I would not consider it THE most difficult. There are two other treks which come to mind as equally difficult. Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT in Nepal crossing the Lumba Sumba is technically similar to the Snowman but more remote and longer. Makalu to Everest GHT in Nepal is also a very challenging trek crossing the Sherpani Col and Aphu Lapsa which are more technical and at a higher altitude. The common theme of all three of these treks is that they are part of the Great Himalaya Trail - a trail planned to pass through India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. The continuous trail is still a concept but much of the individual sections a reality. If this is ever realised it really will be the most difficult trek in the world.
So is it worth it? On clear days, the crisp ground and the vibrant blue skies reveal snow capped mountains and breathtaking views into the far distance. The waterfalls cascade through the ravines as we descend from the passes into rivers which snake through each and every valley. The altitude of the treeline changes in each area and the forests glow with autumn colours. The villages are remote and authentic, unchanged for centuries, beautifully decorated and full of life. Schools are welcoming to visitors and people are friendly. And finally, if that isn’t enough the reward of knowing that you have had the mental and physical strength to complete the trek - whether the hardest or not - should do it. Just make sure you go with a company who can organise the parts you can’t control.
Jo Clark | Trek leader and Operations Manager 2018 to 2019
The Mountain Company