Trip report for Lunana Snowman in October 2022

Written by Roland Hunter FRGS (Mt Everest and Mt Makalu summitter)
Written by Roland Hunter FRGS (Mt Everest and Mt Makalu summitter)Managing Director & Founder, The Mountain Company

This is our twelfth Complete Lunana Snowman in Bhutan since the first trek in 2008. We were very fortunate to be able to run our Snowman this year. Bhutan only made an announcement in early July about their reopening plans post-Covid. The country opened to tourists on September 23rd and our group arrived in Paro on 26th. 

As mentioned in our July e-newsletter, Bhutan has significantly increased the Bhutan visa fee. This is known as the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) and it increased from a pre-Covid amount of US$65 per person per day to US$200. But the good news is that we received approval on August 8th to run our Snowman 2022 group at the lower SDF. So, we only had six weeks to organise our planning and logistics for Snowman 2022. Usually, we have over nine months after Snowman is a confirmed departure so it was a busy time getting ready!

You can read our thoughts about the higher SDF in our article. Why Bhutan’s Increase In Their Daily Visa Fee Promotes Unsustainable and Not-So-Happy Tourism.

We had ten trekkers signed up for our Lunana Snowman 2022 group coming from the UK, Australia, the USA, and Canada. Our international leader was Natalie Wilson. She worked with our regular Bhutanese guide, Tshering Dorji. The assistant guides were Tashi and Jazto. We also had our regular cook on board, Tandin Sonam.

Natalie sums up her experience leading this group:

“The trip went really well, with the whole itinerary achieved. We enjoyed our sightseeing and acclimatisation walks at the stunning Tiger’s Nest and around the Haa Valley.

Things started off wet, murky, and muddy at Shana but cleared up nicely by the time we reached Chomolhari Base Camp, giving us great views of snowy peaks. A few days of rain led to some challenging conditions on the trail, it was slippery and muddy and there was a sprinkling of snow higher up. From the Shinge La onwards we had some excellent weather and saw vultures, blue sheep, big views, nomad huts, and lots of yaks. A rest day at Laya gave us chance to have a bucket shower, do some laundry, and enjoy a little rest and relaxation before the next stretch. We also said goodbye to our 30+ horses and 3 horsemen and met our next horse team - 4 local horsemen and 42 horses who would take our kit and food supplies all the way to the end.

The trail was still muddy but spirits had lifted and we continued to Rodophu and on to Narathang. Here we met organisers of the Snowman Race and learned that 29 competitors were intending to run the route in just 4 or 5 days. It snowed overnight at Narathang and we had tantalising glimpses of the mountains surrounding us. After a couple of days, the weather cleared again and everyone enjoyed the endless views from each and every pass. We saw snow leopard footprints in the snow one day and more herds of blue sheep. By the time we reached the hot springs everyone, including the crew was ready for a soothing soak and clean!

The food on the trek was excellent, with our cook accommodating dietary requirements easily and really going the extra mile. All the dining, kitchen, and camping crew were outstanding, always taking pride in their work and ensuring things were done properly. Our local guides were so knowledgeable and helpful and good company too.”

As Natalie explains above her group made the full traverse from Paro to Bumthang. The Mountain Company has a 100% record of running twelve successful Snowman treks since 2008. Congratulations and well done to the trekkers, trek crew, and leaders, Natalie Wilson, and Tshering Dorji.

It is a bittersweet moment as with the increase in Bhutan visa fee (SDF) this could be our last ever Snowman trek. We are hoping that the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) will reduce the SDF for longer trekking itineraries. Slow trips like trekking are the most sustainable way of travelling. In practice, none of our clients will pay the extra costs for the Snowman at the higher SDF. Many of our trekkers have already booked onto our remote treks in Nepal, Pakistan, and India for 2023.

The timing of Snowman is critical for a successful trek. The weather window in Bhutan is shorter than the 28-day trek. So we start in late September to get out of Lunana before the winter snows block the high passes. In fact, our Snowman 2022 group got over the last pass just in time! A cyclonic system from the Bay of Bengal dumped heavy snow the day after our group got over the last passes. We had been tracking this for the last seven days using satellite images. I had been in touch with Natalie by satellite phone to keep her updated on the weather forecast. We made a decision to forego the rest day at Dur Taschu (hot springs) and outrun the storm!

We tracked this group in the field with GPS check-ins from the Thuraya satellite phone. You can view the Google Maps for Lunana Snowman 2022.

Fingers crossed that we get favourable news soon about a reduction in SDF for trekking itineraries in Bhutan.

Trek on…hopefully in Bhutan too!