Undertaken by only a handful of adventurers each season, this high-altitude journey is among the toughest hikes in the Himalayas, if not the world—a grueling four-week traverse that takes in more than a dozen mountain passes and some of the most inaccessible settlements on earth. The challenges are considerable, but even greater are the rewards.
Photographs by Frédéric Lagrange
We had just gulped down the last of the porridge at our camp on a stony alpine meadow called Robulathang when Tshering Ngoedup, our sirdar (crew leader), burst into the mess tent and instructed us to clear out. A helicopter was expected to arrive soon and he was worried it would spook our pack yaks—the animals could break their tethers and bolt in any direction, with zero consideration for obstacles such as tents. Much better to face down a panicked yak on open ground, Tshering advised.
Emerging into the chilly morning air on day nine of our trek in the Bhutanese Himalayas, we spotted three figures huddled around a fire on the far side of the meadow. Two were yak handlers; the third was a middle-aged American they had been accompanying as part of a smaller trekking group that set out the day before us. The American had turned back because of severe chest pains, requesting an emergency evacuation via satellite phone. Tshering reckoned he was suffering from acute mountain sickness. It was a common enough illness at these heights.
This encounter was a sober reminder of the difficulties of the hike we were undertaking. Spanning an exceptionally isolated area of northwestern Bhutan along the border with Tibet, the Snowman Trek covers about 360 kilometers at an average elevation of 4,500 meters, where the air contains roughly 60 percent of the oxygen at sea level. It takes anywhere from 24 to 28 days to complete, assuming you complete it at all: this is arguably the most demanding trek in the world, with a high failure rate due to unforgiving terrain, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. Only a handful of trekkers take up the challenge each season, which generally runs through October, after the monsoon rains of summer and before the snow-blocked passes of winter. It is said that far less people have completed the Snowman Trek than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
But as our group—seven hikers supported by three guides, three cooks, three yak handlers, and a pair of Sherpas—stood on a ridge watching the rescue helicopter take off on its journey back to the hospital in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, I was also keenly aware that, despite the trek’s hardships and risks, the rewards are substantial. The route traverses some of the remotest and most beautiful alpine scenery on the planet; a pristine wilderness that very few foreigners, and indeed Bhutanese, have ever visited. Once you cross the threshold of that first high mountain pass, you enter an almost mythical domain that leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped into Narnia.
Chomolhari, at 7,326 meters, is Bhutan’s second-highest peak, and deeply venerated; its name means “mountain of the goddess.” The base camp on its flanks represented a major milestone for us since the trek began in Shana, a village at the entrance to Jigme Dorje National Park in the Upper Paro Valley. The two hard days of trekking that brought us here would prove to be among the most punishing on the entire route, a march of 39 kilometers that saw us gain more than 1,300 meters in altitude, exceeding the recommended acclimatization rate. A rather tough introduction.
On the bright side, most of this section of the Snowman Trek traverses a veritable wonderland of pines and conifers, all draped in bright green lichens and dark, moist mosses. The trail is perforated by crashing rivers of ice-blue Himalayan meltwater that we crossed on wooden cantilever bridges; one junction leads to the Tremo La pass into Tibet, a route employed in centuries past by trading caravans and invading Tibetan armies.
Leaving the forest behind, we entered a widening valley. Rows of vertical white prayer flags topped with juniper sprigs fluttered in the breeze, and blue sheep grazed along the rocky slopes. At a settlement called Soe, we paused at the village school, a newish stone building financed by the nonprofit Bhutan Foundation. SCHOOL AMONG SNOW LEOPARDS declared a wooden sign above the entrance. Tshering explained that the area was indeed home to a few snow leopards, as well as several other endangered species such as musk deer, takin, Asiatic wild dog, and sambar. Considerably less elusive were the schoolchildren, eight in all, who were breathlessly eager to practice their English skills.
The Chomolhari base camp was an hour’s walk away. Here, I initiated two nocturnal routines that would last for the rest of the trek: waking in the middle of the night to gaze at the unbelievably starry skies; and rising early to witness the dawn paint some of the most sublime peaks on earth. These are moments I’ll never forget.
Day five began with the usual “bed tea,” delivered promptly to our tents at 6:30 a.m. On this morning, the caffeine boost was particularly welcome, as we’d be hiking up to the first of 14 high mountain passes, Nyele La, which lies at 4,900 meters. The climb also provided a powerful lesson in how quickly the weather up here can change. After packing up camp, we set off under magnificent azure skies that framed the pyramid-shaped peak of Jichu Drake. The morning light fell on swatches of wildflowers, none prettier than the deep-blue Himalayan gentian, whose root has traditionally been used in herbal medicine. Yet before we reached the pass, gray clouds had closed in. A shower of light hailstones left everyone scrambling to get into their waterproofs.
And then it was down, down, down. We quickly learned to take great care around the gear-laden yaks, which were clumsy and unstoppable once they gained downward momentum on the slopes. As we skirted the edge of a glacier-flanked valley, we glimpsed Lingzhi Dzong perched on the top of a hill. Originally built in 1668 to commemorate the victory over a Tibetan invasion, the fortress-monastery was once one of northern Bhutan’s principal citadels. Following a 2011 earthquake, it’s now a picturesque ruin.
Two days and several mountain passes later, we reached yet another milestone: Laya, the highest and most remote permanent settlement in the kingdom. Sprawled across a hillside in the shadow of Mount Masagang, the village is inhabited by a highland minority called the Layap, who speak a Tibeto-Burman language and whose women dress in yak-wool clothing and pointy bamboo hats. Every summer, they harvest cordyceps, a parasitic fungus prized by Chinese medicine for its restorative and “invigorating” properties. Himalayan Viagra, they call it. It’s a lucrative business.
After refreshing ourselves with shandies made from local Druk Lager and fizzy lemonade at a shop marked GENERAL STORE CUM BAR (a common signboard across Bhutan), we were just in time to watch schoolchildren rehearsing for the Royal Highlander Festival, a pageant of highland culture featuring two days of traditional dances, horse racing, and the like. With the prospect of Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, attending, there was a palpable excitement in the air.
During our rest day in Laya, Tshering managed to exchange our misbehaving yaks (they had wandered off two nights earlier and taken several hours to find) for a team of 28 ponies and mules. This was not without its risks. The equines would be easier to manage than the yaks, though they would not be as robust should the weather turn ugly.
We ascended to the Gangla Karchung La pass two days later and entered the Lunana Plateau, an otherworldly wilderness of towering peaks and glacial lakes in assorted shades of turquoise. It was an extended lunch that day, all of us captivated by the jaw-dropping panorama.
Crossing the plateau, we encountered nomadic yak herders bringing their animals down from the high pastures for winter. They generously offered us butter tea and yak cheese. In the village of Chozo, we visited a crumbling, centuries-old dzong, conspicuously the only such fortress across the vastness of the Lunana. The caretaker monk told us how the king had recently visited and arranged for the replacement of the dzong’s gilded statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, and Zhabdrung, Bhutan’s principal deities. A helicopter—perhaps another medical evacuation?—whirred by overhead, disturbing the serene atmosphere as we relaxed in the inner courtyard.
We made our highest camp at an altitude of 5,200 meters on the shores of Tsho Rim, a shimmering glacial lake framed by jagged white peaks. The temperatures that night plummeted to well below zero. Woken by the severe cold, I was shocked to find a layer of frost inside my tent.
The literal high point of the entire journey came on day 19 when we crossed the Gopha La pass at 5,464 meters. The air was thin but as pure and rarefied as any I have breathed. We paused to acknowledge the prayer flags that flapped in the breeze before beginning the descent through moraines and boulders to the valley floor, where a four-hour walk brought us to our campsite for the night.
The next morning, after traversing the col of Sake La, we veered off the traditional Snowman path to become the first commercial group on a stunning new exit route through the Lunana Mountains. According to Tshering, the trail had previously only been used by yak herders and Tibetan traders. The next five days would see us pass through cliff-girded valleys and summer pastureland and aromatic woodland, before finally emerging at Sephu village, where an asphalt road signaled the end of our four-week trek. But an equal triumph came the day before when we emerged from Chachi La, our final high pass, to crystal-clear views of Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain on earth. In unison we yelled out “Lha gyal lo!”, a Bhutanese prayer meaning “victory to the gods.” Our voices boomed across the mountaintops, echoing jubilantly in the otherwise still wilderness.
The combination of altitude, remoteness, distance, and weather makes the Snowman Trek a tough and expensive journey. The trekking window generally lasts from late September through October—after the monsoon rains of summer, but before snow blocks the high mountain passes. There are a handful of operators to choose from; the writer traveled with UK-based Mountain Kingdoms, which will offer a 34-day itinerary next season (ex Kathmandu) starting from about US$9,360 per person.
This article originally appeared in the April/July 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Going to Extremes”).