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Trekking Bhutan's Higher Planes
On a 24-day expedition into the sacred heart of the Himalaya, Kira Salak logged some half million steps over 216 miles (328 kilometers)—and that was only half the journey.
Text by Kira Salak
   Photograph by Peter McBride


Photo: Prayer wheel and monastery

HOLY KINGDOM: A Buddhist mani or prayer wheel. Opposite: Bhutan's Taktshang ("tiger's nest") monastery, perched precariously at 10,200 feet (3,109 meters).


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Above all else, you must believe.

Tibetan horns taunted the air—ululating, oboe-like sounds meant to catch the sins of the crowd and send them heavenward. The people around me gaped at the giant spread of embroidered silk as it slowly lowered from the fortress roof, revealing a montage of Tibetan Buddhist deities. Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. Maitreya, the Future Buddha, a Jesus-like savior prophesied to lead humanity from suffering. The thondrol, easily 40 feet (12 meters) high, laboriously hand-stitched, filled the entire end of the courtyard, its silk gleaming before the candlelit dais.

It was a sacred moment never to be repeated. In that single hour on that single day of that single year during the Wangdu Festival, a miracle was supposed to occur. The Bhutanese monks were calling on the most compassionate gods of the universe to take away our anguishes, our regrets and sins, and to purify us. When we died, the Lord of Death's judgment would be kinder. The next lifetime, easier. But only if we believed.

The feeble candlelight barely held back the night. I stood closer to the thondrol, the horns shrilling more earnestly.

I thought of why I'd come to Bhutan—the real reason, the reason
I'd told no one about. I tried to clear my mind of all doubt and, like the rest of the crowd, made a wish. We waited. And watched. As the rising sun sent its first rays over the mountains, striking the top of the thondrol, the sounds of the horns stopped abruptly, almost belligerently.

"[E]xamine carefully whatever terrifies you," came a line to me from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of Buddhism's most sacred texts, "and see the voidness."

In the silence and heady stillness, the dawn calmly asserted itself. The sacred moment had passed.

***

I wandered through the dark streets of Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. It was the middle of the night and I was lost, but it was of no consequence. I had thousands of dollars in cash in my bag but didn't worry about being robbed. Bhutan is a blessed place. Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a country slightly larger than Switzerland with a population of only about 690,000, its people having such a strong belief in karma that robbery is virtually unthinkable. Imagine the consequences of such an act! Imagine the suffering that would inevitably return!

It was strange to encounter safety abroad. I'd spent much of
my adult life experiencing the world's most inhospitable places—malarial jungles, totalitarian societies, war zones. Places in which you're wise to carry a knife, to leave behind a will. But in charmed Bhutan at three in the morning, people just nodded warmly at me, the town drunks left me alone, and the only graffiti I saw were some hastily scrawled smiley faces.

I'd flown to this modern-day Shangri-la to attempt what is widely considered one of the hardest treks in the world: the Snowman Trek. It lasts some 24 days, and only a few hundred foreigners have ever completed it. Unlike most of the popular Himalaya treks, such as Nepal's Annapurna Circuit, there isn't just one high pass to get over—but 11. You ascend several thousand feet, descend, then ascend again. And again. Eleven times. Most of the passes are over 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), with the highest at nearly 17,400 feet (5,304 meters). Then there is the weather, which is notoriously unpredictable and has led to a Snowman failure rate of nearly 50 percent. The location of the trek—following the spine of the Himalaya between Bhutan and Tibet—is in some of the most remotely beautiful and inaccessible country in the world, easily capable of trapping a person between high peaks, making emergency evacuation by Indian army choppers not only difficult but exorbitantly expensive. And there are the personal risks—like getting dysentery, twisting an ankle, breaking a leg, succumbing to altitude sickness. There are so many concerns that it's no surprise so few people ever attempt the trek, and that far fewer ever finish it. More people have reached the top of Mount Everest than have successfully completed the Snowman.

I'd found that dangerous, difficult trips pose certain questions that kinder ones don't. If there's a higher chance of returning home sick, maimed—even killed—then the journey forces an examination of what matters in life. Specifically: Why such a trip? To what end?

I asked those questions a lot after my brother, Marc, died. It was as if I were trying to know the answer to everything. As if I were trying—however futilely—to control my own fate. In a way, my brother's death was why I'd come to Bhutan. Two years earlier, Marc had disappeared in Africa, near the Namibia-Angola border, in one of the most desolate places on Earth. I'd flown halfway around the world to try to find him, to save him, only to bring back his body instead (he'd drowned in the Kunene River).

They say there are no coincidences. The very day after I returned to the States with his ashes, my left leg strangely, unaccountably, froze up, and I couldn't walk without tremendous pain. There were no medical explanations. Doctors could only offer theories: nerve problems, muscle damage, early arthritis. But nothing showed up on any tests. And no medicines or therapies helped. Normally very athletic, I had to completely stop most physical activity. If I traveled anywhere now, I generally went by vehicle or rode on horseback. While I never accepted the pain, I learned to adjust to it, to hide it from people, to deal with it, convinced all the while that the cause—and thus the cure—lay, somehow, with my brother's death. Perhaps I was trying to stop myself from going out into the world? Perhaps I just didn't trust life anymore.

I saw a counselor, did grief work, but my leg pain didn't improve. Then I decided I was going to do something that might seem patently insane: I was going to face the pain—and its mysterious cause—head on. I would beat it. I began looking for a trek. One of the hardest in the world, in a country I knew I could love. And then I found the Snowman.

***

Our group stood in the rain, gazing at the modest mud track that would mark the start of our journey. The Snowman, which begins near the town of Paro in western Bhutan, is no mere recreational hiking trail; rather it has been one of the Himalaya's main north-south thoroughfares for millennia. Steeped in history, it brought down Mongol invaders and their Tibetan allies in the 17th century, who were looking to sack the burgeoning kingdom of Bhutan. And so the fortress of Drugyel Dzong was built on the hilltop just above us. In 1648, on the very spot where our horsemen were loading gear onto mules, Bhutanese warriors led the invaders through a false gate into the fortress and slaughtered them all, saving Bhutan the horrors of a Mongol victory.

These days, visits to Bhutan are notoriously restricted. The government forbids independent travel, requiring all foreigners to book trips using a tour company. I was doing mine through Canadian Himalayan Expeditions, which works in tandem with a Bhutanese partner. CHE's owner, 46-year-old Joe Pilaar, a wiry Canadian, was one of eight doing the trek with me. In addition there was Rob, 52, my redheaded Aussie friend of 12 years, an itinerant carpenter and former Papua New Guinea traveling buddy who'd driven his Royal Enfield motorcycle across India and Nepal to join me. There was also Paul, 52, a Brit who owned a landscaping company, and "Team America," as Rob called them: Larry, 66, a former Army chemical engineer; Tom, 57, a retired social studies teacher, owner of a climbing gym; Pete, 36, a photographer; Kevin, 33, a West Coast real estate agent and aspiring screenwriter; and Ryan, 30, an oil company engineer.

We were nine of a mere 120 foreigners attempting the Snowman in 2007. The Bhutanese government follows a strict tourism policy of "high value, low volume," charging visitors at least $200 a day—a fee it will likely more than double in 2009. The high price not only favors tourists with thick wallets but also discourages the sort of thrifty, independent backpacking scene found in places like Kathmandu. Bhutan wants, above all else, to preserve its society, religion, and environment from any potentially harmful foreign influence. Never occupied or colonized by outside powers, the famously insular country first opened its doors to tourists in 1972. Even Western media—TV, the Internet—was banned until 1999, and now the government systematically removes any programs deemed damaging to society (goodbye, pornography and World Wrestling Entertainment).

At the forefront of these changes was Bhutan's longtime king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who progressively ruled his country on the Buddhist principles of compassion and harmony, and was the mastermind of an ingeniously titled political strategy, "Gross Domestic Happiness," which champions individual and environmental rights over policies of greed and materialism. He still enjoys overwhelming approval from the citizenry, his picture proudly displayed in nearly every living room and business across the country. Protecting 60 percent of Bhutan's forests by turning them into national parks, King Wangchuck also banned smoking, mandated that all new construction follow traditional Bhutanese design, and required citizens to wear traditional dress: gho for men (similar to a toga) and kira for women (a kind of handwoven sarong). In such a way, he painstakingly preserved Bhutanese culture for future generations while keeping it largely unblemished by Western values and corruption. In 2006 Wangchuck abdicated the throne to his son, Bhutan's current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and the family will voluntarily relinquish rule at the end of this year, turning the absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy. The bold plan has led critics to wonder whether the world's last remaining Mahayana Buddhist kingdom can survive such a monumental overhaul.

But for now Bhutan still offers a rare chance for time travel. As our group finally entered the mountains, the Himalayan valleys opened before us with their stone-and-wattle farmhouses and hand-sown fields, offering glimpses of a society barely initiated into the 21st century. We followed the Paro Chhu (river), gradually ascending through fir forests and meadows of purple wildflowers. For the next few days our route would be the same as that of the Jhomolhari Trek, Bhutan's most popular among tourists, which lasts eight days and gives trekkers a far easier dose of the Himalaya than the Snowman.

As I trudged along, I thought about all the Buddhists who'd used the trail over the centuries as a pilgrimage route to Lhasa in Tibet. Lhasa is, to devotees of Tibetan Buddhism, what Mecca is to Muslims—not only the holiest site of their religion but the place that all faithful are supposed to visit at least once in their lives. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Bhutanese-Tibetan border closed, and the Snowman became an escape route for refugees fleeing persecution at the hands of the Red Army. Bhutan, culturally and religiously tied to Tibet and sympathetic to its plight, maintains no diplomatic relations with China and has adopted a strict closed-border policy unlikely to change anytime soon. Currently the Snowman's main function is as a smuggling route, with numerous horse and yak trains sneaking wares to and from China.

Our first day of travel was deceptively easy, and we hiked only five hours to a wooded campsite at 9,500 feet (2,896 meters). It would take me some time to get used to the luxuries of our group routine. Every day someone would set up our tents, often long before we arrived in camp. As the staff busily prepared our dinner, we'd be invited to "teatime" in the mess tent, assorted cookies laid out decoratively on paper doilies like Turkish delights. In the morning the staff would wake us with hot drinks, setting bowls of washing water outside our tents. We'd lunch at predesignated spots along the trail, tables and chairs set up safari-style, heaping courses of food kept warm in giant thermoses with Bhutanese staff on hand to serve them.

I never did overcome my embarrassment at such treatment, though as the trek started to earn its reputation, the comforts would have a positive effect on group morale. Still, our Bhutanese staff—who would experience the same grueling days as we would—didn't get much of a chance to rest. Achula, 46, head cook and staff manager, woke each day at the frigid predawn hour of 4 a.m. to cook and pack our lunches and start breakfast. He told me, not without a degree of resignation, that he'd done the Snowman 11 times already.

"But this is my last time," he asserted. Still, somehow, I didn't believe him. He was like a Snowman junkie, knowing it wasn't good for him but unable to quit. Yet he must have known our trip would've been chaotic without him. He was the one who expertly taught the junior staff about food preparation and serving etiquette, who gave important advice to the assistant guides, who even tried to manage the unruly horse wranglers.

But such horsemen must be the same the world over. The toughened nonchalance. The arrogant swagger that tells you—and accurately so—that you'd be nowhere without them, without their knowledge of the land, their control over the animals, their ability to get your big-town extravagances from place to place. Our men seemed to gaze on the group's dining tent, on our teatime biscuits and brand-name sleeping bags, with barely concealed amusement. Give them a horse or two and they could live off the land for months, could sleep through the night wrapped in scrappy wool blankets and eat red rice every day. Our biggest use to them seemed to be for entertainment; in our bumbling dependency we only validated the beauty of their own spare, free existence. I have always envied these kinds of horsemen, and probably always will. 

***

On our second day we received our Snowman initiation: nine hours of pure uphill trekking in one day, to a final elevation of 11,800 feet (3,597 meters). Rob and I might as well have been reliving our New Guinea bushwhacking days, sloshing mile after mile through deep mud, past slippery boulders, across raging streams. Jungle-like forests of rhododendron trees crowded around us, draped in moss and dripping from unrelenting rain.

Freezing, utterly exhausted, I arrived in camp seeming to hurt in every conceivable place—surely the result of two years of very limited physical activity. Stripping to a pair of shorts, I submerged myself in the icy waters of a nearby stream, hoping to reduce the sharp jolts of pain in my leg. I tried to imagine the 22 days of the Snowman still ahead of me—and stopped. Better not to think about anything.

Rob found me after I returned to my tent. Perennially cheerful and optimistic, he greets everyone he meets as if they were dear departed friends. He would become the humor and light of our trip in the weeks to come. And my beacon.

"It's a blokey group," Rob whispered to me over dinner that night—his way of reminding me that I was the only female, and perhaps explaining why our meal conversations had a way of gravitating to such subjects as women, rugby, and the 155-millimeter howitzer. (I had already become an unwitting expert on Royal Enfields.) But Ryan, 30, the youngest member of our group, decided to tell us about his brother who had recently died in an outdoor accident. Ryan knew firsthand, as I did, the anguish of searching desperately for a loved one, and the horror of discovering a body—and how unlikely it was that we two, complete strangers tossed together on a trek, would have such similar stories. I could only marvel at how little people ever actually know about each other.

Ryan's story prompted Paul to tell his own—one so extraordinary, so horrific, that we all sat in abject silence. It'd happened some 13 years before, in the middle of the night. He was on a ferry, the Estonia, when it suddenly started to sink into the Baltic Sea. Everywhere, people were scrambling to escape the ship, to pull themselves into life rafts, to save themselves. There were 40-foot (12-meter) swells, frigid water. Paul clutched an overturned life raft, watching the survivors around him slowly defeated by the elements, freezing to death, slipping into the sea. For six unimaginable hours he clung to life, praying for rescue, forcing himself not to close his eyes and succumb. And the rescue choppers came at last! But they botched the job, dropping some of the survivors—and how few there were, only 137 of 989 passengers—into the waves. People were dead all around him. But Paul was saved, and on the Snowman Trek with us. A botany expert, he knew the genus and species of all the plants we saw, knew what we could touch, what we could eat. The quiet Brit with the most incredible story we'd ever heard, who never had any interest in being first to camp each day. Who kept stopping to take photos of plants, flowers, leaves. Who would tell us, with unabashed eagerness, to taste the fruit of the trees. The rose hips. The barberries. Who would remind us to notice the world and its gifts.

***

A few days later, I couldn't see. I woke in the middle of the night from intense pain, my eyes completely sealed with pus and burning so badly that it was as if someone had lit a fire to them. I had to soak them for several minutes just to pry the eyelids apart, praying all the while that I wasn't going blind. We'd been camped beneath the snow-covered peak of Jhomolhari, enjoying a rest day of acclimatization, when the first symptoms arose, my face bloating so badly that Rob started calling me "Rocky Balboa."

I sought out Joe, the trip leader, to get his advice. He mentioned a doctor (conveniently, an orthopedic surgeon) in one of the neighboring trekking camps, and we went in search of him. Dr. Don, a middle-aged American with white hair and beard, took one look at me and knew it was bad.

"Probably started as an allergic reaction to something," he said with a doctor's matter-of-fact gravity. "And now it's turned into quite an eye infection." I showed him my antibiotic drops, but he told me to stop taking them and handed me some prescription antihistamine pills instead. "If you don't see some kind of improvement in 24 hours, you'll have to quit the trek."

I nodded solemnly.

"Look—it's not worth going blind," he added.

His warning stayed with me as our group continued the Snowman later that morning, leaving behind the many hiking groups doing the shorter Jhomolhari Trek. We were on our own now, come what may. No more orthopedic surgeons arriving deus ex machina–style to save my ass with antihistamines. Freezing rain tore across the rocky steppes as we made our long climb to Ngile La at 16,043 feet (4,890 meters). It was our official test pass for altitude sickness: If we all got there without any adverse symptoms, we'd probably be OK for the rest of the trek. Thankfully, everyone did make it without problems, and as we passed a large cairn, strings of prayer flags whipped in the wind, bidding us—along with all sentient beings—happiness and peace. The sun began showing itself at intervals, and all at once the clouds parted to reveal a great expanse of snow-topped peaks. I could only stop and stare. For a few blessed minutes, I forgot everything but the majesty of this world.

Before Buddhism made its way to Bhutan in the seventh century, people practiced their own animistic religion called Bon, in which these mountains were worshipped as gods. The locals believed that their souls came from the Himalaya, and returned to them at death. The mountains' myriad spirits, or yulha, protected their villages from malign forces, guarding flocks, ensuring rich harvests. These beliefs, still widely held by most Bhutanese, help explain why mountain climbing has been banned. In 1983, after several foreign expeditions attempted to climb 22,290-foot (6,794-meter) Jichu Drake, locals complained that the irreverent outsiders had angered the mountain gods, bringing calamity in the form of violent hail storms. A village delegation took their complaints to the king, who, perhaps in the interest of Gross Domestic Happiness, decreed an end to all mountain climbing in Bhutan.

After Ngile La, I started to notice that my eyes were getting better, the pain and swelling lessening. For the first time I found myself dawdling, the beauty of Bhutan confronting me at every turn. Gaping beauty that only seemed to get more transcendent the farther I went. I'd think I'd seen it all, couldn't possibly take in any more, only to climb the next hilltop, turn round the next bend, and see something even more spectacular, more dizzying to the senses. My mind wanted to capture it all somehow. And so my futile attempts to take pictures, to preserve it and take it home. But I just ended up cursing my camera. A one-dimensional photo could do no justice to the country, couldn't make any of it last.

Then I saw the tiny fortress, Lingshi Dzong, sitting on a hilltop before the great audience of the Himalaya. I stopped. For some reason I never quite understood, I sat down and wept. Maybe it had something to do with the starkness of the distances, with the dramatic vying of sunlight and storm. Or perhaps it was subtler, harder to explain. As if, in that ancient dzong—that speck of human proclamation sitting before the indifferent valleys and rise of the Himalaya—it was my own voice calling out into the void. I found myself making an appeal of grief about my brother, who'd had his own history, his stories. What would happen to them now? Where do they—where do any of our stories—go?

Lingshi Dzong—for centuries a way station for weary travelers and Buddhist pilgrims, a defense against Tibetan and Mongol hordes—just sat there fearlessly proclaiming its own story to the vast, empty indifference before us. A rainbow erupted from it, arching over the valley and reaching toward the mountains opposite. Such indescribable beauty. But no way to keep it.

A few days later, near Lingshi Dzong, the Snowman would take its first casualty of the year: A 42-year-old American woman, trekking in the group just behind ours, succumbed to altitude sickness. Our guide would later say someone should have seen the signs, known how to save her.

***

We finally reached Laya village at 12,500 feet (3,810), the halfway point of our trek. Before us lay a series of quaint, terraced fields dotted with stone farmhouses. Nearby, locals threshed barley with long wooden staffs, their whopping echoing across the valley. The women dressed traditionally in black wool kiras and unique bamboo hats decorated with strings of beads and topped with miniature Buddhist prayer staffs. The tiny hats served no functional purpose that I could tell; when I asked one of the women why they wore them, she said simply, "Because they're precious."

We camped in someone's front yard, the high peaks of the Himalaya rising on all sides of the village like great battlements. Our group had endured two weeks of canned mackerel, pickled pork, and rice, so Paul and Pete scrounged for any exotic foodstuffs. Soon they had taken over a farmhouse kitchen to prepare us spaghetti with a ketchup-squash meat sauce and—Paul's specialty—guava crumble with cream. But by far the most welcomed discovery was some Bhutanese brand Hit Beer and smuggled Pabst Blue Ribbon from China.

Better still, an enterprising woman rented us her wooden tub. One by one we took hot stone baths and did our laundry. Some of the men went in search of the village's notoriously beautiful postmistress and came back with news of a town Internet service. Laya had acquired a satellite dish, laptop computer, and international dialing business in just a few years—remarkable, considering it saw its first tourists in 1987. So much for the Shangri-la experience; I guiltily checked my email like everyone else. As late as the 1970s, most of Bhutan had resembled Laya; there was virtually no technology or infrastructure, and only one road. The country had survived on the largesse of foreign donors, particularly the Indian government, until a lucrative hydroelectric power industry turned it into one of South Asia's greatest success stories.

A week ago I didn't even know if I'd make it to Laya. And now, with my eye infection cleared up, my bad leg had suddenly developed knee trouble that made walking more painful than ever. Perhaps it was a sign: We were only a week of easy downhill hiking to a road and civilization. If you wanted to quit the Snowman, Laya was the place to do it. Continuing the trek meant entering the Snowman's roughest, remotest country, where evacuation was extremely difficult, if not impossible.

I asked myself how much pain I was willing to endure. Originally I'd hoped my leg would gradually improve, but now I was soaking it in cold water every day, taking ibuprofen religiously each night, and doing all manner of massage techniques to try to keep it from painfully freezing up on me.

At the same time, I overheard staff members talking about getting Larry to quit. Sixty-six years old, supposedly without enough warm clothing, and making slow ascents to the passes, he was usually last to arrive in camp each day—about an hour or two behind the rest of us. Though his Snowman experience had seemed—as did mine—like sheer masochism at times, I admired him. Born the same year as my parents, he hadn't let his age stop him from going out into the world, from taking on one of the hardest treks in the Himalaya. I knew Larry wasn't going to quit, regardless of what anyone said. And if he could go on, then so could I.

But the next morning my knee and hip felt even worse. I knew I had a big decision to make—and soon—about whether I was going to continue. I hiked off alone to think. I found myself at the local Buddhist temple, a small, unassuming structure of mortared stone sitting at the edge of the village. A chestnut horse studied me from a nearby meadow, Laya children waving and smiling artlessly from their houses. I spun the temple's succession of prayer wheels, my mind awash with worry and indecision. Hearing a bell ringing from a nearby doorway, I walked over and saw an ancient woman with tangled white hair and cataract eyes sitting on the ground, wearing a burlap sack for a skirt and spinning a gigantic prayer wheel. She stopped what she was doing and stared at me for a long moment, fingering her mala, or rosary, and beckoning to me.

I sat beside her in the cold little chamber, taking out my own mala. For a moment, I didn't know what to do. From the nearby hills I could hear the threshing of barley, the laughter of children. The sun alternately shone and fled behind the clouds. The woman set the wheel turning and began to sing. I had no idea what she was singing about. Prayers, maybe. Prayers to the world. To our hopes. Our fears. Our longings for rest or peace. As she kept the wheel going, I recited my own Buddhist mantras. Minutes passed. Hours. Outside, the same chestnut horse stood in the meadow, watching us.

Finally, I stopped. I'd made my decision, and it was getting late. I took out a solid gold Buddha amulet from my bag, the one I'd always carried for good luck on dangerous trips, and I lifted the woman's hair to tie it around her neck. Her hand kept turning the giant prayer wheel. She wouldn't stop singing.

***

I would continue the trek.

In Laya we traded our mules and horses for yaks—a sure sign that the trip was going to get rough. Yaks are the horned marvels of the Himalaya. In appearance they resemble stocky, hairy bulls but are genetically much hardier. Stronger than horses, they can carry at least twice the weight and can survive in subzero temperatures that would kill their equine counterparts. While you might be able to break a horse to ride and carry supplies, Bhutanese yaks generally won't put up with such antics. They hauled our gear, but at a price: It took as many as four men at once just to restrain an animal for loading, and then we counted ourselves lucky if the gear even arrived at camp in its original state.

Our good-weather karma continued as we left the simple pleasures of Laya for some of the steepest trail we'd had yet. We ascended for eight long hours through forests of rhododendron and fir, finally reaching the campsite of Rodophu near 16,273-foot (4,960-meter) Tsomo La. During Joe's last Snowman trip, his group had attempted to cross the pass three times, only to finally quit because of blizzards. But for us there wasn't even a trace of snow, and we climbed through high alpine meadows, easily crossing Tsomo La before lunch.
We stayed at our highest campsite yet—frigid 16,200-foot (4,938-meter) Narithang—and were rewarded with the spectacular backdrop of Gangla Karchung mountain, our tents covered with ice, the skin on my hands starting to split open from the cold.

Some may think the Snowman's biggest challenge lies in its many ascents, but reaching the 17,125-foot (5,220-meter) pass of Karchung La was nothing compared to its "killer-knee" descent of 4,000 feet (1,219 meters). Ibuprofen pills and hiking sticks were a prerequisite, as was tremendous patience. For several hours our group carefully descended through the clouds, picking our way down a steep, rocky trail. Gradually our path became a muddy maze of boulders and tree roots that seemed destined to twist one of our ankles. It was our first introduction to the mysterious Lunana region, one of the world's most untouched wildernesses, full of pure glacial streams, dramatic waterfalls, and mountainsides covered with misty forests.

After hiking through the Lunana's Tarina River Valley, we ascended to one of the most isolated villages in the Himalaya: Thanza. With around 300 people, it sits at 13,700 feet (4,176 meters)—only 800 feet (244 meters) lower than the highest point in the continental U.S. Our group camped beside Thanza, near 23,274-foot (7,094-meter) Table Mountain. We had a surreal moment of first contact, the local people visiting en masse to inspect our gear, wearing their giant, Cossack-like yak wool hats. Before long, clothing was exchanged. Beads and wool hats purchased. As our group feverishly snapped photos, I had visions of the paparazzi at one of those Hollywood red-carpet galas. A local farmer, Bembey, told me he'd seen his first white person in the early 1980s when he was 15—a sight so terrifying that he'd run for his life. Now he eagerly joined the cultural show-and-tell, looking forward to the spectacle of more Snowman groups.

I looked around the village itself. Few places exist in the world without some modicum of modernity: stores, running water, roads, telecommunications. In Thanza there is none of that. Though Western clothing has made its way to many of the children, most adults wear clothes they make by hand, weaving and dyeing their own material, fashioning their own unique hats, boots, and jewelry. Their homes are built from the offerings of the countryside: stone walls, hand-hewn wood shingles, clay mortar. Subsistence farmers, they survive on their high-altitude crops, as well as on the occasional yak meat and cheese.

It seemed a hard life, as evidenced by a man who approached us in our mess tent during the friendly pandemonium outside. He had a mother, he told us, who was gravely ill. She had a swollen stomach. Couldn't eat or drink without throwing up. Couldn't sleep or be moved for the pain. Did we have some Western medicine? Could we help her?

With no medical doctors in our group, and the nearest Bhutanese hospital some two weeks' hard trekking over the mountains, we could only hazard unqualified guesses about the cause of the woman's condition—which felt like an exercise in futility. Had we been traveling back in time to visit the virtually untouched, medieval-like society of Thanza, all our modern knowledge and expertise still would have left us helpless before the vagaries of human suffering. We couldn't offer the young man any definitive information about his mother. We couldn't come up with any reasonable way to help. I passed him my prescription antinausea capsules so his mother could try to keep some food down. But it was agony: I knew it wouldn't be enough.

***

After leaving thanza, all signs of human presence completely vanished. Even our trail started disappearing underfoot, blurring into the barren, rocky horizon, losing us in the emptiness—it was disconcerting. Our group ascended for two and a half hours to Jeza La at 17,192 feet (5,240 meters), descended, ate lunch, and continued up another high pass at 16,568 feet (5,050 meters), expecting to find the yak men and our tents set up on the other side. But they were nowhere to be found. Kevin, Pete, and I joined forces against the vastness and made yet another ascent—this time to 16,978 feet (5,175 meters)—but no campsite awaited us on the other side. For me, it had become The Day That Would Never End. I'd trekked nearly nine hours, over three passes higher than 16,400 feet (4,999 meters), all my water bottles empty and my energy nearly expired. But finally, as if sighting the Holy Grail, I could make out the shape of a distant tent.

Paul, Tom, and Ryan had already made it to camp, tempers flaring after the unnecessarily grueling day. Through some lack of communication, our yak men—always well ahead of our group, and with all our gear and provisions—hadn't stopped where they were supposed to, but kept going. Though the day had thoroughly exhausted us, and left my leg in severe pain, it had wiped out Larry, who arrived out of breath, ragged, and totally spent. We wouldn't be able to do a full day's hike tomorrow as planned; Larry needed a recovery day if he was to make it to the end of the Snowman.

Our group made good use of the unexpected rest day, washing, doing laundry, reading. We had only one serious obstacle left: 17,388-foot Rinchen Zoe La, the highest pass of the Snowman. Camped some ten minutes ahead on the trail was a group of German trekkers—the mythical "Hauser Group" we'd heard so much about during our trip. Always a day behind us, they'd finally managed to catch up and would be neck and neck with us until the end. Among them was the delectable Ingrid, young, blonde, blue-eyed, to whom the men of our group had taken a special fancy.

For the first time I felt as if I could make it to the end of the Snowman, that I could actually do it regardless of the pain in my body. I was feeling more upbeat, more eager for a challenge, and I lightheartedly proposed to our group that we try to beat the Germans to the Snowman's highest pass the following day—no matter that the Hauser Group would know nothing of our intentions. We already had a name for the mission (courtesy of Paul): Operation Squash Bratwurst.

Rob, of course, was my first volunteer.

"We're facing the highest pass of the trek," I told the others with mock gravitas over dinner, "and the Germans, with a ten-minute lead on us, are poised to beat us to the pass. We can't let that happen. Who else is in?"

Tom and Ryan were my next volunteers. Consummate athletes, they were usually the first of our group to reach camp every day. As for the others, they'd make no commitment. Still, I had a strong team ready to accept the challenge. It was settled. The race was on.

Early the next morning, in the post-dawn grayness of our frigid 16,600-foot (5,060-meter) camp, I was surprised to see everyone up early and mobilized for the day's challenge, gear already packed and breakfast begun in earnest. The night before, Kevin had returned from the Hauser Group with new, disturbing intelligence: The Germans were planning to eat breakfast a half hour earlier than normal and might very well give us a run for our money.

Achula, the definitive sage among us, who was soon to complete his 12th Snowman Trek, walked into our mess tent to offer a warning: "The Germans, they are very fast."

"I don't think I need to remind you of what's at stake today," I told the men. "One of you needs to get to the pass first. We can't accept anything less than victory."

We ate an abbreviated breakfast and quickly strapped on our daypacks. Trekking poles out, Tom and Ryan immediately took the lead, with Rob close behind. I followed, and we soon overtook the Hauser Group's camp, catching the Germans off guard in the middle of breakfast. It would have been to our great advantage, had not the beautiful siren, Ingrid, managed to tempt Rob and some of our other men from their duty. But Tom, Ryan, and I continued. Looking back, I could see the German men finishing their meals and getting up to follow us.

A few minutes later, to my surprise, Rob suddenly caught up with me.

"The Germans are coming!" I warned him.

"No worries," he said. "Leave it to Team Australia."

I'd never seen him moving so quickly. Though I was nearly jogging, I couldn't keep up. Slowing down to conserve my energy, I checked my altimeter: We were already above 17,000 feet (5,182 meters). Ironically, Rinchen Zoe La, though the highest pass of the trek, was also one of the easiest to summit. There weren't any killer steep parts—it was just a comfortable, gradual rise, the blessed cairn with its prayer flags soon appearing in the distance.

Suddenly, resounding across the mountaintops, I heard "Ha-gi-lo!" ("Praise to God!"), which the Bhutanese shout at all passes. Rob was standing on the high peak above Rinchen Zoe La, waving his arms. He'd done it.

I soon made it to the pass, an hour after leaving our campsite. Rob had gotten there in an extraordinary 45 minutes—surely some kind of record. I ran up to give him a hug, and we sat side by side in the warm sunlight, reveling in our victory. Snowcapped peaks rose all around us. There was only the slightest hint of a breeze. It was, I realized, one of those moments I would always remember, that would tell me what life was all about. None of it would last, but suddenly it didn't matter. There was the stillness. The joy. The arm of a beloved friend wrapped around my own. Somehow it was enough.

***

The last pass of the Snowman Trek, Thampe La, was a piddling 15,420 feet (4,700 meters) high—such was my Snowman snobbery now. Anything under 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) seemed like small potatoes.

But Thampe La, covered with snow, marked the end of our good-weather karma. Our coldest pass so far, the windchill remained well below freezing. Still, our group easily made it to the summit after less than an hour and a half of ascending, shivering around the cairn and prayer flags, yelling "Ha-gi-lo!" and snapping each other's pictures to mark the symbolic end of the trek. Our yaks arrived shortly after us, crossing the pass without so much as a glance, the melodies of their bells following them down the mountainside.

I sat down to ponder the miracle of that moment for me. We had several thousand feet of downhill left to go, yet there was little doubt now: I would finish the trek. I had nothing more to fear. In the distance I saw Larry's fluorescent orange coat coming up the trail and realized he hadn't made it yet. The rest of us started walking back the way we'd come, back toward those 23 long days of effort and exertion, and we all got behind Larry. He was climbing slowly yet steadily toward the pass, puffing hard, and we followed him up, encouraging, congratulating. Soon he was there. We all were, not one of us failing. It defied the statistics: Most Snowman groups will lose at least one person along the way.

We all congratulated each other, then began our descent. Exuberant, Rob started running down the mountainside, becoming a mere flicker of color as the distances absorbed him. My knee and hip hurting me, I slowly made my way down the boulder-strewn track. Below, I could see periwinkle-colored glacial lakes resting in the valley and, beyond them, the first greenery of the foothills.

Almost home.

***

This part will sound unbelievable, but it is the truth: My last day of the Snowman Trek, I woke up with all the pain gone from my leg. Completely gone. It had seemed so extraordinary, so unaccountable, that I needed a way to explain it. I would tell myself—and others—that my massage work had finally hit its mark, unknotted the right muscles, fixed the tracking. But the truth was that I hadn't done anything out of the ordinary. The truth was that there was no logical explanation.

The last day of our trek was the longest in terms of distance: 14 miles (23 kilometers) to complete 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) of descent, with some of the worst trail conditions of the trip. That final day from Maorothang to Nikachhu was renowned for being a killer-knee day, yet I behaved like Rob, running through the rhododendron forest—through deep mud pools and streams, over slippery boulders and tree roots—inviting the pain to return, taking no precautions to prevent it. But it didn't come back.

And wouldn't. It's still gone, and I do all the activities I did before my brother's death.

As I reached our lunch spot nearly an hour and a half before the rest of the group, I sat down to wait for everyone. The forest cover had officially ended, and the bucolic town of Sephu spread out before me with its sun-dappled pastures and farmhouses. In the hazy distance, I could see the asphalt road marking the end of our trek. Just another hour or two of walking. That was it. I lay down on the green hill and slept.

A few hours later our entire group stood on the road in Nikachhu, done with the Snowman Trek. To celebrate, Joe and our Bhutanese guides brought out Marquis de Pompadour champagne from India and a lemon cake that read in large, earnest letters, "Congratula"—and on the next line, as if in apology, "tion." Soon after, we headed by bus to our hotel in the town of Trongsa, where the first hot showers in nearly a month awaited us.

During one of our last meals, we cataloged our firsts for the Snowman.

Larry: "Crossing three passes over 16,400 feet [4,999 meters] in one day."

Kevin: "The highest I've ever been."

Me: "The longest trek."

Paul: "Twenty-four days of putting up with everyone's bad jokes."

Tom, using his pedometer, had calculated that we'd each taken half a million steps during the trip, walking at least 216 miles (348 kilometers). Since the Snowman first opened to foreigners in 1982, an estimated 1,000 people have attempted it, with about half that many successfully completing it. For trekkers it remains one of the hardest, least experienced challenges in the world. And is surely one of the most spectacular.

Before we all went home, our group stopped at Bhutan's main tourist attraction: Punakha Dzong, the great 17th-century fortress built by the Bhutanese king Shabdrung in celebration of the defeat of the Mongols. I went instead to a tiny temple nearby, Chung Dzong, to pay my respects to the caretaker monk. Before the Snowman had started, I'd gone there to pray for help with the trek. The caretaker had given me a special blessing and promised to remember me in his prayers each day while I was gone. Now I wanted to find him, tell him I'd done it, give him a donation of money in gratitude.

Chung Dzong, small, unprepossessing, never attracting many tourists, is one of Bhutan's holiest sites. A couple of years ago, when a glacial lake burst and nearby Mo Chhu overran its banks, all of the temple was washed away—except for a piece of foundation on which sat the ancient bronze Buddha Shakyamuni statue. This seeming miracle quickly turned the dzong into a major pilgrimage site. The Bhutanese insist that all prayers spoken in Chung will be answered—but of course you must believe.

It turned out that the caretaker was away. His nephew, a teenage monk, let me in, and I sat for over an hour before the ancient statue, offering thanks. I'd been given my body back. My physical health. I tried to imagine what else was possible, what other things might be true. Maybe the dead—people like my brother, or Ryan's—never really die. Not exactly. Not like we think. Maybe they never really go anywhere. There must be so little I actually know about anything.

Trekking Bhutan Photo Galleries  >>

Adventure Guide: Plan Your Bhutan Trip  >>


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