Bronwyn Morrissey - Bhutan

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Glimpses of Bhutan

By Bronwyn Morrissey


I recently had the opportunity to travel to Bhutan to do an expedition with my husband and some other trekkers. The trip itself was a chance of a lifetime. Because there is only one airport and one airline with limited flights, this isolated country is hard to reach.  The trip began in the capital city of Paro, which is surrounded by mountains (a scary flight!). We had a day or so to explore and prepare before heading out to start the trek. The team we were joining was bringing a film crew to do a documentary on why Bhutan is known as the country with the greatest Gross National Happiness. The group ranged from very experienced athletes to those with just a deep desire to see this magical place. We had a 9 day adventure ahead of us.  Five of these days would be at altitudes from 13,500 to 16,000+ feet.

Bhutan is a magical country and the last Buddhist monarchy in the world. It sits in South Asia, landlocked between the two giants; India to the west and south and China to the north. The Himalaya’s create a natural barrier in the north. Bhutan holds some of the most spectacular peaks in the world, many exceeding 7,000 meters. Bhutan prohibits climbing on these peaks to preserve their beauty and the sacredness of the mountains. Yet Bhutan is not all mountains, it has subtropical plains in the south as well.  This tiny country spans approximately 300 kilometers by 180 kilometers. Tourism is limited due to the difficulty to get to Bhutan and the daily tariff of $250.  

To test our readiness for the long days ahead, we headed up to the Tigers Nest for a day hike. This beautiful Monastery was built into cliffs at about 11,000 feet and is still actively used today. The hike was the perfect trial run for the rest of the trip. We experienced weather extremes from sun, to rain and even heavy hail.

The next day, monks and their teacher, a Rinpoche, offered blessings for our safe travel during a “Puja ceremony”. We sat on the ground as they sang and played drums and traditional horns in another beautiful monastery on top of a huge hill over looking Paro.

We combined the Jhumolhari trek and The Nero 6 Pass trek into one long journey. 

The Prince of Bhutan who had taken an interest in our voyage granted us permission for this rare expedition. Our small and intimate group quickly grew with the added attention. Soon we had a large group with over 50 ponies and 35-40 people including all of the cooks, guides, mule caretakers, even some of the prince’s army. Each day getting this large group organized was quite an adventure. I was amazed at how quickly our guides could pack up the animals and hit the trials. 

The first day we hiked 10.38 miles and climbed a moderate 1840 feet before arriving at the Sharma Zampa camp; little more than a muddy mule pasture. As we passed through villages the path quickly became a single-track trail and it began to feel like the wilderness.

On days 2-3 we continued along the Pa Chu, or Paro, River through pine oak and spruce forests.

The fog hung low and mysterious as we traveled along the muddy and rocky trail in constant rain. We came across Chortens on our way. These receptacles (seen below) are places of worship or offering common in Bhutan and Tibet.

Just after this photo was taken, we turned around a corner of the trail and head into a herd of large yaks. My husband and I were startled and ran up hill to escape the massive beasts. Little did we know when yaks are scared they run up hill too! My heart rate was through the roof as a 1000 pound animal came running at me with huge horns. Later on the trip we saw yaks that were tended by hearders. They didn’t look nearly as fearsome when beautifully decorated like in the picture below.

On day three we hiked 8.4 miles to 13,035 feet where we stayed at camp Jangothang. All that night the winds got up to over 70 mph at our camp. The gusts were so violent that around 5 o’cock our tent was blown right over. By that morning, we were glad to see the wind had blown the clouds away leaving us with the most amazing views over the next 4 days as we climbed the high passes. On day four we took a rest day and hiked to the glacier of Jhomolhari. I also played with the kids that live at that high elevation most of the year. It may have been a fun play date but that night I was hacking up a storm.

One of the amazing parts of our journey was seeing how hard our support team worked to make it as enjoyable as possible for us. Each day our team would wake up well before sunup to make us “bed tea” which they brought to our tents at dawn to wake us. They would cook breakfast, clean, pack the animals, hike ahead to set up lunch at a mid way point then set up camp before we arrived with snacks. They kept up this exhausting routine day after day, and were always ready with a smile.

The next day was our first big pass at 16,007. We went  10.07 miles  and gained around 3,000 feet in  elevation. Topping out at 16,016. By this point in our trek some people were feeling the effects of the elevation. Sleeping at over 4000 meters for many days in a row was particularly hard and we still had 5 passes to go.  Luckily the wind had kept the sky entirely clear and we had incredible views of Jhumolhari (7314 meters) and Jichu Drake  (6790 meters) seen behind us

At the end of the day we reached a camp just past Lingshi Dzong after traveling across a fairly level valley floor. I had a couple creek crossings go wrong and my soaked feet went numb as temperatures plummeted that night. The yaks and donkeys surrounded us as we slept beside a river, and by the next morning everything was frozen solid.

The next day we climbed our highest pass at 16,098 feet. The day saw 3110 feet of elevation gain and 12.3 miles of hiking to Wolaythang.  The view from this pass surpassed the last. For miles all around us we had a beautiful panorama of snow-covered peaks. On the way down to camp, we came across a crystal blue lake. Lakes like the one we saw are known as sacred lakes. The Bhutanese do not allow fishing or swimming in the lakes, even throwing a rock for good luck is prohibited. These rules are enforced to preserve the sacred nature of the lakes. That night our camp rested in the shadow of a giant granite wall. The wall was so grand and majestic that it would not have been out of place in Yosemite CA.

The next morning we awoke to a change in the weather. It began to rain and snow and the next pass was very cold and covered in ice. Because very few people take this route, the guides were unsure of what state the trail would be in. The conditions were deteriorating and they became concerned that the mules would not be able to get through the ice on the trail. At one point there was even talk of turning around, after a mule was injured by slipping on the ice. But the Bhutanese people are determined and hard workers. They pulled out their axes and chipped stairs into the ice to create a safe passage. We did not have the amazing views over this pass that we had at the others due to the fog and snow. However, a Rhoddodendron forest that was hundreds of years old provided plenty of adventure and fun. We finished off the day with another lower pass for a total of 11.6 miles and over 2600 feet of climbing. That night we stayed in a camp next to a nomadic yak herding family. Two little kids both under the age of 5 running around the huge yaks, and fresh cut meat drying in the open air. The rustic air felt as though we had gone back in time a few hundred years. Before our departure in the morning we took a group photo.

Our last day on the trek was a steep decent into Thimpu, the largest city in Bhutan.  We descended 5100 feet after summiting our last pass a mere 13,812 feet.

The last 4 miles of trail were some of the steepest I had ever seen. The mules had dug deep gullies in the trail over time and made it treacherous to hike. At the finish of the trek, we celebrated with a smorgasbord of chicken, pizza, traditional butter tea (literally melted salt butter) and beer. Our incredible journey had ended but my appreciation for the beauty of Bhutan had only just begun. Someday I hope to get back to this magical place and explore more of this unbelievable country. Perhaps we will have a La Sportiva ultra run there some day!

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