Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 20 – Jichu Dramo To Tsho Tsho Tshampa Via Rinchen Zoe la

Previous Post: Day 19 – Camp West of Tsho Chena To Jichu Dramo

  • calendar date: October 17, 2019.
  • time: 8.5 hours total, including lunch and a few rest breaks
  • distance: 19.5 km.
  • start point altitude: Jichu Dramo 5015 m; 5060m (Jordans)
  • endpoint campsite:  Tsho Tsho Tshampa  (aka Thsongsa Thang)  4342m;            Jordans has 4450m. – see here to see which is closer to the OpenStreetMap topo 
  • high pass crossing: Rinchen Zoe La – 5300m (my Garmin); 5326m (Jordans)
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as of other treks.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! The location marker is for Rinchen Zoe La.
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to frame most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

a bit of early morning snow at our Camp near Tsho Chena

We crawled out of our tents at Jichu Dramo at 6:30 and into a snow shower that had blanketed the ground and the camp.  It did add a touch of wonder to what was brown rock rubble!

horses in front of the dining tent on a snowy morning at Jichu Dramo

By the time breakfast was done and we were ready for the day’s walk, the sun was already melting away some of the snow that had fallen.  The tent crew was busy taking down the camp.

our Jichu Dramo Campsite around 8 a.m.

On the to-do list for the day was crossing the highest pass of the trek, Rinchen Zoe La.  Since we were already at 5060 meters, the 240 meters to get to the top was not a big deal.

I had read the trip notes for the day before setting off. They provide this description:

It will take us several hours to gain the pass, and in the final approach the views are unmatched. Vast glaciers run down from a series of snowy mountains into two major glacial blue lakes that have a scattering of small ‘icebergs’ across them.

At the gap we take time to take photos and appreciate our achievement, then continue on to our camp. The hike to the camp involves a steep descent beside a moraine and some rock- hopping next to the river where we find our camp.

Not for the first time, I wondered just who wrote these trip notes and if (s)he had actually done the trek.

  • It will take us several hours to gain the pass, and in the final approach, the views are unmatched. – Within an hour and a half of setting off, some of us were standing on top of Rinchen Zoe La and, as nice as the views had been on the final approach, they did not match the views from the pass itself.
  • As for the vast glaciers run(ning) down from a series of snowy mountains, they are nowhere to be seen; nor are the small ‘icebergs’  floating on the lakes on either side of the pass.

What a fanciful account!

This CNN article (see here) provides some background on glacial melt in the Himalayas. At .5 meters per year, that would mean 10 meters of ice just since 2000.

Day 20 – from Jichu Dramo To the Thampe Chhu valley

About a half-hour into the walk I looked back at our campsite area and snapped the photo below.

looking back to Jichu Dramo from the trail to Rinchen Zoe La

The final stretch to the pass itself was the steepest but it was over fairly quickly.  In the image below you can see two trekkers on the right-hand side just about to head up that diagonal line that will take them to the pass, which I’ve indicated with an arrow.

trekkers heading to Rinchen Zoe La from Jichu Dramo

a glacial lake below Rinchen Zoe La

The views from Rinchen Zoe la were indeed memorable. All too often on the trek, especially in the first half, cloud cover and lack of sun meant that we experienced few of the majestic vistas our guide- and our guide books –  kept referring to.  During the half-hour I spent at Rinchen Zoe, the awesome view was not the only attraction.

Rinchen Zoe La panorama – looking north

Our arrival coincided with that of a Lunana yak team on its way (as we were)  to Sephu.  To watch these huge and seemingly ungainly animals make their way through the rock rubble was special.  It reminded me of the wonder I feel in the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield when paddling by a moose or two and seeing them quickly dance their way into the bush and into invisibility with such grace and assurance.

Alert: maybe a few too many yak images coming up!

yak team crossing Rinchen Zoe La (5300m)

a Lunana yak team making its way down the Rinchen Zoe La

Not only did we have the yaks to watch as they passed by –  our lunch team (Kinley and Karma) and their horses were also coming up so we waited until they had started their descent before we carried on.  I was actually surprised that we were using horses to do the high altitude traverse from Lunana to Sephu.

Kinley and the lunch horse team coming across Rinchen Zoe La

some of our horses at Rinchen Zoe La

Coming down from the pass, we would walk for 1.5 hours to our lunch break spot. Having come down about 230 meters, we were at 5070 m.  We had passed a number of glacial puddles on our way there. None of them seemed very deep and, given global warming trends, will soon be completely gone.  As mentioned already, the vast glaciers mentioned in the day’s trip notes have shrunk significantly in the past twenty years.

the south side of Rinchen Zoe La – the trail passes some glacial

plateau with remnants of glacial lakes south of Rinchen Zoe La

yaks making their way through the scree to the south of Rinchen Zoe la

Lunch – the deluxe Bhutanese version!  The wind was blowing across the barren plateau and we were about as exposed as you can be!  There was a stark beauty to our spot, which was less than an hour from the pass. As the topo map above indicates, there is an extended flat area and we were sitting on the edge of it.

lunch on the south side of Rinchen Zoe La

the view from our lunch table – south of Rinchen Zoe La

The trip notes for the day indicated that we would be camping at Chukarpo (4600m). Since we were already at 5070, that meant less than 500 meters of descent. However, first we had to get to the south end of the broad, flat area that we on.  That would bring us to the beginnings of the Thampe Chhu, which we would follow to the campsite. The next two photos illustrate some of the trail across that plateau…

trekkers heading south on a rough trail across a plateau of rock rubble

a glacial lake bed below Rinchen Zoe La

There are a number of possible camp areas as you descend the Thampe Chhu valley.  Bart Jordans in his Trekking In Bhutan guidebook notes the following –

“The first possible camp is just after the steep descent at 4850m, with pasture and stone wall enclosures. Yanghu is a reasonably big, open, flat area, the limit to which the Chozo people are allowed to graze their yaks in the summer. Next is Chhu Karpo at 4600m, but a better choice lies 1hr further on at Tsho Tsho Tshang (Thsongsa Thang; 4400m; 5hr from the pass). People from Lunana and Sephu use Tsho Tsho Tshang as a trading place.”Excerpt From: Bart Jordans. “Trekking in Bhutan.” Apple Books.

Down the Thampe Chhu we went.  The weather had turned cloudy with occasional snow flurries which reduced visibility.  I would also be unaware that I was wearing my sunglasses for the next three hours!  Only when we got to camp did I realize!  The result was an even more dramatic view of the terrain we were covering than it already was.  Often we were hopping from boulder to boulder, careful not to slip on our choice of footing.  I worried about the people behind us and whether they would be able to discern a trail in all the rock rubble we were traversing.

My Garmin inReach did come out a few times as the afternoon passed. I would check to see if Chhu Karpo at 4600m was any closer.  I was perplexed when we walked from 4650m to 4550 meters without having stopped. I wondered where the camp was and where the horses were. To be honest, I did not notice a spot that called out “Chhu Karpo Campsite” as we were around 4600m. Strange! We kept on walking.

descending the Thampe Chhu to Tsho Tsho Tshampa

snow as we descend the trail along the Thampe Chhu

Not made clear to us was that we were not stopping at Chhu Karpo, that our campsite would be another four kilometers downriver. Over the next hour plus we descended another 250 meters until we hit a walkable section of trail that took us to our camp at Tsho Tsho Tshampa. [It is clearly visible on river right in the Google Earth view above!]  I never did hear an explanation for the change in the campsite. It could be that the plan was always to end the day at Tsho Tsho Tshampo, in spite of what the trip notes indicated.

The tent crew and animal handlers may have decided that the campsite at Chhu Karpo was not adequate so they kept going to the one we ended up at.  Perhaps they saw that there was nothing for the horses to eat at Chhu Karpo and that the lower one would be better?

Whatever!  The day was done, from the highs of Rinchen Zoe La to the lows of a difficult descent down the Thampe Chhu.

Next Post: Day 21 – Tsho Tsho Tshampa to Tampoe Tsho








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