Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 23 – Rerethang To Upper Sephu

Previous Post: Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho To Rerethang Via Thampe La

  • calendar date: Sunday, October 20 (The trek began on September 28!)
  • time: 4 hours including lunch and a stop at the Snowman Trek store above Rerethang
  • distance: 13 km.
  • start point altitude: Rerethang  3670 m
  • endpoint altitude: Upper Sephu   2876m

For the past few evenings, dinner time conversation had centered increasingly on our plans after we finished the trek.  Plane connections, work commitments, future trips … all signs that the end was near! Over the past three weeks, we had walked a bit over 300 kilometers through some pretty crappy weather (the first ten days) and over some fairly rough terrain, challenging even to yaks and horses, never mind trekkers! We had also walked into some stunning vistas and in the last half of the trek, the peaks would often be in full view and not be shrouded in cloud cover.

And amazingly almost all of us had made it, though we had lost one in Laya with a severe respiratory issue and another on Day 21 with a stomach problem.

We had one last section to do – the 13 kilometers from Rerethang to the endpoint at Upper Sephu.  We had left the alpine behind; the morning would start on the west side trail down along the Nikka Chhu across fairly flat and open terrain. The satellite image below shows that stretch from Rerethang to Maurothang – easy walking.

After Maurathang, we crossed over to the east side and the trail mostly went across the forested slopes.  On occasion, we were 50 or 100 meters above the river as we made our way south.  Along the way, we also crossed a number of streams that tumble down to the Nikka Chhu -either rock hopping our way across or making use of the wooden bridges.

The red line on the satellite image below is a rough approximation of our route down the Nikka Chhu from Maurothang to Upper Sephu. It took about 3 1/2 hours at a  brisk pace to get done. In the process, we dropped another 800 meters in elevation. We had not been below 3000 meters in three weeks!


looking up the Nikka Chhu from the trail to Upper Sephu

the Nikka Chhu as it flows down towards Sephu

Somewhere along the way, I had my first hard fall of the trip!  22 days without incident and an hour before the end I placed my right boot on a sloped wet rock only to have it slip down.  I lost my balance and somehow the right side of my rib cage bumped hard into a rock.  The trekking poles I always have in my hands helped reduce the severity of the fall somewhat but it still hurt. It was mild enough that I could keep on walking but every once in a while there would be a stab of pain if I moved in the wrong way.

[It took about three weeks for the pain to go away. Back in Toronto, I had trouble lifting my right leg over the top tube of my bicycle. And then one day – no pain! Don’t you just love how time itself is often the answer, at least in the short run!]

yaks lounging on the trail from Maurothang to Upper Sephu

Upper Sephu is at the end of a dirt road that winds its way up the east side of the Nikka Chhu from the Bumthang-Ura highway and Sephu proper.  I guess a few years ago this road did not exist and trekkers walked right to the highway and the Nikka Chhu bridge, another six or seven kilometers away.

We were greeted there by the Yangphel support team. They had arranged lunch for us, complete with bottles of wine and beer and a celebratory cake.  There we are sitting at our table!

I did gather together some of the left-over bits of meat and gave a local dog watching the proceedings a surprise treat. But then, maybe it wasn’t a surprise!  He may have learned that gatherings such as ours often result in some freebies!

a local dog watching the proceedings at Upper Sephu

Not keen on dealing with the impact of even a bit of alcohol on my head while we spent the next four hours rocking back and forth on the bus, I decided to postpone my reintroduction to beer until that evening. On the table was a bottle of Bhutan’s finest red wine.  Later that evening I ended up ordering a can of tonic water! Fun guy!

the lunch table at Nikka Chhu – trek dun!

Tipping is always a big deal at the end of these treks.  Over the past three evenings, the World Expeditions guide had collected some U.S.$300. to $400. from each of the 16 trekkers and come up with a formula to calculate each support staff member’s share based on their role. The tip – and the concern about it shown by the guides from Day 1 –   was just another reminder of economic reality trumping the ultimate B.S. of the Gross National Happiness concept concocted by Thimphu’s political elite on behalf of the vast majority of Bhutan’s citizens.  The  Speeches made, thanks given, a few group photos of the support crew and their trekker guests, final handshakes and hugs …

the team which made our Snowman Trek happen

As noted elsewhere, World Expeditions was the non-Bhutanese company that organized the trip, brought together the 16 trekkers, made sure that visa and other issues were dealt with, and worked with the local adventure travel agency, Yangphel, to make sure that certain standards were met. I was told that WE has been using Yangphel to handle its Snowman trip for the past two years.

World Expeditions also sent one of their own guides along.  His two decades’ worth of experience with high altitude trekking and Himalayan climbing was a bonus; the local guide assigned by Yangphel was also very experienced and knowledgeable thanks to twenty years of handling all sorts of tours from birding to various trekking routes to a dozen times on the Snowman. Both were just nice guys and made the trip more enjoyable.

The trek cost me US $ 7800.+ tip.   Since the Bhutanese charge their “high value, low impact” (that is, non-Indian) tourists US $250. a day to be in Bhutan, that means $6750. (27 days x $250.) went to the local trekking agency and to the Bhutanese government.

  • The Bhutanese government take is $65 a day or $1755  for the entire 27-day stay! 
  • The trekking agency gets $5000. 
  • The remainder, about US$1000. per trekker, is the World Expeditions charge for making the trip happen and to pay for the salary of their own assigned guide. 

The tip is expected by all and added another $375. to the final cost of the trip.

See this Lonely Planet article (here) on money matters in Bhutan.

While you could just arrange the trek yourself through a Bhutanese agency,  the problem is one of numbers.  You would need to find at least one and preferably two or three other trekkers who would be willing to commit to the trip at the same time as you.  Thanks to its attractive website, World Expeditions and other companies like it, do the finding of trekking mates for you.  That is worth at least a couple of hundred dollars.

I will admit that a group size of 16 trekkers is not ideal. Consider the three previous organized treks I have done –

  • Tanzania – Kilimanjaro eight-day Lemosho route   5 clients
  • Bolivia – Cordillera Real Traverse – 15 days              7 clients
  • Nepal – Upper MUstang-Phu Valley Traverse          5 clients

There were almost as many trekkers on this Snowman trek as on my previous three combined! With 43 horses and a dozen support staff, we were a small village on the move!

final group shot of the crew – trekkers and support staff

By 1:30 we trekkers would hop into the bus pictured in the image below.  Destination – Punakha and what would turn out to be an excellent hotel/resort on the slopes on the west side of the Mo River.  Showers, wifi, email, food choices, and food choices other than the trek food I had seen enough of …

Yangphel staff at Upper Sephu with our bus to Punakha

our Punakha camp spot – definitely an upgrade

Punakha and the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers

Next Post: Day: Punakha, Thimphu, and Paro – Random Images

the Punakha Dzong – the view from the Zhingkham Resort

The Complete Day-By-Day Snowman Trip Report! 

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho To Rerethang Via Tempe La

Previous Post: Day 21 – Tsho Tsho Thampa to Tampoe Tsho

  • calendar date: October 19, 2019.
  • time: 6 hours including lunch and a stop at the Snowman Trek store above Rerethang
  • distance: 11 km.
  • start point altitude: Tampoe Tsho  4323m
  • endpoint campsite: Rerethang 3670m
  • high pass crossing: Tempe La  4665m
  • 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!)

Thampe Tsho campsite – morning shot

Our last full day of trekking – and a scenic one at that!  On tap was our last pass of the trek (it was #11) and then a walk along the shores of two lakes, one 100 meters below the more famous one known as Om Tsho. Then a steep descent to the headwaters of the Nikka Chhu, which we would follow all the way down for the next day.

the trail to Tempe La from Tempe (Thampoe) Tsho – from the bottom right to top left

It started with a walk into the middle of the terrain pictured above and then curled left up to the pass. In an hour we had ascended about 300 meters on a walkable trail.  I stayed up there for a few minutes but, given the chilling effect of the blowing wind, decided to generate some heat by heading down the other side.

Tampoe Tsho to Tempe La

a view from Tempe La back to Thampoe Tsho

Tempe La – looking down to Tempe Tsho

cairn and prayer flags on Tempe La above Thampoe Tsho

looking south from Tempe La – the trail to Sephu

I’d end up lounging about a half-hour down at the bottom of the hill, enjoying the wind-free spot and the sunshine.  The two images below show the actual trail from the pass; it heads diagonally to the left and stays above the rock-strewn valley floor where I was waiting. I’d eventually join the rest of the crew a kilometer further down.

the start of the trail down from Tempe La

satellite view of Tempe La – Om Tsho area

One last look back at Tempe La and then it was time to move forward!

panorama for the trail between Thampe La and Om Tsho

It would not take us long to come to one of those WOW moments, one of those memorable views. In this case, it was of Om Tsho (4322m).

The lake is famous for supposedly yielding Buddhist “treasures” to Pema Lingpa (1450-1521).  He was a Bhutanese-born follower of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.  They had apparently been put there by the Himalayan Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, some six hundred years previously! These treasures are known to  Himalayan Buddhists as terma; the one who finds them, thanks to guidance from Guru Rinpoche, is called a terton.  An hour spent reading through The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa turned up no mention of Om Tsho and what he found there; nor did another half-hour of internet surfing of other sources! It is quite likely that what Lingpa is said to have hauled out of the lake included a text..It is believed that the terma texts were written in a Dakini script that only the terton could translate!

All of this brings to mind Joseph Smith, who claimed to have found a similar “treasure” [the Golden Plates] in upper New York State.   The plates would provide the foundation of a religious movement known as the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), an offshoot of Christianity. Smith was able to translate them from a language that he did not know thanks to angelic help.  Coincidently, the number of believers is approximately the same – 15 million Mormons and 20 million Himalayan or Vajrayana Buddhists, an offshoot of the Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama.

Om Tsho is the lake pictured below.  I took the photo from the spot indicated by the red circle in the satellite image above.

Om Tsho – a view from the north

the horses of our lunch team pass by the top of Om Tsho

a Snowman Trail view of Om Tsho from the south end

From Om Tsho the trail dips down to cross its outlet stream and then climbs up again to a ridge overlooking a second smaller lake 100 meters below.  In the image below I am looking down at that outlet stream and some of our horses and crew as they cross it and continue upward.

our horses as they cross the outlet stream from Om Tsho

The first of two steep downhills are up next:

  • 150 meters down to the lower lake from Om Tsho
  • 230 meters down to the broad valley floor and the headwaters of the Nikka Chhu

satellite view – Tempe La to Zezey Thang

the smaller lake below Om Tsho – with inflow from the upper lake

The trekkers in the two images are starting or are in their descent from Om Tsho to the lower lake.

Snowman trekkers on the ridge below Om Tsho

the trail from Om Tsho to the lake below

When I reached the lower lake I sat on a rock at the top end of it and looked down at another nice view.  On the left of the image below, you can see the trail and one of my fellow trekkers, who is pushing on to the other end. When I myself got there I found a single string of prayer flags draped across the outlet stream of the lake. It was one of those rare occasions when I did not feel compelled enough to take a photo!

the top end of the small lake below Om Tsho

And then the second steeper and longer drop in elevation. Here is the Lonely Planet Guide To Bhutan description:

From the second lake to the headwaters of the Nikka Chhu is a descent so steep that even yaks are reluctant to come down this stretch.  LP Guide To Bhutan

a few of our horses coming down a steep section to Zezey Thang

waterfall from the lake just above ZeZey Thang

from the Snowman Shop to the Rerethang Campsite

the yak herder’s place south of Zezey Thang

the headwaters of the Nikka Chhu

yak herder’s drying sheets by Rerethang

two young women tending the Snowman Shop

the Nikka Chhu as it approaches our campsite on its floodplain

approaching our Rerethang campsite after a brief stop at the Snowman Shop for beverages

Next Post: Day 23 – Rerethang To Upper Sephu

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 21 – Tsho Tsho Tshampa To Tampoe Tsho

Previous Post: Day 20  – Jichu DramoTo Tsho Tsho Thampa

  • calendar date: October 18, 2019.
  • time: just under 6 hours total, including lunch and rest breaks
  • distance: 15 km.
  • start point altitude: Tsho Tsho Thampa  (aka Thsongsa Thang)  4342m
  • endpoint campsite:  Tampoe Tsho  4323m – see OpenStreetMap topo here
  • high pass crossing: none
  • 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!)

Coming up – Day 4 of our 5 1/2 Day Lunana to Sephu Traverse! We had already done:

  • Chozo to CS West of Tsho Chena on Day 1
  • Tsho Chena CS to Jichu Dramo Via Loju La on Day 2
  • Jichu Dramo to Tsho Tsho Tshampa Via Rinchen Zoe La on Day 3

satellite view of the walk from Tsho Tsho Thampa to Tampoe Tsho

Re: the day’s walk:  We had five kilometers less to cover but the topo map showed that we’d be crossing a series of closely bunched up topo lines as we left the river and headed for our lakeside campsite in a side valley whose lake –  Tampoe or Thempe Tsho – flows down into the Thampe or Tampe Chhu.

Note: wouldn’t it be nice if the Bhutan Tourist Board initiated a standardization of the spellings of the country’s various places and geographical features.  We do not need seven different spellings of Jomolhari!  This particular day was a special treat!  Tsho Tsho Thampa to Thampoe Tsho? Or is that Thsongsa Thang instead of Tsho Tsho Thampa and Tempe instead of Tampoe Tsho?   … it is confusing!  Go to Google to find out about a spot on the Snowman Trek and what it will turn up will depend on how you spelled it!

trekkers’ tents at Tsho Tsho Thampa –  morning cloud

some of our horses at Tsho Tsho Thampa – camp takedown

We had some sad business to take care of as the day began. A severe stomach issue led the guides to call in a helicopter from Thimphu to pick up one of our trekking group. A landing area was established some distance away from the camp; we said our goodbyes and set off as she and the guides waited for the ‘copter’s arrival.  We were perhaps two kilometers down-valley when we saw it come by.  Two minutes later it was on its way back to some medical care. She would rejoin us three days later in Thimphu; she was doing okay and was relieved that the insurance coverage for the medivac had come through.

The cost for the helicopter extraction? An extortionary $10,000 U.S.! A more fair charge for the 90-kilometer flight would be in the $2500. – $3000. range.

  • Costs would be covered,
  • a small profit would still be made, and
  • Bhutan’s government would be fulfilling its role as a concerned and caring host for the “high value, low impact” trekkers whom it charges U.S. $250.  a day to traverse isolated and high-altitude regions of the country.

Instead, what visitors to Bhutan get is a state-sponsored version of the decades-long helicopter scam that has plagued Nepal and led to foreign insurers threatening not to provide insurance for travellers to that Himalayan country. (See here for some background on the Nepal situation.)

The company providing the medivac (the state-owned  Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services)  has had 2 helicopters – older Airbus H130s-  since 2015. Before that, Indian Army helicopters would be called into service if needed!  In 2020, RBHS is gouging a tourist in need of medical aid of at least US$7000.  Of course, as with Druk Air,  the helicopter outfit has a monopoly and can charge whatever it wants. This does not make it right.

The first part of the morning’s walk was down a broad valley. The early morning snowfall lingered for a while on the scrubs we passed by but by mid-morning it would all be gone.

the start of the day’s hike – down a broad section fo the Thampe Chhu

We would never cross the Thampe Chhu during our descent of the valley, remaining on the west side right to our lunch spot.  the three following pix capture some of the scenery.

looking down the Thampe Tsho

looking upriver from the trail along the Thampe Chhu

the trail on the west side of the Thampe Chhu

We had started off at 4342 m; we were at 3989m by noon and our lunch stop. as the table got set up, some of our horse team passed us by.  We had come down 350 meters in some easy walking.  Kinley and Karma and the horses who were on lunch hauling duty remained behind to organize everything!

lunch spot at a clearing on the banks of the Thampe Chhu

the horse lunch team gets a one hour break on the banks of the Thampe Chhu

That 350 meters of descent in the morning? Well, we’d gain most of it back on our afternoon hike to the day’s campsite on the west side of Thampoe Tsho(4323m) 4312m.     Once or twice I remember thinking – “Will this never stop going up?”  It was relentless. As always, with a rest break or three to let my heart rate fall below 130 again, it got done.  Parts of the heavily forested mountainside had me looking for Frodo and his fellow hobbits off on their own Bhutanese adventure – it was magical.

forest trail above the Thampe Chhu

some serious uphill to get to Thampoe Tsho campsite

Walking around the corner and into the hidden Thampoe Tsho valley was a WOW moment.

trekkers approaching Tempoe Tsho on the Snowman Trek

the outlet from Thampoe Tsho

the Thampoe Tsho trail to the campsite

When we got to the camp, the tents were mostly set up. Soon everyone had hauled their duffels inside their “room with a view” just above the lake.  Outside, I could hear the pitter-patter of rain hitting the tent fly.  I’d stay inside the tent until tea and biscuit time an hour or so later. In the image below you can see the blue cook tent on the left, the trekkers’ dining tent to its right, and two of our 12 trekkers’ tents on the right.  The lake was just below our tents.

Thampe Tsho campsite – morning shot

Sad to report that this campsite was a mess – garbage all over the place. Floating in the water, badly hidden behind rocks…the site needs a real cleanup.  Perhaps the Jigme Dorje park officials could hire some locals to tend to these sites. 99% of the garbage is produced and left by Bhutanese people. It is either those young men working for trekking agencies who get careless after their clients have left and they take down the camp – or it is local travellers passing through and making use of the campsite.

some garbage left behind by previous trekking groups or local travellers

On Day 1 of our trek, we had each been given a World Expeditions- labelled nylon sack to put litter in. I assumed it was for my litter and it kept my Clif Bar wrappers and all other refuse I generated in one place; at the end of the trip I handed it over to the assistant guide.

Given that it gets at least half the trekking traffic in Bhutan, the trail from Shana to Jomolhari is especially bad for trailside and campsite garbage. Congrats to those in my trekking party who also stopped to pick up random bits of Bhutanese-generated garbage on the side of the trail;  I did not do so and focussed just on my own.

a view of Thampe Tsho from the campsite

garbage left by previous trekking groups or local travellers

Day Four of our Lunana-Sephu Traverse – the last of the Snowman Trek’s sections – was done. Still to go – a full day the next day and a half-day to finish it off. After 21 days on the trail I was definitely motivated by a shower and some different food, hopefully vegan-friendly.

Next Post: Day 22 – Tampoe Tsho to Revethang

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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








Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 19 – Tsho Chena To Jichu Dramo Via Loju La

Previous Post: Day 18 – Chozo To Camp West of Tsho Chena Via Sintia La

  • calendar date: October 16, 2019.
  • time:  6 hours total, including lunch and rest breaks
  • distance: 20 km.
  • start point altitude: camp west of Tsho Chena  4925m
  • endpoint campsite: Jichu Dramo 5015 m; 5060m (Jordans)
  • high pass crossing: Loju La  5115 m (my Garmin inReach); 5145m (Jordans); 5140m (Lonely Planet)
  • 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!
  • 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!)

Camp west of Tsho Chena to Jichu Dramo Via Loju La

Snowman Day 19 – West of Tsho Chena to Jichu Dramo Via Loju La

We woke up to a bit of frost on the outside of the tents – and some condensation inside.  I had started to zip open the window above my head at the end of the tent to allow some ventilation.  Still, if we arrived at camp early enough in the afternoon, I’d drape my sleeping bag over the outside of the tent so it could catch some sun rays and dry out a bit.

early morning frost on our tent at our west-of-Tsho Chena camp

Tsho Chena Camp – our horses waiting for their day’s assignments

By the time we left camp at around 8:30, the moisture on the tent had already evaporated. The tent crew got to pack away tents that were not wet. In the image below you can see a large canvas sack in front of each trekker’s tent. Inside was the stuff that had been inside each tent:

  1. the trekker’s duffel bag – about 15 kg.
  2. a 1m x 2m wool carpet
  3. a Thermarest Basecamp sleeping pad
  4.  a pillow

I had initially declined the pillow and the carpet; it just seemed a bit over-the-top to me, thanks to forty years of spartan canoe trips where the motto is always “Less is better!”

Well, I got over it after a few days when I realized that those items were still part of the baggage being carried every day so I might as well make use of them. I’m glad I did!  Given the ten hours a day you spend in your tent, a comfortable space to crawl into at the end of each day is reassuring!

[Note: The Bhutanese agency, Yangphel Aventure Travel in Thimphu, organized our trek on behalf of World Expeditions, the Australian adventure travel company through which I actually booked my trip.  Not all agencies will necessarily provide the quality equipment that Yangphel did, from a three-person Marmot 4-season  tent for each of us to the items mentioned above.  As well, we were each loaned an excellent Marmot sleeping bag and, if requested, warm parkas.

One Canadian trekking group of four I talked to had booked directly with a Thimphu company; they had two A-frame tents, with two per tent. It was crowded in there! Understanding exactly what gear – tent, bag, sleeping pad, etc. – that the agency will provide is essential before you set off.]

takedown of our camp near Tsho Chena

The day’s walk was an easy one in which we neither gained nor lost much altitude. There was a gradual elevation gain of about 200 meters over two-and-a-half hours from the campsite to Loju La. Along the way, we passed by a number of glacial lakes and puddles; current satellite imagery has many of them in a frozen state.

Also noteworthy is the shrinking size of these lakes. Looking at trip reports from a few years ago often show lakes that are noticeably larger in size. Given how shallow these “lakes” are, perhaps it does not take much to cause such a change. I wonder if there will be any lakes – or snow-covered peaks – in this stretch of the Snowman in twenty years.

two shallow glacial lakes just below our Day 18 Campsite

The photo below was taken from a scenic lookout at 5100 meters we came to about an hour into the walk.  Looking back I could still see some of our orange tents were up.

looking back at the first hour of the day’s walk – enlarge to see our previous day’s campsite

a glacial lake before Loju La – it could be Tsho Chena

We got to Loju La pass just before 11, 2.5 hours after setting off. We relaxed for a while and enjoyed the views and the feel of the sun.  We waited long enough that the lunch team – Karma and Kinley and a horse handler, as well as three horses carrying all the food and gear – came up to the pass and continued on down the other side.

laptse (pile of stones) and prayer flags at Loju La – Day 19 of the Snowman trek

Angel ‘s photo – our lunch team crossing Loju La on Day 19 of the Snowman Trek

the glacial puddle below Loju La on the south side

We would soon follow them down.  One of my fellow trekkers took the shot below of that glacial lake I had framed from on top of the pass. Nicely captured is the clarity of the water.  I do wonder if that puddle is even a half-meter deep!

glacial puddle on the south side of Loju La

Lunch came shortly afterwards and, as you can see from the image a couple down, it was the usual deluxe affair, complete with table cloths! Note the Helinox chairs provided – they represent a major investment for the agency!

lunch below Loju La – Bhutan trekking style

scenic view on the south side of Loju La on the Snowman Trek in Bhutan

a close up of the dominant peak in the above stretch of rock

After lunch, it was less than two hours to our campsite over fairly flat terrain.  I must have gone into a walking trance because I took no more photos this day, not even of our campsite at Jichu La as we arrived!  At 5015m, we were about 100 meters higher than at the start of the day.

Luckily, the next morning would provide some dramatic campsite images!

Next Post: Day 20 – Jichu Dramo To Tsho Tsho Tshang Via Rinchen Zoe La

some stunning shots from Rinchen Zoe La…the Snowman’s highest pass

a yak team crossing Rinchen Zoe La at 5325 m – the highest pass of the Snowman trek


Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 18 – Chozo To Tsho Chena Via Sintia La

Previous Post: Day 17 – Rest Day In Chozo

  • calendar date: October 15, 2019.
  • time:   8 1/2 hours total, including lunch and rest breaks
  • distance:  16 km.
  • start point altitude: Chozo 4120m
  • endpoint campsite: camp west of Tsho Chena  4925m
  • high pass crossing: Sintia La 5200 m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! Sintia La is indicated (28.016522    90.186121 ).
  • 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!)

The Snowman Trek can be divided into main sections:

  1. the trail from Shana past Jomolhari and on to Chebisa and ending at Laya – 11 days.
  2. the trail to Lunana from Laya to either Chozo or Thanza –  5 days
  3. the trail south from Chozo or Thanza to either Upper Sephu or Duer Village – 6 days

The last section of our trek – and reputedly the toughest one – was about to begin.  Coming up were the two highest passes of the trek and a couple of nights’ camping at around 5000 meters.  This high altitude trekking would remind me at times of my walk across the high plateau on the north side of Nepal’s Annapurna range in Upper Mustang.  The views over the next five and half days would sometimes rival the ones of that earlier trip, even if there is nothing in Bhutan as dramatic as our crossing of Nepal’s Saribung La (6040m). [See here for pix of the Saribung La area.]

Laya To Upper Sephu – high passes and campsites graph

Some trekkers had gotten up early to see off the seven ultra-marathoners on Day 3 of their five-day Snowman Race Calibration Run. [See the previous post for more information.  The first official race will be held in October 2020.]  It was a sunny morning in Chozo and by 7:30 breakfast time, trekkers and staff were milling about in the building below the tents in the image below.  After a day off the trail we were keen to get back to it.

our Chozo campsite in the morning sun

looking up the Pho valley to the top of Lunana

To get to the bridge crossing the Pho Chhu, we had to retrace our steps about a kilometer downriver. As we did, I turned around and got a fairly clear view of Table Mountain, one you don’t get when you’re in the settlement itself.  The view would only improve the further we walked downriver.

walking downriver from Chozo to the bridge crossing

Some Snowman route itineraries take the trekkers through Thanza and turn south from there.  Our route could be called a shortcut since we were accessing a route just across the river from Chozo. As we neared the bridge, a team of ten horses were coming towards us. They were from Toncho or one of the settlements near Thanza and on their way to our campsite as part of the horse team our guide had arranged to take us down to the endpoint at Upper Sephu above the Nikka Chhu.

a local horse team on its way to Chozo

From the other side of the river and from higher elevations as we started our climb to Sintia La,  there were more great views of Table Mountain (aka Gangchen Singye, Tjojokang, and yet other names with variable spellings).  I much prefer this kind of trekking – and the views it offers – to the muddy trails on the heavily forested slopes of the first two and a half days of the Snowman Trek.

a view of Tshojo (Chozo) and Table Mountain from the other side of the Pho Chhu

looking back at Chozo and surroundings from the other side of the Pho Chhu

The first couple of hours were steady uphill but the trail was fairly clear and the walking easy. We had as company a Chozo local who was looking for a yak who had gone missing the previous day.  We left him without finding out if he had any luck.  It was the top half of the day’s climb where things got a bit more difficult –  it involved walking through a boulder field on a  steep slope.   The two following pix will give you an idea!

trekkers and horses heading up to Sintia La

a rough trail up to Sintia La from Chozo

Somewhere along the way – making ourselves comfortable in the rock rubble – we had lunch.

We had left around 8:30; by 2:30 we were walking alongside the glacial lake on the Chozo side of the Sintia La (aka Chinchu La).  The most taxing part of the day was over since the pass is just beyond it.

the glacial lake on the north side of Sintia La – trail visible on the right-hand side of the image

the trail passes by the lake before Sintia La – See here for a similar shot from 2017 with prayer flags!

Sintia La was the least pass-like of the eleven we did.  Once beyond that glacial lake on the Chozo side, you reach a high plateau and it takes a moment to realize that is it. There were no prayer flags or rockpiles to mark the spot. The red pin on each map indicates the location of the “pass”, which we marked  with the customary “Lha gyalo” shout. We were at 5200 meters, the high point of the trail that would take us to our camp.

Apple Maps Satellite view – Chozo to Sintia La

And here is the Google Earth view;  the shallow lake south of Sintia La is partially visible.

Google Earth satellite view – Chozo to Sintia La 5200m

As noted, no prayer flags, no cairns.  The trail marker in the bottom left of the image immediately below is about the only marker I can remember seeing.

Sintia La – the day’s high point from Chozo to Tsho Chena

the shallow lake just south of Sintia La in Bhutan’s Lunana district

A five-centimeter snowfall on the plateau would hide any evidence of the path trodden by previous pack animals, traders, and trekkers and make the walk that much more interesting!

terrain south of Sintia La

For some reason, I took no photos for the next hour and a half!  We would lose about 250 meters in altitude as we walked across a high plateau to our campsite 2.5  kilometers west of Tsho Chena.

my Garmin inReach track of the route from Sintia La to our campsite west of Tsho Chena

a Google Earth View of the terrain from Sintia La to a Campsite 2.5 km. west of Tsho Chena

Snowman Trek Day 18 Camp (4925m) west of Tsho Chena

Day 18 campsite near Tsho Chena

Next Post -:Day 19 – Tsho Chena To Jitchu Dramo Via Joju La

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 17 – Chozo Rest Day

Previous Post: Day 16 – Green Lake To Chozo Via Keche La

  • calendar date: October 14, 2019.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the Chozo (also spelled Tshojo)  and environs. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! TBH, the view isn’t always the greatest! If you have Apple Maps, its satellite view is sometimes more detailed and more realistic than the Google one.
  • 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 day to do nothing – or next to it!  Some of the group were more ambitious and headed off to Thanza,  five kilometers up at the top of the Pho Chhu valley.  Those versions of the Snowman Trek that end in Bumthang usually spend two nights in Thanza. Since our route south started with a high pass just across the river from Chozo, it made more sense for us to camp there instead.

downtown Chozo on a sunny morning in October – our lodge on the bottom right/the Dzong visible above all the other buildings/behind is the ridge I regret not having walked up

A day to do nothing – or next to it!  Some of the group were more ambitious and headed off to Thanza,  five kilometers up at the top of the Pho Chhu valley.  Those versions of the Snowman Trek that end in Bumthang usually spend two nights in Thanza. Since our route south started with a high pass just across the river from Chozo, it made more sense for us to camp there instead.

Chozo as seen from up high on the other side of the river the next morning

A late breakfast and an extra cup of coffee and then a bit of rambling up and down the paths in the village …that’s what I did.  Some were keen and did laundry. Then it was time for lunch and a nap followed by a flurry of movement as the kitchen staff, having warmed up enough hot water,  called us in turn to the shower tent. It was our third (and last!) full-body wash of the trek; the next one would be in Punakha a week later.

the kitchen team getting lunch ready

A Visit To the Chozo Dzong:

If England is about castles and France about châteaus, then western and central Bhutan is all about dzongs! They are the #1 tourist attraction in Paro and Punakha and Thimphu; more remote ones like Drugyel Dzong and Lingshi Dzong also see visitors, the number only determined by the difficulty in getting there.

The dzong in Chozo probably wins the prize for most remote!  Also, given the economic base that supports it, it is also one of the more humble ones, even more so than the one in Lingshi.  However, unlike the Lingshi dzong damaged repeatedly by earthquakes and fire, this one is intact and in good shape.

A photo by Mark Horell on his Flickr page  shows the dzong as it was a decade ago before it was given a new roof and painted. It definitely looked better in 2019! (See here for the 2009 look!)

the Chozo Dzong and surrounding area

The dzong sits high above the floodplain of the Pho Chhu.  The two-storey U-shaped front section and open courtyard are enclosed in the back by the utse or tower.  While it may have served as an administrative and religious center in better days, now only a solitary monk lives here.

Lunana’s Chozo Dzong -the  front side

The main door was locked when we first approached the dzong and a knock on the door did not prompt a response. I ended up walking around the building, only later realizing that I had broken a basic law of the Himalayas when it comes to religious structures like mani walls and chortens – and dzongs: I had gone around counter-clockwise!

Chozo Dzong – front door

a chorten behind the Chozo dzong

Behind the dzong, I found what looked like an altar, a place to leave offerings.  At the foot of the structure were three plastic soft drink bottles, either litter or containers emptied of the liquid gifted to placate the spirits.

a stone structure behind the Chozo dzong

On the roof were three cross-shaped things bound with string – all in an identical pattern. Like the dream catcher of Anishinaabe culture in Canada, it is meant to trap negative spirits. Known as a dzoe or tendo, the device illustrates certain beliefs held by its users –

a Dzoe  orTendo – spirit catcher – behind the Chozo Dzong

Sometimes you will come across a strange construction of twigs, straw and rainbow-coloured thread woven into a spider-web shape. You may see one near a building or by a roadside, with flower and food offerings. This is a dzoe (also known as a tendo), a sort of spirit catcher used to exorcise something evil that has been pestering a household. The malevolent spirits are drawn to the dzoe. After prayers the dzoe is cast away, often on a trail or road, to send away the evil spirits it has trapped.  from     Lonely Planet web page on Bhutanese Life – see here

the Chozo Dzong – a view from the back

Circling the dzong, I was back at the front.  The door was open and my fellow trekker called to me to come in.  The monk (and keeper of the keys) had apparently heard that we wanted to visit and had come up to the dzong from our lodge.  The photos below show some of what we saw – but not the most important.

the interior of the Chozo Dzong

We walked across the courtyard to the utse, the tower structure at the back of the dzong. The resident monk opened the door you see in the image below and, after taking off our boots at the entrance,  up we went on a set of ladder steps to the second floor.  We entered the room and found a shrine area with three not-quite-lifesize metal statues, perhaps of bronze or painted to look like it. The three figures were, from left to right –

Padmasambhava (i.e. Guru Rinpoche) – the Buddhist tantric master who brought his version of Buddhism from northern India to Tibet in the 700s CE (that is, 1300 years ago). In the Himalayan cultural world, he is known as “the Second Buddha” but the fact is that his version of Buddhism, infused as it was with tantric concepts, fit much better with the pre-existing animistic beliefs of the Bon religion than the teachings of the first Buddha. The shrine figure had Padmasambhava holding a bell in one hand and a Dorje or thunderbolt in the other; his moustache is another clue as to his identity.

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha,  – the 400’s B.C. originator of what we now know as Buddhism who lived most of life in the Ganges plain area. He is depicted in the classic mudra with his right hand touching the earth; the significance of this would be known to all Buddhists.

Ngawang Namgyal – a Tibetan Buddhist monk, as well as a military and political leader. Also known by the title Zhabdrung Rinpoche “(the precious one at whose feet one submits”),  in the early to mid-1600s  he united the western and central areas of the political entity we know today as Bhutan. Belonging to the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism, he often found himself at odds with other Buddhist groups within Bhutan and with the branch on the ascendant in Tibet at that time, the Gelugpa sect headed by the 5th. Dalai Lama. He can be identified by his full beard and red hat associated with the Drukpa line.

A Youtube video posted in 2013 recorded a puja ceremony in the shrine room.  While the statues of the three above figures are not revealed, you do get an idea of what the room looks like.

At the end of the trip, we would visit the Punakha Dzong and in the breathtaking main shrine room we saw the same arrangement of the three above figures – the Holy Trinity of Bhutanese Buddhism!

It would have been nice to get a few photos of the shrine area to compensate for my faulty memory of what I saw!  As is always the case in Bhutan, no photos were permitted within the temple itself.

Chozo Dzong monk at the door to the tower/utse

the Chozo Dzong – the interior front wall and door to the outside

Click here for 6 Bhutanese Dzongs – Fortresses, Architecture & Significance for a basic overview of the Bhutanese dzong, complete with good images of some of the major ones. The article could use some editing by someone who uses English as a first language.  [If the link is dead, you can access a pdf file of the article here.]

A  more in-depth and worthwhile source of information is Fortress Monasteries of the Himalayas by Peter Harrison. It is downloadable from Amazon in kindle format for US$7.64. The front cover has an illustration of the ultimate dzong of all, the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet.

Villagers And Trekking Staff At Work And Play:

some of our support staff killing time in Chozo – Thanza and the top of Lunana valley are behind them

Chozo boys practising the national sport of Bhutan near our camping spot

a Chozo house in the traditional Ngalop style

bundling hay in one of the fields behind our camping area

Chozo in Lunana -hay storage – or drying? – platform

Chozo Lunana in October – wood supply for the coming winter

one of the trek support team playing the dranyen, a traditional Tibetan lute

Climate Change: Its Impact In Lunana

The acronym GLOF stands for glacial lake outburst flood. I had heard of the phenomenon before; a trek up the Imja Tse valley in the Everest region of Nepal brought us close to a lake, Imja Tsho, which was a mere puddle fifty years ago. These days it contains two billion cubic meters of water; it is held back by its terminal moraine,  the accumulated rock debris collected at the bottom of a glacier that acts as a dam to the melting glacier above it and helps form the lake.  The flood can be initiated by various factors:

  • inflowing water from a higher-up lake
  • an earthquake
  • an avalanche

Lunana and the Glacial Lakes

When I first looked at a satellite image of the heart of Lunana district – the stretch of the Pho Chhu from Ledhi up to Thanza – I noticed that at the top of the valley were three lakes:

  1. Raphstreng Tsho
  2. Thorthormi Tsho
  3. Luggye Tsho

The top of Lunana valley looked like an ideal place for a similar occurrence.  More research turned up accounts of a 1994 flood caused when the southwest corner of Luggye Tsho’s terminal moraine gave way. Glacial water had rushed down the Pho Chhu and killed 20 people and destroyed several buildings as far down as Punakha and its Dzong.

As if to bring the reality of GLOF, my Google Bhutan news alert flashed this article –

A GLOF threatens Bhutan right now …July 10, 2019.  (Click on the title to access)

I recall contacting the World Expeditions sales rep in Ottawa to see what the organizers had in place to deal with a possible flood!  I was assured they were aware of the situation!  When we walked through Lhedi just below Chozo I did note how high above the river the settlement was.  In Chozo, somewhat closer to the river, the thought of a GLOF while we sleeping did cross my mind a couple of times!

A bit more research when I got back from the trek turned up these stats on the Lunana GLOF warning system from October 9, just five days before we were there –

See here  for the source of the information

The Snowman Ultra-Marathon – 2019 Calibration Run

Okay, so our stay in Chozo did not coincide with the arrival of floodwaters from the Rephstreng or Thortormi Tshos!  However, on a much lighter note –  it did coincide with the arrival of the seven runners who were participating in the trial run of the Snowman Ultra-Marathon, the first of which will take place in October 2020.  The run is divided into five stages.

  1. Gasa – Rodophu    60 km.
  2. Rodophu – Tshojo   63 km.
  3. Chozo (Tshojo) – Gecheewam   51 km.
  4. Gecheewan – Dhur Tshachhu    39 km.
  5. Dhur Tshachhu – Bumthang    63 km.

Chozo school children preparing for the arrival of a Snowman Trail runner

Here is the promotional copy for the 2020 run from a website devoted to marathons:

This race of a lifetime follows the trail of the famous Snowman Trek, which has been completed by fewer people than Everest. The audacious event appropriately turns up the heat, focused as it is on Climate Change.  Slated to be the most challenging race in the world, this ultramarathon will take runners across the breathtaking, pristine landscapes of Lunana– lakes, glaciers, majestic mountains, shrubs, isolated villages, and the highest places within the Himalayan mountain range. Somewhere between myth and mystery, the unforgiving terrain will be a true test of strength, resilience, and willpower for even the most daring and fittest athletes.  See here for the web page. 

Not only does it connect the run with the climate change issue, but it also helps promote the Snowman Trek to lesser mortals.  How many people will actually end up doing it is open to debate.  Given more attractive options like the Annapurna 100, also in October, and runs (admittedly much shorter) on better terrain in the Everest region, only the hardcore masochists will be attracted to this five-day suffer-fest!

almost 5:30 and still no Snowman Trail runners at the Chozo finish line

It was Day 2 of the race and they had started from Rodophu that morning and covered 63 kilometers!  Three of the seven runners ( some identified as farmers while the others were in the Bhutanese Army) finished the route in less than twelve hours. The others arrived long after we had gone to bed!  The eventual winner was Sangay Wangchuk, a 36-year-old army guy.

Snowman Race Participants – 2019 Trial Run – See here for source

We had taken four days to cover Day 2’s 63-kilometer distance, which the runners agreed was the single-most difficult day!  The posts below cover that one day of their run:

  1. Rodophu to Narethang Via Tsemo La
  2. Narethang to Tarina Via Karakachu La (aka Kang Karchang La)
  3. Tarina to Green Lake via Woche
  4. Green lake To Chozo (also spelled Tshojo)

Sangay Wangchuk is the first to cross the Chozo Day 2  finish line – October 2019

See here for an article from Kuensel, a Bhutanese newspaper, about the trial run.

Note: Our version of the Snowman trek was somewhat different that this race version.

Ours started in Shana and went up to Laya via Jhomolhari and Chebisa, while the marathon version shortens it by starting in Gasa.  Also, we headed south from Chozo (Tshojo) while the marathon version passes through Thanza before turning south. It ends up in Bumthang, whereas our endpoint was Upper Sephu on the Nikka Chhu.

World Expeditions Snowman compared to Snowman Ulta-Marathon Route

Kandoo, a UK travel company, offers a version of the Snowman that comes closest to following the Ultra-marathon trail route.  See here for the details. [The look of their brochure has been copied from that of World Expeditions, the company I booked my trip with! See here.]

Our rest day in Chozo done, it was time to switch back into trekking mode.  We were heading south into what would be the most alpine-like part of our trek and my favourite.  It would start the very next morning with a relentless 1200-meter climb from Chozo to Sintia La, at 5200 meters our highest pass of the trek so far.

Next Post: Day 18 – Chozo To Tshochena Via Sintia La

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 16 – Green Lake To Chozo Via Keche La

Previous Post: Day 15 – Tarina To Green Lake Via Woche

  • calendar date: October 13, 2019.
  • time: 9 hours including lunch and rest breaks
  • distance:  23 km.
  • start point altitude: Green Lake 4400 m
  • endpoint campsite: Chozo 4052m
  • high pass crossing: Keche La 4650 m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser! If you have Apple Maps, its satellite view is more detailed and more realistic than the Google one.
  • 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!)

Low-hanging cloud meant there were no great views when I got up this morning. The hope was that things would clear up by the time we got to our high pass of the day, Keche La at 4650m, some 200 meters higher than our camp on above Green Lake.

Green Lake camp –  early morning

one of the lead horses – the red headdress is a sign of rank and status!

The Trail To Keche La: 

We set off around 8:00 and within an hour were at the pass.  The sequence of three images below captures the ascent to Keche La.  In the first you can see the camp down below; the second pic captures most of Green Lake; with the third image, we are at the pass and welcoming the last of the trekkers while just behind them is the second higher lake.

trekkers heading up to Keche La from the Green Lake Camp

on the way to Keche La – a one Keche La – a one-hour uphill walk from Green Lake camp

the view from Keche La – looking back at where we came from

the view from Keche La – the two lakes and the trail to get to the pass

There Be Demons To Subdue

Not our day for peaks – the cloud cover still obscured the tops of Teri Kang and Jejekangphu Kang. It was also quite windy up there so I began heading down soon after the last of the group arrived.  Doing so meant I missed adding my voice to yet another group shout of “Lha gyalo” (Victory to the gods!), a good luck ritual we had been asked to do at the top of each pass.

I did ask our guide if there was maybe a shout we could do for “Clear skies and visible peaks”. Unfortunately, there was only Lha gyalo! The shout was just one of the many reminders during the trek of how far Tibetan (i.e. Himalayan)  Buddhism strayed from the teaching of the historical Siddhartha Gautama.   It blended the local animistic Bon beliefs of the Himalayas with the Tantric Buddhism which flourished in northern India a thousand years after the Buddha.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  The passage of time changes everything. So too does taking one culture’s stories and explanations to the big questions of life and transplanting them in another one that already has a mythology and worldview of its own.  The variations of Christianity around the globe are but one example of how time and space impact on the development of religions.

However, the result is often clearly at odds with the actual teaching of the founder.  Few would argue that Himalayan Buddhism was actually Siddhartha’s intent.  After all, it is not Siddhartha Gautama but Padmasambhava, i.e. Guru Rinpoche, who is the real Buddha in the Himalayas; he is the master of sorcery and impressive tantric powers; he has female consorts and dakinis.  The Buddha of the Ganges plain – and of the teachings preserved in the Pali texts – would roll his eyes at the exalted place of lamas, the claims to secret teachings and their uncovering by tertons, the obsession with metaphysics, and the practice of magic and sorcery.

If Woche marked the traditional boundary of Lunana, then by some definition with our descent from Keche La we were entering the real heart of Lunana.

Keche La – heading down to the Pho Chhu and Lunana

We followed a mountain stream down the valley you see in the image below.  The hillsides were showing some autumn colour. While somewhat more subdued than the fall colours in the maple forests of central Ontario in Canada,  it was still a pretty sight.

trail and stream heading down to the Pho valley and Lunana

fall colours – Bhutan Himalaya style

Down the valley trail we went, arriving at the settlement of Tega (Thaga) at 4040 m. a bit more than an hour later.  The “village ” is made up of 6 houses scattered over a half-kilometer of the trail. At the top end, we passed by a surprisingly dilapidated chorten that looks like it has been abandoned by the locals. Perhaps the demons and monsters that once held sway in their imaginations have given way to other stories. The chorten we walked by certainly does not fit in with the Bhutan Tourist Board myth of their country as “the last Shangrila”.  Perhaps as a seasonal settlement, the people who live here have more pressing matters to attend to in the few months they are there?

a dilapidated chorten at the entrance to Tega (Thaga) in Lunana

Thaga chorten – close up

Thaga villagers on the side of the trail

Thaga boys watch the trekkers pass by

From Tega, the trail heads east alongside the Pho Chhu, at first high above the riverbed.  After we crossed a bridge that took us over a scenic waterfall, it then descended steeply  and soon we were approaching Lhedi on a trail going up a dry section of the river bed.

Snowman trail from Green Lake to Chozo

We got this view of Lhedi before crossing that bridge by the waterfall and then headed down to the dry riverbed of the Pho Chhu.

the first view of Lhedi as we walk up the Pho Chhu river bed from Thaga (Tega)

waterfall and bridge on the way to Lhedi in Lunana

approaching Ledhi – Pho Chhu riverbed trail

Lhedi is a small settlement that stretches for a kilometer on the north side of the Pho Chhu.  The Apple Maps satellite image below shows the dozen or so buildings that make it up. [In the Google Earth view, Lhedi appears as Lunana Village.] The most prominent building is the primary school, a U-shaped one-storey stone building with the schoolyard surrounded on three sides by classrooms and administrative offices.

Lhedi – satellite view of the Lunana settlement

Lhedi school – October 2019

We had lunch 100 meters beyond the school just off the trail out of the settlement. Later these two young women would come walking by, looking like they were set for an afternoon of shopping on Thimphu’s main street. They may have been going to the medical clinic in Lledi.

two young Lunana women on the trail to Lhedi from Chozo

After lunch, more riverbed walking that never seemed to end with some sections made tiring thanks to the attention we had to pay to every step on the irregularly shaped stones we were walking over.

a section of the trail from Lhedi to Chozo

the trail to Chozo on the left side of the Pho Chhu (East Branch)

Finally, Chozo!  We walked across that stone “bridge” in the middle of the image and headed for the building on the right-hand side for our camp spot.

We would spend two nights in Chozo.

  • It was a chance for the trekkers and agency staff to have a rest day and get things ready for the final leg of our trek.
  • It gave our guide some time to finalize arrangements for the new horse or yak team we would need since the horses that had carried our gear from Laya would be returning to that village.

approaching Chozo from downriver

In examining the satellite image of Chozo below I could not find the building we made use of during our Chozo stay. The building was new and the inside was only roughly done and not finished.  The Apple satellite image must predate its construction.

Not only did we camp behind it, but we also used a corner of it as our dining room, while our kitchen staff did the cooking in the next room.

Chozo in Lunana – Apple Maps satellite view – our lodge indicated by the X

Chozo trekkers’ campground in front of the settlement

Looming behind Chozo sits Table Mountain, that massive stretch of rock in the image below, which was shot a couple of days later from the other side of the river when we were back on trek.  Also visible in the image is the Chozo Dzong. On my rest day, I would walk up to the dzong and get a brief tour with the resident monk.  The next post has the details and pix.

Next Post: Day 17 – Rest Day In Chozo

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 15 – Tarina To Green lake Via Woche

Previous Post: Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina

  • calendar date: October 12, 2019.
  • time: 7  hours including lunch and rest breaks
  • distance: 16 km.
  • start point altitude: Tarina 3880m
  • endpoint campsite: Green Lake 4400m
  • high pass crossing: none this day
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser!
  • 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!)

Apple Map’s 3D Satellite View –

Apple Maps satellite-view-snowman-trek-Tarina-to-green-lake-east-of-Woche

Google Earth 3D View:

Google Earth satellite view – Tarina to Green Lake above Woche (3880 m)

The satellite image of our day’s walk is the first clue that the vistas on this day would not be as dramatic as the ones from the day before.  For a couple of hours, we’d walk the trail southwest on the east side of the Pho Chhu (Tang Chhu), sometimes through heavily treed sections complete with mud. At the point indicated with a red dot, an initially steep curling ascent towards our first settlement since Laya – that of Woche, on the south side of that massif framed by the Pho and the Woche Chhu coming down from the northeast. At 3880 meters, Woche is at the same elevation as Tarina, the campsite we had left three hours before.

We lunched at Woche and then continued up the west side of the river – the Woche Chhu-  until we came to the bridge. Once on the other side, it was an easy ascent to a meadow above the river where trekking parties have stopped for the day and set up camp.  Our goal was a campsite 300 meters higher. It would turn out to be one of my favourites of the trip and provided us with a WOW view at the end of a fairly easy day’s walk.

Tarina camp – early morning view looking northwest

looking back at our Tarina campsite on the left bank of the Po Chhu (West Branch)

We left our Tarina camp around 8:30 and two hours on a trail down the left side of the Pho Chhu to the beginning of our easy uphill climb to Woche. As was often the case, the forested sections of the trail got quite muddy in spots.  We did cross a bridge or two over side streams coming down to the Pho Chhu and saw a few waterfalls on the west side of the river.

a side stream coming down to the west branch of the Pho Chhu (aka Tang Chhu)

bridge over a side stream flowing into the Pho Chhu (West Branch)

a stony section of trail along the Pho River’s west branch to Woche

The importance of this trail to locals was brought home by this stone staircase on our upward hike to Woche. We arrived so early that there was a bit of a wait until the lunch crew arrived! Luckily it was a warm and sunny day and we stretched out in the flat area in front of some Woche houses. [There are about a dozen houses in the settlement. See the satellite view below.]

stone steps on the trail to Woche from Tarina

Woche has traditionally been the dividing line between the districts of Laya and Lunana. It was here that Laya yaks were exchanged for Lunana yaks – and vice versa.  We stopped for lunch in the meadow below the houses; my Garmin-generated altitude read 3888 m.

the “yak highway” through Woche, the first settlement on the Snowman trek since Laya

trekkers’ lunch in an open space at Woche

Woche group shot – Angel’s  Canon SX60

After lunch, we walked the trail northeast out of Woche and after an hour started to lose some altitude as we headed down to the river.

approaching the bridge across the Woche Chhu above Woche

Once on the bridge, I pointed my camera lens up and down the river to try to capture some of the glacial stream ‘s energy.

the Woche Chhu tumbling down to the bridge crossing

the Woche Chhu heading downstream from the wood bridge

We had a short break at a meadow just above the river; it is apparently used by some trekking groups as an alternative to camping in Woche, given that the locals there are not keen on trekking pack animals decreasing their already scarce grazing. The shot below was taken from this location – but we would be moving on and up!

looking northeast up the Woche Chhu

300 meters up and 1 1/2 hours later we came to this beautiful site above Green Lake (4440m) I wish I had made more of an effort to capture the entire scene, including the all of the long narrow lake, only the end of which you can see in the sun-streaked image below.  Luckily, the next post has some of my favourite shots of the entire trek – and they capture Green lake in the early morning – as well as the smaller lake just above it!

Green Lake campsite – above the Woche Chhu

gentian on the slopes of Green Lake above Woche

In the photo below, the lake is on the right-hand side, some of our horses are in the foreground and others on the side and in the background.  In the middle are the blue cook tent and behind it a bit of the green dining tent with room for 16 trekkers!  Supper was usually around 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. and by 8:15 we had all retired to our tents for the warmth that the agency supplied expedition sleeping bags provided. The temperatures would plummet once the sun disappeared behind the wall of rock below which we were often camped. However, I am happy to report that only once did I crawl out of my tent at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. with a bottle of frozen pee!

Green Lake Camp – early morning shot

Next Post: Day 16 – Green Lake To Chozo

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 14 – Narethang To Tarina Via Karakachu La

Previous Post: Day 13 – Rodophu to Narethang

  • calendar date: October 11, 2019.
  • time:  7 hours
  • distance:  16 km. (Jordans); 18 km. (Lonely Planet); 16.9 (my Polar M430)
  • start point altitude: Narethang  4920 m
  • endpoint campsite: Tarina 3880m
  • high pass crossing: Karakachu La 5180m (my Garmin inReach); 5120 (Lonely Planet) 5020 (Jordans).
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
  • See here for a Google Earth view of the day’s walk. It helps to use the Google Chrome browser!
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture 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!)

    first view out of the tent at Narethang – October 2019 – Huawei P30 shot

    We got up to a light dusting of snow at our over-5100 meter Narethang campsite. As I looked around at the tents, I certainly got that exhilarating feeling of being on a high alpine expedition.

Narethang Camp – early morning in October

our Narethang camp – early morning in October

a few of our horses in the morning at Narethang

We zipped open the dining tent’s rear door to let in some air and some of the view too. Soon the sun poked over the mountain walls that we were camped behind and streamed into the tent.

our Narethang dining tent at breakfast

A typical breakfast on the trek was a bowl of cereal or oatmeal – either the watery gruel supplied by the cook team or the Quaker Oats-like stuff I had brought from home. I supplemented the oatmeal with some of my supply of nuts, raisins, cranberries, and dried blueberries.  My from-home peanut butter also came in handy; here I spread it on some Indian flatbread called chapati.  What I didn’t finish for breakfast I would put in a Ziploc bag to have as a snack later on in the morning.

my breakfast plate at Narethang – oatmeal and chapati with peanut butter

Snowman Trek – Day 14 – Narethang to Tarina

We set off from our Narethang camp knowing that our high pass of the day would be coming up very soon into the day.  1 1/4 hours and 250 meters in elevation later, there we were at  Karakachu La. [The Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan calls it Kang Karchung La.]  In the image below the red arrow indicates the location of the pass on the horizon.

heading for Karakachu La from Narethang

A bit further up the trail to the pass,  I turned back to where we have come from. Our Narethang campsite is on the horizon – ie. the dead center of the image – and some of my fellow trekkers are coming my way.

looking back at the trail from Narethang

Only the last twenty minutes or so is a bit steep; we came at it from the bottom left of the image and would end up at the pass on the right hand side.  There we would find the customary laptse (i.e.stone cairns) and prayer flags.  A few less clouds would have been nice, but as it was the views were excellent.

fellow trekkers approaching Karakachu La

prayer flags at Karakachu La above Narethang

Karakachu La – laptse with strings of prayer flags

Karakatchu La rest stop -

taking in the view on Karakatchu La

When I looked back to the southwest at where we had come from, I saw the two small lakes below.

one last look west from Karakachu La

Then I turned northeast for a view of the plateau-like terrain we would be walking into, at least for a while.  We were at 5180 meters; by the end of the day we’d be at 3880 at our Tarina campsite.  That is a drop of 1300 meters!

a first view east from Karakachu La

On the horizon were peaks with names like Teri Kang (7300m) and Jejakangphu (7100m) and to our left (not visible in the image below) was Tsenda Kang (6400 m).  The image below captures a bit of the peak experience we had!

zooming in on some of the peaks east of Karakachu La

the trail down from Karakachu La

As we made our way down, we would experience our first serious traffic in days! First, a yak train came towards us; they were on their way to Laya.

yaks from Lunana heading west to Karakachu La

A while later, this team of pack horses and their owners came by. The yaks may also have been theirs; if so, they were well-trained and stuck to the trail on their own!

We continued our still gradual descent, unaware that the most spectacular view of the trek so far was coming up.  It was a view that the dog sitting without a seeming care in the world on his flat rock perch had as his own until our arrival.  I imagined him to be a buddha sitting there and the words “Be here now” came to mind.   He didn’t even budge as we walked by, unthreatened by our presence.  What was he doing there?

descending to the Po  Chhu flood plain from Karakachu La

a free-roaming dog surveying his Himalayan domain

From the dog, my eyes and mind moved on to the view below. We were looking north to the Bhutan-Tibet border and a snowcapped string of 7000-meter peaks, the single most impressive stretch of rock we had seen so far.

what the dog was looking at from his rock perch on the side of the trail to Tarina

The river streaming from the two glacial lakes visible in the image above is the west branch of the Pho Chhu, the very river that flows by Punakha less than seventy kilometers to the southwest. [The main branch of the Pho Chhu we would get to know better in days to come as we walked into the heart of Lunana.

Note: The Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan refers to the river here as the Tang Chhu, and not the Pho. The lack of uniformity of names or their spellings can get a bit confusing and affects the information you get when googling. Use a different spelling or different name and you come up with a different set of links!  Google Earth calls the river the Po Chu.

satellite view – Karakachu La North to the Tibet border

trekkers heading down to the Po Chhu valley floor – shot with the Huawei P30

As we headed down to the valley floor of the Po Chhu, some 800 meters below, we were passed by an eight-person trekking group from Switzerland. We moved to the upside of the trail as their horse team came our way. Here is the video I posted on Youtube –

two horses coming up from the Po Chhu valley floor – shot with my Sony RX100

And then it was some serious downhill walking.  I lengthened the trekking poles a few centimeters and let gravity do some of the work as I danced my way down, down, down for over an hour until we came to the bottom.  Four hours after leaving Karakachu La, we stopped for lunch in a flat open space on the west side of the river.  It was the first of a few which showed evidence of use by trekking parties in the past. (What evidence? Badly hidden piles of garbage left behind.)

The valley floor trail runs along river right (i.e.the west side) of the Po Chhu in a southeasterly direction.  Some sections, like the one in the image below, were a muddy mess; other stretches were packed sand and gravel and nicer to walk on.

along the Po Chhu trail to Tarina campsite

Just before we got to our site, we crossed the river and continued on for less than a kilometer. We could see that the camp was already set up. The tent crew had done it again!

Tarina campsite – a morning view from the northwest

Google Versus Apple  Satellite Views of the Pho and the Tarina Campsite:

Both Google and Apple have 3D satellite views of our planet that provide a different perspective on things.  While a comparison is perhaps unfair since the Google view is zoomed in a bit more than the Apple view,  I do find the Apple Maps 3D look more appealing. Until this post I have been going the Google Earth in Chrome route; I’ll have to remember to check out the Apple view more often!

Google Earth 3D View:

Tarina campsite Google Earth satellite view

Apple Maps 3D View:

Apple satellite view of the Po headwaters and Tarina campsite

Next Post: Day 15 – Tarina To Green Lake Above Woche

Posted in Bhutan, hiking/trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments