Glimpses of Bhutan
By Bronwyn Morrissey
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.
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.
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
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.
combined the Jhumolhari trek and The Nero 6 Pass trek into one long journey.
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
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.
days 2-3 we continued along the Pa Chu, or Paro, River through pine oak and
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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!