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Monday, 2 December 2013

Trip report for Lunana Snowman led by Paul Burditt in September/ October 2013

Photo: view from Karchung La (Paul Burditt)

This is the fifth time The Mountain Company has organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan starting in Paro and finishing in Bumthang. This year we had ten trekkers signed up and like previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from UK, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Slovenia. Our 2013 Snowman group was led by Paul Burditt who also led our Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in October 2012. We had our regular Bhutanese trek crew on board again with Dawa as the Sirdar; Tashi & Tashi as guides and Tenzing working as the cook.

The group arrived to Kathmandu on September 21st then flew by Druk Air to Paro on 22nd. The weather was fine for their first few days in Bhutan so initially it seemed that the post monsoon season had begun well with sunny and dry conditions. However it turned out the weather and conditions were considerably more challenging this year compared to our previous Snowman treks. For example last year's group experienced fine weather for most of the trek apart from two days of rain and snow on October 9th and 10th. For 2013 Snowman group the general weather pattern up until Lunana was clear mornings followed by rain/ snow most afternoons. Luckily their day crossing Karchung La into Lunana was sunny and clear; I gather everyone enjoyed having lunch at the summit of the pass while looking out over the superb mountain view in all directions.

Photo: yaks heading up to Narethang (Paul Burditt)
On October 13th as the group walked from Danje to Tshorim the weather deteriorated significantly. The morning was overcast with drizzle then later on turning to sleet and snow. The reason for this bad weather was Cyclone Phailin coming off the Bay of Bengal and unfortunately the eastern part of the Himalaya experienced poor conditions for the next three days. It is rare to get a cyclonic system affecting the Himalaya in October as usually there is a blocking high pressure resulting in fine weather. In fact at the same time I was leading a trek in the Kanchenjunga region of Nepal where we also had very heavy rain with snow higher up: for further information read this article for the impact of Cyclone Phailin in the Himalaya.

Due to the large amount of precipitation there was concern about the possibility of crossing the remaining high passes.  At this point in the trek fortunately we had already planned to have yaks to carry the luggage as these pack animals are far more effective in walking through deep snow compared to horses. On October 13th the group crossed the Gophu La out of the Lunana region. They had snowfall throughout the day and evening.  By the next morning the snow on the ground was too deep for the guides to break trail, so in the end Paul and Dawa decided to delay departure until the yaks were ready and loaded up. The yaks went first to stamp down a path through the deep snow ahead of the group. Following the yaks trail through the snow proved to be a successful plan and after a late start the group made good progress reaching the base of the Phorang La by lunch time.

During lunch the decision was made to continue the trek over the Saga La that afternoon rather than cross the next day as originally planned in our itinerary. Saga La is the steepest pass on the Snowman trek so Paul and Dawa felt it would be better to keep moving and cross the passes now before more snow fell possibly blocking the pass later on. At 3pm the group started the climb up the Phorang La following a trail bulldozed by the yaks through half a metre of snow while admiring the yaks innate ability to pick a good route and gradient. The faster team reached the summit of Phorang La at 5.30pm and on top experienced a sublime moment as they got above the cloud level to witness the sun setting over the far peaks. Dusk fell quickly as the party moved on but fortunately they had moonlight to illuminate their way onwards to the Saga La. The final ascent was tough going although outstandingly beautiful as they were walking under a clear starry sky. The group crested the pass at 6.30pm and luckily Dawa had already set up camp just over the pass.

Photo: snowy camp at Worithang (Paul Burditt)

The next morning was bitterly cold in camp and there were frozen boots all round. Despite the struggles of the night before everyone revelled in the snowscape in which they were camped. The walk over the Worithang La and Nephu La thereafter was stunning with clear skies and pristine snow. It was another long day for the group as they arrived at the Dar Tsachu camp near the hot springs in late afternoon. It took much longer for the yaks to get to camp as Dawa and the herders had a tough time driving them along as they were hungry since snow had prevented grazing for four days.

After a rest day at the hot springs, where everyone enjoyed soaking in the hot tubs, the group left camp early for the long walk to Tsochenchen over Gonto La and Djule La. These are the last two passes on the trek and luckily the sky cleared briefly for group celebrations and lots of team photographs. At this point in the itinerary there was an unused contingency day, so it was decided to have another rest day at Tsochenchen where Tashi organised a cultural visit to some yak herders living nearby. The group was lucky enough to be invited into one of their huts for butter tea and yak cheese so the group were able to gain a fascinating insight into their hard lives in the mountains.

On the last day of the trek after breakfast, the group thanked the crew with speeches and tips in a happy ceremony. Thereafter they walked out to the road head to finish the Snowman trek. Well done to everyone for completing this classic Himalayan traverse, especially considering the challenging weather and conditions throughout the trek.

By late afternoon the group was enjoying the comforts and hospitality of the legendary Swiss Guesthouse in Bumthang. By chance Jampa Lhakhang Drup festival was held in Bumthang that evening at the 1400 year old temple. This was a highlight for the group as they saw the masked dancing monks and the locals dressed up in their best traditional costumes for the festival. Over the next three days the group drove to Paro by minibus visiting dzongs (fortified monasteries) along the way in Trongsa, Punakha, Thimpu and Paro.

As commented upon in previous trip reports, we start our Snowman trek a couple of weeks earlier than most of our Autumn treks in Nepal. The reason is to ensure an exit of Lunana by mid-October before the winter snows block the passes. There tends to be more precipitation in the eastern Himalaya than elsewhere, so after a heavy snowfall the mountain passes are often closed until Spring time. This strategy of starting early has worked well for our groups in the past and so far The Mountain Company has a 100% success rate in finishing the Snowman trek. Congratulations to the 2013 team for being the only group to successfully complete the full Snowman trek to Bumthang this Autumn season despite difficult conditions.

I have copied below several testimonials on how our Snowman trek went this year. While there are certainly some areas where our service can be improved, this feedback demonstrates that in the key areas of logistics, time of year and leadership, we were effective in maximising the groups' chances of completing this trek.

“My overall perspective is that the Snowman trek was successful because of the knowledge that The Mountain Company has gained on previous Snowman treks the last few years. And the Mountain Company has made several important adjustments to the Snowman trek logistics to increase the probability of success. Personally at no time did I ever have doubts or concerns that we would not finish the trek. Everyone was always very positive and we felt that there was an underlying strategy that we were going to be successful.” Roger (USA)

“I really enjoyed the Snowman, despite the awful weather. It must be a very difficult logistical exercise to organise it but everything seemed to go really well. Paul made an excellent job of leading it and I was delighted to have been able to complete it, a real accomplishment. Dawa's organisation was excellent. Tulsi's personal collection and return to the airport in Kathmandu was first class. This is the type of trek which I revel in and I will be looking for something similar in future” Chris (UK)

"The trip went really well . My thanks to Paul, Dawa and his team and the horse/yak people in looking after us in sometimes trying conditions. We would have never got through without Dawa's organisational skills and experience with the very complicated logistics involved with this trek, particularly managing the animal transport. Having the yaks come all the way through from Dur (Bumthang) to meet us at Lunana was the key to us succeeding this year, when everyone else failed. Paul was a really good go between us and the crew and was very diplomatic and patient with all our foibles." Peter (New Zealand)

Thanks very much to the entire trek crew who worked exceptionally hard throughout this trek in challenging conditions. Thanks to Paul, Dawa, the two Tashis, Tenzing, Pema, Haba, Wande and Gimba plus the pony men and yak herders. Thanks also to Kinley and Wangmo in Thimphu for their help and support.

The Mountain Company is organising Lunana Snowman again in 2014 and this group will be led by Almas Khan. He knows the Snowman very well having done this trek five times before including our successful 2012 Snowman group. We already have quite a lot of interest, so if you are considering joining this trek please get in touch soon.

Roland Hunter 

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