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Monday, 23 November 2015

Trip report for Lunana Snowman led by Almas Khan in September/ October 2015

Photo: view from Karchung La

This is the seventh time The Mountain Company has organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan starting in Paro and finishing in Bumthang. After another successful Snowman in September/ October 2015, The Mountain Company has 100% track record of organising this challenging trek.

This year we had eleven trekkers signed up for the full Snowman and like in previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from New Zealand, USA, Australia, South Africa, Canada and UK. Our 2015 Snowman group was led by TMC regular guide, Almas Khan. Almas has completed Snowman trek six times including both Bumthang and Nikka Chu exit trails from Lunana. For our 2015 Snowman we had our regular Bhutanese trek crew on board again with Dawa as the Sirdar; Tashi & Pema as guides and Tenzing as the cook. Also Airya was a new guide that joined our Snowman group for the first time this year.

Photo: view from Gophu La

For the first five days of Snowman it rained at night with heavy rains below 3,000m but luckily it did not rain during the day while walking. Once over Nyele La, the weather conditions stayed stable until they reached Thanza in Lunana then after that it snowed in the afternoon for next four days. The group pitched tents on snow at Danje, Tshorim lake and Tarina three days in a row and there was about 10 cms of snow at Tshorim lake at our highest camp. Luckily this Autumn there were no cyclones from Bay of Bengal impacting the Himalaya unlike 2014 with Cyclone Hudhud and in 2013 with Cyclone Phailin.

Throughout the course of Snowman trek we received bespoke weather forecasts from Michael Fagin at and this information is sent through to Almas on his satellite phone. Having professional weather forecasts is essential for safety in crossing high passes and for decision making in the field.

Overall the trail conditions were good for Snowman 2015 and not as muddy as previous years. For the last 50m on the climb to Saga La pass the trail was abit slippery but there was no snow on other side of the pass while descending. For our Snowman trek we include micro crampons on the kit list (Yak Tracks or Kahtoolas) and some of the group used these for the ascent of Saga La. Almas reported that the lowest temperature of the trek was -5.2 Celsius inside his tent in early hours before sunrise at the Tshorim lake.

For this year’s Snowman we made one change in the itinerary compared to 2014 by including three nights before trekking up to Chomolhari Base Camp at 4,080m. Unfortunately the standard itinerary used by most other trekking companies has only two nights before Chomolhari Base Camp and with this rapid ascent there is a risk of people getting altitude sickness. The ascent from Paro to Shana is an increase of 510m; to Soi ThangThangka is an increase in 720m and next day up to Chomolhari Base Camp is a further increase of 570m. This ascent profile breaches altitude guidelines. I have copied below an extract from UIAA MedCom Statement #2 Field managament of AMS, HAPE and HACE below:

"Above 2,500 to 3,000m the next night should not be planned more than 300 to 500m higher than the previous one. Have two nights at the same altitude for every 2 to 4 days of ascent. On this day you may climb higher but return to sleep".

At The Mountain Company we do everything we can do to increase the chances of our groups safely completing their trek. We have reviewed all of our itineraries to ensure adequate time is included for natural acclimatisation to the high altitude. We never yield to the commercial pressures of reducing the number of days to lower the trip cost and to make our treks more marketable.

Photo: Mt Jitchu Drake
Our Snowman 2015 group made good progress and did not lose any days due to bad weather or other delays along the way. As usual Almas decided to have only one night at Thanza and to keep moving in case a spare buffer day was required later on. In the end they arrived to the hot springs at Dur Tsachu one day early so they had two nights to relax in the wonderful hot tubs.

At the hot springs the group were very lucky as they saw a wild Thakin crossing the river near Dur Taschu camp. The Thakin is the national animal of Bhutan and is rarely seen in the wild. For more information on Takin please take a look at Wikipedia

We used SPOT gps tracker for this group and each night Almas checked in sending a gps signal to us so we could track this group's progress. Click here to see the way points overlaid onto a map for Lunana Snowman

Most of the feedback for Snowman 2015 has been positive and I have copied Neil’s comments below:

"This is now the 4th time I have trekked with The Mountain Company which I think helps to emphasise that I hold them in high regard. The treks are all extremely well planned, led by highly experienced leaders and supported by excellent guides, catering staff etc. As well as providing a wonderful trekking experience, the safety and well-being of clients and staff are always a high priority.

In summary an outstanding trek in a beautiful remote part of the world. I know that trekking in Bhutan is more expensive than some areas but this trek led by Almas Khan was exceptional, with stunning scenery, walking in some of the most remote areas of the Himalayas and enjoying so much of the local culture. Crossing so many passes between Drugyel Dzong all the way through to Bumthang provides so many moments as new vistas open up as you reach each pass, beautiful forests and the opportunity to see so much wildlife including blue sheep.”

For more testimonials on Snowman and our other trips please take a look at AITO review section of their website

Thanks to Almas, Tashi, Pema, Airya, Dawa and rest of the crew for all of their hard work, great job!

Modified Snowman itinerary for 2016

We had a further think about how to improve our Snowman itinerary to help acclimatisation before the ascent to Chomolhari Base Camp at 4.080m. I think it is such a shame to see other Snowman groups where members get altitude sickness at Chomolhari BC and have to turn back especially considering the cost of Snowman trek. Most other trekking operators ascend to Chomolhari Base Camp too rapidly. The “standard” ascent profile of two nights in Paro then one night in Shana followed by Soi Tangtanka then up to Chomolhari Base Camp at 4,080m is unsafe and breaks guidelines for gradual acclimatisation. In the past our groups had two nights at Soi Tangtanka at 3,510m whereas this was frankly a little boring as there were not many options for day walks from this camp.

For our Snowman 2016 we have come up with a modified itinerary heading to the less visited Haa valley before the trek. After the group's arrival to Paro we have one night at Olathang hotel (given
availability) and then next day the group will walk up Tiger's Nest and then in afternoon drive over Chele La (3,780m) to Haa Valley. After two nights at Haa valley we drive back over Chele La and then drive on through Paro to Shana for the first night's camp of the trek.

In Haa valley there are some beautiful day walks and as this valley is at 2,712m this is 500m higher than Paro so is very effective for acclimatisation. On the way back over Chele La the group will go for a walk up the ridge to nearly 4,000m and again great for helping your body adapt to the high altitude.

We believe our modified 2016 Snowman trek should add alot in terms of interest and also increase our groups chances of safely completing the Snowman trek. We have now launched the dates and prices for Lunana Snowman 2016 on TMC website so please get in touch soon if you would like to join this group. Almas Khan has confirmed his leadership for next year’s Snowman and this will be his seventh time on Snowman! We have already received several deposits for Snowman 2016 so I am confident this trek will be guaranteed soon.

*Breaking news*....Almas will also be heading back to Bhutan in April 2016 to lead our Rodung La with Sakten and Merak. This trek is an extension of the Lunana Snowman trek by starting in Bumthang and continuing east to Trashi Yangtse along The Great Himalaya Trail ("GHT").

Trek on!

Roland Hunter

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