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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Trip report for Lunana Snowman led by Almas Khan in September/ October 2016

Photo: Gophu La known as exit pass from Lunana

This is the eighth 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 2016, The Mountain Company has 100% track record of organising this challenging and long trek through the remote Bhutanese Himalaya.

This year we had ten trekkers signed up for the full Snowman and like in previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from Australia, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and UK. Our 2016 Snowman group was led by our regular guide, Almas Khan. Almas has now completed Snowman trek eight times including both Bumthang and Nikka Chu exit trails from Lunana. We received superb feedback from the group on Almas organisation and leadership skills. I have copied some of their comments below:

"Almas is an experienced and very capable trek leader." JH

"Almas was absolutely amazing! The way he kept his calm and the way he handled the long period of wet weather in the beginning of the trip made me feel in good hands. This was the first time I'd been on a long trek and the first time I'd been in a non-Western country, so to me it was very reassuring to have a trek leader who seemed so secure in everything he did. His humor was quite infectious as well, which of course isn't a necessary leadership skill, but did make the evenings more fun after a long, hard day. I liked the way he communicated important information without necessarily telling us everything; over-information isn't always a good thing if it makes people worry, and Almas knew exactly how much to tell us and when." DP

For our 2016 Snowman we had several new crew members including the cook, Sonam, and his kitchen helpers. We have made some changes to our logistics and organisation for Snowman 2016 as the food on Snowman 2015 was disappointing. We have worked with our partners in Bhutan and Almas’s wife, Jayne Khan, flew out to Bhutan in August to help train Sonam and work on the supplies and provisioning for this long trek. This effort has paid off and we received positive feedback on the food from the group such as:

“The cook on the trek was great! Food was plentiful, well prepared and for the most part delicious” SS

“I had expected to lose appetite due to the altitude and the foreign food, but our cook, Sonam, was excellent at preparing meals so delicious I actually often kept eating even when I wasn't hungry anymore. I never lost my appetite and always looked forward to the next meal.” DP

Photo: Karchung La known as entry pass to Lunana

We were happy to have our regular Bhutanese guide, Tashi, on board and Tsering Dorje joined our group again this year. Tsering guided on two of our  previous Snowman treks however had a break for a few years as he was busy in Autumn season as a cultural tour guide. Our third Bhutanese guide was called Tsering too.

The big news in Himalaya this Autumn season was the late monsoon as this year finished raining much later than usual by mid-October. Normally the heavy rains are decreasing by end of September however the timing and intensity of monsoon varies year to year. Our Snowman 2016 was unlucky as when monsoon was winding down a low pressure system came off Bay of Bengal bringing in more heavy rain on October 12th and 13th.

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. Michael sent us advanced warning of this low pressure system and tracked its path so we could provide Almas with information a few days before its arrival to Bhutan.

Normally by the time group arrives to Chomolhari BC the weather improves however it is important to start this trek in September as a week or two later precipitation will fall as snow on the exit passes of Gophu La and Saga La. As mentioned in previous Snowman trip reports the number of days on Snowman is longer than the typical weather window available. The compromise is to start earlier in Autumn season when there is still a chance of precipitation however it means it is less likely for the exit passes of Lunana to be blocked by snow as the snowline is higher at this time of year. This strategy worked for Snowman 2016 as after the low pressure system discussed above passed through the snow was not too deep on the high passes and melted off quite fast. Therefore we had no issues with our pack animals and group crossing these passes.

Photo: Mount Jitchu Drake
For this year’s Snowman we modified our itinerary from Snowman 2015 as the group spent two nights in the less visited Haa valley before starting the trek. After the group's arrival to Paro they had one night at Olathang hotel and then next day the group walked up Tiger's Nest and then in afternoon drive over Chele La (3,780m) to Haa Valley. After two nights at Haa valley they drove back over Chele La and then drive on through Paro to Shana for the first night's camp of the trek.

In Haa valley the group enjoyed a lovely day walk and as this valley is at 2,712m this is 500m higher than Paro it is very effective for acclimatisation. The feedback from Snowman 2016 has been very positive about staying in Haa Valley before starting the trek and everyone was well acclimatized for the ascent up to Chomolhari Base Camp. We believe our modified 2016 Snowman trek should add in terms of interest and also increase our groups chances of safely completing the Snowman trek

Our Snowman 2016 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 like previous year so they had two nights to relax in the hot tubs.

On October 19th we had one member of the group suffer from an allergic reaction so Almas decided this person should be evacuated by helicopter. It is not known what caused this reaction however it may have been a plant that caused a rash to spread and then proceed to swelling of lips. After a discussion with their insurance company through the satellite phone it was agreed the best course of action was to evacuate this person by helicopter.

In previous years there were no helicopters available in Bhutan so evacuations were organized by Indian Army however this process was slow and unreliable. Two years ago Bhutan government purchased two helicopters now stationed throughout the year in Thimphu and Paro to provide more effective service for rapid evacuation. After the approval had been received from insurance company our partner in Thimphu arranged for the helicopter rescue. One of the reasons our leaders on remote treks carry GPS Spot locator is so that we can provide latitude and longitude to the pilot for location of pick up.

Photo: helicopter evacuation from Worithang
The evacuation went well and this person was flown back to Thimphu for checkup and made a full recovery. This worked well as we were able to send in food and meat in the helicopter so the group enjoyed chicken dishes for a few nights! This was our first helicopter evacuation required on our eight Snowman treks however it is good to know this service is available in case required. For more information on helicopter service in Bhutan please take a look at Airbus Helicopter's website

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

The feedback for Snowman 2016 has been positive and I have copied one below:

“The Mountain Company organised an excellent Snowman trek in Bhutan. The pre-trek information and advice was very helpful and the trek was expertly led in country by Almas Khan, a very experienced trek leader who has now completed numerous Snowman treks.

The 27 day Snowman Trek was a tough challenge, both physically and mentally. The terrain was remote and often spectacular. Sandwiched between the monsoon and the start of the winter snows it pays to be well equipped for all weather. The many ascents are not technical but are often long. The steep descents often require a lot of concentration. Paths vary from smooth and dry to mud and rocks.
The 3 day pre-trek acclimatisation process was well thought out and none of the group suffered any significant altitude sickness. The three day cross-country return to Paro gave a good insight to Bhutan life.” JH

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

Many thanks to Almas, Tsering Dorje, Tashi, Tsering, Sonam and rest of the crew for all of their hard work, great job again! Thanks to Jayne Khan for all of her help with training the cooks and her work on provisioning. Thanks also to Kinley and Dawa in the office in Thimphu who worked hard to improve their level of service and have responded well to our feedback from Snowman 2015.

We have now launched the dates and prices for Lunana Snowman 2017 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 we have already received confirmation from five people so I am confident our Snowman 2017 will be guaranteed soon. As soon as Druk Air starts to taking bookings for flights for dates of Snowman 2017 we will ask people to pay deposits if they like to go ahead to sign up.

If you have already done Lunana Snowman then you may be interested to hear Almas will also be heading back to Bhutan in April 2017 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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