Bhutan Lunana Snowman

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Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby deadwood » Wed 27 Jan, 2021 8:28 pm

Things have been a bit quiet on the international front and look like being that way for a while, so I thought I should finally get around to posting this report from 2019. I recall reading about the Lunana Snowman years ago and thought that it all sounded harder than anything we'd ever do, but after a few years of a bit more walking up and down hills, we thought we'd give it a crack. The lunana snowman is across the north of Bhutan and takes roughly 28 days with a rest day or 3 plus some acclimatisation days, plus travel time getting back across the country to the airport. All up it was about a 5 week trip. Maximum elevation is over 5200 meters and there are 13 major mountain passes over the course of the walk. Due to the orientation of the valleys being at 90 degrees to the walk, there is a lot of up and down, up and down, up and down. The trails we walked on are all used by the local population for transport of goods via mule or yak, so they are well established, but VERY muddy.

After a fair bit of contemplation and research, we decided to go with The Mountain Company (@the.mountain.company, https://www.themountaincompany.co.uk/) . The Mountain Company probably isn't the cheapest way to do the Snowman, but given going to Bhutan isn't cheap anyway and make no mistake, this is a very remote environment, going with a company that at least has working Satellite phones (unlike another group we passed) seemed a good idea. I would highly recommend going with this company based on our experiences. They send a European guide (who was excellent) along with the excellent local guiding crew, the food was good, the tents were good, the organisation was good. basically given the nature of the trip I thought they were excellent. As an example of the care the company took to try and get us all across the high mountain passes safely, at the end of each day we all did finger blood oxygen level tests and went through the checklist for mountain sickness. Although I had no symptoms apart from being much slower than I should have been, the numbers told the story and my blood oxygen levels were dropping despite the extra acclimatisation days, so I started popping diamox and the numbers turned around almost instantly. The only downside was the group size which was initially 14 before 3 bailed out after about 10 days. Although we weren't generally walking as a group, I generally enjoy being away from people when I go for a walk, so having to sit in a meal tent with the group so many times without sticking a fork in someone, was quite a struggle.

A quick reality check on the remoteness of this trip. The highest camp is at about the same elevation as Everest base camp. At times you are quite a few days walk from the nearest road. Because the trail continually goes quite steeply up and down valleys, getting on a pony in the event of difficulty just isn't possible. Towards the end of the walk, one of the crew became quite unwell to the extent that the guides tried to helicopter him out. The helicopters are based quite some distance away and won't leave base after 3pm, and we had a low cloud ceiling and almost nowhere flat enough and clear enough for a chopper to land. The end result was the sick crewman had to walk 3 days to the nearest road where an ambulance was waiting for him!

Given you are only carrying day packs albeit with enough warmer clothing to cope with the colder passes and waterproofs in case of precipitation, the main degrees of difficulty are the duration, the continual high altitude, the remoteness and the relentless steep up and down. We were doing training walks of 1000 meters up and 1000 meters down each week before we went, and although the days aren't all as much as that, realistically given the lower training altitude, if you can't do that for 2 days in a row, you probably need to train some more. You don't need to be fast, just capable.

To the walk (and photos). Given the maximum attachment limit of 10, I'll do 3 posts with 10 photos each to try and do justice to the length of the trip. I'm sure someone will tell me if that's a problem.

Snowman-001.jpg
First up for the acclimatisation after arriving in Paro was the obligatory Taktsang monastery (Tigers Nest) visit. At a touch over 3000 meters, it's well worth the effort and a good start at walking uphill at altitude for those of us that live virtually at sea level.

Snowman-002.jpg
Before getting going on the actual walk we spent 2 nights in the Haa Valley for acclimatisation and went on an excellent nice day walk.

Snowman-003.jpg
The Chele La on the way to/from the Haa Valley is at 3800m, so a good place to go for walk around and the prayer flags and mist make it quite spectacular.

Snowman-004.jpg
A bit of shenanigans with the photo, but there are lots of water powered prayer wheel around the mountains. I took quite a liking to them.

Snowman-005.jpg
Yak. The yaks often had coloured markers, presumably indicating whose they were. Yaks are very precious for the nomads in the mountains that rely on them for milk, cheese etc. Having tried the cheese - while palatable, I won't be choosing it in preference to a nice piece of washed rind or Comte.

Snowman-006.jpg
Stupa at Chomolhari base camp. On a nicer day, you can see the peak of Chomolhari, but for most of our walk we had the mist. If you can't tolerate the fickle nature of the weather gods, just stay in front of the TV.

Snowman-007.jpg
Blue sheep - not really that blue, but they they are the favourite food of snow leopards which we unfortunately didn't see.

Snowman-008.jpg
One up, one down?

Snowman-009.jpg
A wooden cantilevered bridge - another of my favourite things. These are designed to have strong foundations so that in the event of floods in the steep sided valley, the bridge can be fairly quickly replaced.

Snowman-010.jpg
Our first rest day was at Laya, a very nice remote mountain village.
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby deadwood » Wed 27 Jan, 2021 8:38 pm

Part 2.

Snowman-011.jpg
A sprinkling of snow in the valley.

Snowman-012.jpg
A lovely morning

Snowman-013.jpg

Snowman-014.jpg
Always prayer flags at the passes even if they were a little frosty.

Snowman-015.jpg
Blue sky!

Snowman-016.jpg
Yaks have priority. ALWAYS. There is no discussion. If someone yells YAK, you get as far off the trail as you safely can - they do not stop and have a reputation for being a little temperamental.

Snowman-017.jpg
High altitude lake.

Snowman-018.jpg
We had another rest day at Thanza - and then walked uphill again!

Snowman-019.jpg
A rare look at sunrise on some mountain tops.

Snowman-020.jpg
Tshorim lake - our highest camp at a little over 5200 meters. The high point of the walk was about 5,345 meters.
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby deadwood » Wed 27 Jan, 2021 8:50 pm

Part 3.

Snowman-021.jpg
Tshorim lake by star light. It's a little cool walking around at night at 5200 meters!

Snowman-022.jpg
Always a nice flow of water in the valleys. One of the big income earners for Bhutan is selling Hydro power to India.

Snowman-023.jpg
Uphill, into the mist.

Snowman-024.jpg

Snowman-025.jpg
This was a big day - 3 passes all in the one day.

Snowman-026.jpg

Snowman-027.jpg

Snowman-028.jpg
The snowman trek starts at one side of Bhutan and finishes at the other, so then there is a long bus ride back to the airport. The roads can be a little interesting and if you don't like heights you wouldn't be here anyway, but if you suffer from motion sickness at all - bring drugs. On the way back though are some spectacular sights including Punakha Dzong.

Snowman-029.jpg
Punakha Dzong.

Snowman-030.jpg
Punakha Dzong.


End of slide show. Just to finish (unless there are questions) the country of Bhutan is spectacular and the people are ever so friendly. It's not a cheap destination, but if the opportunity to travel internationally seems sensible while I can still walk up and down and hill, it's very tempting to go back in search of better weather.
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby Bam » Wed 27 Jan, 2021 9:47 pm

Thanks for posting this trip report Deadwood
It was an enjoyable read & loved the photos which brought back some distant memories of my own time spent in that region when I was far, far younger.
Even now, some 30 years later I still occasionally get that “Call of the Mountains” feeling, there’s nothing like being surrounded by really high mountain peaks especially at night when clouds fill the valleys & the moon lights up the massive peaks.
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby stry » Thu 28 Jan, 2021 7:27 am

Thanks for posting that. I was there on a small group tour approx 15 years ago and some of those pics look familiar.

It was always my intention to return for a trip such as yours, but alas, I succumbed to procrastination.

Well done ! :D
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby warnesy » Thu 28 Jan, 2021 9:01 am

Great report and pics. Sounds like a fantastic walk.
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Re: Bhutan Lunana Snowman

Postby Lizzy » Thu 28 Jan, 2021 11:31 am

Looks great! Thanks for posting.
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