Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part II - days 1-3)

Day 1

The official start of the Snowman Trek was in the shadow of the overgrown Drugyel Dzong, an old 17th century fort that now looks somewhat time-weary. It was a humid day; the monsoon had decided to linger later than usual. It gave the sun some extra bite, the humid air magnifying the intensity. I began the trek with a leaky bladder, and I hasten to add that I am talking about my water carrier in my pack, which promised to cause me much hassle if I was not careful. I hurriedly acquired a few 1.5 litre plastic water bottles to make sure I was properly equipped. They lasted the whole trip too!

(Drugyel Dzong)

In the warm, humid air, we began strolling along the lush valley, passing a holy man burning something with an interesting smell. Then we got into the mud. It would not usually be this muddy but for the late monsoon. The rocks were covered in slippery mud, and where there were no rocks, the mud sucked at our boots. It made for a very tough first day, an energy-sapping day where the hours merged into one long endurance test making the customary hard first day, harder than expected.

Stopping at the Gunitswa Army Camp to have our trekking permits checked, provided a good excuse top stop and sit down on a bench for a while and admire the surrounding mountains. By the time we reached the campsite (Shana), it was getting towards evening and nearing twilight. It was a pleasant campsite, with the Paro River gushing past and providing a foreground to traditional farmhouse illuminated by the soft evening sun. At 2890 metres, nobody was suffering from the altitude in any significant way. I slept well that night.

(Paro River at Shana)

Day 2

Our intrepid leader, Sumit, had informed us on the previous evening that the second day was going to be full of ups and downs, and that we would be climbing over 600 metres in altitude. In reality, we would probably be climbing more than 1400 metres once all the ups and downs were completed. It was on this day that people started to feel the effects of the thinner air as we went higher. There were some pale faces on the trail, and we came across one person vomiting as a result of the effects. At this altitude, it isn’t usually too serious, but there were people were in some distress. Neither Miriam nor I were suffering anything more than a bit of breathlessness from the reduced oxygen, at this stage.

This was a bit of an endurance test, and although we went slowly, it remained tough all day, as our bodies protested at the altitude. There was, thankfully, less mud on this day, and we visited a small settlement where the locals treated us to some stew for lunch. It was a pleasant surprise and a respite from never-ending trail. It was no more than three houses in a high and remote valley, but it was a place to sit and take the weight off our feet, and have some yak meat (probably) and fresh vegetables.

Our pack horses passed us relatively early in the day, carrying our gear to the next campsite. We would get used to getting off the narrow trail to them pass, and look forward to the chance to sit down for five minutes every now and then, particularly in the steep mountain sections.

Following lunch, we entered birch and larch forests and would soon come across the rhododendrons. Bhutan has almost fifty species of rhododendrons and often has perfume companies come to extract scents to work on. You could say it is the national plant of Bhutan…but then again, maybe not! There are also hundreds of species of orchids. The rhododendrons are used for domestic uses including traditional medicine, incense, and woodcarving.

As we climbed higher, each hill became harder and I began to wonder exactly how far ahead the camp lay. As the day wore on, we trudged through steep-sided valley that took sunlight away early in the evening. Shadows from the surrounding peaks crept across the path, increasing the gloom. This effect was magnified when walking through dense forest, making it important to watch the ground carefully so that we didn’t turn an ankle on the one of the numerous rocks. We spent some time wondering whether we would make camp before dark. We did, but only just.

On the way we came across a large chorten festooned with prayer-flags. A fellow traveler (Margie, I think) saw our fatigued expressions, and told us to look up and to the left. Our fatigue faded away as the summit of Jhomolhari towered up in the distance, its snow-covered peak glistening in the evening sun. It was a magical sight; we were close to the snow. The view and moment are still etched into my memory.

(Jhomolhari at sunset)

In another half an hour we were at the campsite (Soi Thangthanka) and gratefully sitting down with a cup of tea. We had covered 22km in about ten hours and were now at 3800 metres. That night I got my first altitude headache of the trek, but I still managed a reasonable night’s sleep. It was hard not to sleep after that day.

Day 3

A dull throbbing headache greeted me on the morning of the third day. My body was keen to tell that I was at altitude. This didn’t surprise me, as the only other time I had been up to this height (also in Bhutan) I had suffered the same headache. Being an optimistic type, I thought that a little bit of walking would sort it out.

Cloud shrouded the surrounding peaks, as we had a quick breakfast and then headed off onwards and upwards. We passed through some small collections of houses, somewhat optimistically called villages in the trip notes I have subsequently read. For me this day was one of dull headaches and other than that, it was uneventful. The trail followed the Paro River We climbed almost five hundred metres before reaching Jangothang, at 4100 metres (also called Jhomolhari base camp, although it is no longer possible to climb this mountain, at least from the Bhutanese side). We had climbed about 1800 metres in the last three days and I was certainly looking forward to the rest day.

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