Story and photos by Drew Miller
Karma, our guide, on the way to the base of Gangkhar Phuentsum
Only One Way Back
Day One: My initiation to trekking, started with a light rain that soon turned heavy. It quickly became clear that once we crossed the cable bridge at the Menchugang settlement there would be only three ways to get back from our trek through the Inner Himalayas of north-central Bhutan: walk, get thrown over a horse, or, in the case of a medical emergency, wait several days for the Indian Army to provide a $1,500 helicopter ride. Walking out was the only acceptable option.
Lunch that first day was a soggy cheese sandwich and a hardboiled egg, eaten under a tree in the rain. I took that opportunity to change from my soggy, stylish, trekking pants into rain pants. I never changed back.
Bring Him Back Alive
This was my first trek, Bob’s third. We are pushing 60 from both directions – he is 61 and I am 59 – and this may have been our last trek. Bob, a retired businesman, has been to Bhutan seven times in the past few years. If you asked him why, he would say it was because he admires the society; because he appreciates how the people and their benevolent king are moving forward with a common purpose and how Mahayana Buddhist, the state-sponsored religion, permeates the society, creating an atmosphere that is special and unique. He had invited me to join him a number of times. This time I said yes.
I am an insurance broker, who has been living on the central coast of California for the past few decades. While I travel frequently, most of my trips are to Europe, most often to Rome, where I lived as a teenager. Prior to this trip, my experiences in Asia had been limited to a trip to Thailand several years ago. On that trip, I enjoyed the feeling of being in a Buddhist country.
I was intrigued by the challenge of trekking in another Buddhist country. Although I knew little about Bhutan, it seemed an exotic and exciting opportunity. I was also attracted to the challenge of trekking at altitude in the Himalayas. At my age, I am quite conscious that I can quickly lose the physical ability to make this type of trip. I felt I needed to do it now.
I prepared by kicking up my twice a week workouts and hiking a friend’s steep driveway. One night Bob told me how, in the weeks before the trip, friends questioned whether I could handle the trek. My wife, Kathy, made him promise to bring me back alive.
First Trekking Lesson
The Gangkhar Phuentsum Trek is a nine-day trip across the alpine plains of north-central Bhutan. The trip would take us to the foot of Gangkhar Phuentsum, which, at 24,600 feet, is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. It will most likely remain so. In 1994, the climbing of mountains in Bhutan higher than 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) was prohibited out of respect for local spiritual beliefs and since 2003 mountaineering has been forbidden completely in Bhutan.
Our trekking trail began at the settlement of Menchugang, near the town of Jakar, in the province of Bumthang, along a route that starts up the Dur Chu, a churning river with spectacular waterfalls and bus-sized boulders. Although not currently part of an active project, I could see how other rivers in the country produce what is Bhutan’s most important single source of economic revenue – the sale of hydroelectric power to India. The river roars south out of the mountains of Bhutan, onto the plains of India and eventually empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Bhutan derives its name, which translates to Land of the Thunder Dragon, from the violent storms from the Himalayas that cause frequent landslides during the rainy season. The ubiquitous rivers and their floodplains defined our path. The sound of rushing water became the background noise that defined the rhythms to which we hiked each day.
Horses crossing the last suspension bridge of the trek
There were eight of us on the trip. Bob and I were the trekkers. The others were our support crew: our guide, Karma; two cooks, Dargay and Likki; Migma, who carried my pack and watched my back; and our two horsemen, Teola and the broad-smiling Teshi Dorji.
Eleven horses were provided to carry our vast array of equipment and provisions: tents, baggage, large propane bottles for cooking and dozens of fresh eggs. The horse train also included a foal that accompanied its mother to learn the trails.
We would eventually cover about 120 miles on the map, (more if you straighten out the ascents and descents) at altitudes between 8,500 and 15,800 feet. We trekked about seven to eight hours a day through high mountain meadows and forests.
Trekking up the Dur Chu, I learned one of my first trekking lessons: When hiking up a river valley, as beautiful as its waterfalls may be, you will soon be ascending. And the more spectacular the falls, the steeper the ascent will be.
After an exhausting first day of struggling through the mud and rocks on a hard-to-define trail along the river, it became clear to me that my pace was too fast. I needed a way to control the pace in order to last through the day.
I have the lyrics to thousands of songs in my head. Prying them out became a good game to pass the time on the trail and set the proper pace for each day’s trek. It took two days to completely recall the lyrics to the Jackson Browne song, “Fountain of Sorrow.” The lyrics seemed appropriate to the trip and the song stuck in my head for days.
“Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light / You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight / You’ve had to struggle, you’ve had to fight / To keep understanding and compassion in sight”
The Blue Poppy and the Stupa Flower
On day three, we crossed the 15,600-foot Thole La Pass, which had loomed in my mind as the greatest challenge of the trek, until I climbed it. In retrospect, it was an easy day compared to some of the others. During our ascent, Migma found a blue poppy. The flower has a strange life cycle, particularly given its status as the national flower of a country as old and stable as Bhutan: It germinates for several years, blooms for a brief time, and dies.
At the top of the pass, we celebrated. Soft-spoken Migma, served us tea. He had an 18-year-old wife somewhere and was an incorrigible philanderer. Although sockless in green, high-top sneakers, somehow he managed to keep his shoes clean, while we were up to our $200 boots in mud.
While drinking tea, we signed a prayer flag that Karma attached to a pole. Bob and I used our satellite phone to leave messages for our wives to assure them that we had survived this climb. From the pass, the landscape below looked lunar. We descended and camped at collection of yak huts that belonged to our horseman, Teola.
After we had settled at the campsite, Karma spotted a stupa flower high up on the mountainside above our camp. Standing several feet tall, this unusual flower with overlapping white petals takes its name from the religious monuments found throughout the Buddhist world.
At camp that afternoon, we were visited by a yak herder’s wife and child. On the way out the next day, we stopped at their settlement to purchase some weavings. She gave us a bottle of “arra,” a potent, home-brewed Bhutanese liquor distilled from fermented grain. Egg whites are sometimes added to give the drink curative value, while apples may be added for flavor. The children, bundled up against the chill, their cheeks chapped from living at altitude, were captivating.
Karma (with backpack) negotiating grazing rights with yak herders.
The King’s Roll
Day four we recall as the Death Slide Day. Negotiating several miles of steep downhill trail of rain-soaked clay-like soil and loose rocks challenged our footing and nerves. We moved slowly and cautiously, carefully placing our trekking poles in crevices, hoping they would hold. It was the only time during the trek that the word treacherous came to my mind.
This trail led us down to the banks of the Chamkhar River, where we eventually camped. Like the Dur, it was wild and treacherous. I never set foot in it.
During that descent, I remembered my luck in a Buddhist temple the day before we set off. After making a traditional offering, Karma asked the monk to let us play a dice game. For a fee, you make a wish and roll three dice to see if the wish will come true. I wished for the strength to make the trek. I rolled the dice. They added up to 11, “The King’s Roll.”
The best you can do.
Day six was a Buddhist holiday, Blessed Rainy Day. In the gloomy wetness of early morning, we observed this holiday around a smoky fire in one of a collection of yak-herder’s huts in a wide, treeless river valley at 14,700 feet. The huts form the Bamarpo base camp for Gangkhar Phuentsum.
We had reached the base camp early the previous afternoon. As it had been for most of the trek, it was raining steadily. Bob and I had walked some distance up the valley and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening drying out in the herder’s hut, finishing a fine bottle of 12-year-old scotch and arguing politics.
That night, I had a dream about a Buddhist ceremony. People participated in the ceremony and then, for reasons unclear to me, did not speak for a period of time thereafter. The next morning I mentioned it to Karma. He told me there is such a ceremony. Although I never discovered the significance of the ceremony, I was moved. This Buddhist country, its people and their lifestyle were seeping into my dreams.
We celebrated the holiday with a ceremonial breakfast of rice porridge. With storm clouds still dominating the valley, it looked doubtful that we would get to see Gangkhar Phuentsum. Today would be our last opportunity before our three-day return trek to the village in Bumthang. Karma had warned us that other groups had reached the base camp without ever seeing the mountain.
As breakfast ended, Teshi Dorji stepped outside for a moment, came back in and shouted something to the crew. “The mountain is open!” Karma yelled. The rain had stopped and the clouds had cleared.. Dominating the north end of valley we could see the massive snow-covered mountain.
We quickly began hiking toward the base of the mountain. Bob and I, Karma, Teola and Teshi Dorji. Dorji has an enormous smile despite being a widower with nine children. He spoke no English, yet one morning hugged me and said , “brother, the same.”
The meandering river and swampy terrain made hiking up the valley difficult, so we stuck to the ridges along the right side of the valley. Clouds dodged in and out, obscuring parts of the mountain. We crossed ridge after ridge until finally we were confronted by a steep rise comprised of loose rock and boulders. Our poles provided little help, so we crawled, hand over hand, to the top of the pile until we reached a spot where we could see the mountain top to bottom.
To our right was a caldera, evidence of past volcanic activity. Below us lay the moraine, left when the glacier carved the valley. In the middle was a gray-colored lake that Karma said contained a spring that becomes the Chamkhar River, one of three rivers for which the mountain is the source.
The name Gangkhar Phuentsum, he told us, is derived from a phrase that means, “The White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers.” The legend of the three brothers is a part of what gives the mountain its religious significance for the Bhutanese. The tale goes that the three brothers were sleeping. One woke up on time, the second awoke late and the third awoke even later. How fast and tumultuous each river flowed reflected how hurried each brother was to get down the mountain, to catch up.
While Karma and Teshi Dorji headed down to the lake, Bob and I sat on a rock at 15,750 feet in north-central Bhutan in front of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. We were seeing something that no more than a handful of westerners have ever seen. We both knew we would likely never see it again. Neither of us was in a hurry to get back down the mountain.
Left to right: Teshi Dorji, Drew, Bob and Teola at base of Gangkhar Phuentsum.
Photo by Karma Namgay
Keeping The Faith
We depended on Karma to keep us on track. My faith in him was complete. It was tested just once. While following the Chamkhar River down from the base camp, we came to a spot where monsoons had blown out the mountainside and washed away the trail. Following the riverbank was too dangerous. Karma led us up a steep hill, through a tangle of tree limbs, boulders and vines that seemed to lead nowhere except deeper into the forest. At one point, I stopped and looked at him, perched above me on a treelimb.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He nodded. I hesitated a moment, checked my faith in him and kept climbing. After struggling through dense growth, we eventually came down through the trees and rejoined the trail along the river.
I learned to check my faith in myself many times on the trip. During the trek, we crossed rivers and streams, without hesitation, via suspension bridges and footbridges made of pairs of split logs. Crossing a footbridge on the last day, I noticed that it had only three split logs. Looking over the edge, I saw the fourth, ends rotted, lying in the stream bed, 20 feet below. I remembered how many of these bridges I had crossed in the past nine days, not realizing just how fragile they could be. We later learned that another trekking group lost a horse to the river.
We say goodbye
Late in the afternoon of day nine, we crossed the last suspension bridge, climbed the last hill and arrived at the village of Toktobi, the end of our trek. We were greeted by a representative of the Bhutanese Department of Tourism. He was there to record our safe arrival, ask about our trip and to assure that we had carried out our garbage.
The eight of us crowed into a dark store, toasted each other with beer and potato chips. We laughed about our adventures. Then we said goodbye.
Bob and I had trekked through high mountain valleys, along raging rivers, through meadows of wildflowers in constellations of white snowflakes, tiny purple bells and pink jasmine-like stars. We had passed through forests of cedar, dwarf bamboo, and rhododendrons and through villages and farms, whose fields were bright with pink buckwheat and yellow mustard flowers. Along the way, we had met few people, mainly yak herders and their families, and an army patrol looking for smugglers one morning.
On the trail, I learned to measure the distance in hours, not miles, by putting myself in a trance and remembering song lyrics that would help set the proper pace. I learned to put my head down and push through whatever obstacles there were, including the smell of the trek, a mixture of mud, horse shit, yak dung, and sweat. Eventually, the smell permeated everything.
Around the fire one night, I asked Bob how trekking had changed him. He said that there is not much that he fears. I can not yet answer that question for myself. But I do know that I would do it all again on a moment’s notice.