A trek that takes nearly a month to complete and involves crossing 11 mountain passes above 4000 meters, that's the Snowman Trek for you. From this information, one can gauge how difficult is the Snowman Trek. The Snowman trail which remains snow-covered most of the year skirts the remote Bhutan-Tibet border and weaves across the foothills of 7000-meter peaks. Billed as one of the most difficult treks in the world, Bhutan's Snowman Trek is not for everybody. Even seasoned trekkers swear about the challenges of completing this epic trek. My friend Dave for instance.
Dave, my client turned friend from New Zealand, had had a rough call when he had tried to tackle the 3 Passes and Amphu Labtsa in the Khumbu Region. He had nearly lost his way in an unexpected blizzard while crossing the Cho La Pass. If it was not for his guide who had returned to get him, Dave would not have survived the snowstorm.
Back in Kathmandu, I paid him a visit while he was recovering in a private clinic. He had nearly lost his thumb to frostbite. Looking weary and worn, he was but in his usual feisty mood when I visited him. Surely this must have been the most difficult trek he had been on, and I expressed this much to him. But according to Dave, this experience was nothing compared to the Snowman 'fiasco' (his choice of word, not mine!) that he had endured in Bhutan. Apparently, it had snowed so heavily while he was trekking, that his group had to abandon the trek just five days short of reaching the endpoint. It had been just too dangerous to carry on trekking in the deep snow.
The Snowman Trek takes you to one of the remotest corners of the Himalayas in Bhutan. The trail which starts from Paro makes an arc as it goes up the Lunana plateau and the Bhutan-Tibet border and ends in Bumthang or Sephu.
The Snowman Trek which takes you to elevations above 5000 meters is Bhutan's hardest trek. With several mountain-pass crossings, it is one of the most difficult treks in the Himalayas. The trek has a success rate of just fifty percent and only a handful of trekkers attempt to take this challenging trek each year.
Starting from Paro, the route makes a semi-circle as the trail ascends the foothills of Jichu Drake and Jomolhari and weaves through several high passes before ending in Bumthang or Sephu. Throughout the trek, one will have the presence of 7000 and 6000-meter peaks soaring majestically above the trail. The route also traverses remote villages and pristine and uninhabited forests and hills.
The Snowman Trek promises an incredible adventure across a terrain that is best described as surreal and heavenly. The moss-covered trail, forests with trees cloaked in lichen, frothing glacial rivers, turquoise lakes, and mountain passes overlooking the grand peaks of the Bhutan Himalaya, the Snowman trail offers one an epic nature experience. En route, you cross mountain villages peopled by indigenous communities like Layaps who take pride in their unique culture, language, and lifestyle.
As per your itinerary, the Snowman Trek route will take you across eleven to fourteen mountain passes that lie above 4000 meters. Because of the high altitude, you can only do this trek at the end of September and October, right after Bhutan's infamous monsoon season and before the winter snowfall.
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There are many factors that contribute to the difficulty level of the Snowman Trek. First of all is the length or distance covered during the trek. Starting from Paro, you will be covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers during your trek. It's a daunting feat to cover such vast expanse of the trail on foot.
Secondly, the high altitude. You will spend close to a month walking in elevations above 3000 meters. You will be camping at places that are located at 5000 meters above sea level. The oxygen in the atmosphere decreases considerably the higher you reach, making each day's progress difficult. AMS (acute mountain sickness) due to high altitude is one of the major reasons why trekkers abandon their Snowman Trek mid-way. It also gets pretty cold and temperatures dip below zero degrees at night.
The third factor is the terrain. The Snowman Trail involves crossing at least 11 mountain passes. So one can expect a lot of steep ascents and descents. There will also be river crossings and walking on exposed and narrow ridges.
Fourthly, the limited weather window. One of the reasons why very few people can complete the Snowman Trek is the small weather window to complete the trek. There's just a limited interval in a year when one can expect suitable weather to trek on the Snowman trail.
Another reason that makes the Snowman Trek challenging is the remote location of the trail. The trail takes you far away from civilization into a wild country. The Snowman Trek route weaves through one of the most remote and rarely explored areas of Bhutan. Though there will be a few villages en route, most of the time you will be trekking and camping in the wilderness. It will take time for help to arrive if needed, in case of bad weather. There is no internet or phone connectivity on the major portion of the trail.
Lastly the long duration of the trek. It takes around a month to complete the Snowman trek which contributes to the difficulty level of the trek. Any jaded trekker would feel exhausted and drained to trudge along a mountainous trail continuously for about three weeks.
A passionate trekker is always up for a good challenge. The harsher the trail, the more thrilling an adventure sounds. The Snowman trek with its many challenges is a great way for experienced trekkers to test their physical and mental endurance.
It's part of human nature to strive for something unattainable or unachievable. The Snowman Trek poses such a challenge for all trekkers and hill walkers. The trek may seem daunting but the feeling of achievement and personal victory that one experiences at the completion of the trek is, I guess, unparalleled.
There's also the pride of joining an exclusive group of trekkers who have completed the Snowman Trek. With only fifty percent of success, there are only a few who are successful in completing this challenging trek.
Another attraction is the scenery on the trail, which is one of the best in the Bhutan Himalaya. Snaking past the foothills of Bhutan's highest mountains, the beauty of the untouched nature en route is enough to motivate and inspire any hill walker.
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The Snowman Trek is not recommended for newbies or beginners. One needs to have some experience in high-altitude trekking. As the trek involves several mountain-pass crossings you need to have the stamina and endurance level to tackle the grueling ascents and descents. One should also have the mental strength and determination to forego creature comforts and remain on the trail that's far away from civilization for nearly a month.
Bhutan's government has some strict rules in place for tourists. For one, tourists cannot travel independently anywhere in Bhutan. They need to book their trip with a government-registered agency and should always be accompanied by a Bhutanese tour or trek guide.
If you wish to do the Snowman Trek you will have to book with a trekking agency that is recognized by the government of Bhutan. Another factor that makes solo trekking on the Snowman trail impossible is its remote location.
The trek traverses an uninhabited corner of Bhutan which makes solo trekking next to impossible. Unlike Nepal, the trekking trails in Bhutan have no facilities for lodging or food. There are no teahouses or lodges en route where you can take shelter. It's purely old-style camping if you want to trek in Bhutan. Carrying supplies for a month long trek by oneself is physically not possible.
You will be accompanied by a retinue of trekking guide, kitchen staff, pack animals (yaks and ponies) and their handlers. The ration and the heavy baggage will be carried by the pack animals. You will be sleeping and dining in tents. Each morning the kitchen staff will wake you up with bed tea. Later warm water will be provided for washing. After breakfast, you get ready and pack your things. The camp will be dismantled and the group will carry on to the next destination.
En route, you will stop for lunch which has been prepared and packed by the kitchen hands. The pack animals and their handlers move early and reach the campsite ahead of the group. They will set up the camp and get everything ready before the group reaches the campsite.
Each day's campsite is selected in a scenic location – either on a grassy meadow offering breathtaking views of the mountains or on the shores of mountain lakes. Once you arrive at the campsite you will be offered refreshments. You can sit out and enjoy the view while the kitchen staff prepares dinner. You can also explore the nearby area or village. After dinner, you head to your tent and have a good night's rest. You follow the same routine for the entire duration of the trek.
The Snowman Trek has been featured as one of the World's Best Hikes and Epic Trails by travel and adventure bibles like the Lonely Planet and National Geographic.
Although a challenging trek, the Snowman trail offers an entirely unique experience – from the windswept snow-covered passes to alpine forests and green meadows. You also get to experience the fascinating culture of indigenous mountain communities that have protected and preserved their ancient customs and traditions from the onslaught of modern civilization.
The Snowman Trek is one of the finest treks in the Himalayas and if you tick all the boxes required to complete this trek, you should certainly do it. It may sound clichéd, but the Snowman Trek does offer you a once-in-a-lifetime experience.