The Snowman Trek in Bhutan is the world’s most difficult mountain trek. An American school teacher shares her experience from this extraordinary trek.
Bay College recently welcomed a downstate woman who participated in a 25-day hike through the Bhutanese Himalayas last fall.
Susan Martin Sharp, a middle school science teacher from downstate Boyne City, spoke of her experiences in front of a small audience at Bay College.
The Snowman Trek – The Most Difficult Trek in the World
Her decision to take part in what is known as the Snowman Trek, dubbed one of the world’s most difficult mountainous treks, was inspired by an article she read about the trip of one of her favorite National Geographic authors.
Bhutan, located in the middle of the Himalayas, is a very isolated country about the size of Switzerland, according to Sharp. The country has a population of approximately 725,000 people.
Sharp said she and 11 others began the trek last fall.
“We also had four cooks, three guides, seven horsemen, and 42 horses, so it was a pretty big operation to get a bunch of Americans and Canadians to complete the Snowman Trek,” she said.
Past success of the trek has not been very good, according to one of the group’s guides, who said he had completed the Snowman Trek only three out of seven times.
The trek itself is characterized by steep elevation gains and losses, according to Sharp.
“It follows mostly rivers because that provides passes through the mountains,” she said. “Our trek took 25 days, 225 miles, and over the course of that, we gained, I think, 31,500 feet in elevation, and then lost 23,500 feet.”
One issue with the trek was the altitude, as people often suffer from altitude sickness at 15,000 to 16,000 feet and higher. The weather, too, can pose a problem.
“There’s a small window of opportunity in late September and October, after the monsoon season, right before the snow comes, that people have the most luck,” she said. “And we ended up having great weather, which to me, was the whole reason why we made it.”
The majority of the trek was hiked in small groups single file, and most people used trekking poles to assist them on rocky paths.
“The problem is, Bhutan’s in such a remote area that if you fall and sprain a leg, you have to get a helicopter in for evacuation,” she said. “So each time they call a helicopter to evacuate you, they had to get a ground clearance. If they can’t land, it’s $5,000 anyway just to try to come and get you, so it can be pretty pricey.”
Sharp said it was nice to travel along rivers since they provided a source of water, which is especially important while up in higher elevations.
“Typically we would drink three to four liters per day,” said Sharp.
However, since the group was traveling so close to the rivers, they had to cross them quite often, which could prove to be a problem as many bridge crossings had been washed out during the monsoon season. Often, they had to find alternative routes to get to the other side, such as using stepping stones to cross. Even then, the trekkers needed to be careful, since it was easy to slip and fall, and they faced some strong currents.
“Sometimes on really tedious days, we’d cross the same river like 12, 13, 14 times just back and forth,” added Sharp.
She said the hardest part for her, however, was how rocky the paths were.
“If you wanted to stop and take a picture, you could never just look around,” she said. “You always had to keep your eye on the trail, because one misstep and that could mean the end of your trip.”
One participant from their group actually had to be evacuated due to a fractured arm and some respiratory problems.
Tents were set up in areas for the group to camp overnight, and were always set up before they got to where they would rest for the evening.
“Typically what would happen is you would leave camp and your tent would still be up,” she explained. “The horsemen would pack up your tent, and then they would pack up the horses, and would pass you on the trail and get everything set up by the time you got there.”
Seeing the blue tents in the distance was always a welcome sight, since they knew it was time to rest after hiking long days, sometimes even 10 hours a day.
As the trek progressed, the second half was at much higher elevations, and was colder, steeper, and a lot harder on the body.
“As we progressed, the Snowman Trek crosses 11 passes, and they’re always marked with prayer flags,” Sharp explained. “And prayer flags are a way of asking for safe passage. It’s kind of blessings for the trip ahead and thanks for the safe trips before.”
One of the last districts the group traveled through was the glacial district. The pass here can be very tricky, according to Sharp, because if it closes, trekkers can be stuck out there for quite some time. One of the group’s guides was actually stuck there for more than two weeks while he waited for the pass to melt, and some people have gotten stuck for up to three or four months.
In their last week, the group had camps set up above 16,000 feet, which made it harder to breathe and sleep.
“I’d say three nights in a row I didn’t sleep very much at all,” said Sharp. “It was also quite a bit colder, and your appetite sort of gets depressed. You’re not so hungry, and so you kind of lose energy, but this is actually the hardest part of the trip, and I think this is where most people lost weight.”
When the group made its way through the final big pass at 17,470 feet, they celebrated for about 30 minutes, taking photos, and making snowmen and snow angels. Even though they had five more days to go, they knew they were not going to get snowed in.
“And that was it … after that it was all downhill,” joked Sharp.
Sharp also spoke about what she learned about Bhutanese culture, the government, and their way of life. She called the experience amazing, and said the scenery was beautiful.
“To me, just when I thought it wouldn’t get more beautiful, it would,” she said. “It was an amazing place.”