When Luis Escobar calls and asks “Do you want to have an adventure?” always say yes. Over the years I’ve crewed him while he ran 146 miles across Death Valley, worked with him as an official photographer for the Western States Endurance Run, and helped Scott Jurek break the speed record on the Appalachian Trail, but this was going to be different. I packed a bag, grabbed my passport, and hopped on a flight to Asia to hike in the Himalaya and meet with a King.
Of course, any good adventure starts with sleeping on the floor of an airport. Well, most of mine do. The Kingdom of Bhutan is not exactly easy to get to and after a long series of flights halfway around the world I found myself stuck in international transit hell in India where I spent 12 long hours in a waiting room full of angry passengers, too few chairs, and one vending machine. Eventually a Drukair staff member arrived with my ticket and sprung me from my transfer prison.
A few hours later I was descending into Paro, known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to the sheer cliffs and difficult approach pattern. Less than two dozen pilots are certified to make the manual by-daylight-only landing between 18,000 foot peaks, through a long, winding valley onto a runway that is only 7,431 feet long and visible just moments before touching down. Dangerous maybe, but also one of the most scenic descents in the world.
Upon arrival I was welcomed into the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a Kingdom where success is measured by Gross National Happiness, people still dress in traditional Ghos and Kiras, and there isn’t a single traffic light in the capital city. I posted up in a hotel room while my COVID test was processed and enjoyed an incredible view of the city life and surrounding mountains.
After touring Thimphu with our hosts the real work began. Luis had been hired as the International Race Director for the first ever Snowman Race, a 5 day ultramarathon through the Himalaya in the highlands of Bhutan. The race was scheduled for October but we were there in August to pre-hike the 125 mile trail to get an accurate GPS track and formulate a plan for course marking, athlete safety, and race management. The trekking team included government officials, representatives of the Bhutan Amateur Athletics Federation, members of the Bhutanese military, and was lead by a group of experienced guides from 5 of the premiere outfitters in the country. We would be in good hands.
Our final morning in town we raced around picking up last minute supplies then crammed everything into several 4×4 Mahindras and trundled our way up into the mountains. Low hanging clouds obscured the views of the Himalaya but Luis assured me that they were there. We spent one night in a guesthouse in Gasa and then bounced over rough washed out roads and around gnarled wrecked vehicles. Our medic said he had narrowly escaped a truck before it slid off a cliff the previous week. When the two track ended we donned packs and started our trek.
On foot we followed a narrow valley along a raging river to a military checkpoint where we made camp. That afternoon we hiked up to Laya, a very remote village perched on steep slopes 12,500 feet above sea level. There we wandered the winding pathways, took in the highland architecture, talked with children at the school, and saw several Layap women in their traditional dress.
We returned to camp, soaked our feet in an ice cold glacial stream, ate a hearty dinner cooked by the crew and then crawled into our tents for some well earned rest.
The next morning we broke camp and hiked up the valley away from the river under looming clouds that continued to hide the Himalaya, but I was starting to see faint outlines of what lay ahead. We stopped at Roduphu, a small camp in an open valley with two stone shelters and a wide glacial river.
Walking into camp I finally caught my first glimpse of the big mountains and the massifs triggered a bit of anxiety, not only because they were huge, but we were now at 13,500 feet above sea level and my head was beginning to spin and throb. I knew this was only the gateway to the elevations we’d be traversing and if I was feeling bad down here I worried about surviving multiple days up there. The guides tried to help by telling me that the best way to avoid altitude sickness was to walk behind the horses and smell their farts. I considered trying it but opted for a 2 hour nap before dinner and then a long night tucked snugly into my sleeping bag.
The next morning Luis delivered a hot cup of coffee to the tent and I squished my feet into cold wet shoes. Rain fell all night turning the valley into a soggy mess. Day 3 started in the rain and continued in the rain. Everything was wet and throughout the climb I struggled to deal with increasing altitude sickness. We finally made camp on a plateau shrouded in mist at 16,200 feet above sea level. I was feeling miserable but the guides and crew were making my slog as enjoyable as it could be.
In the morning we woke to the sun burning through the clouds and finally got a reprieve from the rain. Head pounding, I took ibuprofen and guzzled 5 cups of strong ginger tea saturated with countless cubes of sugar. It turned out to be a beautiful morning as we climbed through the alpine zone and crossed over a 16,960 foot tall pass, the highest I’d ever been.
On our steep descent into the next valley the clouds returned and my headache grew. Even my eyes were throbbing. I laid down on a rock and napped during lunch and after several hours of slipping and sliding through sticky mud and ice cold river crossings we wandered into camp in a steady mist. I was cold and wet but at least we were camping below 13,000 feet, giving my body a reprieve from the elevation. The military guys lit a fire and we all dried our gear and played a few raucous rounds of Uno while singing songs before retreating to bed.
In the middle of the night I woke to the low rumbling of a rockslide that began to crescendo, indicating a threatening approach. Luis was out of the tent in a flash and when I emerged the camp was a commotion of nervous excitement, a few anxious tears and guides checking that all the tents were intact. The rock fall had been a little too close for comfort and it was a good reminder that we were deep in nature and subject to her whims.
After a few hours of fickle slumber we woke to a beautiful morning with bright blue skies and an spectacular view of the towering peaks at the end of the valley, possibly a peace offering for the near death scare just a few hours earlier.
The morning stroll down the valley led us under cascading waterfalls and beside turquoise glacial runoff and was a nice change from the relentless rain. After a steep climb out of the valley we lounged in the sun on a bluff near a village. A stone hut with a blue tarpaulin roof served as the village canteen and outside an old man sat on a rock getting a haircut while a baby in a diaper played on the ground and a teenage boy sharpened an arrow for his bow.
An ironic juxtaposition to this idilic scene was that we had cell reception. Bhutan has worked diligently to expand their communications coverage to villagers in the highlands and most settlements we passed were connected to the rest of the world via high speed cell networks.
When we made camp next to a raging river I told our doctor that I’d acquired a blister on my foot and I was going to pop it with a safety pin. In no time I was sitting in a camp chair with a sprawling suitcase full of medical instruments open at my feet. Needles were sterilized, bandages were arranged, syringes readied for serum and just before the first incision was made the needle was dropped and landed smack dab in the middle of a heaping pile of yak dung. I laughed and thought my safety pin may have been better but the doc worked on like nothing happened and soon my ailment was fixed and my foot was bandaged so well that it looked like I had an amputation rather than a drained blister.
In the morning we started yet another day in the rain and hiked up, up and up past a deep turquoise glacial lake with black yaks wandering the hillside around us. We topped out at Kachela Pass, 15,275 feet above sea level and descended a steep, muddy and slippery slope down to the Lunana Valley. Luis fell and broke a trekking pole but in no time a new one was fashioned out of a stick topped with his broken pole’s handle. The end of the day brought us to camp in a village where we were greeted by the local school teachers and watched young men competing on the archery field.
Another night camping below 13,000 feet made my head feel much better and waking up to warm sunshine lifted my spirit. I walked through the Lunana Valley with my solar panel clipped to my backpack and all of my socks hanging out to dry. Every turn offered a new view that was stunningly beautiful and I had to pinch myself knowing that in October I’d likely return to the same place to manage an aid station during the race.
Just when I thought Shangri-La could not possibly get any better we rounded a corner to a wide valley flanked by 20,000+ foot mountains. We sat in awe tracing the ridgeline that formed the border between Bhutan and Tibet as the guides spread out our lunch in what has to be one the best meal locations ever. In the village we passed the school building where the Academy Award Nominated film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was made.
Before reaching camp for the night we took a slight detour to visit the last village in the valley and scout out a route for the race course. Many of the guides and government representatives had never even visited this village before and it was surreal walking through a place so remote and untouched. We passed a canteen where a large group of men were sitting inside playing games and drinking while throughout the village Lunap women of all ages were returning from the hillsides with massive bundles of sticks balanced on their backs.
When we reached camp the tents were being pitched while a group of kids played a game of duck duck goose nearby. I grabbed a cup of hot tea and sat silently on the edge of a hillside overlooking the village of Töncho, the valley, and the massive mountains looming overhead. Lunap people ambled between homes and fields, a few making circumambulations around the Buddhist Temple while the clouds wisped along the jagged peaks of the Himalayan mountains under a stark blue sky.
The day had been enchanting. Earlier we passed a group of people building a foundation for a remote stone temple, we walked along sprawling sand dunes at 13,000 feet above sea level, and I watched as a woman washed dishes in a pristine mountain stream surrounded by a field of vibrant pink wildflowers. Everywhere we were met with warm smiles and each new view was more breathtaking than the last. I felt humbled and lucky that I was coming back to Lunana in October and the last thing I wrote in my journal that evening was “This has been one of the best days of my life.”
From experiencing the high of one of the best days of my life I was about to endure a new low near the highest point of our trek. Leaving the valley we climbed up to an alpine meadow where several yak herding families were living in stone and tarpaulin huts in their summer pastures. Baby yaks pranced around while our guides purchased several strings of hard yak cheese from an elderly women. The vegetation grew sparse and we spent the afternoon rock hopping across boulders and under towering peaks to our highest camp of the trek at 17,385 feet above sea level.
I was destroyed from the elevation and crawled into my sleeping bag with a pounding headache. I only stirred to scrounge up a small plate of dinner followed by some ibuprofen and retreated back to my bed. The clear night sky offered incredible views of the moon and I listened as everyone discussed the beauty of the scene but I couldn’t coax myself out of the sleeping bag to enjoy it.
Throughout the night I occasionally woke gasping for air, but the long sleep must have helped because I felt much better in the morning. We departed camp and continued toward the high point of our trek. The day was perfect, faint white clouds caressed the rocky peaks and the glacial lakes shimmered with turquoise vibrance. The guides said that we were lucky and that perfectly clear days don’t happen often. We slowed our pace, taking in the views and not wanting it to end.
The high point of the Snowman Trail is Gophu La Pass at 5,464 meters (17,926 feet) above sea level. The Bhutanese were keen to reach 5,500 meters and I wanted to top out at over 18,000 feet so we diverted for a short strenuous hike up the mountainside and reached 5,520 meters (18,110 feet) above sea level before leaving the pass behind.
With the high point behind us we spent the afternoon working our way down into another vibrantly green valley. Looking north we could see the top of Gangkhar Puensum, the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world at 24,836 feet above sea level. We waded across an surging stream and visited a yak herding couple who invited us in for freshly boiled yak milk.
The couple have 60 yaks and each evening they traverse the surrounding hillsides to corral them safely near camp. Every day the woman milks 24 yaks and they make yak cheese and butter products. Once a week one of them walks 3 days to town to sell their stock and buy more supplies. It was truly humbling to be invited into their home and share their yak milk. I’m not sure I want to have fresh boiled yak milk very often, but it was definitely better than the hard dried yak cheese!
The next day we left the lush valley and climbed steep barren slopes into a thick fog and lost the track. We scrambled around the hillside for awhile calling out and searching for the path and once back on course we stuck a little closer together. Getting lost out here was not part of the plan.
The day turned into another miserable wet and rainy slog. We climbed a very steep scree filled pass and stopped for lunch at the top. Looking down at the pack animals snaking up the switchbacks induced vertigo and I was glad that we were going down the other side.
After another cold wet camp we woke to blue skies and sunshine in a wide open valley. We walked across a vast expanse of luminescent neon green grass in an otherworldy scene. The day’s only pass was not far from camp and in no time we’d crossed into another valley and were on our way down to our next camp near some well known hot springs.
On the descent we spotted a heard of blue sheep perched high on the cliffs above us. Intentional or not, they kicked a few rocks off the cliff that shattered near the trail below so we quickly skirted the boulders and dropped into a think jungle canopy. Once we reached the bottom we followed the raging river to our hot spring oasis.
The Duer Hot Springs consists of a large communal structure for camping and many smaller shelters built over steaming hot pools. It had been 11 days since our last shower and the warm tubs were a sight for sore eyes. While we were all itching to soak in the rejuvenating baths Luis got an unexpected head start, head first.
At the first tub along the river I was leading and Luis stopped to reach down and test the water. I heard a splash and turned around to see Sonam Rinchen pulling Luis out of the hot tub by the strap of his backpack. A piece of carpeting along the edge had slipped and sent Luis tumbling into the thermal pool head first. Luckily Sonam was beside him and in no time Luis was upright, soaked from the waist up with a dazed look on his face. He seemed to be okay so I smiled and said “How’s the temperature?” and we laughed all the way into camp.
The next day we took a well earned day off at the hot springs. After 11 days of moving even the pack animals appreciated the break. The sun came out, everyone did laundry and laid their clothes out to dry, solar panels recharged devices and batteries, and I sat in a camp chair for hours drinking hot cups of coffee and tea enjoying the respite.
Of course, the main reason for the zero day was to enjoy the hot springs and all day the crew shuffled up and down a set of shelters along a steep trail above the hut. The sequence of hotter and hotter springs were built into the hillside along a picturesque cascading mountain stream, the highest one built right on top of a waterfall. At one point Luis was sitting in the highest and hottest tub and the entire crew decided to squeeze in with him.
Refreshed, recharged and clean we packed up camp the next day and hiked toward the final two passes of the trek. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind as we traversed the final pass and dropped down into valleys dotted with yak herder huts and thick jungle forests. We spent the night in a recently built hut, protecting us from yet another deluge of rain.
That night we shared a final dinner with the entire crew which included a special dish of yak meat. Even though I didn’t share a language with the pack animal handlers and other crew members we’d grown as close as family over the previous 12 days. As much as I was ready for a hot shower and a hamburger I was definitely going to miss this group.
The last section of the trail was a bit surreal. As we got closer to the end we started seeing signs of civilization. First it was more huts along the path, then a temporary saw mill, then the trail transitioned from a single track to double track built for motor vehicle travel. I realized that I hadn’t seen a motor vehicle in nearly two weeks and we’d spoken with and elderly Lunap woman who had never seen a vehicle in her entire life. Not only were we walking out of one of the most beautiful and ruggedly remote places I’d ever visited, it felt as though we were walking out of the past and into the present.
I was jolted out of my quiet introspection when I crested a hill in a light mist and saw our crew truck and a table waiting with chocolate cake and cases of Druk lager. We were adorned with white silk sashes and as the rain grew heavy the crew lightheartedly danced and sang songs getting drenched one last time before climbing in the bus and drying out in town.
In Bumthang we checked into a luxury hotel, took long hot showers and shared a celebratory meal followed by more singing and dancing well into the night. The next morning most of our crew packed into vehicles for the long twisty drive back to Thimphu. The couple who managed some of our pack animals didn’t join though, instead they were stocking up on supplies and the next day would begin a two week trek back to Laya, stopping and selling goods to the villages and herding settlements along the way.
Back in Thimphu we had one last day filled with Snowman Race business. We met with our team at the Tourism Council to finalize race logistics and next steps. That night we had a meeting with the Snowman Race Board of Directors, head of the Bhutanese military, Ambassadors, business leaders and media partners. It was a fancy affair and we had the opportunity to talk with some very talented people all working to promote Bhutan and the Kingdom’s natural beauty and mystique.
In a last minute surprise we were told that we would have an audience. Audience for what I wondered? Before our meeting with the Board we were whisked away in a car and through security into a garden where we sat for an hour drinking tea with His Majesty The King of Bhutan. It had been his idea to host an international ultrarunning event to raise awareness for climate change and how it is impacting his country and people. We discussed the trek, which he’s done multiple times, the Layaps and Lunaps we met, and his hopes for the Snowman Race. It was a wonderful experience and had me shaking my head in disbelief. Somehow a small-town kid from the middle of nowhere Indiana was talking with the King of Bhutan about trail running. Unbelievable.
With that our work in Bhutan was done. We’d trekked the Snowman Trail, recorded the path on multiple GPS devices, got to know the guides and outfitters who would be helping with the race and worked on plans for trail marking, athlete safety and cultural experiences. From hiking one of the most difficult trails in the world through some of the most remote places in the Himalaya to meeting the King, I felt like it had been a once in a lifetime experience. Except it wasn’t, I was coming back do it all again in just over a month.
The next morning Luis and I were checking into our pre-dawn flight out of Paro when the airline denied our access because we didn’t have a visa for India. This shouldn’t have been a problem because we were only transiting through Delhi to transfer from Drukair to Lufthansa, but as I found out on the way to Bhutan it wasn’t that easy.
Luckily through our work with the Snowman Race we had friends in high places. Our contacts began making calls to the airport manager and airline CEO and suddenly things started moving. The airplane was held on the tarmac while officials answered phones, stamped papers, and moved us swiftly through the now empty terminal. We landed in Delhi and were escorted by an official to our luggage and international gates and felt like we were home free.
An hour into our flight to Munich a member of the crew frantically stopped at my seat and showed me a fax that said if Christopher Clemens and Luis Escobar do not show their visas for India then Delhi would turn the entire plane around and make it return. He was clearly distressed and I tried to explain that we had never been in India, that we only transited through international transfers to change airlines so we did not need an Indian visa and could not have gotten a stamp because we never left the international terminal. He said he would try to explain it and as we deplaned in Munich Luis asked him what was going to happen to us. He said he wasn’t sure.
Fortunately what happened was nothing. I’ve had some interesting travel stories over the past decade but this one was for the books. We bellied up to a bar, ordered a couple liters of Hofbräu and celebrated our freedom.
As my final flight chased the sun across the Atlantic Ocean I thought again about how I’d gotten here. Trekking through the Himalaya, making lots of great new friends, and meeting a King. It was another good reminder that if Luis Escobar calls and says “Do you want to have an adventure?”, always say yes.
Snowman Recon Trek Film
This 26 minute film highlights our Recon Trek along the Snowman Trail in Bhutan in preparation for the first Snowman Race in October 2022.