WHAT: The Snowman Trek
Each year, between late September to mid-October, a handful of hikers gather on Bhutan’s northern border with Tibet. Their goal is to tackle the Snowmen Trek. This month-long, 200-mile route winds through Bhutan’s most remote areas and the Himalaya’s highest, most impressive peaks. Widely considered the Holy Grail of hiking in Bhutan, the Snowman Trek is also the hardest hike in the Himalayas. Maybe even the toughest trek in the world. This beautiful and brutal trail eats hardened hikers for breakfast. Although many try, few succeed.
Bhutan: The Forbidden Kingdom
Bordered by Tibet in the North and India in the South, Bhutan sits landlocked within the Eastern Himalayas along the ancient Silk Road. Notoriously insular, it is the only Himalayan kingdom never occupied by outside powers. For centuries, Bhutanese authorities have strictly guarded against foreign influence. Only recently did Bhutan open its gates to outsiders. Nowadays, a steady trickle of foreigners jet into the capital city of Paro each year to go hiking in Bhutan. The country offers a mind-blowing menu of cultural sites, environmental treasures, and of course, the Himalayas. And in a land of extremes, one experience stands out from the rest: Hiking the Snowman Trek.
The World’s Toughest Hike
The trek features mountain views to make you weep. Along the way, you’ll meet the coolest, toughest, friendliest, and funniest mountain guides you’ll find anywhere. You may even get a glimpse of Bengal tigers or the super-elusive snow leopard. All things considered, it’s no mystery why the Snowmen Trek is widely considered the most beautiful and rewarding trek in the entire Himalayas. However, before grabbing your hiking boots and an air ticket, you should know why it’s also considered the Himalayas’ hardest hike.
Before even setting foot in Bhutan, you’ll need to get your documents in order. Hiking in Bhutan is becoming increasingly popular. Despite increases in tourism, Bhutanese passport stamps are still notoriously restricted. To even set foot in the country requires a visa. This requires a pre-approved letter of invitation from the relevant government agency. You can only get this once you have paid in full for the entire trip, which isn’t cheap.
Bhutan’s “high value, low volume” tourism policy is designed to favor visitors with bulging wallets. In contrast, it purposely excludes the kind of thrifty, backpacker-style drifters seen in India. Budget travelers should look elsewhere.
Foreigners in Bhutan must, by law, be accompanied by a guide. When you touch down 2,300 meters above sea level in Paro, your guide will be there to meet and greet you. Hiking in Bhutan generally requires a high level of fitness. Before you begin, you’ll need to relax and acclimatize. When your body has adjusted, you’ll make a few hikes to altitude to prepare further. Shortly after that, the trek begins.
Even after shelling out a fortune, successful completion of The Snowman Trek is far from guaranteed. The environment, temperature, altitude, duration, and distance make the Snowman Trek a grueling endeavor for even the fittest, most determined hikers. To complete other popular Himalayan treks, such as the Annapurna Circuit, hikers must ascend one high pass. The Snowman Trek features eleven such passes, each of which must be ascended and descended, again and again.
Of the few who set out, less than half make it to the end. Successful Snowmen Trekkers are a fraction of those who manage to ascend Everest, which veteran Himalayan hikers have called a comparative cakewalk. The Snowman Trek takes around a month to complete and can only be done when the weather conditions permit.
The trail includes a visit to the fabled Paro Taktsang Monastery, which in Tibetan means the ‘Tiger’s Lair.’ Over four centuries ago, Paro Taktsang was carved in and on a precarious vertical rock face high in the Himalayas. Paro Taktsang is both a Buddhist sacred site and a Bhutanese cultural icon. It commemorates the spot where, in the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava reportedly meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours. Since then, it has stood majestically, shrouded in prayer flags, at an altitude of around 10,000ft overlooking Bhutan’s Paro Valley.
The Snowman Trek starts in Drukgyel Dzong. It follows the spine of the Himalayas between Tibet and Bhutan, ending in Bumthang.
- The Himalayas’ hardest hike incorporates some of the most remote and inaccessible terrains in the world. Even the fittest trekkers can and do twist ankles and break legs. Risks also include altitude sickness, dysentery, hypothermia, and more.
- Weather conditions and altitude make emergency evacuation by an Indian Air Force chopper both difficult and exorbitantly expensive.
- Hiking the Snowman Trek is one of the most rewarding adventures in the Himalayas. As well as bragging rights at having completed the Himalayas hardest hike, you’ll make friends for life. You’ll also experience a culture that few get to see. A visit to Paro Taktsang Monastery constitutes an incredible adventure alone.
- You’ll be extremely fortunate to encounter a tiger or snow leopard. However, you can expect to see all kinds of rare Himalayan wildlife. This includes the sloth bear, Himalayan black bear, grey langur, Tibetan wolf, musk deer, and maybe even the red panda.
- Imagine a modern-day Shangri-la steeped in culture, mystery, and history. Its ruler is a king who rides his bike through the capital city and has stamped out corruption. The king also changed the measuring stick for progress from Gross National Product to “Gross National Happiness.” This is not some imagined utopia. This is Bhutan.