The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008


(Source: in National Geographic Adventure)

Above all else, you must believe.

Tibetan horns taunted the air—ululating, oboe-like sounds meant to catch the sins of the crowd and send them heavenward. The people around me gaped at the giant spread of embroidered silk as it slowly lowered from the fortress roof, revealing a montage of Tibetan Buddhist deities. Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. Maitreya, the Future Buddha, a Jesus-like savior prophesied to lead humanity from suffering. The tondrel, easily 40 feet high, laboriously hand-stitched, filled the entire end of the courtyard, its silk gleaming before the candlelit dais.

There was the sacred moment never to be repeated. In that single hour on that single day of that single year, a miracle was supposed to occur. The Bhutanese monks were calling on the most compassionate gods of the universe to take away our anguishes, our regrets and sins, and to purify us. Now, when we died, the Lord of Death’s judgment would be kinder. The next lifetime, easier. But only if we believed.

The feeble candlelight barely held back the night. I stood closer to the tondrel, the horns shrilling more earnestly.

I thought of why I’d come to Bhutan—the real reason, the reason I’d told no one about. I tried to clear my mind of all doubt and, like the rest of the crowd, made a wish. We waited. And watched. As the rising sun sent its first rays over the mountains, striking the top of the tondrel, the sounds of the horns stopped abruptly, almost belligerently.

“Examine carefully whatever terrifies you,” came a line to me from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of Buddhism’s most sacred texts, “and see the voidness.”

In the silence and heady stillness, the dawn calmly asserted itself. The sacred moment had passed.

I wandered through the dark streets of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. It was the middle of the night and I was lost, but it was of no consequence. I had thousands of dollars cash in my bag, but didn’t worry about being robbed. Bhutan is a blessed place. A country the size of Switzerland, with a population of only about 650,000, its people have such a strong belief in karma that robbery is virtually unthinkable. Imagine the consequences of such an act! Imagine the suffering that will inevitably return!

It was strange to encounter safety abroad. I’d spent most of my adult life experiencing the world’s most inhospitable places—malarial jungles, totalitarian societies, war zones. Places where you’re wise to carry a knife, to leave behind a will. But in charmed Bhutan at three in the morning, people just nodded warmly at me, the town drunks left me alone, and the only graffiti I saw were some hastily scrawled smiley faces.

I’d flown across the world to this modern day Shangri La to attempt what is widely considered one of the hardest treks in the world: the Snowman Trek. It lasts some 24 days, and only a few hundred foreigners have ever successfully completed it. Unlike most of the popular Himalayan treks, such as Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, there isn’t just one high pass to get over—but eleven. You ascend several thousand feet, descend, ascend. Again. And again. Eleven times. Most of the passes are over 16,000 feet, with the highest at 17,600 feet. Then there is the weather, which is notoriously unpredictable and has led to a Snowman failure rate of nearly 50%. The location of the trek—following the spine of the Himalayas between Bhutan and Tibet—is among the most remote and inaccessible country in the world, easily trapping a person between high peaks, making emergency evacuation by Indian army choppers not only difficult but exorbitantly expensive. And then there are the personal risks—like getting dysentery between high passes, twisting an ankle, breaking a leg, succumbing to altitude sickness. There are so many concerns that it’s no surprise so few people ever attempt the trek, and so many fewer ever finish it.

I’d found that the dangerous, difficult trips asked certain questions that none others do. If there’s a higher chance of returning home sick, maimed—even killed—then the journey forces an examination of what matters in life. Specifically: Why such a trip? To what end?

I asked those questions a lot after my brother Marc died in Africa. It was as if I were trying to know the answer to everything. As if I were trying—however futilely—to control my own fate. In a way, my brother’s death was why I came to Bhutan. Two years earlier, Marc had disappeared in Africa, near Angola, in one of the most desolate places on earth. I’d flown halfway around the world to try to save him, only to bring back his body instead. But they say there are no coincidences: on the very day after I’d returned to the States with his ashes, my left leg strangely, unaccountably, froze up, and I couldn’t walk without tremendous pain. There were no medical explanations. Doctors could only offer theories: nerve problems, muscle damage, early arthritis. But nothing showed up on any tests. And no solutions helped. Normally very athletic, I had to completely stop most physical activity. If I traveled anywhere now, I went mostly by vehicle or rode on horseback. While I never accepted the pain, I learned to adjust to it, to hide it from people, to deal with it, convinced all the while that the cause—and thus the cure—lay, somehow, with my brother’s death. Perhaps I was trying to stop myself from going out into the world? Perhaps I just didn’t trust life anymore.

I saw a counselor, did prodigious grief work, but my leg pain didn’t improve. Then I decided I was going to do something that would seem patently insane: I was going to face the pain—and its mysterious cause—head on; God willing, I would beat it. I began looking for a trek. One of the hardest in the world, but in a country I knew I could love. And then I found out about the Snowman.

Our group stood in the rain, gazing at the modest mud track that would mark the start of our trek. But the Snowman is no mere recreational hiking route established for tourists; rather, for millennia, it has been the Himalayas’ main north-south highway over the mountains. Steeped in history, in the 17th century it brought down the Mongol hordes and their Tibetan allies, looking to sack the burgeoning kingdom of Bhutan. And so the fortress of Drugyel Dzong was built on the hilltop just above us. In 1648, on the very spot where our horsemen were loading our gear onto mules, Bhutanese warriors led the invaders through a false gate into the fortress and mass-slaughtered them—saving Bhutan the horrors of a Mongol victory.

These days, visits to Bhutan are notoriously restricted, the government forbidding independent travel and requiring all foreigners to book trips using a Bhutanese tour company. I was doing my trip through Canadian Himalayan Expeditions, which works in tandem with a Bhutanese partner. CHE’s owner, Joe Pilaar, 46, a wiry Canadian, was one of eight doing the trek with me. In addition, there was Rob, 52, my red-headed Aussie friend of 12 years, an itinerant carpenter and former Papua New Guinean traveling buddy who’d driven his Royal Enfield motorcycle across India and Nepal to join me for the trek. There was also Paul, 52, a Brit who owned his own landscaping company, and “Team America” as Rob called them: Larry, 66, a former army chemical engineer; Tom, 57, a retired social studies teacher, owner of a climbing gym; Pete, 36, a photographer; Kevin, 33, a West Coast real estate agent and aspiring screenplay writer; and Ryan, 30, an oil company engineer.

We were nine of a mere 120 foreigners allowed to attempt the Snowman in 2007. The Bhutanese government follows a strict tourism policy of “high value, low volume,” in which they invite only 6,000 foreigners into their country per year, charging each $200 a day—a fee they’ll be more than doubling in 2009. The exorbitant price not only favors tourists with thick wallets, but also prevents the sort of thrifty, independent backpacking travel seen in places like Kathmandu. Bhutan wants, above all else, to preserve its society, religion, and environment from any potentially harmful foreign influence. Notoriously aloof and insular, the only Himalayan kingdom never occupied or colonized by outside powers, Bhutan first opened its doors to tourists in 1972. Even Western media—TV, the internet—was banned until 1999, and now the government systematically removes any programs deemed damaging to society (goodbye pornography and the World Wrestling Federation).

Bhutan’s king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, progressively rules his country on the Buddhist principles of compassion and harmony, and is the mastermind of a famously titled political strategy, “Gross Domestic Happiness,” which champions individual and environmental rights over policies of greed and materialism. He enjoys overwhelming approval from the citizenry, his picture proudly displayed in nearly every living room and business across the country. Protecting 60% of Bhutan’s forests by turning them into national parks, King Wangchuck has also banned smoking, mandated that all new construction follow traditional Bhutanese design, and required citizens to wear traditional dress: gho for men (similar to a toga) and kira for women (a kind of hand-woven sarong). In such a way, he’s painstakingly preserved Bhutanese culture for future generations, while keeping it largely unblemished by Western values and corruption. Still, in 2008, he’ll voluntarily relinquish rule, turning his absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy—a move that leads many critics to wonder if Bhutan’s unique society can survive such a monumental overhaul.

But for now, Bhutan still offers a rare chance for time-travel. As our group entered the mountains, the Himalayan valleys opened before us with their stone-and-wattle farmhouses and hand-threshed fields, offering medieval-like glimpses of a society barely initiated into the 21st century. We followed the Paro River, gradually ascending through fir forests and meadows of purple wildflowers. For the next few days, our route would double as the Jhomolhari Trek, Bhutan’s most popular among tourists, lasting eight days and giving trekkers a far easier dose of the Himalayas than the Snowman.

As I trudged along, I thought about all the Mahayana Buddhists who’d used the trail over the centuries as a pilgrimage route to Lhasa in Tibet. Lhasa is, to devotees of Tibetan-style Buddhism, what Mecca is to Muslims—not only the holiest site of their religion, but the place which all faithful are supposed to visit at least once in their lives. After the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Bhutanese-Tibetan border closed and the Snowman became an escape route for refugees fleeing persecution at the hands of the Chinese. Bhutan, culturally and religiously tied to Tibet, and sympathetic to its plight, maintains no diplomatic relations with China, and has adopted a strict closed-border policy unlikely to change anytime soon. Now, the Snowman’s main function is as a smuggling route, numerous horse and yak trains passing us on the trail, sneaking their wares to and from China.

Our first day of travel was deceptively easy, and we hiked only five hours to a wooded campsite at 9,500 feet. It’d take me some time to get used to the group routine—or, more accurately, to its luxuries. Everyday, someone would set up our tents—often long before we arrived in camp. As the staff busily prepared our dinner, we’d be invited to “tea time” in the mess tent, assorted cookies laid out decoratively on paper doilies like Turkish delights. The staff would wake us with hot drinks, setting bowls of washing water outside our tents. We’d lunch at pre-designated spots along the trail, tables and chairs set up safari-style, heaping courses of food kept warm in giant thermoses, Bhutanese staff on hand to serve them.

I never did overcome my embarrassment of such treatment, though, as the trek started to earn its reputation, the extravagances would have a positive effect on group morale. Still, our Bhutanese staff—who would experience the same grueling days as us—didn’t get much of a chance to rest. Achula, 46, head cook and staff manager, woke each day at the frigid pre-dawn hour of 4:00a.m. to cook and pack our lunches and start breakfast. He told me, not without a degree of resignation, that he’d done the Snowman 11 times already.

“But this is my last time,” he asserted. Still, somehow, I didn’t believe him. He was like a Snowman junkie, knowing it wasn’t good for him but unable to quit. Yet, he must have known our trip would’ve been in chaos if he wasn’t along. He was the one who expertly taught the junior staff about food preparation and serving etiquette, who gave important advice to the assistant guides, who even tried to manage the unruly wranglers.

But horsemen must be the same the world over. The toughened nonchalance. The arrogant swagger which tells you—and accurately so—that you’d be nowhere without them, without their knowledge of the land, their control of the animals, their ability to get your big-town extravagances from place to place. Our men seemed to gaze on our group’s dining tent, on our “tea time” biscuits and brand-name sleeping bags, with barely concealed amusement. Give them a horse or two, and they could live off the land for months, could sleep through the night wrapped in scrappy wool blankets, could eat red rice every day and shit in the woods (no toilet tent for them), could catch whatever they needed to survive. Our biggest use to them seemed to be for entertainment; in our bumbling dependency we only validated the beauty of their own spare, free existences. I have always envied horsemen, and probably always will.

At last, we received our Snowman initiation: nine hours of pure uphill trekking in a day, to a final elevation of 11,800 feet. Rob and I might have been reliving our New Guinea bushwhacking days, sloshing mile after mile through deep mud, past slippery boulders, across raging streams. Jungle-like forests of rhododendron trees crowded around us, draped in Spanish moss and dripping from unrelenting rain.

Freezing, utterly exhausted, I arrived in camp seeming to hurt in every conceivable place—surely the result of two years of very limited physical activity. Stripping to a pair of shorts, I submerged myself in the icy waters of a nearby stream, hoping to reduce the sharp jolts of pain in my leg. I tried to imagine the 22 days of the Snowman still ahead of me—and stopped. Better not to think about anything.

Rob found me after I returned to my tent. I didn’t tell him about my leg pain, my private despair, wanting to just bask in his joyfulness. There must be few people in the world like him. Perennially cheerful and optimistic, he greets everyone he meets as if they were dear departed friends. If you ask for an explanation, he’ll admit he’s been given a charmed life. Having never known depression or illness, having never felt alone or unloved, he’s always found the time and means to travel to the farthest corners of the earth. Rob would become the humor and light of our trip in the weeks to come. And my beacon.

“It’s a blokey group,” Rob whispered to me over dinner that night—his way of reminding me that I was the only female, and perhaps explaining why our meal conversations had a way of gravitating to such subjects as women, rugby, and the 155mm Howitzer. (I had already become an unwitting expert on Royal Enfields.)

But Ryan, 30, the youngest member of our group, an oil engineer who grew up in rural Illinois, decided to tell us about his brother who had recently died in an outdoor accident. Ryan knew firsthand, as I did, the anguish of searching desperately for a loved one, and the horror of discovering a body. And how unlikely that we two—complete strangers tossed together on a trek—would have such similar stories. I could only marvel at how little people ever actually know about each other. At how little they’ll ever actually see.

Ryan’s story prompted Paul to tell his own—one so extraordinary, so horrific, that we all sat in abject silence, listening. It’d happened some ten years ago, in the middle of the night. He was on a ferry, The Estonia, when it suddenly started to sink into the Baltic Sea. Everywhere, people were scrambling to escape the ship, to pull themselves into life rafts, to save themselves. And the forty-foot swells, the frigid water. Paul, clutching an overturned life raft, watching the survivors around him slowly defeated by the elements, freezing to death, slipping into the sea. For six unimaginable hours he clung to life, praying for rescue, forcing himself not to close his eyes and succumb to death. And the rescue choppers come at last! But botching the job, dropping some of the survivors—and how few there were, only 120 of 900 passengers—into the waves. People dead all around him. But Paul, saved, and on the Snowman Trek with us. A botany expert, he knew the genus and species of all the plants we saw, knew what we could touch, what we could eat. The quiet Brit with the most extraordinary story we’d ever heard, who never had any interest in being first to camp each day. Who kept stopping to take photos of plants, flowers, leaves. Who would tell us, with unabashed eagerness, to taste the fruit of the trees. The rose hips. The barberries. Who would remind us to notice the world and its gifts.

A few days later, I couldn’t see. I woke in the middle of the night from intense pain, my eyes completely sealed with pus and burning so badly that it was as if someone had lit a fire to them. I had to soak them for several minutes just to pry the eyelids apart, praying all the while that I wasn’t going blind.

We’d been camped beneath the snow-covered peak of Jhomolhari Mountain, enjoying a rest day of acclimatization, when the first eye symptoms arose. Swelling. Redness. My face bloated so badly that Rob started calling me “Rocky Balboa.” I’d begun using antibiotic drops—but now my eyes only seemed exponentially worse. I sought out Joe, the trip leader, to get his advice. He mentioned a doctor (conveniently, an orthopedic surgeon) in one of the neighboring trekking camps, and we went in search of him. Dr. Don, a middle-aged American with white hair and beard, took one look at me and knew it was bad.

“Probably started as an allergic reaction to something,” he said with a doctor’s matter-of-fact gravity. “And now it’s turned into quite an eye infection.” I showed him my antibiotic drops, but he told me to stop taking them and handed me some prescription antihistamine pills instead. “If you don’t see some kind of improvement in 24 hours, you’ll have to quit the trek.”

I nodded solemnly.

“Look—it’s not worth going blind,” he added.

His warning stayed with me as our group continued the Snowman later that morning, leaving behind the many hiking groups doing the shorter Jhomolhari Trek. We were on our own now, come what may. No more orthopedic surgeons arriving deus ex machina-style to save my ass with prescription Allegra-D. Freezing rain tore across the rocky steppes as we made our long climb to Nyile La at 16,100 feet. It was our official test pass for altitude sickness: if we all got there without any adverse symptoms, we’d probably be okay for the rest of the trek. Gratefully, everyone did make it without problems, and as we passed a large cairn, strings of prayer flags whipped in the wind, bidding us—along with all sentient beings—happiness and peace. The sun began showing itself at intervals, and all at once the clouds parted to reveal a great expanse of snow-topped peaks. I could only stop and stare. For a few blessed minutes, I forgot everything but the majesty of this world.

Before Buddhism made its way to Bhutan in the 7th century A.D., people practiced their own animistic religion called Bön, in which these mountains were worshipped as gods. The locals believed that their souls came from the Himalayas, and returned to them at death. The mountains’ myriad spirits, or yulha, protected their villages from malign forces, guarding flocks, ensuring rich harvests. These beliefs, still widely held by most Bhutanese, help explain why mountain climbing has been banned. In 1983, after several foreign expeditions attempted to climb 22,000-foot Jichu Drakye, locals complained that the irreverent outsiders had angered the mountain gods, bringing calamity upon their crops in the form of violent hail storms. A village delegation took their complaints to the king, who, perhaps in the interests of Gross Domestic Happiness, decreed an end to all mountain climbing in Bhutan.

After Nyile La, I started to notice that my eyes were getting better, the pain and swelling lessening. For the first time, I found myself dawdling, the beauty of Bhutan confronting me at every turn. Gaping beauty, that only seemed to get more transcendent the farther I went. I’d think I’d seen it all, couldn’t possibly take in any more, only to climb the next hilltop, turn round the next bend, and see something even more spectacular, more dizzying to the senses. My mind wanted to capture it all somehow. So the futile attempts to take pictures, to preserve it, to take it home. But I just ended up cursing my camera. A one dimensional photo could do no justice to the country, couldn’t make any of it last.

Then I saw the tiny fortress, Lingshi dzong, sitting on a hilltop before the great audience of the Himalayas. I stopped. And, for some reason I never quite understood, I sat down and wept. Maybe it had something to do with the starkness of the distances, with the dramatic vying of sunlight and storm. Or perhaps it was subtler, harder to explain. As if, in that ancient dzong—that speck of human proclamation sitting before the indifferent valleys and rise of the Himalayas—it was my own voice calling out into the void. I found myself making an appeal of grief about my brother, who’d had his own history, his stories, and what would happen to them now? Where do they—where do any of our stories—go?

Lingshi dzong—for centuries a way station for weary travelers and Buddhist pilgrims, a defense against Tibetan and Mongol hordes—just sat there fearlessly proclaiming its own story to the vast, empty indifference before us. A rainbow erupted from it, arching over the valley and reaching toward the mountains opposite. Such indescribable beauty. But no way to keep it.

A few days later, near Lingshi dzong, the Snowman would take its first casualty of the year: a 42-year-old American woman, trekking in the group just behind ours, succumbed to altitude sickness. Our guide would later say she shouldn’t have died. Someone should have seen the signs, known how to save her.

We finally reached Laya village at 12,500 feet, the halfway point of our trek. Before us lay a series of quaint, terraced fields dotted with stone farmhouses. Nearby, locals threshed barley with long wooden staffs, their whopping echoing across the valley. The women dressed traditionally in black wool kiras and unique bamboo hats decorated with strings of beads and topped with miniature Buddhist prayer staffs. The tiny hats served no functional purpose that I could tell; when I asked one of the women why they wore them, she said simply, “Because they’re precious.”

For the second—and last—rest day of our trek, we camped in someone’s front yard, the high peaks of the Himalayas rising on all sides of the village like great battlements. Our group had endured two weeks of canned mackerel, pickled pork, and rice, so Paul and Pete scrounged the village for any exotic foodstuffs. Soon, they had taken over a farmhouse kitchen to prepare us spaghetti with a ketchup-squash meat sauce and—Paul’s specialty—guava crumble with cream. But by far the most welcomed discovery was some Bhutanese brand Hit Beer and smuggled Pabst Blue Ribbon from China.

Better still, an enterprising woman rented us her wooden tub. One by one we took hot stone baths and did our laundry. Some of the men went in search of the village’s notoriously beautiful postmistress, and came back with news of a town internet service. Laya had acquired a satellite dish, laptop computer, and international dialing business in just a few years—remarkable, considering it saw its first tourists in 1987. So much for the Shangri La experience; I guiltily checked my email like everyone else.

A week ago, I didn’t even know if I’d make it to Laya. And now, with my eye infection cleared up, my bad leg had suddenly developed knee troubles that made walking more painful than ever. Perhaps it was a sign: we were only a week of easy downhill hiking to a road and civilization. If you wanted to quit the Snowman, Laya was the place to do it. Continuing the trek meant entering the Snowman’s roughest, remotest country, where evacuation was only possible by Indian Army chopper—and then, only at great difficulty and expense.

I had a decision to make about how much pain I was willing to endure. Originally, I’d hoped my leg would gradually improve, but now I was soaking it in cold water every day, taking ibuprofen religiously each night, and doing all manner of massage techniques to try to keep it from painfully freezing up on me. My plan had been to confront and beat this mysterious condition, but it was starting to seem like an abysmal failure.

And then I was starting to overhear staff members talking about getting Larry to quit. Sixty-six years old, supposedly without enough warm clothing and making slow ascents to the passes, he was usually last to arrive in camp each day—about an hour or two behind the rest of us. Though his Snowman experience had seemed—as mine did—like sheer masochism at times, I really admired him. Born the same years as my parents, he hadn’t let his age stop him from going out into the world, from taking on the hardest trek in the Himalayas. I knew Larry wasn’t going to quit, regardless of what anyone said. And if he could go on, then so could I.

But the next morning, my knee and hip pain felt even worse. I knew I had a big decision to make—and soon—about whether or not I was going to continue. Though I finally confided in Rob about the situation, and he pledged to support me no matter what, I hiked off alone to decide. I found myself wandering to the local Buddhist temple, a small, unassuming structure of mortared stone sitting at the edge of the village. A chestnut horse studied me from a nearby meadow, Layap children waving and smiling artlessly from their houses. I spun the temple’s succession of prayer wheels, my mind awash with worry and indecision. Hearing a bell ringing from a nearby doorway, I walked over and saw an ancient woman with tangled white hair and cataract eyes sitting on the ground, wearing a burlap sack for a skirt and spinning a gigantic prayer wheel. She stopped what she was doing and stared at me for a long moment, fingering her mala,or rosary, and beckoning to me.

I sat beside her in the cold little chamber, taking out my own mala. For a moment, I didn’t know what to do. From the nearby hills, I could hear the threshing of barley, the laughs of children. The sun alternately shone and fled behind the clouds. The woman set the wheel turning and began to sing. I had no idea what she was singing about. Prayers, maybe. Prayers to the world. To our hopes. Our fears. Our longings for rest or peace. As she kept the wheel going, I recited my own Buddhist mantras. Minutes passed. Hours. Outside, the same chestnut horse stood in the meadow, watching us.

Finally, I stopped. I’d made my decision, and it was getting late. I took out a solid gold Buddha amulet from my bag, the one I’d always carried for good luck on dangerous trips, and I lifted the woman’s hair to tie it around her neck. Her hand kept turning the giant prayer wheel. She wouldn’t stop singing.

I was going to continue the trek.

In Laya, we traded our mules and horses for yaks—a sure sign that the trip was going to get rough. Yaks are the horned marvels of the Himalayas. In appearance, they resemble stocky, hairy bulls, but are genetically much more hearty. Stronger than horses, they can carry at least twice the weight, and can survive in sub-zero temperatures that would otherwise kill their equine cousins. Being ruminants, yaks chew and re-chew their cud, precluding the need for feedbags, grain supplies, or frequent grazing pastures. Yaks are just flat-out tougher than horses—and it’s as if they know it. While you might be able to tame and ride a horse, Bhutanese yaks generally don’t put up with such antics. They carried our gear, but at a price: it took as many as four men at once just to restrain an animal for loading, and then we counted ourselves lucky if the gear even arrived at camp in its original state.

Our good weather karma continued as we left the simple pleasures of Laya for some of the steepest trail we’d had yet. I spent the whole time trying to ignore the pain in my leg, forcing my mind away from all thoughts of discomfort. We ascended for eight long hours through forests of rhododendron and fir, finally reaching the campsite of Rodophu near 16,100-foot Tsemo La Pass. During Joe’s last Snowman trip, his group attempted to cross the pass three times, only to finally quit because of blizzards. But for us there wasn’t even a trace of snow, and we climbed through high alpine meadows, easily crossing Tsemo La before lunch. We stayed at our highest campsite yet—frigid 16,200-foot Narethang—and were rewarded with the spectacular backdrop of Gangla Karchung Mountain, our tents covered with ice, the skin on my hands starting to split open from the cold.

Some may think the Snowman’s biggest challenge lies in its many ascents, but reaching the 17,100-foot pass of Karakachu La was nothing compared to its “killer-knee” descent of 4,000 feet. Ibuprofen pills and hiking sticks were a prerequisite, as was tremendous patience. For several hours, our group carefully picked its way down a steep, rocky trail. Gradually, our path became a muddy maze of boulders and tree roots that seemed destined to twist one of our ankles. It was our first introduction to the mysterious Lunana region, one of the world’s most untouched wildernesses full of pure glacial streams, dramatic waterfalls, and mountainsides covered with misty forests.

After hiking through the Lunana’s Tarina River Valley, we ascended to one of the Himalayas’ most isolated villages. If Shangri La is determined by remoteness, then perhaps it can be found in Thanza. A village of around 300 people, it sat at the frigid elevation of 13,700 feet—only 700 feet lower than the highest point in the continental U.S. Our group camped beside the village, near 22,950-foot Table Mountain. We had a surreal moment of first contact, the local people visiting en masse to inspect our gear, wearing their giant, Cossack-like yak wool hats. Before long, clothing was exchanged. Beads and wool hats purchased. As our group feverishly snapped photos, I had visions of the paparazzi at one of those Hollywood red-carpet galas. A local farmer, Bembey, told me he saw his first white person in the early 1980s when he was 15—a sight so terrifying that he’d run for his life. Now he eagerly joined the cultural show-and-tell, looking forward to the spectacle of more Snowman groups.

I looked around the village, itself. Few places exist in the world without some modicum of modernity: stores, running water, roads, telecommunications. In Thanza there was none of that. Though Western clothing had made its way to many of the children, most adults wore clothes they’d made by hand, weaving and dyeing their own material, fashioning their own unique hats, boots, and jewelry. Their homes were built from the offerings of the countryside: stone walls, hand-hewn wood shingles, clay mortar. Subsistence farmers, they survived on their high altitude crops, as well as on the occasional yak meat and cheese.

It seemed a hard life, as evidenced by a man who approached us in our mess tent during the friendly pandemonium outside. He had a mother, he told us, who was gravely ill. She had a swollen stomach. Couldn’t eat or drink without throwing up. Couldn’t sleep or be moved for the pain. Did we have some Western medicine? Could we help her?

With no medical doctors in our group, and the nearest Bhutanese hospital some two weeks’ hard trekking over the mountains, we could only hazard unqualified guesses about the cause of the woman’s condition—which felt like an intellectual exercise in futility. Had we been time travelers visiting the virtually untouched, medieval-like society of Thanza, all our modern knowledge and expertise would still have left us helpless before the vagaries of human suffering. We couldn’t offer the young man any definitive information about his mother. We couldn’t come up with any reasonable way to help. I passed him my prescription anti-nausea capsules so his mother could try to keep some food down. But it was agony: I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

After leaving Thanza, all signs of human presence had completely vanished from the world. Even our trail started disappearing from underfoot, blurring into the barren, rocky horizon, losing us in the emptiness—it gave a disconcerting feeling. Our group ascended for two and a half hours to Jaze La Pass at 17,200 feet, descended, ate lunch, and continued up another high pass at 16,600 feet, expecting to find the yak men and our tents set up on the other side. But they were nowhere to be found. Kevin, Pete, and I joined forces against the vastness and made yet another ascent—this time to 16,900 feet—but no campsite awaited us on the other side. For me, it had become The Day That Would Never End. I’d trekked nearly nine hours, over three passes higher than 5,000 meters, all my water bottles empty and my energy nearly expired. But finally, as if sighting the Holy Grail, I could make out the shape of a distant tent.

Paul, Tom, and Ryan had already made it to camp, tempers flaring after the unnecessarily grueling day. Through some lack of communication, our yak men—always well ahead of our group, and with all our gear and provisions—didn’t stop where they were supposed to, but kept going and going. Though the day had thoroughly exhausted us, and left my leg in severe pain, it had wiped out Larry, who arrived out-of-breath, ragged, and totally spent. We wouldn’t be able to do a full day’s hike tomorrow as planned; Larry needed a recovery day if he were to make it to the end of the Snowman.

Our group made good use of the unexpected rest day, washing, doing laundry, reading. The sun shone warmly overhead, and the clouds stayed mercifully away. I felt a certain playful delight at the thought of our long journey ending soon. We had only one serious obstacle left: 17,600-foot Rinchen Joe La, the highest pass of the Snowman. We were camped just below it, an estimated hour and a half needed for the ascent. Some ten minutes ahead on the trail was a group of German Snowman trekkers—the mythical “Hauser Group” we’d heard so much about during our trip. Always a day behind us, they’d finally managed to catch up and would be neck-and-neck with us until the end. Among them was the delectable Ingrid, young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, whom the men of our group had taken a special fancy to. In particular Kevin, who found excuses to make frequent visits to the German camp.

I was feeling feisty, alive. For the first time, I felt as if I could make it to the end of the Snowman, that I could actually do it regardless of the pain in my body. It was time for a little fun. For a challenge. I wanted to beat the Germans to the Snowman’s highest pass tomorrow. But I would need to assemble a team, construct a battle plan. We already had a name for the mission (courtesy of Paul): “Operation Squash Bratwurst.”

“We mustn’t let the Germans beat us to the pass tomorrow,” I announced to the men that night before dinner. “Remember World War II.”

“This is a side of you I haven’t seen before,” Rob whispered into my ear, becoming my first volunteer. “Were you a bloke in a previous life, Kira?”

“A Phoenician naval captain,” I told him.

Tom and Ryan, true athletes who, almost invariably, were the first of our group to reach camp every day, were my next volunteers—it was like getting Michael Jordan and Shakeel O’Neil to be on my dream team.

“This is a grave responsibility,” I told the others with mock gravitas. “We’re facing the highest pass of the trek, and the Germans—already with a ten-minute lead on us—are poised to beat us to the pass. We can’t allow that to happen. Who else is in?”

Kevin, perhaps experiencing dual loyalties, made no commitment. Neither did Joe or Paul. Larry, of course, would need to climb at his own pace. But I already had a strong team ready to accept the challenge. We were all willing to make some sacrifices. Carbo-loading tonight, we’d wake up an hour earlier tomorrow. Rob, literally wasting away from the high altitude, would fill himself with handfuls of my Tutti-Fruitti jelly beans for extra energy. Ryan and Tom would cut their breakfast short so they could leave first thing. Me, I’d consume my last, not-to-be-eaten-under-any-circumstances Protein Power Bar—the one I’d sequestered in the deepest bowels of my pack, and which had remained off-limits for weeks. It was settled. The race was on.

Early the next morning, in the post-dawn grayness of our frigid 16,600-foot camp, I was surprised to see everyone up and mobilized for the day’s challenge, gear already packed and breakfast begun in earnest. The night before, Kevin had returned from the Hauser Group with new, disturbing intelligence: the Germans were planning on eating breakfast a half hour earlier than normal, and might very well give us a run for our money.

Achula, the definitive sage among us, who was soon to complete his twelfth Snowman Trek, walked into our mess tent to offer a warning: “The Germans, they are very fast.”

“I don’t think I need to remind you of what’s at stake today,” I told the men. “The success of our mission depends on one of you getting there first. We can’t accept anything short of victory.”

We ate an abbreviated breakfast. I handed Rob his baggie of Tutti-Fruitti jelly beans, and we all strapped on our daypacks. Trekking poles out, Tom and Ryan immediately took the lead, with Rob close behind. Their speed and determination was unprecedented. Their fitness at full form. I followed close behind, and we soon overtook the Hauser Group’s camp, catching the Germans off-guard in the middle of breakfast. It would have been to our great advantage, had not the beautiful siren, Ingrid, managed to tempt Rob and some of our other men from their duty. But Tom, Ryan, and I continued on. Looking back, I could see the German men finishing their meals and getting up to follow us.

A few minutes later, to my great surprise, Rob suddenly caught up with me.

“The Germans are coming!” I warned him.

“No worries,” he said. “Leave it to Team Australia.”

I’d never seen him moving so quickly. Though I was nearly jogging, I couldn’t keep up. Slowing down to conserve my energy, I checked my altimeter: we were already higher than 17,000 feet. Ironically, Rinchen Zoe La, though the highest pass of the trek, was also one of the easiest to summit. There weren’t any killer steep parts—it was just a comfortable, gradual rise, the blessed cairn with its prayer flags soon appearing in the distance.

Suddenly, I heard a “Ha-gi-lo!!!” resounding across the mountaintops—the Bhutanese call meaning, “Praise to God!” Someone had made it to the pass, someone from our group. I wondered who it was—it could only be Ryan, Rob, or Tom, the other men still behind me. Then I saw someone standing on the high peak above the pass, waving his arms: Rob!

I soon made it to the pass, an hour after leaving our campsite. Rob had done it in an extraordinary 45 minutes—surely some kind of record. I ran up to give him a hug.

“You’ve made the Allies proud!” I cheered.

We sat side by side in the warm sunlight, reveling in our victory. Snowcapped peaks rose on all sides. There was only the slightest hint of a breeze. It was, I realized, one of those moments I would always remember, that would tell me what life was all about. None of it would last, but it didn’t matter. There was the stillness. The joy. The arm of a beloved friend wrapped around my own. Somehow, it was enough.

The last pass of the Snowman Trek, Tempe La, was only a piddling 15,370 feet high—such was my Snowman snobbery now. Anything under 16,000 feet seemed like very small potatoes.

But Tempe La, covered with snow, marked the end of our good weather karma. Our coldest pass so far, the wind chill remained well below freezing. Still, our group easily made it there after less than an hour and a half of ascending, shivering around the cairn and prayer flags, yelling “Ha-gi-lo!” and snapping each other’s picture to mark the symbolic end of the trek. Our yaks arrived shortly after us, crossing the pass without so much as a glance, the melodies of their bells following them down the mountainside.

I sat to ponder the miracle of that moment for me. We had several thousand feet of downhill left to go, yet there was little doubt now: I would finish the trek. There was nothing left to fear.

In the distance, I saw Larry’s fluorescent orange coat coming up the pass, and I realized we hadn’t all made it yet. The rest of our group started walking back down Tempe La pass, back toward those 23 long days of effort and exertion, and we all got behind Larry. He was climbing slowly yet steadily toward the pass, puffing hard, and we followed him up, encouraging, congratulating. Soon, he was there. We all were, not a one of us failing. It defied the statistics, most Snowman groups losing at least one person along the way—nearly 50% of the groups never even finished.

We all congratulated each other before beginning our descent. Exuberant, Rob started running down the mountainside, becoming a mere flicker of color as the distances absorbed him. My knee and hip hurting me, I made my way slowly down the boulder-strewn track. Down below, I could see periwinkle-colored glacial lakes resting in the valley, and, beyond them, the first greenery of the foothills.

Almost home.

This part will sound unbelievable, but it is the truth: my last day of the Snowman Trek, I woke up with all the pain gone from my leg. Completely gone. It had seemed so extraordinary, so unaccountable, that I needed a way to explain it. I would tell myself—and others—that my massage work had finally hit its mark, unknotted the right muscles, fixed the tracking. But the truth was that I hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary. The truth was that there was no logical explanation.

The last day of our trek was the longest in terms of distance; 14 miles to complete 4,000 feet of descent, with some of the worst trail conditions of the trip. That final day from Maurotang to Nikka Chuu was renowned for being a killer-knee day, yet I behaved like Rob would have, running through the rhododendron forest—through deep mud pools and streams, over slippery boulders and tree roots—inviting the pain to return, taking no precautions to prevent it. But it didn’t come back. (And wouldn’t. To this day, it’s still gone, and I do all those activities I did before my brother’s death.)

I reached our lunch spot nearly an hour and a half before the rest of the group, and sat down to wait for them. The forest cover had officially ended, and the bucolic town of Sephu spread out before me, with its sun-dappled pastures and farmhouses. In the hazy distance, I could see the asphalt road of Nikka Chuu marking the end of our trek. Just another hour or two of walking. That was it. I lay down on the green hill, and slept.

A few hours later, our entire group stood on the road in Nikka Chuu village, done with the Snowman Trek. To celebrate, Joe and our Bhutanese guides brought out “Marquis de Pompadour” champagne from India and a lemon cake that read in large, earnest letters, “Congratula—“ and on the next line, “—tion.” Soon after, we headed by bus to our hotel in the town of Trongsa, where our first hot showers awaited us after nearly a month without.

Over one of our last meals, we’d started cataloguing our firsts for the Snowman:

Larry: “Crossing three passes over 5,000 meters in one day.”

Kevin: “The highest I’ve ever been.”

Me: “The longest trek.”

Paul: “Twenty-six days of putting up with everyone’s bad jokes.”

Tom, using his pedometer, had calculated that we’d each taken half a million steps during the trip, having walked at least 216 miles. Since the Snowman first opened to foreigners in 1982, approximately 2,000 people have attempted it, with about half that many successfully completing it. More people have made it to the top of Everest than have reached the end of the Snowman. It remains one of the hardest, and least experienced, treks in the world. And surely one of the most spectacular.

Before we all went home, our group stopped at Bhutan’s most spectacular sight: Punakha dzong, the great 17th century fortress built by the Bhutanese king Shabdrung in celebration of the defeat of the Mongols. I went instead to a tiny temple nearby, Chung dzong, to pay my respects to the caretaker monk. Before the Snowman had started, I’d gone there to pray for help with the trek. The caretaker, seeing me, gave me a special blessing and offered to pray for me each day while I was gone. Now I wanted to find him, tell him I did it, give him an offering of money in gratitude.

Chung temple, small, unprepossessing, never attracting many tourists, is one of Bhutan’s holiest sites. A couple of years ago, when a glacial lake burst and nearby Mo River overran its banks, all of the temple was washed away—except for a piece of foundation on which sat the ancient bronze Buddha Shakyamuni statue. This seeming miracle quickly turned the temple into a major pilgrimage site. The Bhutanese insist that all prayers spoken in Chung temple will be answered—but of course you must believe.

It turned out that the caretaker was away. His nephew, a teenaged monk, let me in, and I sat for over an hour before the ancient statue, giving thanks. I’d been given my body back. And my physical health. I tried to imagine what else was possible, what other things might be true. Maybe the dead—people like my brother, or Ryan’s—never really die. Not exactly. Not like we think. Maybe they never really go anywhere.

There must be so little I actually know about anything.

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