Snowman Trek

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Snowman Trek
Bhutan

For anyone that wants to truly experience life in the Himalayas, the Snowman Trek is the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime hiking adventure.

The Snowman Trek is based on a route created by the country’s yak herders. Covering the northern part of the Kingdom, it travels to the remote Lunana district.

The trek’s name is derived from the six mountains – all over 7,000 metres – which it passes beneath.

Crossing ten high passes over 4,500 metres that define the borders of Bhutan and Tibet, the Snowman Trek is not only one of the highest altitude trails in the world but also one of the most difficult.

In fact, fewer than half the people who attempt this trek successfully finish it. This is often as a result of heavy snowfall on the high passes or altitude sickness.

A constant backdrop of towering peaks alongside tiny Buddhist monasteries and secluded villages, alongside the chance of sighting snow leopards, make it a trek far different to other commercialised adventures.

Expect encounters with high grazing meadows and pastures, snow-capped mountains, nomadic life, high passes and terrains.

There’s no doubting that the hike takes physical and mental strength and stamina, but you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of untouched summits, high ridges and deep river gorges.

There are several alternative endings to the Snowman trek, one of which is by continuing southeast from Danji via the Gophu La and Duer Hot Springs, joining the Duer Hot Springs trek.

However below we focus solely on the typical route from Shana Zampa to Upper Sephu.

Highlights
  • A unique adventure to mountainside locations shrouded in mystery.
  • Cross two spectacular high passes: Shingchen La pass (5,005 metres) and Ganglakarchung pass (5,120 metres).
  • Experience Bhutanese culture and customs, monasteries and landscapes dense with rhododendron and alpine forests.
Walk Map
About the route
  • Travel

Access to the start of the trek is via Paro, a nearby town in Bhutan.

Paro has its own airport and is connected to Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi and Kathmandu. You can fly to any of these cities from destinations around the world before heading onward to Paro. Most only have one daily flight running here.

Flights from Kathmandu are spectacular, particularly if you are on the left side of the plane. As you come in you will see Mount Everest and the snow-capped Himalayas.

Entering from Delhi is the cheapest option but transiting without paying an Indian visa fee is a significant hassle. As such, we’d advise Bangkok as the gateway city for those who want the shortest journey times possible.

  • Length

The Snowman Trek is an extension of the Laya Gasa Trek, stretching 347 kilometres through the high altitudes of the Bhutanese Himalayas.

It takes tough and enduring trekkers between 24 and 28 days to walk this distance, depending on ability/experience and how long they choose to stop at various points en route.

  • Grade and difficulty of the walk

The combination of distance, altitude, remoteness and weather makes this trek a tough journey – which is why it’s widely rated as a 5/5 difficulty.

After setting off from Paro, the minimum elevation is 2,264 metres above sea level and there are multiple passes over 4,000 metres.

Between the steep sections, changing weather conditions and possibility of altitude sickness, the trek should not be underestimated.

Even if you are an experienced hiker, weather plays a major part in whether you will successfully complete the trek.

If you plan to walk this route, check your emergency evacuation insurance as snow can block the Lunana passes, and the only way out is by helicopter. An expensive ending to an already expensive adventure.

On a similar note, monsoon deluges have been known to wipe out bridges in remote regions, which can hamper progress or call an early end to your trek.

  • Experience

Given multiple difficult days on this level of trek endurance is key and preparation should be rigorous.

More people have summitted Everest than have completed the Snowman trek with many returning incomplete due to altitude sickness. The highest camp altitude is 5,050 metres.

Make sure that you have done plenty of strength and fitness training in the months leading up to the trek, alongside various high-altitude hikes in the past.

This is the only way of knowing whether how your body will perform in demanding mountainous regions.

Don’t be put off though, the trek is not reserved for professional climbers and hikers only, and you’ll be rewarded with the trip of a lifetime if you do choose to take on the challenge.

  • Permits

All hiking groups need trekking permits before entering the country and only Bhutanese agencies are able to apply for these.

The cost and length of visas for Bhutan vary depending on your passport and place of residency. But regardless of your nationality, trekking can be done only with a local agent.

Make sure that your trek is planned months in advance to ensure there any issues can be resolved.

Many tourists are asked to show their whole itinerary at the border, including hotel reservations, flights and trekking agency details.

  • Guided or Self-Guided

As mentioned above, this trek cannot be undertaken by solo hikers – regardless of experience.

Tourist numbers (including those wanting to trek the Himalayas) are restricted by Bhutan to conserve the natural environment.

If you book with a Western trekking company, you’ll be looking at around £4,500 (US$6000) for the trip. Local agencies are generally cheaper but vary in quality, so be sure to do your homework before booking.

best time to walk

June, July, August, September and October are cited as the best months for walking this route.

However, we would recommend aiming for a start window around late September to mid-October.

This period falls after the main monsoon rains, but before snow shuts off the high passes.

The Snowman Trek is often closed due to snowfall and is impossible to undertake during winter, even if you know your way around an ice and snow toolkit.

Below is a typical 26-day itinerary. Note that tours will always include a day and a night in Paro before the start of the trek to allow for group briefings and kit/gear checks.

Others might allow for an additional day for an acclimatisation hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery – Bhutan’s most famous monastery, which stands at 3,100 metres.

Day 1: Drive to Shana then begin hike to Pine Camp | Distance: 9km – 4 hours

Hiking upstream along the Paro Chuu river valley, you’ll stop somewhere in the forest for a packed lunch then ascend to Pine camp or a nearby campsite at 3,000 metres.

Depending on time, you can choose to join a local hike to a nearby village with a community school and typical Bhutanese farmhouses.

Day 2: Pine Camp to Thangkthanka | Distance: 18km – 7 hours

Leaving Pine Camp the trail continues upriver, winding in and out of the rhododendron and blue pine forests of Jigme Dorji National Park. Thangkthanka Camp sits at 3,520 metres.

Day 3: Thangthanka to Jangothang | Distance: 19km – 6 hours

Shortly after leaving camp you leave the tree line behind and push into the high mountains. Arriving at Jangothang mid-afternoon, you’ll catch the sun set on Mt. Jhomolhari (7,314m) and Mt. Jichu Drake (6,989m).

Day 4: Rest day in Jangothang at the Chomolhari Base Camp

This acclimatisation day allows you to catch your breath but allows for a number of different day hike options around the valley, whether it be up to a viewpoint ridge or Tshophu, a high-altitude lake two hours away.

Day 5: Jangothang to Lingshi | Distance: 20km – 7 hours

Heading uphill from Jangothang you’ll encounter the first major pass – Nyile La pass – which sits at 4,890 metres. Descending the other side you’ll enter an area characterised by low tundra of juniper and rhododendron as well as the region’s infamous blue sheep.

Day 6: Lingshi to Chebisa | Distance: 14km – 4 hours

One of the shortest days of hiking, groups get a chance to visit Lingshi Dzong (previously used to control travel between Tibet and Bhutan) and Chebisa village to see a slice of Bhutanese village life.

Day 7: Chebisa to Shakshepasa | Distance: 13km – 4 hours

After another tough climb and crossing of the Gombu La pass (4,350m) you’ll head down the valley past yak herder camps to Shakshepasa camp.

Day 8: Shakshepasa to Robluthang | Distance: 18km – 8 hours

A long day means an early morning start towards Jhari La pass (4,747m) from where you’ll wind down to Tsharijathang, the valley where herds of Takin can be seen. From here it’s a short climb back up to camp at Robluthang.

Day 9: Robluthang to Limithang | Distance: 19km – 7 hours

Day nine involves another early start and strenuous hike to the Shinge La pass at 5,005 metres. On the other side you are greeted by Mt. Gangchenta (Great Tiger Mountain) and the glacially carved Gangchhenta valley.

Day 10: Limithang to Laya | Distance: 10km – 5 hours

A shorter hike follows a trail in and out of a heavily wooded, uninhabited valley to a viewpoint that looks out at Gangchhenta and Masang Gang (7,165m) mountains.

Day 11: Rest day in the village of Laya

Another rest day allows trekkers to spend time in Laya and splash out in the first shop since the Paro Valley.

The village of 800 has its own community school, hospital and archery field, and their distinct dress includes conical bamboo hats with a spike at the top as well as silver jewellery on their backs. For some women this display includes an array of teaspoons.

Day 12: Laya to Rodufu | Distance: 19km – 7 hours

The trek leads gradually downhill to the Lunana trail junction before climbing slowly back through forest to camp at Rodufu.

Day 13: Rodufu to Narethang | Distance: 16km – 9 hours

Unlucky number 13 sees the longest day of all, crossing the Tsimo La pass (4,950m) and descending to Narethang where camp is at 4,900 metres (16,000 ft).

Day 14: Narethang to Tarina | Distance 18km – 6 hours

Today hikers get challenged by Karchung La pass at 5,240 metres but then rewarded by  the glacial lakes that are the source of the Tang Chhu river.

Day 15: Tarina to Woche | Distance: 15km – 5 hours

The walk leads down through conifer forests, following the upper reaches of the Pho Chhu river, climbing over a ridge then dropping to the village of Woche in the Lunana region.

Day 16: Woche to Lhedi | Distance: 19km – 8 hours

A gradual climb from Woche starts to steepen as it approaches the Keche La pass. Lunch takes place in Thega village, then an afternoon hike follows the river valley past impressive waterfalls to Lhedi village.

Day 17: Lhedi to Thanza | Distance: 19km – 7 hours

The trail continues to climb gradually following the source of the Pho Chhu to Chozo village. From here the valley starts to open up as Thanza village approaches.

Day 18: Rest day In Thanza

It is worth taking a day to rest and recuperate around camp and the village as some steep walking lies ahead. The surrounding area is the farthest trekking point in the Lunana valley and boasts impressive scenery.

Day 19: Thanza to Danji | Distance: 8km – 4 hours

Although only four hours, the trekking today involves a steep climb to the campsite at Danji, part way up to the Jaze la pass – a key acclimatisation spot.

Day 20: Danji to Tso Chena | Distance: 12km – 5 hours

In the morning you will climb up over three false summits to Jaze La pass (5,050m). From here a short downhill trek delivers the group to Tso Chena lake.

Day 21: Tso Chena to Jichu Dramo | Distance: 14km – 5 hours

The trail has a series of gradual ups and downs between the snow-capped peaks and across the Loju La pass before descending to camp at Jichu Dramo.

Day 22: Jichu Dramo to Chukarpo | Distance: 18km – 7 hours

Today involves a tough climb to Rinchen Zoe La pass. Sitting at at 5,290 metres, it is the highest pass on the trek. From here is is all downhill to Chukarpo, which sits just above the tree line.

Day 23: Chukarpo to Thampe Tso | Distance: 18km – 6 hours

Most of the six hours of walking is downhill alongside the river with a short climb up to the Um So lake, then downhill once more to camp by the lake of Thampe Tso.

Day 24: Thampe Tso to Maurothang | Distance: 14km – 5 hours

A short walk to the base of Thampe La and a steep climb to the pass at 4,580 metres takes up the first part of the day. After a well-deserved lunch stop, it is then all downhill through rhododendron bushes to the yak pasture of Maurothang.

Day 25: Maurothang to Upper Sephu (then drive to Punakha) | Distance: 17km – 5 hours

The final day of trekking has arrived and the group will descend through the valley to the village of Sephu. After some food and a quick time out, you’ll jump onto your transport and start the three-hour drive back west across the mountains to Punakha.

If time allows, pit stops are made at the Chendebji Chorten and Pele La pass (3,400m). Staying at Punakha means you finally get a good night’s sleep in relatively upmarket accommodation.

Day 26: Drive Punakha to Thimphu and back to Paro | 4 hours

Punakha to Thimphu (the capital of Bhutan) takes around two hours. Lunch can be had here with some free time to visit the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and shops along Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street.

It is then another scenic two-hour drive through the central foothills to Paro for your final night in a comfortable hotel.

Note that some companies will split up this drive back from Punakkha to Paro into two days, where others might drive straight from Upper Sephu the whole way in one go. If you have room in your budget, it is possible to take the short flight back to Paro to save a day or two in the car.

Accommodation

Due to the remote nature of the Snowman Trek and the communities it passes through, don’t expect five-star accommodation along the way.

Good quality accommodation is provided in the start and end points of Paro/Thimphu, with hotels and bunkhouses aplenty.

From here though, most of the ‘camps’ that you’ll stop at are not settlements (as might be implied by them having a place name).

Most are merely clearings on flat-enough land, near to a water source, which are suitable camping sites for seasonal yak herders and workers involved in the large-scale electrification project bringing electricity to this region of Bhutan.

However, this is all part of what makes it such an authentic experience and all meals are provided by the tour agency (often with help from the locals) so there’s no need to carry food.

Trekkers have to camp in altitudes above 5,000 metres more than once, and depending on the month/seasonal temperatures, the camps are sometimes on snow.

This is another reason to go with a reputable tour agency that will provide decent gear,

What to do

Tag an extra day in Paro onto the start or end of your trek to explore. The main part of town is picturesque and the National Museum provides insight into the local history.

You can also hire a local guide to explore Paro valley a little more. Here they farm commercial quantities of asparagus, strawberries and shiitake mushrooms for export, plus various grain and vegetable crops.

The patchwork of colours is broken up by traditional Bhutanese farm houses and makes for a postcard-ready photo.

Paro Dzong is also worth a visit. Part fortress, part castle, part monastery and part administration building, it is one of Bhutan’s most impressive and well-known dzongs.

For any architecture buffs you’ll be blown away. The inward-sloping walls form a massive structure that towers over the town and is visible as a great white monolith from vantage points throughout the valley.

Paro Dzong

Find out how much time your guided hike allows for soaking up some of the incredible Bhutanese culture along the way.

The trek traverses valleys of rice terraces and white painted monasteries and temples. Takstang Gompa – known as the  “Tiger’s Nest” – is one of the most famous monasteries in Bhutan and is perched on the side of a cliff amost 1,000 metres above the valley floor.

Time your trip to include an extension to join the Paro Tshechu, which takes place in early April every year. It is a colourful display of traditional culture and religion that features mask dances and other entertainment.

Alternatively, the Jomolhari Festival typically falls in late October and is an exquisitely themed two-day event celebrating the culture of the communities living together with the natural wonders that surround them – one in particular is the elusive and majestic snow leopard.

Published: November 20, 2020 Modified: November 20, 2020

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At a glance
Difficulty 5/5
Starts at Paro Chuu
Finishes at Paro Chuu
Length of route 347 Km
Average time to complete 24 - 28 Hours
Possible to complete sub-sectionsNo
Highest point 5320 metres
Permit requiredNo
Countries visited Bhutan