Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Druk Path - aka, Escape From Druk Mountain

          On Sunday, after a great day-and-a-half catching up with our friend Mr. Tashi and visiting his sister’s school, it was time for our trekking adventure to start, and we set out for what we thought was going to be 5 days of fun in the mountains... But little did we know what challenges were waiting for us in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Me, with Mule Team Six in the background....
          Things started out well enough as we began our hike up and out of the town of Paro, bound for the capital city of Thimpu on a popular trekking route named The Druk Path. Our initial elevation was about 7,500 feet, and our camp for that night was at around 11,500 (with lots of up-and-down along the way), so we had quite a bit of climbing to do. It’s amazing just how thin the air is up at 10k+ feet, and we were all slowed down significantly each time we began a new uphill push. Just before we stopped for lunch, we passed a group of American trekkers, and we talked to them for a few minutes about the hike. They told us they were turned around after 2 days because of a blizzard at the 3rd camp. This was our first warning of what was to come, but on the word of our mountain guide, we decided to proceed forward and assume that by the time we got to camp 3, the snow would be mostly cleared by spring temperatures.

Our first view of Camp 1

          There were 4 other groups that started the trek the same day we did. Among them were a French, a British, an Indian and a Swiss group (or individuals) all of which would be attempting a trek similar to ours. After our first day on the trail, we arrived at Camp 1, located in a field a few hundred feet below a small monastery.  Our camp was pretty luxurious compared with most camping trips I’ve been on. We had 2 sleeping tents, an eating/ sitting tent, a cooking tent, and to round it off a little bathroom tent. Along with us were a cook and his assistant, 2 horsemen, and our guide. Carrying the bulk of our gear and supplies was our loyal team of seven horses and mules.

          The first night was fairly cold, likely below freezing, but nothing we couldn't handle. However, warning #2 came the next morning when we learned that 2 of the other 4 groups had jumped ship and were turning around. Now we were down to 3 teams. We started out the day with a quick climb to the ridgeline above us, where we visited the monastery up there. It had sustained damage during the big earthquake last year, so our visit was short, but still, the views were spectacular. For the next few hours, we hiked along the ridge, averaging around 12,500 feet. The scenery was beautiful. We hiked though huge pine and juniper forests, and it felt like we were in the Sierras or Rocky mountains. About ¾ of the way to camp 2, we came across a group of Italian hikers who appeared to be very fit. They were heading in the opposite direction from us and their guide told us that they had come across about 2 feet of snow on their way to the 3rd campsite (at an elevation close to 14,000) and were forced to turn back and skirt around the mountains at a much lower altitude – warning #3.

          At this point, we became a little hesitant about what we should do, but continued on to the 2nd campsite to make a decision there. Just before we arrived at camp, we hit the snow line on the ground from the blizzard a few days before. It wasn't fully covering the ground, but nevertheless it was there. Just as we arrived at camp, it began to rain. The horsemen had arrived before us, so we were thankful to be able to immediately take cover in our tents. As night fell, so did the temperature, and rapidly. Soon after the rain started, it turned to hail, and by dinnertime, it was snow. It was really cold in the tent that night. Every time I moved around I would shift away from the warm part of the sleeping bag, and it was freezing. I was really tired, so eventually I was able to drift into a cold, but welcome, sleep.

          It snowed practically the entire night. When I woke up the next morning, I found myself in a winter wonderland. The mountains and trees were covered in snow, but the dirt campsite was mostly clear of accumulated snow.  At this point we knew it wasn't a good idea to continue the trek – certainly not up to 14,000 feet as the snowfall appeared to be in full force in the mountains just above us. As much we didn't want to accept defeat, we just weren’t prepared for sustained snow. I didn't have gloves or a warm hat. So we plotted our next move. Originally we planned to hike down a 7-8 hour escape route to the nearest spot a car could pick us up, but then our cook came to the rescue, as he knew a shortcut that would only take us around 4-5 hours. It was a steep and muddy descent, but we were grateful for the shortcut. After two hours hiking steadily down, we reached the first sign of civilization as we could see a rural farmhouse far below us in a steep valley. But, before we could reach the farmhouse and enter the valley, it began to rain heavily. After another hour or so in the rain, we reached the farmhouse and were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed shelter by the family living there. We were invited in to sit by the fire and warm up while it was raining. During this time we had lunch, and we struggled with intermittent cell phone coverage as we attempted to contact the car that would (hopefully) meet us at the nearest road a few more hours hike down the valley. The farm currently had just two residents, a mother and her youngest son. She had 5 children, but the rest had married and moved to Thimphu (she didn’t mention having a husband, so we presumed he had passed away). They were nomadic herders, and only live in the house during the wintertime. The rest of the year they are up with their animals – eighty yaks - in the high mountains. Their house had been damaged during the recent earthquake, and still needed repairing. So in the meantime they live in a smaller house built next door.  We were very grateful for their hospitality, and wished we could have stayed longer, but we needed to find the car and get to Thimphu. During a break in the rain, the son showed us the way along an extremely muddy and treacherous path that traveled along side a creek. Eventually, we made it to the end of a logging road that had only been completed a year before, but then found out the car had driven up the wrong side of the canyon, and would take at least another hour to reach us – but at least we knew that someone was there. We continued walking down a little ways to keep warm and to kill some time, and eventually we saw the car turn the corner, and knew we had made it! We were happy to have gotten out safely, but lets take a minute to think about the remaining 2 groups, who last we heard are still out there, up at around 13,000 feet.

A welcome respite from the cold and rain

We improvised much of our flight down the mountain on the last day


  1. I applaud your reluctant decision to turn back! No need to go any further into that kind of elevation and snow! Holy Cow! You guys are intrepid hikers. Love you all, mm Be safe!

  2. I cant believe you climbed that mountain- reina in jims class

  3. Hi andrew! That was a wonderful report! i am doing the druk path trek next month and this was quite handy! Thanks!