November 06

From the desk of Kevin Grange


GrangeKevin Grange is an award-winning freelance writer who has written for
 Backpacker Magazine, National Parks Magazine, and the Orange County Register, among others. He has been to Bhutan four times and has completed the Snowman Trek three times, including twice as a guide. He is author of Beneath Blossom Rain.

The call came at dawn on the morning of the twentieth day: “Wake
up, Sir!” my guide Namgyel exclaimed, tugging on my tent door. “She is out!

By “She,” Namgyel meant Gangkhar Puensum, the massive mountain that
straddles the border separating Tibet and the country I was hiking through, the
tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. At 24,829 feet, Gangkhar Puensum is not only
the tallest peak in Bhutan, it is also the highest unclimbed mountain in the
world. From the moment we arrived at our campsite the day before, Namgyel had had
the task of “mountain watching,” with strict orders from the head chef to fetch
us the moment Gangkhar Puensum appeared in view. I threw on my boots, grabbed
my coat and camera, and unzipped my tent door.

Bhutan is a small country, about half the size of Indiana, wedged
between India and Tibet. Along with being the world’s most mountainous country,
Bhutan has the distinction of being the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas,
of not having a single traffic light, of being governed by a policy of “Gross
National Happiness,” and of having the toughest trek in the world. At 216
miles, including eleven high mountain passes (seven over 16,000 feet), Bhutan’s
epic Snowman Trek is a 24-day boxing match for the hiking boots. More climbers
have scaled Mount Everest than have finished the Snowman Trek. Historically
less than 120 people attempt the Snowman each year and, of those, less than half
finish. Just some of the challenges of the trek include its duration,
notoriously bad weather, long mileage, high camps, and high elevation—all of
which mean there is a high likelihood something will go wrong. However, a
lifetime of traveling has taught me that it’s precisely these types of crucible
situations that can reveal new aspects of your character and lead to new
discoveries.

Having had the good fortune of traveling to Bhutan four times, I’ve
noticed a number of changes in myself since my first trip. I once struggled
with greeting someone in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language,
and yet, saying kuzuzangpo-la now seems as effortless as hello in
English. I also now intuitively walk clockwise around stupas (Buddhist
monuments), praise the gods like a local by shouting “Lha Gyalo”
from the high mountain passes, and have the good gastrointestinal sense to
request Bhutan’s mild chilies with my meals. However, perhaps the most striking
change can be seen in the pictures of my visits to the “Land of the Thunder
Dragon.”

When I first visited (in 2004) to accomplish the eight-day
Chomolhari Trek, I returned with hundreds of photos of old-growth forests,
glacial-fed rivers, and majestic, snow-capped peaks. They were beautiful but,
when I returned to the United States and showed them to friends and family,
something seemed to be missing. Perhaps it was this feeling of not fully
grasping the country—of capturing its scenery but not its soul—that prompted me
to return to Bhutan in 2007 to do the Snowman Trek. Over the course of that three-week
trip, as I slogged over 216 thigh-crying miles, I snapped photos of the natural
scenery but also started taking pictures of my Bhutanese guides, horsemen,
monks, and villagers. While the photo album from that trip felt better in my
heart, it still made little sense in my head. What was the difference?

Fortunately, my answer came in the months that followed. As I began
writing a memoir about the Snowman Trek, I noticed all the key scenes and
memorable moments crystallized around the people I’d met: getting lost in the
swirling fog near a monastery only to meet two yak-herding brothers who
accompanied me back to the trail; joining the ladies in the village of Laya for
a cultural dance; or watching the Bhutanese school children sing the national anthem
in Lunana, a remote district that is a ten-day walk from the nearest road and
sealed off from the rest of the world by snow for four months out of the year.
While the Bhutanese architecture and scenery are awe-inspiring, I realized
those are but a backdrop for the true beauty of Bhutan—or any country, for that
matter—its people.

Consequently, when I returned to Bhutan to guide the Snowman Trek in
2008 and 2010, my camera had a distinctly people-driven purpose. Certainly, I
continued to take photos of rivers, mountains, and monasteries, but this time I
included people in those images to give them scale and add soul and a smile.

After spending over three months trekking in Bhutan, I have seen
examples of kindness that could soften even the most hardened heart: nomadic
yak herders welcoming us into their tents on a snowy afternoon to warm us with
butter tea; monks inviting us into their temple to share a prayer; villagers
lending us a horse so we could transport a sick trekker. While they may call
themselves the “Dragon People,” the truth is, when you travel in Bhutan you
will feel their kindness and be treated like royalty.

As I crawled out of my tent that morning, I found the eight members
of my trekking party already assembled and snapping photos of Gangkhar Puensum
in the frosty air. “Was she worth the wait?” asked Namgyel with a friendly
nudge.

“You bet!” I replied, reaching for my camera.

One glance at the mountain had swept away all the sore muscle
memories of the previous nineteen days. Gangkhar Puensum was breathtaking—at
once seeming to explode from the earth and float in the icy heavens. When
Namgyel volunteered to take a picture of me, I eagerly handed him my camera and
recited Bhutan’s way of getting someone to smile for the camera: “Yak Cheese!”

When I’m in the United States, my friends often ask why I repeatedly
return to Bhutan and especially what keeps me motivated trekking all those
miles over the high, snowy passes. The same is true in Bhutan, where the
Bhutanese routinely ask me what is it about Southern California that makes it
so special. My answer in both cases is the same: I show them the pictures of friends
and family in my photo album.

-Kevin Grange