The combination of distance, altitude, remoteness and weather makes this trek a tough and expensive, journey. Even though there are reduced rates for long treks, many people baulk at the cost of a 24-day trek. Western trek companies charge over US$6000 for the trip. It is said that more people have summitted Everest than have completed the Snowman trek.

If you plan to trek this route, check your emergency evacuation insurance. If you get into Lunana and snow blocks the passes, the only way out is by helicopter, an expensive way to finish an already expensive trek. Other obstacles that often hamper this trek are bridges, in remote regions, that get washed away by deluges.

The Snowman trek is frequently closed because of snow, and is impossible to undertake during winter. The season for this trek is generally considered to be from late September to mid-October. Don't plan a summer trek; this is a miserable place to be during the monsoon.

This classic trek follows the Jhomolhari and Laya–Gasa treks to Laya. Many walking days can be saved by starting in Gasa (via Punakha) and trekking north over the Bari La.

There are several alternative endings to the Snowman trek. One of the most popular is to continue southeast from Danji via the Gophu La and Duer Hot Springs, past fine views of Gangkar Puensum to end at Duer in the Bumthang Valley (seven to eight days from Danji).

The Trek at a Glance

Duration 24 days

Max Elevation 5320m

Difficulty Hard

Season September to October

Start Sharna Zampa

Finish Upper Sephu

Access Town Paro

Summary The Snowman trek travels to the remote Lunana district and is said to be one of the most difficult treks in the world. Fewer than half the people who attempt this trek eventually finish it, either because of problems with altitude or heavy snowfall on the high passes.

Days 1 to 4: Drukgyel Dzong to Lingzhi

Follow Days 1 to 4 of the Jhomolhari trek.

Days 5 to 9: Lingzhi to Laya

Follow Days 5 to 9 of the Laya–Gasa trek.

Day 10: Rest & Acclimatisation Day in Laya

If you have trekked from Sharna Zampa, you should spend a day recuperating in Laya and preparing for the rigours ahead. If you've trekked from Gasa, you should also walk up to Laya to acclimatise. You may well get mobile phone service in Laya. In an emergency, the army camp below Laya has a radio.

Day 11: Laya to Rodophu

The trek leads down to the Lunana trail junction, then climbs for 40 minutes to a hilltop with good views over the Mo Chhu and the Rhodo Chhu. It continues up the Rhodo Chhu valley, first through mixed conifers, then through rhododendrons, above the tree line. Atop a large rock slide there is a view of the glacial valley and a massive glacier on Tsenda Kang (7100m). The Rodophu camp is just beyond a wooden bridge across the Rhodo Chhu at 4160m.

If you're acclimatising here for a day, consider a short 2km hike up the valley to a knoll with excellent views of the valley and mountains, continuing to the base of the glacier. Another option is to follow a small trail starting about 500m upstream from camp and up the hill to the north, ending in a small yak pasture with a hut at 4500m.

Distance

19km

Time

6–8 hours

Ascent & Descent

1030m ascent, 70m descent

Day 12: Rodophu to Narethang

The path crosses the wooden bridge and follows the river for 20 minutes through rhododendron shrubs before turning right up the hill. Climb to a high open valley at 4600m and then through meadows to Tsomo La (4900m), which offers good views towards the Tibet border and Jhomolhari. Next up is a flat, barren plateau at around 5000m with yak trails criss-crossing everywhere – your guide will know the way. The camp is at Narethang (4900m), below the 6395m peak of Gangla Karchung.

Distance

17km

Time

5–6 hours

Ascent & Descent

720m ascent

Day 13: Narethang to Tarina

It's a one-hour climb to the 5120m Gangla Karchung La, with Kang Bum (6526m) to the west and Tsenda Kang, Teri Gang (7300m) and Jejekangphu Gang (7100m) due north. The path descends along a large moraine to the edge of a near-vertical wall with breathtaking views. A massive glacier descends from Teri Gang to two deep turquoise lakes at its foot, 1km below you. The glacial lake to the left burst through its dam in the early 1960s, causing widespread damage downstream, and partially destroying Punakha Dzong.

The path now becomes very steep as it descends into the valley. When wet, this stretch can be rather nasty, with lots of roots and slippery mud. At the base of the U-shaped valley, the trail turns right, following the Tang Chhu downstream. There are several good campsites along the river, both before and after the trail crosses the river at Tarina.

Distance

18km

Time

7–8 hours

Ascent & Descent

270m ascent, 1200m descent

Day 14: Tarina to Woche

The walk leads through conifers down the Tang Chhu on river left, passing some impressive waterfalls. The trail climbs gently out of the valley past several huge landslides, and eventually climbs steeply to the northeast into the high side valley of Woche. The first village in the Lunana region, Woche is a small settlement of five houses at 3940m.

Looking up the valley you can see the following day's route to Lhedi. There have been reports of theft here; keep all your gear safely inside your tent.

Distance

17km

Time

6–7 hours

Ascent & Descent

275m ascent, 330m descent

Day 15: Woche to Lhedi

The trail climbs the Woche valley, crossing a stream and going over a moraine before descending to a wooden bridge across the Woche Chhu. It then climbs on a wide trail past a clear lake to Keche La (4650m), with excellent views of the surrounding mountains, including Jejekangphu Gang's triple peak, the source of the Woche Chhu.

The route now descends into the Pho Chhu valley and reaches Thaga village (4050m). Dropping towards the Pho Chhu, the path then turns northeast towards Lhedi. Passing a few scattered settlements and crossing below a waterfall on a wooden bridge, the trail descends to the banks of the Pho Chhu, continuing along the river bed to Lhedi at 3700m.

Lhedi is a district headquarters with a school, a Basic Health Unit (BHU) and a wireless station, but there is no shop here (or anywhere else in the Lunana district). Everything is carried in by yak trains across 5000m passes. There are strong winds up the valley in the late afternoon, making it bitterly cold in autumn and winter.

Distance

17km

Time

6–7 hours

Ascent & Descent

980m ascent, 950m descent

Day 16: Lhedi to Thanza

The trail follows the north bank of the Pho Chhu past several small farms. Floods have destroyed parts of the trail so an alternative path winds its way among boulders in the river bed. Around lunchtime the trail passes Chozo village at 4090m, which has a functioning dzong.

If you are pressed for time, you can take a direct trail to Tshochena from here, but most trekkers continue to Thanza (4100m), a couple of hours up the valley. The first part of the trail leads through yak pastures on river flats, giving way to a large expanse of fine glacial sand. Eventually, the trail leaves the river bed and climbs a bluff overlooking the villages of Thanza, straight ahead, and Toencha, on the other bank of the river. The 7100m Zongophu Gang (Table Mountain) forms an immense, 3000m-high wall of snow and ice behind Thanza. Most groups camp in Toencha (4150m), but there are places to camp in Thanza as well.

Distance

17km

Time

4–5 hours

Ascent & Descent

400m ascent

Day 17: Rest Day in Thanza

Schedule a rest day here. This is as far as yak drivers from Laya go, and it takes time to round up yaks for the rest of the trek. Capitalise on the day by exploring the villages and glacial lakes up the valley. The closest lake, Raphstreng Tsho, is 100m deep and caused a flood in 1994 when a moraine holding back its waters burst. A large crew of Indian workers dug a channel through the moraine to prevent a recurrence, but there are other lakes in the area posing a similar risk.

Day 18: Thanza to Danji

If you're feeling fit, you can hike to Tshochena in one day, but it's a long, hard walk at high altitude and is best split in two parts.

Climbing to a large boulder on the hill south of the village, the trail turns east up a side valley. After a couple of hours of easy walking, the trail enters Danji, a yak meadow with some herders' huts. It's an excellent camp, with blue sheep often grazing above and occasionally walking into camp.

A few hundred metres up the valley, a small trail climbs the ridge to the left, leading to a higher valley. The top of the ridge offers excellent views of surrounding mountains.

Distance

8km

Time

3–4 hours

Ascent & Descent

80m ascent

Day 19: Danji to Tsho Chena

From the junction near camp, the trail up the valley leads to Gangkhar Puensum base camp and Bumthang. The path to the end of the trek crosses the creek and leads up a rocky side valley – a long climb across several false summits to Jaze La at 5150m, with views of mountains in all directions. From the pass, the path descends between snow-covered peaks past a string of small lakes. The camp is near the shore of Tsho Chena at 4970m. This is the first of two nights' camping above 4900m.

Distance

12km

Time

5–6 hours

Ascent & Descent

490m ascent, 240m descent

Day 20: Tsho Chena to Jichu Dramo

The trail follows the shore of the blue-green lake before climbing to a ridge at 5100m, with a 360-degree panorama of snowy peaks. Far below, the Pho Chhu descends towards Punakha. The road and microwave tower at Dochu La are visible in the distance.

The path makes several ups and downs over small rounded hills, but the altitude can slow you down. Past a glacial lake before Loju La at 5140m, many trails wander around high-altitude yak pastures, and it's easy to wander astray. The correct path is across a small saddle at 5100m into a wide glacial valley, and then down to the camp at Jichu Dramo (5050m), a small pasture on the east of the valley.

Distance

14km

Time

4–5 hours

Ascent & Descent

230m ascent, 140m descent

Day 21: Jichu Dramo to Chukarpo

The trail climbs through a moraine to the picturesque Rinchen Zoe La (5320m), dividing the Pho Chhu and Mangde Chhu drainages. Rinchen Zoe peak (5650m) towers above, Gangkhar Puensum is visible in the east, while the Thampe Chhu valley stretches below to the south.

Descending into a broad, marshy valley with a string of lakes, the trail follows the left (east) side of the valley. Eventually, it descends steeply down the face of a moraine to a yak pasture in the upper reaches of the Thampe Chhu. Cross to the west bank (river right) here, as there is no bridge further down. The vegetation begins to thicken, and consists of rhododendrons and junipers. The camp is a couple of hours away at Chukarpo (4600m); a better site sits an hour further on at Thongsa Thang (4400m).

Distance

18km

Time

5–6 hours

Ascent & Descent

320m ascent, 730m descent

Day 22: Chukarpo to Thampe Tsho

Descend along the right bank of the river until you reach a yak pasture at Gala Pang Chhu (4010m). From here, the path begins to climb steeply through junipers and silver firs towards Thampe Tsho. The path generally follows a stream to the beautiful, clear, turquoise lake, set in a bowl and surrounded by steep mountain walls. The camp is at the far end of the lake at 4300m.

Distance

18km

Time

5–6 hours

Ascent & Descent

400m ascent, 640m descent

Day 23: Thampe Tsho to Maurothang

The trail climbs steeply to Thampe La at 4600m. You may see blue sheep high on the slopes above the trail.

The path descends to Om Tsho, a sacred site where Pema Lingpa found a number of terma (sacred texts and artefacts). The path skirts the northwestern shore of the lake before crossing its outlet, marked by prayer flags, and then drops steeply past a waterfall to a smaller lake, about 100m lower.

From the second lake to the headwaters of the Nikka Chhu is a descent so steep that even yaks are reluctant to come down this stretch. The path eventually levels out, following the left bank of the Nikka Chhu. After about 2km, it reaches a large open glade near the confluence of a major tributary coming from the east. A wooden bridge crosses the Nikka Chhu to river right, where a broad path leads through mixed forest to Maurothang (3610m), a large clearing by the river beside a few herders' huts.

Distance

14km

Time

5 hours

Ascent & Descent

280m ascent, 1020m descent

Day 24: Maurothang to Upper Sephu

If horses are not available at Maurothang, your guide will probably send someone ahead to arrange for them further down. Yaks cannot walk all the way to the road because of the low altitude and the many cows in the area.

A well-used trail continues down the west side of the Nikka Chhu for about 30 minutes before crossing to the east bank into a mixed deciduous and bamboo forest. It descends gradually through forests and pastures, emerging onto a large grassy area overlooking upper Sephu village. Your vehicle should be able to meet you here. If not, it's around 7km down a farm road to the main paved highway at Sephu, next to the Nikka Chhu bridge (2600m), marked by shops and a small restaurant.

Distance

11km

Time

3 hours

Ascent & Descent

730m descent