An imposing snow and rock pyramid, Chomolhari (7,314m or 23,996ft) so dominates the surrounding mountains that it was long thought to be higher than it is
Difficulty: 3 out of 3
Duration: one week
Season: March-May, September-November
An imposing snow and rock pyramid, Chomolhari (7,314m or 23,996ft) so dominates the surrounding mountains that it was long thought to be higher than it is. Visible even from India, the 1861 British Survey of India designated it as Peak I – contrast that with Everest that became lowly Peak XV.
Straddling the border between the ancient lands of Bhutan and Tibet, it is revered by peoples living on all sides of it. Yet despite this, it has been climbed, with the first recorded ascent in 1937. A ban was imposed in the 1970s after several incidents convinced locals that the mountain’s deity has been displeased, but more recently, climbing parties have again been allowed to summit.
Access is from the south and east via part of the great trail network that is still vital in this hugely mountainous country. To hike these paths is to experience Himalayan conditions in the raw. There’s real physical challenge thanks to stiff ascents and descents, sustained high altitude and inclement weather, and precious little infrastructure to offer convenient shelter and safety when needed – this is a far cry from teahouse trekking, Nepal-style.
It is a three- or four-day walk from the trailhead of Drugyel Dzong, reached by road from Paro, to Jangothang, a campsite at the base of Jhomolhari. Pretty much all of it is uphill – from 2,580m to 4,044m – so you need to pay attention to anyone beginning to suffer the effects of altitude and act accordingly.
One of the major joys of hiking here is the regular contact with the Bhutanese for whom these trails are essential in every way: for trade, pilgrimage or just for simple family visits. That makes this one of the few places left anywhere that offer the same sense of mountain travel as it has been for centuries. People often find time to chat, if only to exchange information on the trail, and this is all done with the serenity and good grace of a people living to rhythms far removed from those most of us would recognise.
There are several variants possible for the return trip to Paro to avoid retracing your steps. If time is pressing then the same route may be up to a day faster in reverse whereas with more time you can extend your trip by as long as you like – keep heading east on the Lunana Trail for instance and you have up to another 300km of walking ahead of you!
However long you venture onto the trails, you’ll need to use an operator to arrange a guide and pack animals for you. This is not an option – Bhutan is serious about adopting a measured pace of tourism development and your fees will go towards this aim.