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Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon

Features
posted: 01/17/2003

We sat on branches and hand-woven yak-wool mats in a stone hut just four feet high with a sod roof and an open fire pit. With no chimney, the smoke hung like fog and we strained our eyes to see each other. It was snowing outside, and a local yak herder and his quiet 16-year-old daughter had invited us into their home. We sipped su-ja, a Tibetan salt-butter tea, while the horsemen made tsampa by swirling yak milk and roasted barley flour in the palms of their hands.

Talking rapidly in Dzongkha, the local language, Dorgi Sr., our giggly, gap-toothed, 75-year-old guide, gestured wildly about heavy snow, as high as the horses' necks, and animals slipping into the river. Dana Mulitz, a backcountry skier from Crested Butte, mimed back that Asian horses are the size of large dogs, so really, the snow was only knee deep.

Eventually the message became clear: The 16,720-foot-high Narithang Pass leading to Bhutan's Gangla Karchung-and to the base camp of our ski expedition-was snowed in. There was no way the pack animals would be able to get through with our gear. The thought that we'd come all the way around the world for the first-ever American ski expedition to Bhutan only to be skunked by too much snow was more bitter than the tea.

The seed for a Bhutan ski adventure had been planted during a trip to Nepal in 1992. The flood of tourism, with me in it, had swamped the country, each wave leaving a higher tidemark on a disappearing island of untouched beauty. I yearned for somewhere far away from the notorious pink-toilet-paper trail of foreign trekkers.

People talked about Bhutan as a land whose gods dwell on mist-shrouded peaks and reincarnated lamas meditate in musty monasteries. Even the country's local name, Druk Yul, Dzongkha for "Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon," sounded mystical.

Sandwiched in the eastern Himalaya, between Tibet and India, Bhutan is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Bhutan's king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and his four wives have learned from Nepal's missteps; they have tightly monitored tourism since the kingdom's borders were opened in 1974.

Every tourist must apply for a visa and pay a daily fee of up to $200. From 1983 to 1994, climbing expeditions were granted access to Bhutan's peaks, but then locals complained that the gods had been disturbed by the climbers. Since then, no permits have been issued.

I wanted to not only climb, but to ski Bhutan's mountains with an all-female team. If the planets aligned just so (and we actually found snow), we would be the first Americans to ski in Bhutan. For months, I sent electronic missives to the Kingdom of Bhutan's website. That led to a series of daily e-banter about permits with Karma Gyeltshen at Bhutan Tourism Corporation:

Karma: So far there isn't any skiing being done on our normal trekking routes.

Alison: What about skiing on the glaciers around the permitted trekking routes?

Karma: For your kind information, as of now there isn't proper study being done regarding the possibility of skiing and no mountains are accessible for that. Moreover, the Govt. does not allow mountain climbing as such...even if skiing is approved as we do not have the required technical expertise and equipments.

The dialog eventually progressed from decidedly negative to questionably optimistic.

Alison: Can we do ski trips from a permitted trekking route?

Karma: We don't know. Maybe. If there is snow.

We decided to go for it. On the expedition team: Sushi chef Dana Mulitz, Crested Butte museum curator and pro skier Susan Medville, Aspen ski patroller and climber Deb Curtis, expedition photographer Melissa McManus, and me. We pieced together a route with a tentative base camp and planned to ski on the ridges of 20,982-foot Gangla Karchung.

Thirty-six flight hours and four countries later, we braced ourselves for the typical third world onslaught of lols hawking cheap lodging and taxi rides upon arrival in Paro. But there was nothing. The few monks on the plane trotted off, and we were left alone in front of a palatial whitewashed airport building. Waiting for us inside were two smiling men dressed in tartan ghos (a cross between a kilt and a bathrobe), argyle socks, and loafers.

As part of Bhutan's meticulous tourism policy, we had been assigned an army of guides and porters. Ugyen, our main guide, had come out of guiding retirement because he didn't want to miss out on this expedition. "I have been on, or know of, every expedition that has ever been in Bhutan-ever," he would tell us, "and no one has ever skied in Bhutan." Kindlay, named Bull by the others because his 250 pounds dwarfs most Bhutanese men, would be our cultural guide, clueing us in to the local ways. Ugyen and Bull blessed us by draping white scarves around our necks, wishing us tsheri, or long life.

We drove a few hours to Thimpu, the capital city, on the six-foot-wide, pot-holed track with nary a straightaway known as the only "highway" in Bhutan. In the city, we lunched on the national dish, ema dhaste (chilies with cheese). For the next few weeks, we would eat little but chilies.

Our 14-day trek began the next day in a jungle valley filled with orchids and waterfalls. A bus had brought us as far as the muddy road would allow. About five hours north of Thimpu, our cargo was unloaded, and we met up with the rest of the entourage that the government had arranged. There were a total of two guides, two cooks, one tea guy, three horsemen, and 17 small horses decorated with colorful ribbons and loaded up with baskets of chilies, rice, and 600 pounds of climbing, skiing, and personal gear.

As we chugged uphill through groves of rhododendron and papaya trees, monkeys peered at us from the upper branches. Gapleeko, the shy cook with broad shoulders and chiseled cheeks, picked fiddlehead ferns and wild mushrooms along the steep trail to accompany the chilies at dinner. The fiery food went down better after a few rounds of whiskey, or chilip lo me, Dzongkha for "foreigner's fire." Before long, we learned the local toast, chaaps, meaning, "drink without hesitation."

Over chilies and whiskey, Ugyen told Susan that in Bhutan, smoke blowing in your face from a campfire means that you shit in the road. I wondered why anyone would have such a private moment in the middle of the road when you're surrounded by jungle.

The next day, Deb learned the painful answer. During a jungle pit stop, an opportunistic leech had lodged on her rump and gorged itself. Ugyen chided Deb all day: "Hey, you have big-biting-yellow-stinging bamboo leech on your ass!" She freaked every time, causing the guides to laugh so hard they snorted.

On our second day of trekking, after eight hours and 8,000 feet of uphill, we reached the Gasa hot springs. We squeezed into the pools next to women and babies with coral-and-turquoise neck- laces shimmering against their naked brown bodies and monks old and young from the monastery up the hill. The vision of our pale bodies bobbing in the water was as strange to the locals as the scene was to us. We asked Ugyen how many tourists come through the area. "Lots," he replied. "About 30 a year."

The minerals had a restorative effect, and we raced up the last 1,500 feet of our day's hike to the village of Gasa. "You should slow down and keep your strength for the big journey," said Ugyen.

But we felt energized. On other expeditions, we'd always had to lug our own gear and cook our own breakfast. Here in Bhutan, we were treated like princesses. Every morning, while we were still tucked in our sleeping bags, Chambe, our other shy cook, would serve us na ja, a sweet Indian tea that made us forget about coffee.

And so we settled into the pace of the daily trek-tea, hiking, leeches, chilies, hiking, ticks, chilies, whiskey, Pepto-Bismol, hiking. After four days and thousands of vertical feet of up and down hills as steep as skate ramps, we reached the valley of Rhodophu at 13,500 feet in a blinding blizzard.

That was the day, crowded inside the yak herder's hut, we got the news about the pass being impassable. "Can we trade in the horses for yaks?" Dana asked. But Ugyen and Bull were evasive: "They will trample the gear," "in spring, they are not fit enough," "we can't find them." Deb asked if we could carry our own gear over the pass. "It is too dangerous," the guides replied, "not enough time." We realized they were politely telling us, "no way."

Our great Bhutanese ski adventure was starting to look pretty bleak. We considered our options. The yak herder's daughter had spoken of a glacier on the opposite side of the valley from Narithang Pass. And Ugyen had told us about a Japanese expedition that had attempted to climb Masang Gang, a 23,000 foot peak nearby, via the glacial valley to the north.

The next day, in a rare episode of sunshine, we hiked up to explore our options and acclimatize to 16,500 feet. We were surrounded by sky-scratching peaks: the bulky 23,997-foot Jhomolhari to the south, the square-fluted fang of 23,295-foot Tsenda Gang to the north, 23,604-foot Masang Gang and 23,951-foot Teri Gang to the east.

The view was tantalizing, but each option we scoped was either not snowy enough, too avalanche exposed, or filled with crevasses that cascaded like blue waterfalls. After several hours of slogging, we spied a sliver of smooth white snow, a side glacier off the 10-lane-wide Rhodophu Glacier. It looked like our only chance, so we resolved to haul our skis up there the next day. As we memorized our route, clouds began to obscure the views, and the snow started to fly again.

As the storm raged and our stomachs writhed from chilies, we discussed the possibility that we might not ski at all. But the next morning-the day I had penciled in as our "ideal ski day" months ago-dawned perfectly clear. We crammed our climbing gear and skis in our packs and headed for the glacier.

To avoid rockfall from the 3,000-foot faces above, we scaled the knife-edged ridge of the Rhoduphu Glacier's lateral moraine. For six hours, we scrambled up the ridge. Skiable faces surrounded the glacier, but the new snow was already baking dangerously in the sun. All around us, avalanches were rumbling and ripping and blue-green seracs were crashing.

"Let's just do a one-turn wonder on that snow patch and call it good," said Susan, "there's nothing to ski here." Deb suggested we stash our gear and come back the next day, much earlier. "I'm not coming back to this ridge of shit," groaned Dana, her stomach in the grips of the chili demons.

"It may be the only day we see the sun," I said, trying to rally the group. "Let's at least go up and take a look." So we trudged up the next 1,000 feet, feeling hopeless and sunburned. But when we crested the top at about 16,500 feet, we discovered a northwest-facing 1,500-foot snowfield.

The snow looked funky, and I was sure my skis would hook on crud or rocks, but as I shoved off with a yelp, I realized the ridges and weird textures were powder. One by one, we took turns lapping the pitch, knowing it would be dark by the time we got back to base camp, but not caring.

As night fell, we descended with our headlamps on. Because of dropping temperatures, we were able to avoid the ridge and ski down a frozen creek. When the route petered out, we tramped through the lower glacial moraine boulders, icy rivers, and alpine tundra with our skis strapped to our packs.

The guides were worried and had climbed up to meet us. "Madame, pack carry?" But we refused, choosing instead the meditative art of ignoring pain and exhaustion and singing bad renditions of tunes like "American Pie."

The last hour back to camp left us speechless and songless. Wiskey, Pepto-Bismol, hiking. After four days and thousands of vertical feet of up and down hills as steep as skate ramps, we reached the valley of Rhodophu at 13,500 feet in a blinding blizzard.

That was the day, crowded inside the yak herder's hut, we got the news about the pass being impassable. "Can we trade in the horses for yaks?" Dana asked. But Ugyen and Bull were evasive: "They will trample the gear," "in spring, they are not fit enough," "we can't find them." Deb asked if we could carry our own gear over the pass. "It is too dangerous," the guides replied, "not enough time." We realized they were politely telling us, "no way."

Our great Bhutanese ski adventure was starting to look pretty bleak. We considered our options. The yak herder's daughter had spoken of a glacier on the opposite side of the valley from Narithang Pass. And Ugyen had told us about a Japanese expedition that had attempted to climb Masang Gang, a 23,000 foot peak nearby, via the glacial valley to the north.

The next day, in a rare episode of sunshine, we hiked up to explore our options and acclimatize to 16,500 feet. We were surrounded by sky-scratching peaks: the bulky 23,997-foot Jhomolhari to the south, the square-fluted fang of 23,295-foot Tsenda Gang to the north, 23,604-foot Masang Gang and 23,951-foot Teri Gang to the east.

The view was tantalizing, but each option we scoped was either not snowy enough, too avalanche exposed, or filled with crevasses that cascaded like blue waterfalls. After several hours of slogging, we spied a sliver of smooth white snow, a side glacier off the 10-lane-wide Rhodophu Glacier. It looked like our only chance, so we resolved to haul our skis up there the next day. As we memorized our route, clouds began to obscure the views, and the snow started to fly again.

As the storm raged and our stomachs writhed from chilies, we discussed the possibility that we might not ski at all. But the next morning-the day I had penciled in as our "ideal ski day" months ago-dawned perfectly clear. We crammed our climbing gear and skis in our packs and headed for the glacier.

To avoid rockfall from the 3,000-foot faces above, we scaled the knife-edged ridge of the Rhoduphu Glacier's lateral moraine. For six hours, we scrambled up the ridge. Skiable faces surrounded the glacier, but the new snow was already baking dangerously in the sun. All around us, avalanches were rumbling and ripping and blue-green seracs were crashing.

"Let's just do a one-turn wonder on that snow patch and call it good," said Susan, "there's nothing to ski here." Deb suggested we stash our gear and come back the next day, much earlier. "I'm not coming back to this ridge of shit," groaned Dana, her stomach in the grips of the chili demons.

"It may be the only day we see the sun," I said, trying to rally the group. "Let's at least go up and take a look." So we trudged up the next 1,000 feet, feeling hopeless and sunburned. But when we crested the top at about 16,500 feet, we discovered a northwest-facing 1,500-foot snowfield.

The snow looked funky, and I was sure my skis would hook on crud or rocks, but as I shoved off with a yelp, I realized the ridges and weird textures were powder. One by one, we took turns lapping the pitch, knowing it would be dark by the time we got back to base camp, but not caring.

As night fell, we descended with our headlamps on. Because of dropping temperatures, we were able to avoid the ridge and ski down a frozen creek. When the route petered out, we tramped through the lower glacial moraine boulders, icy rivers, and alpine tundra with our skis strapped to our packs.

The guides were worried and had climbed up to meet us. "Madame, pack carry?" But we refused, choosing instead the meditative art of ignoring pain and exhaustion and singing bad renditions of tunes like "American Pie."

The last hour back to camp left us speechless and songless. We had flown around the world and marched for 11 days and 60,000 vertical in rain, sleet, mud, and snow. The skiing may not have been epic, but we had skied in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Back at camp, we celebrated with whiskey, more chilies, and music by Pink. Deb donned her Billy Bob teeth, an '80s costume, and a hideous wig, causing Dorgi Jr., the smiling 14-year-old grandson of Dorgi Sr., to cover his eyes and hide, and sending the giggly Dorgi Sr. into convulsions. Dana and Melissa sat devouring the diarrhea chapter of Medicine for Mountaineering and munching on Pepto. The local women, decked in full tribal dress, tried on our skis and boots and jumped around camp. Soon it was snowing again, and we headed into our tents for more na ja.

More heavy snow overnight got us excited about more skiing, especially with three huge passes to cross on our way back to Thimpu. But the crew was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ski mission. Bull said we'd need a helicopter rescue from India if we attempted the route. "You can split the cost of a horse if it falls in the river," said Ugyen.

Again, none of them wanted to tell us no, but the message was clear. We tried not to be disappointed and attempted to abide by the Buddhist principles we'd learned along the way: avoid anger, ignorance, and greed...and don't act like spoiled brats. Heavy snow and brilliant sun teased us as we headed down.

Back in Thimpu, after four long trekking days, we were besieged by the media. "Did you like skiing in Bhutan?" the TV, newspaper, and radio reporters asked. "Where is the good terrain for skiing?" "Will you come back?"

A big celebration was thrown; government officials and tourism leaders came to shake our hands. Our guides and cook staff donned their ceremonial ghos and danced to music by a singing troupe that plays for the king. They wanted us to do a traditional American dance, but we knew the Hustle wouldn't measure up. Instead, in the American tradition of conspicuous consumerism, we presented our friends with gifts of T-shirts, sunglasses, and ski posters.

The next day, as we filtered through the quiet airport in Paro, Melissa said to the guy running the X-ray machine, "I really love your country." He replied with a wry smile, "Well, perhaps in your next life, you'll be lucky and be born in Bhutan."

Bhutan: By the Numbers
27,000 cubic inches of duffel bag space. 18,125 dollars wired to Bank of Bhutan for permit fees. 3,250 dollars spent on airline tickets to Bangkok. 700 baby wipes. 486 cell phone minutes used on March 26, the day of departure. 100 feet of irrigation tubing, cut into sections for hula-hoop construction. 72 e-mails back and forth with Bhutan Tourism Corporation. 14 bottles of whiskey. 7 pounds of candy. 6 vaccinations recommended for travel (typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, yellow fever, and malaria). 4 altimeter watches marking 60,000 feet in elevation gain. 1 set of Billy Bob teeth. 1 satellite phone, rented and left in car at airport (satellite phones are not allowed in Bhutan).

s. We had flown around the world and marched for 11 days and 60,000 vertical in rain, sleet, mud, and snow. The skiing may not have been epic, but we had skied in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Back at camp, we celebrated with whiskey, more chilies, and music by Pink. Deb donned her Billy Bob teeth, an '80s costume, and a hideous wig, causing Dorgi Jr., the smiling 14-year-old grandson of Dorgi Sr., to cover his eyes and hide, and sending the giggly Dorgi Sr. into convulsions. Dana and Melissa sat devouring the diarrhea chapter of Medicine for Mountaineering and munching on Pepto. The local women, decked in full tribal dress, tried on our skis and boots and jumped around camp. Soon it was snowing again, and we headed into our tents for more na ja.

More heavy snow overnight got us excited about more skiing, especially with three huge passes to cross on our way back to Thimpu. But the crew was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ski mission. Bull said we'd need a helicopter rescue from India if we attempted the route. "You can split the cost of a horse if it falls in the river," said Ugyen.

Again, none of them wanted to tell us no, but the message was clear. We tried not to be disappointed and attempted to abide by the Buddhist principles we'd learned along the way: avoid anger, ignorance, and greed...and don't act like spoiled brats. Heavy snow and brilliant sun teased us as we headed down.

Back in Thimpu, after four long trekking days, we were besieged by the media. "Did you like skiing in Bhutan?" the TV, newspaper, and radio reporters asked. "Where is the good terrain for skiing?" "Will you come back?"

A big celebration was thrown; government officials and tourism leaders came to shake our hands. Our guides and cook staff donned their ceremonial ghos and danced to music by a singing troupe that plays for the king. They wanted us to do a traditional American dance, but we knew the Hustle wouldn't measure up. Instead, in the American tradition of conspicuous consumerism, we presented our friends with gifts of T-shirts, sunglasses, and ski posters.

The next day, as we filtered through the quiet airport in Paro, Melissa said to the guy running the X-ray machine, "I really love your country." He replied with a wry smile, "Well, perhaps in your next life, you'll be lucky and be born in Bhutan."

Bhutan: By the Numbers
27,000 cubic inches of duffel bag space. 18,125 dollars wired to Bank of Bhutan for permit fees. 3,250 dollars spent on airline tickets to Bangkok. 700 baby wipes. 486 cell phone minutes used on March 26, the day of departure. 100 feet of irrigation tubing, cut into sections for hula-hoop construction. 72 e-mails back and forth with Bhutan Tourism Corporation. 14 bottles of whiskey. 7 pounds of candy. 6 vaccinations recommended for travel (typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, yellow fever, and malaria). 4 altimeter watches marking 60,000 feet in elevation gain. 1 set of Billy Bob teeth. 1 satellite phone, rented and left in car at airport (satellite phones are not allowed in Bhutan).

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