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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Hiking into History

Many consider Bhutan’s 189-mile Snowman Trek the world’s hardest trek—and most beautiful. Trail runners Ben Clark, Anna Frost, Timothy Olson, and some dedicated locals took on the high altitude and epic weather to hike their way into history. See ‘The Snowman Trek’ in theaters for one night only on May 17, 2018. Download the film here.

Why did you pick this trail in Bhutan for your final Himalayan expedition?

Ben Clark: I was a Himalayan skier and climber who used those pursuits to really pioneer, but I hadn’t been to Bhutan before. I had spent a lot of time in Nepal, Tibet, and western China. All of those areas had no restrictions on height that you could visit. So, I was able to pick any mountain and any route to ski mountaineer or alpine climb to any altitude. That’s what made me keep returning.

When I stopped doing that in anticipation of my son being born, I realized that there was still something for me in ultra-distance–going longer, further, and really pushing endurance. That’s what allowed me to finally consider the idea of the world’s hardest trek. That idea would become the final pillar of exploration for me.

In Bhutan, you can’t climb above 6,000 meters, so trekking developed more than some of these other regions. They established a really difficult trek—the Snowman Trek. Because of the restrictions, the Snowman Trek lends itself to giving a taste of remoteness of the alpine that you only get when truly exploring.

But that’s it. It’s only a taste. You can’t climb the peaks. So, setting a speed record on the trek was about as close to pioneering I could actually get to in that country. It was a great way to get to know people, which we never would have done on our small, alpine-style ascents in the Himalayas.

It was meaningful to participate in a goal with people who love the wildness of their country and sharing it. — Director Ben Clark

SNOWMAN TREK BY THE NUMBERS
• 189 miles via longer, more difficult version
• 11 passes above 16,000 feet
• 45,000 feet of elevation gain
• first 130 miles are pleasant, last 60 present real alpine challenges
• no nearby roads, no cars, only one helicopter in country

ROAM: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Hiking into History
Anna Frost takes in the scenery at Gophu La Pass on day 12 of the expedition. At 17,158 feet, the pass is the highest on the trail. Photo by Ben Clark
ROAM: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Hiking into History
Some of the Bhutanese crew taking a rest on the Snowman Trek. Photo by Ben Clark

Tell us about the regulations around Snowman Trek as a trail.

Ben Clark: Bhutan has a minimum daily tariff that is observed in the country in order to be there. Because of that, they’ve really catered to maybe a much more affluent traveler who can afford a minimum of $200 a day. Travelers are treated well in a very logistically heavy, supported way in country. You’re going to have a liaison, local guide, driver, hotel room. Travelers have a large dining tent that might fit up to 14 to 20 people in it. They travel with all of this gear in duffels on horseback. And generally, three times a day, they would set up those tents and eat a fully cooked meal. The regulations are really are there to bring people a level of quality and service equivalent to a high-end vacation.

But for me, my best vacation likely would be your worst nightmare, right? I would rather go without some of those amenities, so that I might see more. Also, because of my fitness level being different, I might find that pushing myself is also part of the quality of the experience.

Those amenities make it sound complicated to move fast for a record.

Ben Clark: If you’re a trail runner, you think, “Why would I take a month to go do something that I could do faster?” Especially if you love running more than you love hiking and each day in country costs more.

For example, it just didn’t make sense to us to set up for lunch in the middle of the day. We could eat a product of some kind—quick, portable foods, like a boiled egg or potato—for lunch. We could go for six or eight hours needing just what’s just in our packs.

This was a different perspective than what the Bhutanese expected from us.

Are there trail markings? Is it possible to find your way along the trail if you’ve never done it before?

There are no trail markings. There are no trail signs anywhere saying “Go this way,” or “This pass is this high.” It’s just a trail through the mountains that could be a game trail or it could be a yak trail. You need guides. That was my biggest fear. Even if the regulations weren’t there, we wouldn’t know how to follow the trail. There’s nothing out there to tell you where to go.

In the film, Timmy refers to “rivers of shit” on the trail. What were the conditions?

Ben Clark: The conditions are the main difficulty of the trail. In the dry season, the trail is amazing, fast, and buffed out. But when it’s the rainy season or when it’s raining a lot on this really soft soil, that trail conditions were very tough—especially with a lot of horse traffic. The horses definitely create different trail conditions. That includes a lot of horseshit all over the place, and mud—knee-deep sometimes. The most important and difficult thing is when to choose to go.

Our feet were wet pretty much wet the entire time. That was our weather in September/October, it just happened to be the luck of the draw. It’s called Land of the Thunder Dragon because it’s got some weather. That’s part of its mystery.

This is not a national park trail. I would say the last probably 50 or 60 miles of that trail is actually the real beast of it. The first 130 miles of this trail is having a pretty chilled-out time, especially if you exit via Sephu, the easier version of the Snowman Trek. You’re going to see some cool stuff. You’re going to be challenged. But the real “oh shit,” significant alpine moments all happened for us in that last 60 to 70 miles that were really intense, which we encountered by completing the full, more difficult version.

Let’s talk about the people who live along the trail. Who did you see?

Ben Clark: Sometimes there would be yak herders who were out on the trail. They were mostly looking for a rare caterpillar that gets infected by a fungus, that then turns into a mushroom called yarsagumba, that Japanese men take like Viagra.

So, while herding their yaks, they’re also searching for the caterpillar?

Ben Clark: Most people up there are searching for the caterpillar, and there just happened to be yaks. And there were a few towns of like 150 or 200 people. We only spent one night in a town. Otherwise, we just kind of went through the towns, because we were not stopping.

There were full—and several days at a time—when we didn’t see a town or people. Occasionally we would see some other group hiking.

As the photographer/director/cinematographer shooting this film solo once Chris Ord was evacuated with pulmonary edema on day 4, how did you deal with leading the expedition and physically keeping up to document it for the big screen?

Ben Clark: Any time I get into a Himalayan expedition, or anything in remote areas, I always pack as if the worst-case scenario is going to be my best-case scenario. This was a worst-case scenario for ten days, once Chris flew out. He was there to help me shoot, and I think his shooting style is really great. Certainly to not have that in the film is a bummer. But for me, I’ve perfected the art of embracing uncertainly around what is coming, and not over-stressing myself in the field, about story, in the moment.

If I miss something, I missed it, and that’s okay. But on this trail, there was so much to be covering, especially the transformation of character we were seeing, and the cultural elements of it. Watching our friends.

ROAM: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Hiking into History
Timothy Olson moves along a path at just over 16,000 feet on day 11 of the expedition. Photo by Ben Clark
ROAM

Director + Mountaineer

Ben Clark

Ben Clark is a filmmaker and mountain endurance athlete. He spent a decade pioneering new routes in the Himalaya before shifting his focus to ultra trail running. His last feature film, Nolan’s 14, tells the history of Colorado’s burliest, most obscure mountain challenge. His upcoming feature film The Snowman Trek, which is about three ultra runners attempting a fasted known time record on the world’s hardest trek, drops in theaters May 17, 2018.

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