Kevin Grange is a paramedic and the award-winning author of Lights & Sirens and Wild Rescues. In this article, Kevin shows us that it is not only the magnificent mountainous landscapes of Bhutan that inspire; but that the Bhutanese people and their culture are at the heart of this rich country. Visit Kevin’s website for more information about Kevin and his books.
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 the imposing mass of Gangkhar Puensum, straddling the border of Tibet and the country I was hiking through; the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. At 24,829 ft, Gangkhar Puensum is not only the tallest peak in Bhutan, but also the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Since we arrived at our campsite the day before, Namgyel had the task of “mountain watching” – with strict orders from the head chef to fetch us the moment Gangkhar Puensum appeared. 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 is the last Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas, is governed by a policy of “Gross National Happiness,” does not have a single traffic light, and boasts one of the world’s toughest treks. At 216 miles and with 11 high mountain passes, (including seven over 16,000 feet), Bhutan’s epic Snowman Trek is a 24-day boxing match for the hiking boots. More climbers have scaled Mt. Everest than completed the Snowman Trek. Historically, less than 120 people attempt the trek each year, and of those, less than 50% finish. Just some of the challenges of the Snowman include: the sheer duration, notoriously unpredictable weather, high mileage, and the elevation of the camps. However, a lifetime of traveling has taught me that it is precisely these types of crucible situations that can reveal new aspects of your character and can reform your views of yourself and your environment.
Having had the good fortune of traveling to Bhutan four times in the last seven years, 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 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 has been in the pictures I now take when I visit the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’.
When I first visited in 2004 to complete 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 pictures but, when I returned to the USA and showed them to friends and family, something seemed to be missing. Perhaps it was the feeling of outsiders not fully grasping the country – of capturing its scenery but not its soul – that prompted me to return to Bhutan in 2007 to attempt 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 I 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 crystallised around the people I’d met—getting lost in the swirling fog near a monastery only to meet two yak herder brothers who accompanied me back to the trail; joining the ladies in the village of Laya for a cultural dance; 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 of the year). While the Bhutanese architecture and scenery were equally awe-inspiring, I realised the true beauty of Bhutan lay with 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, depth and soul.
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 snowy afternoons to warm us with butter tea; monks inviting us into their temples to share a prayer and 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 kindness in the people surrounding you everywhere.
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 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 US, my friends often ask why I repeatedly return to Bhutan and, most importantly, what keeps me motivated to trek all those miles over the high, snowy passes. The same is true in Bhutan, where the Bhutanese routinely ask me what it is about Southern California that makes it so special. My answer in both cases is the same—I show them the friends and family in my photo album.
For more information about Kevin’s other works, visit Kevin’s website.
All original images have been provided by Kevin Grange; with permission from all subjects in the photographs to be published in this article.