Within the first five minutes of the hike, I know that I’m not going to make it to the top. My head starts to spin and my stomach continually reminds me that at any moment I could be subject to a complete removal of its contents. As the incline grows steep, I pause for a sip of water and glance at my guide. From the look on his face I can tell he’s a little concerned. Apparently my complexion is a brighter shade of green than I thought.
After a brief discussion, we decide it will be better for me to turn around and head back to the hotel, and hopefully give my random stomach bug the opportunity to run its course. Today’s hike to the Tiger’s Nest is just a warm-up. Tomorrow we will start our week-long trek to Chomolhari Base Camp and the surrounding mountains, and there will be long days on the trail with no time for nursing an upset stomach. If I’m going to make it base camp and then up and over the 16,000-foot Bonte La Pass, I’ll need to rest up now and make a fast recovery. For now, the Tiger’s Nest remains tantalizingly out of reach, 3,000 vertical feet above me.
Luck is on my side, and my stomach bug is a distant memory by the next day. We load our duffle bags and backpacks into the van and drive for an hour out of Paro, arriving at the trail head by late morning. After a quick meal, we’re on the trail and hiking through beautiful forests of oak trees and rhododendrons just coming into bloom. The Paro River rushes alongside us, and as we hike further into the mountains the snowy peak of Chomolhari gradually comes into view. After two days of steady uphill trekking, we arrive at Jangothang, the local name for base camp, and are pleased to find just one other couple camped on the far side of the meadow. The setting is spectacular, with Chomolhari in all its gleaming glory as the center piece, with smaller peaks surrounding us to form a stunning Himalayan panorama. Our “rest day” at base camp turns into an epic day hike towards the foot of Chomolhari, where we get an up close view of pristine glacial lakes and the rugged features of the mountain, which appears so close I get the feeling I could reach out and touch it.
The next morning, we embark on the most challenging day of the trek, leaving base camp at sunrise and ascending 3,000 feet to the Bonte La Pass. As the air gets thinner, my pace gets slower, and I gradually fall into a rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, painstakingly gaining ground a few inches at a time. The landscape is quiet, but more surprisingly, my mind is quiet. The stillness of this place envelops me and I experience a level of peace that is both unfamiliar and deeply comforting. The top of the Bonte La Pass feels cold and inhospitable, and we only linger for a few minutes to take photos and a few short breaths. As we begin our descent into the Yaksa Valley, suddenly the clouds vanish and a vast expanse filled with snowy peaks and jagged rock stretches out before my eyes. Somehow I am unprepared for the scale of the beauty that lies in front of me. My oxygen starved brain can barely process this marvelous landscape that stretches in all directions, and I descend slowly with my jaw hanging wide open and tears falling from my eyes. I savor every moment as I make my way down the steep trail. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a flash of movement as a huge heard of Himalayan Blue Sheep runs together across a hillside; from my vantage point high above they appear as a school of fish floating in and out of the patches of mist that cling to the slopes of the valley. I reach for my camera and then stop, knowing that a photo will never do this place justice.
A few long days later I am back at the trailhead for the hike to the Tiger’s Nest, ready to finish what I started the week prior. With eight solid days of trekking at altitude behind me, I feel confident as I set out on the steep trail, but even with my advanced acclimatization and fortified legs, I am surprised at how challenging it still feels to climb higher. This late in the afternoon, I am the only one climbing up while everyone else descends; I pass groups of other tourists making their way down, some of them families with young children. I push myself to go faster, picturing the iconic view that waits for me at the top. Finally, I come across one final curve in the trail, and the Tiger’s Nest sits perched on the cliffs in front of me, bathed in the golden light of late afternoon. The same stillness I experienced on the high pass is present here, with nothing to break the silence but the soft fluttering of prayer flags. There is no feeling of triumph at having reached the top. Instead, I take in slow and steady breaths of the crisp thin air and let the quiet of this place wash over me, and when the moment passes I turn around and start back down the trail.
Ready for the Chomolhari challenge? Check out our ultimate trekking adventure here.