The primary aim of this classic expedition is to trek for ten days through the remote alpine valleys, foothills and mountains of the Bhutanese Himalayas. Leaving the well trodden paths which lead to the cliffside Paro Taktsang, the Buddhist temple complex known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, you’ll follow yak herding routes to navigate forests, wild rushing rivers and steep-sided valleys.
The secondary aim is to make a summit attempt of a remote 5400m peak, in a bid to earn a full scale confrontation with the world’s highest unclimbed mountain; Gangkar Puensum. Supported by pack animals, the expedition route will make the most of these winding trails to enable a steady acclimatisation to a remote alpine basecamp.
- Trek for ten days through wild Himalayan foothills and valleys.
- Attempt to summit a 5400 metre peak.
- Marvel at the mystery of Gangkhar Puensum (7570m).
- Forge a route using trails frequented only by yak herders.
- Chance encounters with barefoot pilgrims on the way.
- Explore ancient fortresses and monasteries.
- Visit the spectacular Paro Taktsang – the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
- View Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga and Jomolhari from the skies.
Land of the Thunder Dragon
According to Bhutanese folklore, when Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Lineage (a branch of Tibetan Buddhism) built the Ralung Monastery, he encountered a violent storm. The thunder, he believed to be the roar of the dragon, he took as an omen, which he named the monastery Druk Ralung after. The 18th abbott of the monastery Ngwang Namgyal would later become Bhutan’s founder and today the thunder dragon clutching jewels is the main feature of the Bhutanese flag.
Gross National Happiness
Guided by the four pillars of Gross National Happiness – sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance, Bhutan was voted the happiest country in Asia. Predominantly Buddhist, the nation has successfully retained a unique cultural identity and is the world’s first country to adopt Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as its main development indicator.
The Tiger’s Nest
Paro Taktsang known as the Tiger’s Nest is an iconic sacred temple complex located on the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. First built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava (credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan) is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.
Landlocked and almost entirely mountainous, situated on the ancient Silk Road, Bhutan shares its borders with Tibet to the north, and the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal to the east, west and south. Hugely varied, its terrain varies from subtropical plains, green valleys fed by snowmelt and sub-Alpine Himalayan heights.
The Bhutanese believe mountains over 6000m in height to be sacred and in 1994, the government prohibited climbing on all peaks surpassing this altitude. The result is hundreds of unclimbed mountains within Bhutan’s borders including the world’s highest, Gangkhar Puensum. The highest point you’ll aim to achieve on this expedition is 5400m. Several days of acclimatisation are planned and as teammates you’ll be briefed on the symptoms and treatment of altitude sickness by your experienced Secret Compass expedition leader. The trek to basecamp at 4500m is a gradual ascent giving plenty of time to acclimatise to the altitude and on arrival day at basecamp, a further acclimatisation trek up to 5000m will take place to further reduce the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness being felt on summit day.
Committed to the maintenance of its biodiversity, Bhutan is viewed globally as a model for proactive conservation, maintaining at least sixty percent of the land area under forest cover and designating more than 40% of its territory as national parks with all of these protected lands connected to one another through a vast network of biological corridors, enabling animals to migrate freely throughout the country.
The Bengal tiger, clouded leopard, hispid hare and sloth bare are all known to live in the lush tropical lowlands while snow leopards, blue sheep, marmot, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan musk deer and the takin roam the alpine landscapes of the north.
For a glimpse into this enigmatic nation, all visitors are required to pay the compulsory tourist tax. Charged daily, it has prevented the influx of budget tourism that has left the trails of Nepal well and truly trampled.
For centuries, this region of the Eastern Himalayas has been the subject of folklore surrounding a particularly tall bi-ped creature. The yeti, believed to roam these mountains has captured the imagination of the world and remains a feared legend for many in Bhutan.
Secret Compass runs expeditions with framework itineraries, rather than guided tours with set daily plans. Read more about our Approach here. The following is the outline plan for this trekking expedition, a fuller itinerary is provided in the Bhutan Expedition Handbook which is available on request or upon application to join the team.
You will assemble and meet your expedition leader in Kathmandu, Nepal by 0630 on 20 October, before flying on to Paro in Bhutan (this flight – with its incredible views of Mt Everest – is included in the expedition cost). Day one in Bhutan is a 3000m acclimatisation trek whose goal is to see the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery. Continuing your journey onto Jakar, Bhutan’s cultural heart and the city nearest to the trailhead, you’ll receive a blessing from a monk wishing you safe passage (at one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries) before the expedition begins, accompanied by a local cook, support crew and pack animals.
You’ll trek up steep-sided valleys and past turquoise blue rivers, Buddhist stupas, prayer flags and tiny yak herding settlements. Altitude will increase gradually to help with acclimatisation, until you get your first glimpse, weather permitting, of the foreboding Gangkhar Puensum. With the mountain’s peak looming in the distance, basecamp will be pitched ready for a very early morning start to your 5400m summit attempt. If successful you’ll receive impressive views of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world and the eastern end of the Himalayan ranges. On the return trek, you’ll explore valleys it’s believed no westerners have ever trekked in. After the trek, you’ll celebrate with Swiss cheese and locally brewed wheat beer. You’ll then drive back to Paro via further cultural highlights such as imposing fortresses and a village adorned with phalluses.
After the return to Paro and an opportunity to relax or visit the local market for souvenirs, the expedition will end following the flight back to Kathmandu on the 4 November. At this point you and your fellow teammates will be free to return home or to organise onward travel. Flight times between Paro and Kathmandu will be confirmed later in 2019 and meanwhile we do not recommend booking international flights home until after 1500 on this day.
Secret Compass expeditions are achievable by anyone with a healthy lifestyle and a good level of general fitness. The biggest challenge of this expedition is likely to be the altitude and the rough terrain.
Applicants will receive a Handbook with further expedition information. View Secret Compass’s suggested Expedition Training Advice and get in touch with any fitness, health, training or kit questions that remain.
Teammates who arrive without meeting the agreed minimum fitness requirements can jeopardise themselves and the expedition’s goal so do take training seriously, prepare as appropriate and arrive fit and ready to go! Teammates must be comfortable with the following.
Minimum fitness requirements
- Trek: up to 20km per day for 11 days with a max. daily ascent of 1000m.
- Daily activity: varies but up to approx. 8 hours per day and up to 11 hours.
- Carry: up to 10kg in a daysack (pack animals will take the rest).
- Terrain: on small footpaths over often rough, uneven and mountainous terrain with the possibility of snow underfoot at altitudes up to 5,400m.
- Climate: Daytime temperature averages 15°C which can drop to -10°C at night/ at altitude.
- Swim: not required.
- Age: 21+
- Professional Secret Compass expedition leader carrying full communications and medical kits.
- All local guides, pack animals and drivers.
- All meals and accommodation including tented accommodation during the trekking section.
- All transport as outlined in the itinerary.
- All specialist and safety equipment.
- All local permits including Bhutan minimum daily package fee.
- Bhutan visa.
- Internal flight Bhumtang to Paro.
- International flights Kathmandu to Paro return.
- International travel from home country to and from Kathmandu.
- Nepal visas if required.
- Excess baggage costs on flights provided by Secret Compass.
- Tips to local guides (discretionary but always appreciated).
- Beverages and any costs of a personal nature.
- Any travel plans outside of the Secret Compass itinerary.
- Personal equipment (your Handbook will contain a kit list).
On application, potential teammates will receive a detailed Expedition Handbook. Here are some expedition-specific questions and our general FAQ will answer many other questions. Get in touch if your question remains unanswered.
Where should I stay in Kathmandu?
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in Kathmandu if you wish to make arrangements for the night before the team meets or to extend your stay outside of the expedition dates. Secret Compass does not yet know the team hotel as this will be decided closer to departure. A WhatsApp group will be set up so teammates can make plans together if desired.
Do I need crampons?
This is a trekking expedition meaning that although the secondary aim is to attempt to reach the summit of a remote peak, it is a non-technical ascent meaning there is no need for crampons. Micro-spikes will be provided for you should you want a little extra reassurance on any slippery sections.
Is Bhutan’s daily tourist tax included in the price of this expedition?
You may have read that in order to control the number of tourists to the country and to sustain its tourist initiatives, all visitors to Bhutan are required to pay the compulsory tourist tax. This is covered by the overall price of the expedition.
Can I charge my electricals?
There will be charging points in hotels (using a combination of type C, D and G plugs; a universal adaptor could be a wise investment). Once the trek begins you will be unable to charge electronics. Please ensure that you are self-sufficient in terms of charging your appliances by bringing things like spare batteries, lightweight solar panels or power packs to avoid frustration.
I’m a vegetarian. Can I join?
Teammates with dietary requirements are welcome to apply for this expedition and should state their specific requirements when applying, Secret Compass may request further details. The local cooks are very used to catering for dietary requirements.
Can I arrive a day late?
As The Plan outlines, there is a chain of transport to get teammates out to and back from Paro and so start and end dates are not flexible.
How can I find out more?
Apply for this expedition team using the button on this page to receive your Expedition Handbook with fuller details. The Application page explains the joining process. Secret Compass is then on hand to answer any questions or to firm up your place on the team.