As I’ve recounted a number of times (especially here and here), the weather and I have a troubled relationship. Occasionally, we are the happiest of companions in everyday life and moments of adventure, but too often we are at odds, and the likelihood of weather-related disappointment seems to rise with the remoteness of my destination. Drop me into a place I’ve dreamed of for years, somewhere that costs thousands of dollars and double-digit hours to reach, and the tease of a few days of sunshine inevitably morphs into unseasonable cold or precipitation or both.
A long-awaited high-altitude trek in Bhutan was no exception. My pre-trip materials listed daytime temperatures in the 50s to 70s, ideal weather for some steep hiking in the Himalaya and sleeping in our tents above 12,000 feet for several nights. As the trip neared, however, my weather app showed numbers that were half the predicted temperatures, and I tossed an extra gaiter, a second pair of gloves, and a third layer of clothing into my duffel.
In our first few days exploring the capital, Thimphu, and warming our legs up on a few day hikes at 8-10,000 feet, we all breathed a sigh of relief as the cloud, shower, and snowflake symbols on our phones each morning proved totally inaccurate. As the days went on, we laughed, carefree and blissfully ignorant, at the crazy disconnect between what we were seeing with our own eyes and what the forecasters were suggesting. Our trek would be fine! The weather app clearly didn’t work in Bhutan. All of the prognostications were wrong!
Until they weren’t. We started a drive into the remote Haa Valley to begin the trekking and camping portion of our trip, and only an hour or so into our ascent to Chele La, a pass at 13,000+ feet, we were on slushy roads and enveloped in mist and rain, then sleet and snow. We slowed to a crawl – thank god, as I was terrified on the one-lane road with two-way traffic, switchbacking up and down the S-curves with no guardrails – and finally reached our small lodge for the night before the trek began.
We learned the next morning that the weather wouldn’t just make our trek miserable; it would cause the entire thing to be cancelled. I was crushed. Seriously heartbroken. I’d come to Bhutan for two main reasons – to hike to the Tiger’s Nest (a very successful foray – stay tuned for that) and to trek and sleep among Himalayan peaks like Chomolhari, Kanchenjunga, and Jichu Drake. Beyond that, my hiking mates and I had specifically come prepared for the possibility or rain and snow, so when we were told the horses and porters and guide were not up for the trek, we were doubly dismayed.
The next day’s eagerly-anticipated trip on foot became, instead, a slow and bone-jarring drive back east, past Paro and on to Thimphu again, where lower elevations might mean better weather. A frigid, wet night of camping along the Wang Chhu river did not initially bear this out, but our luck returned briefly in the morning, when the rain ceased and the sun came out for a solid day of hiking above the Punakha valley, a verdant expanse of pine forests overlooking lime green and yellow rice paddies below. A little extra consolation was a chance to see Punakha Dzong, an impressive fortress at the Y of two rivers, site of the original capital of Bhutan.
My spirits rose. Surely we would wake to another balmy day in the valley, get in one more good, long day of replacement hiking, and finally be able to at least see Chomolhari and the string of mountains visible from Dochu La, the pass on the high road we would retrace as we returned to Paro yet again. We celebrated in our dining tent with beer, wine, and numerous rounds of 505, the Bhutanese card game we had learned from our guide the night before. My unrelenting (some might say unreasonable) optimism filled me with a bubbly buoyancy; our group’s courteous reaction to disappointment and our lack of anger and complaint were being rewarded. I’m prone to karmic explanations in everyday life, and being in Bhutan, coached daily on Buddhist precepts by our guide, had reinforced the idea that we get what we deserve.
A crack of thunder in the early hours of the next morning shattered that notion. Seconds later, a torrent of water lashed my tent, and I leapt to close the ventilation flaps. The rays of hope that had lulled me to sleep were as obscured as the plastic window out the front of my clammy abode. I stared past fat droplets of water to a low-hanging mist and abandoned any thoughts of an adequate hike again that day. We packed up the camp, walked desultorily on a short muddy path to a small temple (another in a string of temples that became poor substitutes for outdoor exertion) , and clambered into the van for the return trip over socked-in Dochu La. In ten days in Bhutan, I never once laid eyes on the high peaks I had come to see, never hiked a full, long day to collapse contentedly into my tent, ready to get up the next day, and push forward again, and again, over the 14,000-foot passes and through the rhododendron forests, high meadows, and rarefied air that I crave for years until I can get back to the Himalaya. It had been 6 1/2 years, and for all I knew, it could be 6 1/2 more before I’d get back to this part of the world.
The weather and I will always knock heads, it seems, but perhaps our guide, Sonam, was right when he said that karma does not mean good or bad luck; rather, karma simply takes us where we are meant to go or be, and in our case, this was perhaps the Punakha Valley, one of the most compelling landscapes in Bhutan and one that we were sorry we were going to miss because of our far-western trekking route. Maybe we needed to be present on the prayer flag-draped suspension bridge where one of our group members scattered the ashes of her late husband.
Or bonding with five new friends in a dripping tent, united in our shared frustration. Perhaps we were meant to visit the Sunday produce market in tiny Haa, a town and valley that only opened to outsiders in 2001, or the home and farm of our guide, where we ate breakfast and played darts with his elderly father in the yard.
Maybe we were just supposed to learn not to cast blame for decisions we might not have made ourselves, or to see that other treasures exist outside of the places we expected to find them. Maybe all I was meant to learn was that if the weather is the biggest of my problems, I am a pretty lucky gal!
More on Bhutan’s many charms in upcoming posts.