Journey to the base of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world

Nothing beats the excitement of seeing the destination you are travelling to from the distance. That moment you understand that both the journey and the destination are intertwined.

As I stood at Dochula pass, peering into the wide expanse of the Himalayan mountain range and narrowing onto Mount Gangkar Puensum (7,570 meters, or 24,835.96 feet)  – the highest unclimbed mountain in the world – where I was headed to, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of thrill. I exactly knew where I was going!

Trekking along Chamkhar Chhu

In Bumthang, several mountains away, nomad Tashi was waiting for me. I had struck an unlikely friendship with him over the years and decided to accompany him and his family to the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum, where he migrated to with his caravan of yaks every spring.

The drive to Bumthang takes you across numerous mountain passes, steep ascents and narrow descents, through rugged mountain roads and eventually to the breathtaking valleys of Bumthang. Give or take, it takes seven hours to reach Bumthang with several pit stops along the way to enjoy the sight and sound of the spectacular landscape.

At sun up the following day, I began my journey towards Naspe village in the north of Bumthang. That’s where the road ends and our trek begins. Though I have ventured on many treks around the country, this was my first time travelling with a family of nomads, returning to the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum.

I trekked with a herd of yaks for many days, camping wherever the yaks got weary. Nomad Tashi told me that they usually take extra days during their annual migration as the herd of yaks moved slowly. But it was no less fun to walk with the yaks. Tashi was in no hurry either! We waddled in peace through forests of rhododendron, crossing sparkling streams, and emerald green river – Chamkhar Chhu.

Nomad Tashi took particular pride in owning so many yaks – more than 60 at a glance. At a time when the tradition of yak rearing is gradually disappearing, Tashi remains a staunch traditionalist, continuing this practice through sheer passion and love for mountains and yaks.    

Nomadic populations are disappearing across the globe and I wonder if any true nomad would be left by 2050. All the nomads I spoke to on the trek were humble, hospitable, and proud of their way of life. That was a source of solace for me. At least for some years into the future, this unique lifestyle will go on. 

After three days, we reached Tsampa, a quaint little nomadic settlement made of a cluster of stone houses. Here, nomad Tashi and his family will stay with the yaks until fall.

After taking good rest for a few days, we packed our bags for the next thrilling journey towards the base camp of the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, Gangkar Puensum. This time, nomad Tashi advised me to eat well and sniff a clove of garlic to avoid altitude sickness. Although I carried my oxygen bottle, I heeded to his advice.

As we trekked towards the base of the mountain, the weather suddenly turned sour. Such is the unpredictability of weather in high mountains. We had to rush against time, increasing our pace, and tell you what, at that altitude, it isn’t easy to keep up. After hours of hiking, my legs became sore and weary but my spirit soared like an eagle.

Nomad Tashi’s son milking a yak

I followed Tashi, brushing my way through shrubs and rocks. Finally, we made it to a small hut near Barmapa, a camping site for tourists trekking to the base. To avoid extreme cold, we sought refuge in the hut.  We sat across a small fire – the aroma of boiling tea teasing my senses. After weeks in the mountains, only caffeine would keep me going. So I offered brewed coffee to Tashi this time in exchange for his butter tea. 

As we headed to the spectacular mountain, the weather became more favorable. For a brief while, the clouds parted and the sun shone bright in the skies – as if the divine spirits of the mountains were smiling upon us.

As we ascended the hill beyond Barmapa, the river that we followed drastically shrank. We were at the source of Chamkhar Chhu – and it was merely a stream. Worried about the impact of climate change on the mountains and water sources, Tashi and I walked along the river and talked about how climate change was affecting nomads. Having lived in the mountains his entire life, nomad Tashi is a witness to the impacts of climate change. “Snowfall has been more and more erratic. Glaciers are receding. Water sources are drying up,” he lamented.

As we continued to hike beyond the source of Chamkhar Chhu, we reached the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum. Leapfrogging on naked red boulders, we arrived at a massive glacial lake – Dijon Tsho, guarded by towering, rugged mountains. That was the first time I had ever seen a frozen lake. I couldn’t help but walk on it. 

As I stood before the sacred Mount Gangkar Puensum, which I had only seen from afar, I couldn’t believe I was so close to the iconic mountain than most humans.

For me, mountains have always been the most enchanting places on earth.

With Nomad Tashi

I vividly remember an experience in the mountains where I was struck with the profound feeling of how small and insignificant I am (and we all are). It was a spiritual reawakening of some sort, which brought happy tears.

At the base of Mount Gangkar Puensum, I shed a tear of triumph for achieving yet another milestone. Having covered almost 60 kilometers on foot, spending a few nights along the trail with yaks, was worth an ocean of tears. And this journey I shall cherish for the rest of my life! This trek was an awakening experience for me. Having seen the impacts of climate change on glaciers, river sources, and mountain livelihoods, I made a solemn pledge – the mountain spirits as my witness – to advocate on impact of climate change. 

After spending almost two weeks with nomad Tashi and his family in the mountains, I came home with a renewed sense of purpose! 

Mt. Gangkar Puensum

P.S: I am thrilled to share that my journey to Mount Gangkar Puensum with nomad Tashi was filmed in the form of a travel documentary. My first debut documentary ‘The Mountain Girl and the Nomad’ is streaming on Samuh, Bhutan’s first OTT platform.

Tshering Denkar

She is a full-time Bhutanese female solo travel blogger. In her blog, she shares personal experiences and narratives of traveling to various getaways within Bhutan. Follow her or @denkarsgetway on Facebook and Instagram