By Beth Whitman, on November 21, 2014

Trekking to the top of the world

A couple of years ago, I decided to do the Snowman Trek in Bhutan. The trek covers 220 miles in 25 days. Even with a mere seed of the idea, I was all-in. As that seed grew, I got more excited for the high adventure that is the Snowman Trek. I’m happy to report that I completed this adventure earlier this fall. It was one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my life.

I first heard about this trek years ago, when I read a story by Kira Salak in National Geographic Adventure magazine. At the time, I thought, “That type of trip is for people like Kira, not me.”

But then it kept appearing on my radar. For kicks, a friend gave me a copy of a trekking guide to Bhutan—I briefly glanced at the book and then put it on my bookshelf. Then I read another book about this seemingly impossibly difficult trip. The Snowman Trek obviously wanted me to know about its existence.

My partner, Jon, and I discussed the possibility of taking this trek—at first jokingly, but then more seriously. Not one to ignore signs, I finally thought, “Why only Kira? Why not me?”

Preparing for adventure

One doesn’t approach the Snowman Trek with a laissez-faire attitude. It’s serious business, involving serious altitude and serious elevation gain. I began preparing for it more than a year in advance.

I started by taking on P90X, a home Crossfit-like program that I followed faithfully for 13 months. Cardio, weight-training, and yoga workouts were part of my routine, six days a week. While I wasn’t sure how impactful this type of training would be physically, it definitely helped mentally. I figured if I was disciplined enough to work out six days a week, I could translate that into a trek that required significant endurance.

While I’ve never competed in a marathon, I can only imagine that type of challenge takes the same sort of mindset. For a marathon, you have to mentally prepare yourself to run 26.2 miles in however many hours you think it’s going to take to complete. You have to know in your heart that you can finish it. If you waver, if you have any doubt, you’re done.

In my heart I knew I could complete the Snowman, a trek that has a 50 percent success rate.

Beth at a glacier lake on the Snowman Trek.

Fifty percent, you say? Indeed; half the people who attempt this adventure leave the trek early because they are not mentally prepared, they get injured, they have high altitude symptoms that force them to return to low altitude, or they encounter too much snow in the high-altitude passes. People even have died on the trek, though no statistics about that are available. So I knew from the beginning that completing the trip was a 50-50 proposition at best.

Enduring hardship

Now that I’m home from the trek, I honestly and humbly can say that the experience wasn’t as tough as I expected it to be. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, for sure—it is, after all, considered the most difficult trek in the world. But in the grand scheme of things, more than the altitude, more than the steep slopes, more than the cold, more than the muddy and sometimes treacherous paths, the biggest challenge really was a matter of getting up every day knowing that day would be a repeat of the previous day. That meant I had to pack up my gear, eat porridge for breakfast, strap on my backpack, and start walking. Every. Single. Day.

The biggest singular struggle for me came two-thirds of the way into the trek, when we were at our highest altitudes and enduring the coldest weather. We still had more than a week of hiking ahead of us and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Even on these days, as I slogged up the steepest of paths, I knew I had to continue putting one foot in front of the other because the alternative was to sit down, cry, and have a pity party. That strategy only would delay my arrival into camp.

Viewfinder Tip: Research is the key when taking on an epic adventure. Make sure you’re prepared both mentally and physically. 

How did I keep going? Sometimes my thoughts focused on the hot shower I’d enjoy on the final day and the semi-good pizza I knew I eventually would find back in Bangkok. Mostly, however, I focused on the precarious path and the landscape ahead–a landscape that got more beautiful with each step of the way.

Positive visualization

The Snowman Trek isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s doable for more people than one might think. It’s not a technical climb but walking day after day at altitude (as high as about 18,000 feet) really can wear on you, both physically and emotionally. In the end, succeeding on the Snowman is about committing to the final mile of that final day before you even have taken your first step.

For me, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the experience was learning that what I once thought was for someone else (in this case, Kira Salak), can also be for me. Going forward, I’ll know that the things I thought were impossible might not be; in the wilderness, as in life, a huge part of success is simply putting one foot in front of the other.

If you’re wondering whether I ever would do something like the Snowman Trek again, the answer is, absolutely, yes. As a matter of fact, I’ve already got plans to do the Snowman Trek again in the fall of 2016. Between now and then, check back here for more posts about this epic adventure.

What impossible dream trip do you have?