The massive, mysterious features enshrouding Bhutan’s Snowman Trek—the 11 passes above 16,000 feet, the sustained elevation, the 48,000 feet of vertical gain—are not depicted in any topographic map. The roughly 189-mile-long Himalayan trail weaves along majestic, unclimbed peaks and is not marked with any signs. Getting lost—even without whiteout snow storms, dime-sized hail, and frequent rainfall—is likely in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it’s called. A new film shows this trail, heralded as the “world’s hardest trek,” in one team’s effort to set a speed record along the path.
Due to strict regulations, ultra runners Anna Frost, Timothy Olson, Ben Clark, and Chris Ord were accompanied by six guides, two horsemen, and 21 horses. This type of logistical support tames the elements and pace for the typical travelers who pay an in-country tariff upward of $200 a day for the Snowman experience, which typically lasts a month—not what these swift-footed runners had in mind. As they came to understand, making history in Bhutan with a record of 15 days and nine hours was all about coming together across cultures to achieve the goal.
Here, director Ben Clark shares the adventures of the Snowman Trek, which he shot solo and screens in 400+ theaters across the U.S. for a one-night engagement on May 17 (find showtimes here).
Why did you pick this trail in Bhutan for your final Himalayan expedition? I was a Himalayan skier and climber, but I hadn’t been to Bhutan before. I had spent a lot of time in Nepal, Tibet, and western China. All of those areas had no restrictions on the height that you could visit. So, I was able to pick any mountain and any route to ski mountaineer or alpine climb to any altitude. That’s what made me keep returning.
When I stopped doing that in anticipation of my son being born, I realized that there was still something for me in ultra-distance–going longer, further, and really pushing endurance. That’s what allowed me to finally consider the idea of the world’s hardest trek. That idea would become the final pillar of exploration for me.
In Bhutan, you can’t climb above 6,000 meters, so trekking developed more than some of these other regions. They established a really difficult trek—the Snowman Trek. Because of the restrictions, the Snowman Trek lends itself to giving a taste of remoteness of the alpine that you only get when truly exploring.
But that’s it. It’s only a taste. You can’t climb the peaks. So, setting a speed record on the trek was about as close to pioneering I could actually get in that country. It was a great way to get to know people, which we never would have done on our small, alpine-style ascents in the Himalayas.
Did the Bhutanese Himalaya have distinctive features that made them stand out from those other Himalayan countries?
The Bhutanese Himalayas are beautiful peaks, just like peaks in Alaska, Antarctica, or any other place where you think of high, sterile alpine environments. The culture was what was different in Bhutan. I think that’s really the reason to go into any of these mountain regions.
The people in Bhutan live an isolated life out there. It was meaningful to participate in a goal with people who love the wildness of their country and sharing it. Because of the speed in which we went through Bhutan, we skipped things that were maybe there for tourists. What we found instead was a genuine friendship. We spent the actual time with our people, not being educated about this temple or that temple, but learning about each other’s lives, seeing each other’s potential being reached each day.
Tell us about the regulations around Snowman Trek as a trail. Bhutan has a minimum daily tariff. Because of that, they’ve really catered to maybe a much more affluent traveler who can afford a minimum of $200 a day. Travelers are treated well in a very logistically heavy, supported way in-country. You’re going to have a liaison, local guide, driver, hotel room. Travelers have a large dining tent that might fit up to 14 to 20 people in it. They travel with all of this gear in duffels on horseback. And generally, three times a day, they would set up those tents and eat a fully cooked meal. The regulations are really are there to bring people a level of quality and service equivalent to a high-end vacation.
But for me, my best vacation likely would be your worst nightmare, right? I would rather go without some of those amenities so that I might see more. Also, because of my fitness level is different, I might find that pushing myself is also part of the quality of the experience.
Those amenities make it sound complicated to move fast for a record. If you’re a trail runner, you think, “Why would I take a month to go do something that I could do faster?” Especially if you love running more than you love hiking and each day in country costs more.
For example, it just didn’t make sense to us to set up for lunch in the middle of the day. We could eat a product of some kind—quick, portable foods, like a boiled egg or potato—for lunch. We could go for six or eight hours needing just what’s just in our packs. This was a different perspective than what the Bhutanese expected from us.
The informal record had been 19 days, you think. How did your support team respond to you wanting to go for 14 days or 15 days? The entire support team all quit when they found out how fast we wanted to go. So, Narayan Moktan, our lead cook, who became a great friend, suddenly had to call his relatives in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, and elsewhere to come help him. This all happened in the few days leading up to us showing up. They thought we were crazy.
Wang Chuk, our lead guide, was 20 minutes late to pick us up at the airport. That morning, as he was approaching the airport, a boulder came down and hit his car. It took the car off the road. He told us this at the same that he was telling us about all of his staffing issues. And then he said, “But I think this is auspicious. I think this is very good sign for us.” I thought, “Wow! This guy is really a positive thinker if he thinks that is a good sign.”
Despite what we’d planned before arrival, Wang Chuk told me that 18 to 20 days is the fastest they can do. They could try to do better on the trail, but it was going to be really hard.
How did you negotiate?
Every day, we would continue to negotiate. Wang Chuk said, “Well, we’ve already set this whole plan, and you’re here. But we’ll try and adapt this, every single day.” Still, no one believed it was possible. Not one person on our support team had ever actually done the Snowman Trek. Everyone had done different pieces of it, and everyone had done the first ten days or so, a few times. But no one had ever done the full thing.
Are there trail markings? Is it possible to find your way along the trail if you’ve never done it before? There are no trail markings. There are no trail signs anywhere saying “Go this way,” or “This pass is this high.” It’s just a trail through the mountains that could be a game trail or it could be a yak trail. You need guides. That was my biggest fear. Even if the regulations weren’t there, we wouldn’t know how to follow the trail. There’s nothing out there to tell you where to go.
In the film, Timmy refers to “rivers of shit” on the trail. What were the conditions? The conditions are the main difficulty of the trail. In the dry season, the trail is amazing, fast, and buffed out. But when it’s the rainy season or when it’s raining a lot on this really soft soil, conditions were very tough—especially with a lot of horse traffic. The horses definitely create different trail conditions. That includes a lot of horseshit all over the place, and mud—knee-deep sometimes. The most important and difficult thing is when to choose to go.
Our feet were wet pretty much wet the entire time. That was our weather in September/October, it just happened to be the luck of the draw. It’s called Land of the Thunder Dragon because it’s got some weather. That’s part of its mystery.
This is not a national park trail. I would say the last probably 50 or 60 miles of that trail is actually the real beast of it. The first 130 miles of this trail is having a pretty chilled-out time, especially if you exit via Sephu, the easier version of the Snowman Trek. You’re going to see some cool stuff. You’re going to be challenged. But the real “oh shit” significant alpine moments all happened for us in that last 60 to 70 miles that were really intense, which we encountered by completing the full, more difficult version.
Your second shooter Chris Ord was evacuated on day 4 with pulmonary edema. How did you see Chris deteriorating? In 2009, I watched a friend of mine deteriorate at 21,600 feet on the side of Mount Baruntse in Nepal, when we were doing a new route. In three days, I watched him deteriorate. In five, I became completely concerned that he had had a stroke. I’ve seen varying degrees of pulmonary edema over the years.
What were his symptoms? He was having trouble moving and breathing. Typically, someone would just stop. But Chris is a very hard worker, and he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t want to hold back the team.
He was doing all of the right things to keep his headaches at bay, to keep his heart rate down, to rest, to eat, to make sure he was drinking water, taking some Diamox. But this trail is high and stays high. This is harder on your body when you are moving fast.
You start going over 16,000 feet every day, or every other day, or two or three times a day. Sometimes, you’re above 14,000 and 16,000 for six hours, as you traverse across something. And that’s way different from going to the top of a 14,000-foot peak for 20 minutes and visiting, and going back down to 9,000 feet.
On day three, it was really clear, after having gone over a larger pass, that things were getting really tough. On day four, we woke up and had a good talk. Then, 20 minutes later, he was already lagging behind. It ended up Wang Chuk, another guide, and myself were all with Chris trying to convince him to stop. He decided he didn’t want to. It became our mission to get him to camp that night and to try to give him whatever comfort we could, knowing he was going to fly out. There was no option to walk out, drive out, or do anything else. We were four days from a road.
Is there infrastructure for evacuations like that, along the Snowman Trek? How did you guys get a helicopter? We used our satellite phones,and called it up and got the helicopter, the only helicopter in Bhutan. You’ve got to guarantee $10,000 on the spot to the helicopter provider. A lot of administrative things hit all at once, when you have to do that.
Then, when he got to the hospital, he was in dire shape? The thing about acute mountain sickness and pulmonary edema – you kind of hear about these stories, but no one really goes into recovery. You don’t just get to just go down to the hospital for a few days, and then just rejoin everybody. You have fluid in your lungs. For Chris, his condition was so advanced he lost all of this weight and had to take all of these medications. Finally, six days after returning, they discharged him from the hospital. He was just obliterated from it.
Let’s talk about food.
Fueling on the trail was a big deal. Once we started skipping lunch, these guys were walking along, and they would be chewing this cheese curd that they would boil in milk and dry out. That, plus maybe a potato or something. They were used to stopping and having this nice lunch in the middle of the day, which is what you would normally do on these treks.
We started to give them Clif bar stuff, like gels and Bloks. They started trying that, and they were really blown away that we were eating that stuff. They would get a big charge from the caffeine or sugar or sodium—all the ingredients you need at that moment—to get over that last hill.
And they liked it? They liked it. Sometimes it’s like eating cake frosting, very sweet and decadent. But the biggest part, I think, was getting to the end. The last night before we finished was had a really big 25-mile day. The horses were lost in the night, the night before. It was just a really tough day, a big day. Everyone had gotten lost and put back together. Then we had a rest day. We just hung out with the cook staff and everybody in the big dining tent, instead of in two separate tents, which was a big deal. We were really just friends hanging out.
That night, they were like “Hey, we sometimes, this is a real delicacy. We like to take pork fat, and we like to fry it in the wok.” I thought, “Oh, wow. Okay, sure, like fried pork fat. This sounds familiar.”
So, they go over and they put the fried pork fat in this wok. Everyone is sitting around it, huddled around it. They’re so intent on watching it cook, and getting it right. They come back over, and they hand me a couple of little pieces. They’re like the size of a quarter or a nickel, of this fried pork fat. It’s bacon.
I popped it right in my mouth. I said “Yeah, yeah. We love this stuff! This is bacon. Where we come from, we eat this all the time!”
Let’s talk about the people who live along the trail. Who did you see? Sometimes there would be yak herders who were out on the trail. They were mostly looking for a rare caterpillar that gets infected by a fungus, that then turns into a mushroom called yarsagumba, that Japanese men take like Viagra.
So, while herding their yaks, they’re also searching for the caterpillar?
Most people up there are searching for the caterpillar and there just happened to be yaks. And there were a few towns of like 150 or 200 people. We only spent one night in a town. Otherwise, we just kind of went through the towns, because we were not stopping.
There were full days—and even several days in a row—when we didn’t see a town or people. Occasionally we would see some other group hiking.
As the photographer/director/cinematographer shooting this film solo once Chris was evacuated, how did you deal with leading the expedition and physically keeping up to document it for the big screen?
Any time I get into a Himalayan expedition, or anything in remote areas, I always pack as if the worst-case scenario is going to be my best-case scenario. This was a worst-case scenario for ten days, once Chris flew out. He was there to help me shoot, and I think his shooting style is really great. Certainly not have that in the film is a bummer. But for me, I’ve perfected the art of embracing uncertainty around what is coming, and not over-stressing myself in the field about story in the moment.
If I miss something, I missed it, and that’s okay. But on this trail, there was so much to cover, especially the transformation of character we were seeing, and the cultural elements of it. Watching our friends.