The Snowman Trek, Bhutan

Photograph by Peter McBride, National Geographic
Photograph by Peter McBride, National Geographic

Best For: The hardest of hard cores

Distance: Over 200 miles, usually a 25-day trip. By law you must travel with a guided tour company in Bhutan.

The Snowman is quite simply the most difficult long walk on the planet. Though it covers just over 200 miles, much of the route is higher than the highest points in the continental United States, crossing 11 passes over 16,000 feet and topping out at 17,388 feet on Rinchen Zoe La Pass. At that elevation weather is unpredictable and altitude sickness a real concern. Barely half of the people who start the Snowman end up finishing. Plus, the trek is in Bhutan, a constitutional monarchy that carefully regulates tourists to keep the country timelessly unspoiled but tough to navigate and lacking many technological advances.

All those difficulties, however, add up to what simply may be the best hike in the world. Bhutan‘s strict tourist policy means you won’t bump into many other travelers as you would on treks in Nepal. Instead, you’ll feel like a modern Heinrich Harrer, a visitor to a Buddhist kingdom untouched by iPhones and traffic. The trek passes through places like Laya, home of the indigenous Layap people, and the village of Thanza at 13,700 feet, where guides exchange horses for yaks to tackle the even more difficult terrain ahead. Then there are the peaks themselves, more than 7,000-meter giants that reach above the clouds, such as Zogophu Gamp and Masang Gang. But change is coming to Bhutan—the nation is allowing more tourists in and slowly meeting the West, so go soon.

When to Go: The window of opportunity here is very small, with October and sometimes April being the only months to avoid the snow and rain that will close the high passes.

Shortcut: The trek around soaring 24,035-foot Jomolhari peak is a challenging weeklong adventure in the high Himalaya. The Druk Path takes five days and crosses the high range between the town of Paro, site of the country’s international airport, and the capital city of Thimphu, which famously has no traffic lights.

Insider Tip: The government of Bhutan imposes a minimum tariff of $250 per day on foreign visitors to Bhutan. Though that includes things like accommodations, prepare to spend at least $8,000 for a Snowman trek. There is no budget or self-guided option.