Bhutan banned mountaineering out of respect for the local spiritual beliefs

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While there are many stunning peaks in Bhutan, mountaineering is prohibited in Bhutan.

The history of mountaineering in Bhutan

Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas, rugged with high-altitude terrain. Naturally, they house some of the highest mountains in the world. More than 20 peaks in Bhutan reach above 7,000m (23,000ft). For context, Mt Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is 8,848m (29,031ft).

Bhutan started welcoming tourists in 1974. Up to 1983, cultural tours and trekking, organised by the government’s Tourism Commercial Organisation (TCO) were the only two allowed forms of tourism. Briefly, Bhutan introduced mountaineering expeditions, organised by TCO. 

At that time, the Bhutanese were keen to promote mountaineering in Bhutan to the outside world.

The minister said while introducing the Bhutan Mountaineering Regulations:

“Bhutan is a country of born trekkers and mountaineers. Mountaineering and trekking in the country is part and parcel of the life of our people who have never looked at it as a sport in the past.

It has been in the thought of the Royal Government of Bhutan that the country should open its many virgin — even yet to be named — mountains to the mountaineers of the world. This thinking could be put into action only from 1983 onwards. Even now, the Royal Government of Bhutan has opened only a limited number of peaks, since the country has been following the policy of controlled tourism, for it places much value in the preservation of the ecological balance along with cultural and traditional values. However, the Royal Government may open many more peaks in the years to come in a very paced manner.

With the introduction of mountaineering in the Kingdom, Bhutan hopes to further its existing close co-operation and friendship with all countries.

Mountaineers and trekkers let us all abide by putting into action a famous saying — take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

The ban on mountaineering in Bhutan

But by 1994, the Bhutanese government had second thoughts about opening up the mountains to the world. Climbing above 6,000m was prohibited. By 2003, mountaineering in Bhutan was banned altogether.

The ban was implemented out of respect for the strong spiritual value the local communities attach to the mountains. To these cultures, mountains are extremely sacred, as they are home to the gods and spirits. Climbing the mountains was banned out of respect for the local spiritual beliefs. 

Due to the ban, Bhutan is home to the world’s highest unclimbed peak in the world: Gangkhar Puensum. Gangkhar Puensum is also known as the ‘The White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers’. It stands lofty at 7,500m (24,836ft) at the border between Bhutan and China. 

Thanks to the ban, Gangkhar Puensum’s remote state has maintained its pristine condition. Seeing that Mount Everest has become horrendously polluted from mountaineering activities, Bhutan’s ban actually does the environment a great favour. As the ban is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon, Gangkhar Puensum is likely to remain spotless and unconquered.

Speaking of unconquered, it is not for the lack of trying though. Before 1994, there were expeditions to climb Gangkhar Puensum. Unfortunately, they were all unsuccessful. After the ban on mountaineering above 6,000m was introduced, there was a group of mountaineers who tried to climb the mountain from the Chinese side. When the Bhutanese found out about it, they requested for the Chinese government to cancel the mountaineering permit. The Chinese government obliged.

Hiking in Bhutan

Although mountaineering is banned in Bhutan, it has many beautiful treks to boast of, including high altitude ones. Here are a few popular treks among tourists:

TREK

DIFFICULTY LEVEL

SEASON

LENGTH OF HIKE

Bumdra Trek

Moderate

Feb to May, Sep to Nov

7 days

Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek

Moderate

Mar to Oct

9 days

Jomolhari Loop Trek

Moderate to Difficult

Mar to Oct

7 or 11 days

Merak-Sakteng Trek

Moderate to Difficult

Mar to May, Sep to Nov

18 days

Lunana Snowman Trek

Challenging

May to Oct

28 days

The trails take you through crystal-clear lakes. You’ll set your sights on exquisite wildflowers. You’ll hike through high yak pastures and beautiful meadows. You’ll traverse through quaint Bhutanese villages and witness life there. 

Of all the treks, Snowman Trek is the crown jewel. It is believed to be the toughest trek in the world, owing to its high altitude, duration, and distance. The trek takes you through twelve mountain passes ranging from 4,500 m to 5,000 m. Interestingly, more people have climbed Mount Everest than they have completed Snowman Trek.

The view of the Himalayan range is breathtaking. Although you won’t get to scale the mountains in Bhutan, you will get to enjoy them from afar.

Given Bhutan’s effort to protect its mountains, you know that they’ll be a spectacular sight.

Top 5 treks in Bhutan for beginners.



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