Stretching The Kayaking Legs: Jhomolhari Trek, Bhutan

We offered this 7- day trek in 2015 and will be doing a longer variation over 9-days in the fall of 2016.

Please view our photos and other blogs on last years Bhutan season here and here.


Every now and then it’s just good to get out of the kayak and stretch the legs. Even better is when that includes a chance to walk among the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan. In the fall of 2015, between guiding our Class III and Class IV+ kayaking trips, I had such a chance.  These kayaking trips had been scheduled a week apart to accommodate Mike and Thelma. They wanted to add a trek after the Kayak and Cultural trip so they could see some of the mountains up close. Dirk and Claudia planned their arrival ahead of the Class IV+ group in order to join the trek as well. Our good friend and outfitter Yougs suggested the Jhomolhari trek via Bonte La and Takhung La (both names for passes) to fit our time frame. We would be walking a loop, starting and ending near the ruins of Drugyrl Dzong, the fortress that was once one of Bhutan’s first lines of defense from invaders to the north.


Jhomolhari is Bhutan’s 2nd highest peak at an elevation of 23,989 ft.  It is also the source for the Paro Chu, a river we paddle on all of our trips.  Getting closer to the source of this familiar river would be a treat and a chance to see if any runnable sections lay above the end of the road.

We were a group of 5 trekkers with a support staff that nearly tripled our numbers. Karma, our lead guide was assisted by Arnjun. Tashi was our cook. Kencho and Sangay helped Tashi and did the sprint each day from camp to where we would lunch, after packing the previous night’s camp. Throw in a string of 14 horses and two horsemen to carry all the camp gear and you have a Bhutanese style trek.  Unlike Nepal, where porters are almost exclusively used to move equipment around, Bhutan relies on horses, mules and yaks. Yak herders have long roamed the hills and high pastures of Bhutan’s Himalaya, moving their animals with the change of seasons. Since we were there in late fall, most of the yaks were already at lower elevations.


It was raining lightly as we started our trek near Gunitsawa, located not quite at the end of the road that we had taken from the town of Paro. We walked among colorful farm houses with fields of potato, red rice and wheat being harvested. After crossing a small bridge at the town of Sharna we left the road behind and found ourselves in a forest of Oak, Rhododendron and bamboo. This would be our setting for the first day and a half. Camp that first night was nestled in the trees along the banks of the Paro Chu.

Paro Chu_Trek_Blur

On day 2 the trail became a bit more technical than the first day.  There were numerous rocks that required us to pay close attention so as not to  twist an ankle.  The trail also gained elevation.  Before noon we passed by a junction that, had we gone left would have put us on the old trade route into Tibet, just 8.5 miles away.  Our trek for the next few days would be quite close to the border.  On more than one occasion we encountered other trekking groups on their way down the trail.  They gave us reports of poor weather they had experienced and said that the recent snowfall had made a key pass impassable. Karma had us push on. At days end and numerous bridges later we found ourselves at Soi Thangthanka, a developed camp we shared with another, larger group. The weather had clouded over so our opportunity for first views of Jomolhari had to wait until the morning.


Day 3 dawned cold and crisp with clear skies. We were treated to alpenglow on the south shoulder of Jhomolhari and looked forward to views of the other mountains we would pass during our walk that day.  We broke out of the forest and into the open, continuing to parallel the Paro Chu river. We passed through a military checkpoint that sports a phallus-shaped wind vane – I doubt it’s military issue. Throughout our hike we encountered other trains of horses, much like the ones that accompanied us, that were either supporting other trekking groups on their way out or were returning empty after packing goods into the small villages located along the way.Chorten_Flags_sunburst

An hour or so from what is known as Jhomolhari Base camp at Jangothang and our third nights camp, the trail passes alongside and through several small villages. It has been a goal of the Bhutanese government to supply electricity to all settlements, regardless of their remoteness.  Along our route we saw newly constructed power poles that had been carried in section by section under human power. I tried hefting one of the sections we found along side the trail and couldn’t believe the distances they were being carried. Other strides the Bhutanese government is making to improve life in these remote areas include the construction of better schools and basic health units, such as those we found in the village of Dangochang.


Our camp that night was located at 13,382 ft. and we were all feeling a bit winded as we dropped our day packs alongside our already erected tents. The crew had arrived ahead of us slow moving chillips (foreigners) and greeted us with hot tea and snacks. The clear skies we had experienced at the start of the day had turned to clouds that obscured Jhomolhari’s eastern face, the iconic view from this camp. Again, we would have to wait until morning for clear views.


Perhaps it was the anticipation of mountain views or just the altitude, but I was restless and awoke before sunrise. I was treated to a moonlit Jhomolhari that then spread to golden light striking the face of the peak. We took it all in as we sat in the cold and ate our hot breakfast.


Today we would be laying over and it was up to us how we spent our time. The goal was to acclimatize and we could do this by resting in camp, hiking to a glacial lake located up valley, or ascending the ridge behind camp that could potentially yield spectacular views of Jhomolhari and surrounding peaks, as well as a chance to see wild Blue Sheep. We chose the ridge.

My altimeter read over 15,500 feet when Dirk and I stopped at our high point to look across at the east face of Jhomalhari.


We could see that the others had stopped below and were resting. We dropped down to join them and take in the views of the surrounding peaks and the climb up to the hanging valley and lakes we would do tomorrow.


During our slow but steady walk up the ridge we did indeed stumble on a small herd of Blue Sheep lounging and grazing as we passed!


Day 5 after crossing the Paro Chu for the last time we ascended switchbacks that took us to the hanging valley we saw from our high point the day before. The trail then eased up as we paralleled the lakes to the end of the valley.


Just beyond we could make out the trail cutting through the snow. This is the area that had turned back the groups we saw descending on our second day of the trek. It had been three days since we saw them and the weather had been stable.  The snow we encountered wasn’t much more than a couple of inches deep and was no problem for us . More importantly, the pack horses could get through.


Hiking up many hours with over 2600 ft of elevation gain, we arrived at Bont La, a pass located at 16,039 ft. and our high point for the journey.


Group_snow_Bonte la

Despite some scattered clouds, the views throughout the day were spectacular and gave a taste of what it might be on a totally clear day. Rugged, massive peaks, valleys, creeks and waterfalls all made up the landscape.


Once over the Bonte La we began the descent toward Soi Yaksa. We would loose all the elevation we had gained that morning and then some. We arrived in camp at 12,464 ft. nestled in a clearing surrounded by trees.

Another pass awaited us on day 6. We reached Takhung La, 14825 ft. shortly after lunch. To get there we climbed above tree line and contoured along a long valley running east-west. We then turned south into a side valley, walked toward its end and turned west again to begin ascending. I am told that on a clear day one can see Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world which straddles the border of Nepal and Sikkim, India west of us. The clouds obscured our view.

Thombu Shong is a pasture and sometime yak herder camp. Here we spent our 6th and final night of the trek.

Our final day we had only 656 ft. of elevation gain to reach our final pass of Thombu La. From there we traversed out along a beautiful ridge from which we began a descent that ate up some serious elevation.  We could see the lush forest of the Paro valley below us. We arrived in time for lunch, tired and full of good times and good memories from a wonderful trip.End_Jhomlhari_trek

Many thanks to our Bhutanese staff who treated us like kings and queens. They arose long before we did, and greeted us with a hot cup of tea and a warm smile each morning -delivered to our tent. They cooked for us, packed our gear and shared stories of the landscape and their customs. It is the warmth and gracious hospitality of these wonderful people that keeps us coming back. We hope you join us October 27- November 5, 2016.

Tashi Delek.

Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.


Mary Looks Back On The Class III Kayak And Culture Trip Oct., 2015


Bhutan Class III Kayak and Cultural Trip 2015


How to determine how many images to post? No amount of pictures can tell the story. But here is a taste of my story.

The flight into Bhutan is itself an adventure. Views of the Himalayas, tallest mountain range in the world! Views of the pine needles, so close to the wing tips it seems you could reach out and touch them as the plane drops in preparation for landing! These are 2 of the many reasons to be happy to be on the tarmac in Paro!

We kayak on clear, cold, pristine rivers winding through stunning valleys. In our effort to see as much of Bhutan as we can in our twelve days, we hike through villages, we boat, we drive to the next monastery. Some days we join the locals in religious festivals. Karma, raft guide for those on the land tour and cultural guide for all, has a knack of assimilating us into the local activities. If there’s something going on, we’re in the thick of it! Fresh popped rice anyone? The shadiest spot to sip the coldest brew in town? Nuances of Buddhist imagery? He knows it all. Buffet lunches arrive riverside as we finish our day on a new run. How does he do it?

The road travel is at times as exciting as the flights. A landslide? No worries! After a few hours mingling with the Bhutanese (who are picnicking as they wait for the road crew to cut a new mountainside road) we are heading toward a new adventure! Like visiting the Takin Reserve. (That’s the muskox-like national animal of Bhutan.) Or hiking in search of the black-necked crane that overwinters from Mongolia. Or taking time to visit to the School of Traditional Arts. Then, shopping anyone?

Beyond Karma’s magic, there are so many serendipitous events that occur as to be inexplicable! As I said earlier, no amount of pictures can tell the story. You just have to come and experience the adventure of Bhutan for yourself!

Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.

A First Descent In Bhutan- The Sonam Section Of The Kuri Chu

We’re planning a repeat of this section and all the classics across Bhutan Nov 6- 27th, 2016. We hope you’ll consider joining us.


Cup o Joe, Ben scouts his first rapid of the day, day two.
Cup o’ Joe, Ben scouts his first rapid of the day, day two.

It was 3:00 PM, late November in eastern Bhutan. Day 1 of the first descent of the Kuri Chu. This was the hour we told ourselves we would start looking for camp. These deadlines are often better in theory than practice as we found ourselves in a section of canyon with near-vertical walls. Below us was a horizon line spewing mist. It wouldn’t be long before the low-angled sun would slip behind the ridge. It was beginning to look like we might be late for dinner.

Just beyond the horizon line we could make out a spot where the entire river, all 4500 cfs of it, flowed through a gap not much more than 15 feet wide. This narrowing we expected from our Google Earth review of the river prior to the trip. We weren’t worried about it because we knew that it sat in a pool. It was this rapid that sat between us and that pool that was a surprise to me.

We were a team of six made up of one Canadian, one Bhutanese and four from the U.S.. Thinley Thoben, Ben Morton and I were guiding Sarah Cunningham, David Lech and David Focardi. This was Sarah and Thinley’s first multi-day and the 1st time some in the group had done a first descent. I had become aware of the river in 2010 when I floated past its confluence while doing a multi-day river trip on the Drangme Chu, a drainage to the east. Curious to learn more about the Kuri, I had asked our Bhutanese outfitter, Ugyen “Yougs” Dorje what he knew. He gave me three important pieces of information: it hadn’t been done, he could get the permit and I was welcome to put together the first trip.

Our team L to R; Thinley Thobden, Ben Morton, Phil DeRiemer, David Lech, Sarah Cunningham, David Focardi.
Our team L to R; Thinley Thobden, Ben Morton, Phil DeRiemer, David Lech, Sarah Cunningham, David Focardi.

Ben got the group organized in eating a late lunch while Thinley and I floated downstream to have a closer look at this rapid. Without verbally communicating, I knew Thinley was also concerned about what it held, how we might get around it and how long it would take. He popped out of his kayak onto the rocks to have a look just ahead of me. I kept an eye on him as I pulled my boat out of the water, watching his body English carefully to see what it might tell me of the rapid. After a short time he turned to me and flashed a big smile while giving the “thumbs up” with one hand and tapping his head in the universal “O.K”. sign with the other. There was a way around this.

This wide rapid was broken by a ledge system, which in turn was sprinkled with numerous rocks, and holes. We were committed to running the left side. After a technical top section, the flow formed an intimidating pillow as it slammed into the left wall and exited in a 90-degree turn.

Bhutan, Kayak, Kuri Chu
“Sonam” rapid

The word sonam means good luck, the kind of “luck” that comes from good living. And right now sonam was with us! We could portage the difficult top part and put into an eddy exactly where we needed one just upstream of the pillow. This eddy would allow us one by one to get into our boat and execute a ferry in front of the cushion. This intimidating yet doable move led into the pool above the narrow gap. Failure to drive far enough out into the current would result in getting pushed back leftby the force field effect of the pillow. If that happened and the paddler was still upright, they’d have to scramble back into the eddy and get themselves psyched up to try again.

Kuri Chu, Bhutan, Kayak
David Lech takes it all in at the critical eddy toward the end of day one.

We fire-lined the kayaks over the rocks and into position. Ben lead off with a perfect demo, always good for moral to see that first run go so well. We took our turns with no two runs the same. David F. had the most exciting run. He experience the “what if” line when he immediately flipped upon entering the current, rolled, flipped again then disappeared our of view from those of us waiting below. It was a tense moment. David ended up out of his boat, all the pieces together in a pocket eddy against the left cliff wall still above the pillow. Thinley, who was running sweep, was able to scramble from above to extract him from the eddy and hike his boat back into position. Dave now had to try the move again- not easy after such an experience. The second run came up with the goods. He stayed upright long enough to hit the right side of the pillow. Our cheering echoed off the canyon walls.

Kuri, Kayaker, Chusion, Bhutan
David F. makes a critical cushion move on the Kuri Chu.

Now as we floated through the narrows and into the next rapid, our focus was to find a camp. Once again sonam was with us when I followed my instincts and veered off to find a hidden pool at the top of a rapid. There, at the far end nestled amongst the rocks surrounded by the steep canyon walls, was a sandy beach. Home for the night! With dusk upon us we scrambled for driftwood and filtered water, settling into the routine of making dinner and setting camp as we relaxed into the beauty and magic of this most remote place.

Sarah C., cocoa never tasted so good. End of day one on the Kuri Chu.
Sarah C., cocoa never tasted so good. End of day one on the Kuri Chu.
Clear night in the Kuri Chu canyon.
Clear night in the Kuri Chu canyon.
Packing boats on the morning of day two.
Packing boats on the morning of day two.

The 3-day descent included a day and a half of paddling 20 miles of the Kuri Chu and a another 30 after joining with the larger and easier Drangme Chu. We reached the confluence at 4:00 p.m. the next day after a full day of challenging and rewarding rapids. It was in this place 5 years earlier, during a descent of the Drangme Chu with Thinley that he and I first peered curiously up the Kuri and wondered about it’s rapids. Now, five years later, we could see some significant changes had taken place as roads were being built on the steep sides of both rivers where there had once been only forest. A dust storm blew up the Drangme as workers cleared a freshly blasted area. The threat of rock fall kept us moving, robbing us of a chance to absorb the energy of the bleanding of these two rivers. The hard rapids were behind us and the group was keen to put in another hour so as to nibble away at some of the last day’s mileage, so we pushed on and made camp in the dark.

Dust from road construction on the Drangme Chu blows up river at the confluence with the Kuri Chu.
Dust from road construction on the Drangme Chu blows up river at the confluence with the Kuri Chu.


As we broke camp our last day the view downstream was already very different than the previous camp. The air was warmer and the banks were lined with thick tropical vegetation. This is tiger country. The topography was easing back and we could sense the river canyon giving way to the flats of India. During our final day, our driver Shatu and our cultural guide Kinga were finishing up an adventure of their own. Bhutan’s rugged terrain meant they had to drive for 2 ½ days to meet us at Manas National Park, our take-out on the Indian side of the border. As we approached the take we could see their silhouettes enthusiastically waving from the shore and feel the warmth of their smiles.



Paddling the Drangme Chu en route to the border with India. It was starting to fel pretty tropical.
Paddling the Drangme Chu en route to the border with India. It was starting to fel pretty tropical.
End of the line. De- rig on the Indian side of the border.
End of the line. Derig on the Indian side of the border.

Our trip had begun in Paro far to the west, on the other side of the country. Had we driven it in one push, it would have been three long days of continuous driving over winding, mountainous roads, and crossing numerous passes. Fortunately the Drangme Chu and Kuri Chu are only two of many incredible rivers Bhutan has to offer. With the Himalayan range and Tibetan Plateau as their source, the rivers flow north to south before spilling out into India. During our 16 days in country we took part in celebrating the fourth King’s birthday with the country and enjoyed a festival where few tourists ever go, we hit up eight awesome Class IV and IV+ runs as we worked our way east to this successful  and rewarding run of the Kuri Chu.


The Kuri may be the finest multi-day run I’ve done in Bhutan. The quality of this river exceeded my expectations; numerous rapids at the class IV+ level, minimal portaging, stunning scenery, multiple days of living out of our kayaks and finishing in another country! I am already planning my return.

Consider this an invitation.


Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.





Spring Or Fall We’ve got A Grand Trip For You.

Photo courtesy Alexander Sukhodolov

We’ve doubled up on our offerings for the Grand Canyon by adding a trip in May. We’re still doing our annual fall trip, as a matter of fact we launch in just one week.  The group from this year’s spring  trip returned with stories of green water all the way to the take out, the magical turquoise water of the Little Colorado, blooming cactus and flowers, gushing side streams and warm days.  May and September are great times of the year to be in the canyon. Temperatures are ideal and there are still plenty of daylight hours to fit in all kinds of kayaking, hiking and relaxing. We hope you’ll consider joining us for one of these amazing trips. Check our website for dates and prices. In the mean time here are shots from the trip we did this past May.




 Except where noted Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.




Take Time to Watch Our Bhutan Slideshow

Please take the time to watch our recently posted 22 minute slideshow featuring some of our travels in Bhutan. We hope it will inspire you to join us in this remarkable Himalayan Kingdom. Since 2006 we’ve been returning to explore it’s beautiful rivers, stunning scenery and gracious culture. Join us for one of our regular departures in the fall or let us put together a custom trip for you.


A Rare Moment In Bhutan

The Thangka of Paro Dzong on display just outside the fortress walls.
The Thangka of Paro Dzong on display just outside the fortress walls.

When in Bhutan, one constantly experiences moments of serendipity. Shedding the western desire to stick to a schedule allows one to experience these moments and open up to some pretty wonderful things.  Such was the case on the first day with our Class III kayaking and cultural group.  We were en route to our hotel after picking everyone up at the airport. Glancing across the valley toward the Paro Dzong (fortress), I saw that a 3-story tapestry (called a Thangka) was unfurled and on display.  These huge panels are the end product of many months of labor, hand appliquéing and embroidering figures and symbols of religious significance. A Thangka is taken out of storage only one day a year for a few hours. This is a special Bhuddist ceremony, a time of celebration and blessings. For a chillip (that’s us) to see one in person is rare.  We quickly detoured over to the Dzong.

What little we could glean about this particular Thangka is that it was made by the community and presented to the Dzong one year earlier. Its significance was the blessing of long life. It had been on display once, exactly a year prior. It’s annual hanging was an unannounced event, and our group was but a handful of westerners that made up the small crowd that was there. The locals were dressed in their finest traditional clothes; men in their gos and kabne shawls while the women were in kira skirts, teago jackets and rachung scarfs.

Woman in their traditional dress of Kiras attend the blessing of the Paro Thangka.

It is considered a blessing as well as a means of gaining merit to be in the presence of one of these large Thondrels. People prostrated facing the thangka, lit butter lamps, received blessings from monks and, one by one, approached the thangka so as to touch their forehead to the underside of the edge of the cloth.

Worshipers pray in front of the giant tapestry or Thangka at Paro Dzong.
A woman recieves a blessing from a monk.

Almost immediately we saw the monks were getting into position to roll the thangka in a extremely prescribed manner in order to return it to storage inside the Dzong.

Raedy to roll. Moments after we arrived to view this large Tangka it was rolled and stored until the next year.

A row of monks and others lined up shoulder to shoulder across the width of the base of the enormous panel and, under the commands of a head lama, began a careful and coordinated effort to fold it as it was lowered from above.

A lama oversees the folding of the large Thangka.

From there it was placed on a sheet of fabric, folded lengthwise many times and wrapped in a fabric casing.  The immense and heavy package was hoisted onto the shoulders of mostly monks and a procession lead by a small band of musicians, flag bearers, locals and religious officials marched up the stairs of the fortress where it will remain until next year.

A procession walks from where the Thangka once hung toward the Paro Dzong
Monks carry the heavy fabric panel toward the Paro Dzong.
The heavy Tangka is carried into the Paro Dzong.

Truly a significant and “auspicious” event for the start of our trip and, in some ways, just another day in the life of Bhutan. We all knew this was going to be a good trip.

Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.