Expedition 2012 – Jangothang, Bhutan

A Short Walk with the Thunder Dragon

BMRES Bhutan Expedition Report, Spring 2012
Yashvi Wimalasena

BMRES Team:

Alex Wright, Chris Imray, Jo Bradwell, Ian MAcLennan, Ian Chesner, Sarah Clarke, Colin Chan, Mark Edsell, Mark Wilson, Steve Myers, Yashvi Wimalasena, Will Malein, Owen Thomas, Helen Hoar, Susannah Patey, Hannah Rhodes, Nick Kalson, John Milles, Peter Forster and Kyle Pattinson

Pre-Trip Planning

Bhutan, or Druk Yul ‘Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’ is a small Himalayan Kingdom located between Tibet to the north and India to the south. In the modern world, Bhutan remains a very conservative and remote location which has escaped much of the tourist influx of its neighbouring Himalayan countries. Bhutanese culture is strongly related to Tibetan Buddhism with the chief monk of Bhutan given equal rank to the king. Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its growth by gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product and is also unique in that the sale of tobacco is illegal.

The Research

BMRES planned several studies to be conducted in Bhutan. These included an exercise study comparing a ‘slow plod’ regime of exercise to an ‘rush and rest’ model and a concomitant lung ultrasound study to measure the effects of the different exercise regimes on sub-clinical pulmonary oedema. Another study aimed to compare cerebral and muscle blood flow during exercise. Physiological studies were also planned to measure lactate, AMS scores and oxygen saturations and a new high altitude app developed by BMRES was also tested. For most of the research a base camp was established at Jangothan, 4090m. Prior to departure to Bhutan sea level and hypoxic chamber control studies were carried out at Chichester University to finalise the exercise protocols and perform control measurements at an equivalent altitude.

The Expedition

The 20 member BMRES team left the UK on 21st of April and arrived in Paro on the 23rd by way of Delhi and Kathmandu. The next day was spend acclimatising by visiting the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery precariously perched 600m above the Paro valley. The trek officially commenced on Wednesday the 25th as the BMRES team as well as nearly 20 local support staff and 70 horses and yaks set off to Shana (2778m) for the first camp. From Shana it was onto Soi Thang at 3519m and then onto Jangothang at 4090m. Our research base camp could not have been in a more scenic location nestled at the foot of mighty Chomolhari, Bhutan’s second highest mountain standing at a whopping 7314m.

The next couple of days were spent conducting research, which was largely successful with everyone helping out and participating. Unfortunately due to the cold and altitude our expired air measurement device ceased to function which meant we were unable to carry out respiratory measurements, hence the exercise study with lung ultrasound and NIRS measurements were limited to a rush and rest regime. However, the results especially with reference to lung ultrasound were fascinating and have opened the door to many possible future research in the field of lung water. Our local staff found the whole research escapade highly amusing as one after another the team members were strapped onto the alticycle and made to cycle till no more was possible and then go again!
Following the conclusion of the studies the trek re-commenced through the Himalaya. Our next camp was at Lingshi (4149m). The route going over the stunning Nyelela Pass at 4890m with views of Bhutan’s most beautiful mountain Jiehu Drake (6794m). On our departure from Jangothang we had picked up an additional team member in the form of a very friendly tan dog which would accompany us for the next 2 weeks! The next day took us to the Shangri La village of Chebisa, 3849m, situated in a valley with a stunning waterfall. The younger members of the party took it upon themselves to teach the local kids the great game of cricket which was a resounding success with many kids learning a new sport and the team been relieved of its bat and all the balls! The following day brought us to Shomuthang at 3954m after the crossing of Gombu La pass at 4480m. This camp site was by a river which was freezing but enjoyed by most of the team to get some much needed washing.

From here it was onto Robulathang (4409m) over the Jarela Pass (4785m) with great view of the monstrous Tsering Kang. During the day it had started to snow and the camp site was a white heaven that night. The next day was to be the hardest day of the trek involving the crossing of the Shingela Pass at 5005m before descending down to Limithang at 4140m. Matters were made no easier by half the team been struck down over-night by a nasty abdominal ailment which resulted in many a torch light passing between members frequenting the camp long drops! However, the BMRES resilience came to the fore in the morrow as every team member made it to the next camp by evenfall the next day, most by the virtue of their own feet and while a couple had to be assisted by horses!

The next day brought us to the beautiful village of Laya situated at 3840m in the shadow of Masagang which towers at 7165m. Team members passed the afternoon drinking beer and playing the finger flicking game of Carom at the local tavern for some much needed relaxing. The next day was mostly downhill descending to Tonghujha at 3400m. This lovely campsite was again next to a freezing river of snow melt but that didn’t stop anyone from having a refreshing wash in its water. The next day involved negotiating the last pass of the trek, Balela pass at 3767m before dropping to Gasa village at 2770m. More beer and carom at Gaza where Mark E and Yash beat the local champions in a tightly fought carom match. Gaza was the end of the trek and in the morrow the team had to say a sad farewell to the dog Rover who would probably join another team doing the reverse trek. On route to Punakha the team stopped at a site of lovely natural hot springs to wash the grime of 19 days in the wild. The final camp was by a river on the out skirts of the town where we said farewell to most of our local staff. The next day was spent visiting Bhutan’s main dzong at Punakha which sits at the meeting place of two rivers. From here it was onto Paro where the younger half of the team beat the slightly older at archery before the team dispersed. We left a signed foot in the famous Rum Doodle café in Kathmandu with many a fond memories of the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

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