A Hike in Bhutan, Kingdom of the Hills A stay at the Uma by Como, Paro, includes a mountain trek, a visit to the Tiger’s Nest and some rookie mistakes
THIN AIR, an upset stomach, aching feet—these are a few of my least favorite things. My wife had pitched my two daughters and me on an “afternoon hike” in the Himalayas. By her telling, it was something any Girl Scout worth her weight in Thin Mints could handle.
Little did we know that we’d be trekking to an altitude of 13,000 feet and camping out in a snowstorm.
My wife, designer Cynthia Rowley, likes to book a family adventure for every spring break. We feel it’s important to open the minds of our daughters—Kit, 15, and Gigi, 9—to the wonders of the world before we lose the girls entirely to the wonders of technology. Over the years we’ve traveled to 35 countries, including France, Brazil, Japan, Peru and India. Last year we went onsafari in Kenya and Tanzania. This year we opted for 10 days in the Kingdom of Bhutan. We were trying to top our African adventure, but Cynthia also wanted our kids to witness a culture that hasn’t changed substantially in 1,000 years.
We were based at the Uma by Como, Paro, a 29-room luxury resort with a cool, contemporary aesthetic. It is located on a 38-acre site atop a gently sloping, tree-clad hill, overlooking the rich Paro Valley—one of the main cultural centers of Bhutan, near its western border.
We spent most of our time there visiting local dzongs—the region’s distinctive fortress-cum-monasteries—and practicing archery, locally called kit, on the resort’s groomed lawn. Encouraging the whole family to participate somehow felt very “Hunger Games,” but hey—it’s Bhutan’s national sport, its only Olympic event and a common pastime. But after two days of architectural touring and arrow aiming, we decided to mix things up with an overnight camping trip.
The hotel drove us up a nearby mountain via a winding dirt road that delivered incredible Himalayan vistas. We connected with our base team—a couple of guides and a cook, who were waiting with pack donkeys, tents and other supplies. The plan was to hike for two hours, break for lunch, then continue for another 2½ hours to the peak.
It all started very jovially, as we traversed a well-worn path through the trees and underbrush. Our walk, I thought to myself, felt like a mix between the finale of “The Sound of Music” where the family escapes across green mountains and the scenic, mirthful start of “The Blair Witch Project.” Unfortunately, the rest of the latter movie soon became relevant, too—I realized fairly quickly that I might be in over my head.
One of our guides had offered me a walking stick before we set out, and initially it felt rather decorative. Twenty minutes into the trek, I was using the stick as a crutch, and deeply regretting my decision to wear Converse sneakers to hike in poorly-packed snow. I’d taken a Diamox, which prevents altitude sickness, “just in case” but hadn’t actually expected the trip to be taxing— mostly because my grasp of the metric system is fuzzy. I later discovered that 4,000 meters, which hadn’t struck me as an especially challenging altitude, was 13,000 feet. When the guides told us afterward that they’d never had a 9-year-old at the top before, I understood the trepidation I’d spotted in their eyes earlier; they were no doubt questioning whether Gigi had the goods to go the distance.
As we ascended above the tree line toward the peak, I had to stop chatting so I could conserve my energy for walking. I wore a lightweight jacket, as did the kids, and I began to wonder if they were dressed adequately for the conditions.
About an hour into the climb, we began to see meditation caves dotting the hillside. Our guide explained that, in Bhutan, monks are sponsored, much the way professional athletes are in the West. What the monks do may be even tougher than making it in the major leagues, though—they meditate for extended periods, sometimes remaining in caves for five to 10 years. (The sponsors pay to have basic supplies delivered once a month.) It was hard for my children to wrap their heads around that level of sacrifice and commitment. It was hard for me, too.
The staff on these kinds of trips can be intimidating. The man who followed us up the trail effortlessly carried a 50-pound satchel of food and supplies, including a fire starter and a carton of eggs for our breakfast the next morning. He hadn’t broken a sweat by the time we stopped for our lunch of salad and yak burgers. At that point we had started to ascend into the clouds, and yet caught a cool glimpse of a commercial airliner landing at Paro Airport.