Bhutan strictly controls access to its mountains, but that is because the people want it so. In the battle between sport and spiritual belief, the latter wins for the moment.
Where lies the perfect balance between earning easy dollars and preserving one´s traditions and culture? The dilemma which has confronted Bhutan ever since it opened to tourists extends to mountaineering expeditions as well. Many travel agencies have been established since the Government of Bhutan privatised tourism, and the Government has had to compromise on the number of tourists entering the country. Mountaineering regulations, however, have not been adjusted and remain extremely rigid in accordance with the spiritual sentiments of the population.
As Phub Thinlay, a gup, or village representative, for the Chomolhari region in the northeast, told a National Geographic writer: “I always pray to the local deities for snow when you outsiders come to our valley, so you will go away. You use all our firewood and show little respect for OUT tradition.” Such emphatic outbursts have been echoed time and again in the brief span of mountaineering in Bhutan.
Only three peaks are open to climbers — Masang Gang (7200m), Jitchu Drake (6793m) and Khangbum (6500m). The royalty paid for these peaks are U$ 25,000, US 20,000 and U$ 15,000, respectively. All expedition hopefuls are screened by die Tourism Authority of Bhutan, a regulating body that was formed last year by the Bhutan Government.
From the top of Kanchenjungha (8586m), the Himalayan range descends eastward through Sikkim to rise again when it reaches the northeastern border of Bhutan. With 18 peaks higher than 7000m, the Bhutan segment of the Himalaya skirts the country´s entire upper frontier all the way across to the east, where it enters Arunachal Pradesh.
Nestled in small settlements along the base of these mountains, above 4000m, live Bhutan´s yak herders, hardy people whose way of life has changed little over centuries. They are the Lingships and Layaps in the west, the Lunaps and Tsephups in the central region, and the Brokpas of the east. While some of these communities live in permanent settlements, others are semi-nomadic, their movement dictated by the seasonal availability of pasture. The lives of these high altitude herders revolve around their livestock, and they find time for little else. These people have fell no need to seek more lucrative opportunities, least of all that offered by trekking and climbing. Many a trek has had to be aborted because the locals refused to porter, no matter what the incentive.
To these people, like for others across the Himalayan chain, the majestic mountains are the abodes of myriad deities that watch over the land. While all Buddhists of Bhutan believe that the greatest gurus meditated in these peaks. All the yak herder the relationship is more pronounced, with both the good and the bad arising in the mountains. The gods must be propitiated if the herders are to have a good year, protected from natural calamities. While small offerings are made all the time, every community performs at least one major ceremony a year for the mountain deities.
Chomolhari (7315m), the country’s second highest peak, is believed to be the abode of Tsheringma, the goddess of wealth. (Chomo is a term of respect for the female.) Jitchu Drake (6793m), which is open for climbing, is believed to be the abode of Jho Drake, the protecting deity of Paro Valley, which is the rice bowl of the country. According to legend, Jho Drake provided Paro with the river responsible for the Valley’s famed fertility. Gangkhar Puensum, at 7541m the highest of Bhutan’s peaks, means three siblings and refers to Tsheringma, Namgyem, the goddess of longevity, and Dema (Tara for Hindus), the goddess that fulfills all wishes.
Dasho Rigzin Dorji, secretary of a special commission mandated to study the question of cultural sanctity in the face of increasing tourism, spoke thus to the 65th Session of the Tshongdu, the National Assembly, in July 1987: “If firm and timely measures are not taken to protect the aura of sanctity that still pervades most of our sacred places of worship, not only will our own leverencc and faith be undermined but the belief and faith of our children in our religion and culture will be placed in jeopardy.” Besides temples, meditation centres and centres of Buddhist studies, the dasho also proposed that climbing of sacred mountains be banned.
All members unanimously supported the proposal, and King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk commanded that a law be passed prohibiting the commercialisation of sacred places from 1988 onwards. While temples and other sacred places remain closed to tourists, the restrictions on mountaineering has been relaxed partially following a year’s lull.
It was not as if Bhutan had been open for mountaineering for an extended period before the access was restricted. Bhutan was partially opened to tourism only in 1974, and mountaineers were allowed in as late as 1983, For the climbers, the prospect of ´conquering´ so many ´virgin peaks´ seemed too good to pass over. In the maiden year itself, a Japanese team led by Chomolongma summitteer Junko Tabei and an Austrian team led by Kanchenjungha veteran, Zepp Tayavi, arrived in Bhutan. Both expeditions were to climb Jitchu Drake, notwithstanding the steep royalty of U$ 5000 for the peak and an additional U$ 85 a day per member.
The yak herders were aghast when they learnt that the climbers meant to trample atop their revered peak. Defilement of the summit meant that the wrath of gods would manifest itself in bad weather and the spread of diseases. Even as the two expeditions persisted on the mountain; it is said, the weather became unusua1ly hostile, with hail and wind while the sun still shone. The people voiced their disapproval. One herder told a guide in charge of the acclimatisation camp that this happened every time tourists came near the mountains.
It was from this region, where Chomolhari, Tshering Gang (6532m) and Jirchu Drake stand sentinel over the Bhutan-China border that the first complaints reached authorities in Thimphu, “Chomolhari is the residence of Chomo, the deity who watches over our herds. It is a monastery where we offer our prayers,” a representative of the Lingshi herders told Kuensel in 1984.
Historical records show that a British expedition led by Spencer Chapman and Pasang Dawa climbed Chomoihari in 1937.The mountain was climbed again by an Indo-Bhutanese army team in Colonel N. Kumar (then Captain) reported that his Bhutanese colleague who led the team all the way lo the top refused to sleep on the summit, saying “Chomolhari is sacred.”
The first mountain to be closed to climbers was Chomolhari, under orders of King Jigme, who did not want to see mountaineering introduced at the cost of the spiritual disappointment of his people.
In the last decade of mountaineering in Bhutan, an average of two groups have been allowed to enter the country every year. Expeditions have attempted Masnang Gang, Namshila (6595m), Kangbhum and Gangkhar Pucnsutn. Other expeditions come to climb the “trekking peaks” which are under 6000m. Prominent climbers who have braved Bhutanese mountain include Reinhold Messner, who was unsuccessful on Gangkhar Puensum, which did not yield to any climber and is now off limits. A team led by Doug Scott was the first on the top of Jitchu Drake in 1988. “It is one of the harder ice peaks I have climbed,” he writes.
Today, with only three mountains open to climbers, the weather in most parts of the Bhutanese Himalaya reportedly holds good, even if momentarily.
Phuntso is Deputy Editor of the Kuensel weekly, Thimphu.