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Mutts and Monasteries

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Running Thaptsa Peak in Bhutan’s backcountry

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The author running through Phajoding Goenpa.

The snarling yak-herding dog tore over the mossy ravine and skidded to a halt on the opposite bank. Black mud oozed through its Yeti-sized front paws as I backed into dripping wet ferns lining a sparsely trodden footpath. My colleague Sangay’s advice flashed through my mind: “No. No trail there. You run road.” Next time, I’ll listen. A litter-strewn trickle of a creek was all that now separated me from a drooling mutant mastiff, bred for the sole purpose of defending yak herds from bears, thieves and, perhaps, trail runners.

My next attempt to run Thaptsa Peak would hopefully be—as the Bhutanese say—more “auspicious.”

I had just arrived in Bhutan and begun teaching physiotherapy students in Thimphu, the compact capital of 100,000 people. Set in a narrow valley drained by the glacial runoff of the Wang Chuu, the city has a bustling, cozy feel. As a physical therapist with Health Volunteers Overseas, I would be living and working at the National Hospital for five months.

While I have been working abroad, running has always offered me a more intimate view of a place and its culture. As I held class at the new hospital building in Thimphu, my attention was constantly drawn out the window up to the high ranges encircling the city.

There must be trails here, I thought. A land where the king rides a mountain bike and the tallest peaks remain unclimbed, Bhutan is defined by the thick, impenetrable mountains that have isolated and protected this kingdom for centuries. The contour lines of Buddhist Himalaya pulled me in with promises of exotic singletrack. I sensed a karmic sense of responsibility to trail runners everywhere.

Funny thing, the Bhutanese aren’t big on adventuring. Most have to walk hours to the nearest road and those wandering the wilds do so with purpose—to hang prayer flags or herd yaks. Avoiding jaguars also takes top priority. As a non-Buddhist lacking yaks, I found reliable trail beta tough to come by. Undeterred, I spent several weekends doing short recon runs, and even befriended a monk familiar with the high country.

Eventually, plans for a 25-kilometer run took shape. A brutal ascent off the west side of the valley would ease to contouring south along ancient trade routes, linking a series of remote goenpas, or monasteries. Four thousand feet of climbing culminated on a ridgeline scramble to the 13,200-foot Thaptsa Peak. I’d start at the well-known Druk Path trailhead and finish at the giant golden Buddha perched in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, with creative route-finding filling in the gaps. Sangay imparted his pre-run advice: “Call out to yak herders from one kilometer out. They tie up dogs.” I listened this time.

Clinging to the eaves of Wangditse Goenpa, a golden dragon greeted the dawn with a wrathful grin. Standing alone at the trailhead above the quiet monastery, I tapped into my astrologic intuition and all signs pointed toward an auspicious morning. Vertical white prayer flags hung limp as I began dodging frosty cow pies, lungs burning from the uphill effort. Thickets of blue pine rang with playful orange-crested birds—hoopoes!

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The 169-foot-tall Buddha Dordenma at trail’s end.

Steeper yet, the trail switchbacked above a preserve enclosing a small herd of Takin, the national animal. (Think awkward, tiny buffalo with the head of a hairy manatee.) Deeming captivity in a zoo to be very un-Buddhist, the fourth king had attempted to free them years ago, but they drifted downtown in a domesticated trance.

An abrupt snort and rustling jolted me to wide-eyed attention as something resembling a furry coffee table went crashing through the underbrush. Wild boar. I was slightly on edge, thinking about a patient back at the hospital who was recovering from an attack by a territorial bear near his village—potentially a good reason to reconsider my usual unarmed policy while trail running. “I stabbed bear thrice with short sword,” boasted the brave survivor, white tendon still visible through his bear-bitten foot. I ran on, enjoying a long-held delusion that I was Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, capable of fashioning a weapon at will.

After 3000 vertical feet reduced my pace to a spirited hike, I plugged upward through thick rhododendron forest, eventually reaching Phajoding Goenpa. Perched on the hulking slopes of Skeleton Mountain, a handful of temples and meditation huts sat ethereal and forgotten.

It was here I had first happened upon Namgay, the resident lama, on a previous scouting hike with my wife. He’s a 21st-century monk with a cell phone; today, we’d arranged a mid-run tea break. Over hot butter tea he spoke about Zhabdrung, the founder of Bhutan, who had declared these lower Himalayan valleys the menjong, or medicine forest. I liked that; it had a more soothing ring than “bear-mauling forest.”

My fears allayed, Namgay sent me off past a quiet pond inhabited by the deity Shingjong Wangmo. Literally meaning “powerful female who protects the field,” Shingjong Wangmo just might be the ideal running partner. I could hear a group of novice monks back at Phojoding laughing long after I’d been enveloped by the dark fir forest.

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This chorten marks a pass en route to Thaptsa Peak.

Soon, pastures blended into fragrant hemlock and pale bamboo groves. The run took on an unscripted nature of its own, propelled by the satisfying spring of untrodden pine needles. I imagined myself an intrepid pioneer clad in neon sneakers, forging through uncharted wilderness. Just above treeline the trail emerged at a solitary structure, the lonely and beautiful Pumola Goenpa, its crumbling white brick walls lifting a bronze bell into the moody sky. Paying me no more than a courteous nod, crimson-robed monks went about crushing juniper incense.

Thaptsa Peak was now in sight. Exposed and wind raked, the approach snaked through a series of rocky outcroppings, the vegetation painted shades of ochre and dying green from the hard October freezes. As I crested the grassy summit, snowy peaks of the Himalayan crest floated on the horizon—a fitting reward for aching quads and seared lungs. Amidst hard-earned silence and thin gulps of air, the immense flank of 24,000-foot Jumolhari was a sobering reminder that I’d utterly spent myself running a foothill.

The track now dropped abruptly down a prominent ridge, testing my navigational skills through a series of high limestone ledges tumbling into pathless meadows. After four hard hours, the glinting Buddha signaled trail’s end and turned my thoughts toward momos—the delicious Himalayan dumplings—and cold beer. Hurrying past the decaying ruins of an old palace, I later found out it had belonged to Deb Langta, a 13th-century chieftain.

Bizarre local legend tells of a demon in human form, secretly decapitating his subjects to make head-stew in a locked cauldron. As whispers of his macabre habit spread, he demanded the mountains be cut down to better gaze on his lover in the adjacent valley. The traumatized villagers instead decided to lop off the madman’s head and spare the mountaintops. Good news for trail runners. As for the cauldron, it is said to be hidden at Wangditse Goenpa–precisely where my run began.

Auspicious? I think so.

This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.