Mutts and Monasteries
Running Thaptsa Peak in Bhutan’s backcountry
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.