Exploring Bhutan

by ben-morton
Thursday, April 07, 2016
Thursday, April 07, 2016
Phil and Mary DeRiemer have been guiding trips in Bhutan since the early 2000's and have both had many first descents throughout the country. Phil prefaced the description of this trip by stating that this would likely be the most extensive whitewater kayak trip that he has ever led in Bhutan.
Ben Morton
by Ben Morton

   Full Bio

Over the past two years, I have been fortunate enough to work with and be mentored by Mary and Phil DeRiemer. The three of us lead instructional based multi-day whitewater kayak trips on amazing rivers within the U.S. and abroad. Some of these rivers include the Lower Owyhee, Colorado River (Grand Canyon), Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Main Salmon, Rogue River, and amazing rivers throughout Ecuador and Bhutan. It was last summer during one of our Middle Fork of the Salmon kayak trips that Phil mentioned to me that he was planning on leading a Class IV-IV+ trip in Bhutan during November, which included a first descent of a remote river in the eastern reaches of Bhutan.

Phil and Mary have been guiding trips in Bhutan since the early 2000’s and have both had many first descents throughout the country. Phil prefaced the description of this trip by stating that this would likely be the most extensive whitewater kayak trip that he has ever led in Bhutan. He
explained that adventurers would be paddling from the western side of the country to the east. So when Phil asked if I would like to come along and help guide the trip, there was no hesitation on how I could start planning my first visit to Bhutan.

Fast forward four months from the time Phil first mentioned the trip to Bhutan and there I was landing in Paro, Bhutan after a full on 36 hours of flights and layovers; the DeRiemer’s recommend a few day layover in Bangkok or Delhi to break up the travel, but I did not have time in my schedule. I arrived a couple days early and met up with a few long time friends of the DeRiemers to get out on the river and paddle for a day before catching up with Phil, Thilay- another guide on the trip from Bhutan, and our guests. The day out on the Paro Chu (Chu translates to “river” in Bhutanese) before meeting up with my crew was great. The upper section of the river is a nice “warm up” of class II-III, but once we progressed past the confluence of the Wang Chu things definitely picked up. Below the confluence, the canyon walls got steeper, the water volume doubled, and the rapids got long and complex. There were a few un intendos in there. This first day of paddling in Bhutan set the tone for what would become an absolutely amazing paddling and cultural trip through Bhutan.

Once I met up with my crew, it was off to the races with a busy itinerary full of traveling, paddling different rivers, and visiting some amazing cultural sights. Throughout the trip we slowly progressed from Paro on the western side of Bhutan, to Monggar on the eastern side of the country. As we traveled across Bhutan we paddled stunningly beautiful rivers that were amazing class III+,IV-IV+. These rivers included:

Paro Chu: This is the river I had paddled before I met up with my crew. Starting as class II-III, it flows right through the town of Paro, before the confluence with the Wang Chu, which then in turn flows into a committing, fun class of IV-IV+ run.

Upper Thimphu Chu (upstream of the confluence with the Paro Chu): This was a fun and relatively mellow class III-III+ river. With stunning scenery, it parallels a major road going into Thimphu City, but somehow still manages to feel very remote.

Lower Dang Chu: Offered consistent technical class III+-IV. Enormously fun and reminded me of the Upper Yough in Maryland.

Mo Chu & Po Chu: These rivers both had a really stunning color of aqua blue and are both in the Phunaka Valley. Sharing many similar characteristics, both runs carry more volume of any of the rivers we had been on up to this point and had large fun rapids.

Trongsa Chhu - Ema Datshi Section: While this section of river took over 3 hours of arduous driving to get to from Trongsa, it was absolutely worth it! Fantastic Class IV-IV+ whitewater surrounded by lush jungle, with monkeys swinging from tree to tree on both sides of the river.

Trongsa Chhu - Upper Trongsa: We decided to paddle a short section of the Upper Trongsa as a bit of a “recovery day” from the long day we previously had and the long drive later that day. The river was mostly consistent class III-III+, which was a great break from the more challenging whitewater we had
been paddling up to that point.

Upper Chamkhar Chhu: This was the coldest river we paddled during our trip in Bhutan. Where we kayaked, the Chamkhar Chhu was approximately at 8,000 ft of elevation. As we paddled consistent technical class IV whitewater, we caught the attention of locals from the small villages nearby, who gathered and waved as we paddled by.

“Middle” Kuri Chhu: As we drove towards Monggar we decided to make a quick stop and paddle “Middle” Kuri Chhu from the bridge down to the dam. This section only offered four or so rapids before the river became flat (above the dam). I found it really fun as the volume of the river made the rapids feel like some of the larger rapids on the New River Gorge; just good plain fun.

“Lower” Kuri Chu into Dangme Chu: This section of river had not been kayaked up to this point. The Lower Kuri Chhu offers “clean” and fun Class IV-IV+ whitewater; stunning cliff walls hundreds of feet high at times; and is extremely committing due to its remoteness and lack of accessibility through the canyon. For more specific information about our first descent of the Lower Kuri Chhu please check out Phil DeRiemer’s write up at adventurekayaking

Packing for Bhutan was somewhat challenging because I knew there would be times that I would be paddling at high elevations (8,000+ feet). I also knew that we would end the trip crossing the border into India, where we would be just about at sea level. My Kokatat gear list included the Maximus Centurion PFD, Gore-Tex Whirlpool bibs with a Rogue dry top and Trinity shorty dry top, and some key insulation and layering pieces like the WoolCore and SunCore for my anticipated thermo-regulation needs in the diverse climates.

On our last night, as we packed our bags at the hotel in India, I had to look at Phil and in some way sum up an appreciation. I could not figure out how to put into words, but what came out was “great job man”. The planning, organization, logistical management, river guiding, and non-stop energy towards sharing his passion for Bhutan with myself and our guests was nothing less than extraordinary. In addition to Phil’s awe inspiring work, there were certainly other things that led to such a great trip, which included: A fantastic group of guests, “Explore Bhutan” the Bhutanese outfitter DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking has always worked with, the Bhutanese guides, Sha Tu our bus driver, and many others. This trip really was one of the best trips of my life and as I reflect on it some weeks later, I have to pinch myself. It is hard to believe that I was actually in Bhutan and paddled such stunning rivers, experienced a unique and beautiful culture, and made long lasting bonds and friendships with many of the Bhutanese I worked with. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I want to return there to share my passion for Bhutan, it’s culture, landscape, rivers, and its people with other kayakers and travelers.

"This trip really was one of the best trips of my life and as I reflect on it some weeks later, I have to pinch myself"

Bhutan planning / Punakha Valley, Bhutan / Ben Morton, Kuri Chhu Bhutan