A group of 16 walkers had the experience of a lifetime when they headed for the kingdom of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas between India and China, to raise funds for the Rowans Hospice.
The adventurers, ranging in age from 31 to 71, made it their goal to walk the 90 miles from Paro to Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, passing Mt Jomolhari along the way.
Each of them had to raise at least £3,600 to pay for the trip and a suggested minimum donation of £1,000 for the Purbrook hospice to help fund services for people affected by cancer and other life-limiting illnesses.
During the 14-day trip – eight days of which were spent mountain trekking – the group passed many spectacular sights, including Tiger’s Nest Monastery in the Paro Valley.
The monastery is built into a cliff edge around 10,000ft above sea level.
Walker Roddy Stanley, from Kent Road, Portsea, says the sight took his breath away.
‘It was amazing, like nothing I’d ever seen before. There’s just nothing over here you could compare it to.
‘We had to take our shoes off before going in and weren’t allowed to take pictures inside because it’s a sacred place for the Bhutanese people, where they go to pray.
‘There were lots of multi-coloured prayer flags on the wall and pictures of their king and people had brought food as an offering to the gods and put it around a statue.’
The group had to hike for two hours to reach the Tiger’s Nest, but this proved just a taster of the challenges that were to follow.
For the next three days the group trekked along the Pachu River, through pine, oak and spruce forests and clocked up a total of 34 miles. They walked for 19 hours and reached 13,290ft above sea level.
Breaking out of the forest, the group caught their first glimpse of the Himalayan mountains.
‘It was crazy to be surrounded by all the mountains, it looked amazing,’ Roddy says.
‘I’d seen it on the telly before, but you just don’t get the same impact that way. It’s totally different when you’re actually there and you get to experience it yourself.’
The group spent the day in the area to acclimatise to the altitude and visit an extremely remote school, with just one class of pupils from the ages of six to 14.
The area was so sparsely populated that some children had to walk for an hour to get to the school and the teacher lived in a room at the back of the building.
Having carried English books, pens, paper and other small gifts for the children with them on the trek, the group were delighted to meet them.
Walker Anne Yendell, 50, from Drayton Lane, Drayton, says they were welcomed warmly and some of the children sang a song to them in English.
‘They were thrilled to see us,’ she remembers.
‘And they loved the gifts we brought for them.
‘Everything is very basic over there, so what we took was very appropriate.
‘It was phenomenal that they spoke English and they really enjoyed chatting with us. They even sang a song to us – it was a touching moment.’
But it was soon time to continue the journey and the group pushed on with their trek to Mt Jomolhari.
They were supported by a team of guides and 42 donkeys and ponies, who walked with the group throughout the journey.
Most of the support team walked ahead of the group and set up tents and cooked food in time for the trekkers arriving at camp for the evening.
The rest of the guides, including a cook for lunch and a first aid-trained guide with a pony carrying medical equipment, would walk alongside them.
They had few home comforts at camp and one night the temperature dropped as low as -10C.
Anne, who is finance director at the Rowans, says: ‘One morning we woke up and our tents were covered in snow.
‘There had been a blizzard in the middle of the night and it was very cold.
‘Sometimes it was hard to think about anything else, but I just tried to keep a positive attitude.
‘I always knew it was going to be a challenge and that was part of the reason I wanted to do it, so I just made the most of every moment.’
On the 11th day of the trip the walkers finally made it to their highest destination – base camp at Mt Jomolhari.
At 16,240ft above sea level after walking 14 miles that day to get there, the tired walkers took in the stunning views of glaciers, forests and mountain peaks.
‘Our main goal was to get there, so when we did it felt amazing.’ says Roddy.
‘The views of the scenery and mountains were incredible – it was hard to believe that we were actually there.
‘I was taking baths in the lakes. The water was freezing cold and so fresh, it was lovely.’
During the next three days the group then descended Mt Jomolhari, through rhododendron, juniper and pine forests and past impressive cliffs and waterfalls, before arriving at Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, 23 miles later.
They spent their final couple of days in the capital and helped give something back to the community by whitewashing the National Memorial Stupa – which was built in the 12th century – ahead of an official visit taking place in the city.
‘The Bhutanese people were so grateful that we were doing this for them,’ Anne says.
‘A few of the locals gathered to watch and one woman was joking with us, telling us we’d missed a spot.
‘All the time we were doing this there were people circling the building and praying in a religious ritual. It was a very special moment because at that point we were part of the community.’
The group’s sterling efforts have raised £17,500 for the Rowans Hospice – and more money is still coming in.
Ali George, events fundraiser for the charity, says: ‘The team of trekkers did an amazing job. The money they have raised will make a huge difference.’