The Kingdom of Bhutan sits along the Silk Road bordering, or close to, India, Tibet, and the rest of southeast Asia. As of 2016, it is ranked as the least corrupt country ever, despite its developing economic status. They were also the first country to measure national happiness. One of the main tourism draws to Bhutan is its proximity to the Himalayas. The average land elevation throughout the constitutional monarchy is 10,760 feet above sea level.
It is no wonder, then, that they play host to a lot of mountaineers and hikers. Bhutan sets certain rules about how people can travel the various paths and trails, including mandatory use of horses to haul equipment and a native guide with you at all times. They offer a wide range of these guided climbs including the Dagala Thousand Lakes trek and the Chomolhari-Laya Gasa trek, along with a few expeditions that are based more on discovering the culture of Bhutan than the harsh yet beautiful landscape. However, none of the trails are more unforgiving, intense, or longer than the Snowman trek.
Benjamin Clark’s documentary, appropriately titled The Snowman Trek follows a group of long-distance runners determined to tackle the mountainous pathway in record time. Clark himself, Timothy Olson, Anna Frost, and Chris Ord are told that their desire to finish the trek between 14 and 17 days is not just impossible, but incredibly foolhardy.
The foursome and their entourage need to navigate the ever-increasing altitude, the deep snow, constant rain, and all the perils associated with traveling treacherous mountain paths. All of which are bad enough, but there is one obstacle that has not been totally accounted for – tradition!
The guides set the pace and the travelers are forbidden from being without one. Happily, they are allowed to get in front and travel at a steady pace, leaving the weaker or tired members hours behind. But, the horses are even slower than the guides, often causing delays. Whatever brief bouts of tension this rudimentary film drums up stems from this clash.
“…their desire to finish the trek between 14 and 17 days is not just impossible, but incredibly foolhardy.“
Clark filmed the movie as they were attempting this record-breaking run across the Snowman trek. This means there is an impressive sense of scale and some wondrous shots of Bhutan’s natural beauty. The trade-off is that there isn’t a sense of urgency ever. Maybe it is just how repetitive The Snowman Trek is in its first 30 minutes that kills any momentum before it even begins.
Were you aware that Clark, Frost, Ord, and Olson are wanting to complete this in record-breaking time? Did you know that he, Clark, stopped going on these wild adventures after his son was born and that this will be his last one ever? How about the fact the Clark handpicked this team due to their resolve, speed, and experience? If you somehow missed the first two instances of these things being discussed, don’t fret, they are brought up ad nauseam; to the detriment of several more important elements.
The film opens with a CNN anchor reporting on Clark’s journey to scale, then ski down, Mt. Baruntse. This is in 2009. Due to the way it is shot and the odd introduction to Clark, I was under the impression he is a reporter. Rewatching the movie, it would seem that is not the case?
I am 90% certain that Olson is a professional runner but am probably very wrong there. Ord does not finish the trek, and therefore gets less screentime than the rest, so who knows what he does? As for Frost, her personal life is largely unknown, but she would make one hell of a motivational speaker.
The group meets a couple of yak farmers and has a good night with them. In an interview, Frost states that she enjoyed it. She’s also relieved to know that should something happen to them, there would be people closer than the horse entourage. What an awkward view of this amazing opportunity afforded them.
“They want to finish, they feel delayed, they stress over the delays…”
After spending 80, or so, minutes with these folks, one would think an idea of who they are would form. But it never does, for any of them. They want to do this in record time for personal pride and… and… there seems to be no other reason. The Snowman Trek seems rushed at every turn.
It is not enough for the audience to see these people attempt something considered impossible. If the audience is not invested then whatever they are doing does not matter. For all the talk the leads do of looking into one’s soul and coming out the other side a better human (they all say something to that effect), the most we know about them is that they are stubborn and determined. That is barely enough to understand why a couple just had a fight, much less why people would leave their spouses and children to go halfway around the world on a possible life-ending trek.
Also, those really interesting facts about the kingdom of Bhutan never factor into anything that happens. Those details were discovered while doing research after the movie ended. Bhutan’s religion is Buddhism and the country has never been colonized. Aside from the guide, who is Buddhist and the most engaging personality amongst them, this seems to do nothing for the hikers’ perspective. They want to finish, they feel delayed, they stress over the delays, the end.
The documentary Strangers On The Earth follows a somewhat similar pattern to The Snowman Trek. Both follow a group of people on a larger than life hike that spoke to people, got to their core and compelled them to undertake a grueling journey. Strangers On The Earth has a much more concrete understanding of how the landscape alters its larger pool of characters and the history behind the path. The Snowman Trek only cares about the speed with which it can complete its mission.
The Snowman Trek strives to be an underdog story, set along one of the most treacherous mountain paths on Earth. But it is not interested in the place, the people attempting the hike, or much else aside from whether or not the end goal is met. If the movie does not care about its subjects, why should an audience member?
The Snowman Trek (2018) Directed by Benjamin Clark. Starring Benjamin Clark, Wang Chuk, Timothy Olson, Anna Frost, Chris Ord, Narayan Kumar Moktan, Suk Bhadur Lama, Pema Dorji Moktan, Choney Norbu, Migmar, Wang Ayel.
4 Gummi Bears (out of 10)