By Choki Wangmo 

The word “Agay” echoed throughout Arnaud Oltramare’s childhood, steeped in the rich traditions of his renowned Swiss aristocratic family. Growing up in the idyllic town of Cham, Arnaud absorbed the cultural nuances of the family’s “agay calling culture.” However, it wasn’t until many years later that he fully grasped the significance of the word, its origin, and the profound connection it held to his great grandfather, Fritz Von Schulthess.

Regrettably, Arnaud never had the chance to meet Fritz, who passed away on this day in 1991. The 26-year-old’s sole link to his great grandfather resides in a meticulously sculpted Bhutanese cup, a cherished family heirloom bestowed upon him by his grandmother. The cup occupies a special place in Arnaud’s room, serving as a tangible reminder of the deep bond shared between Fritz and the late Third Druk Gyalpo, whom Fritz affectionately referred to as the Pön. 

Arnaud grew up captivated by tales of his family’s enduring friendship with Bhutan, a relationship that traces its roots back to 1952, when Fritz embarked on his maiden voyage to the captivating country.

Fritz Von Schulthess

Arnaud Oltramare

Over the course of his 89-year lifespan, Fritz visited Bhutan 17 times, cementing the Swiss-Bhutan friendship through the establishment of the Foundation Pro Bhutan in 1969. The foundation subsequently transitioned into the hands of Helvetas, the Swiss Association for Development Cooperation, which has since expanded into a multimillion-dollar programme. 

Fritz’s dedication to Bhutan began in 1955, when he became the first private individual to extend external assistance to the country during her nascent modernisation journey.

In recognition of his unwavering commitment, Schulthess was honoured with the prestigious Druk-Yezhen Wangyal medal, a distinction shared only with Prince Namgyal Wangchuck of Bhutan.

Arnaud’s first encounter with the enchanting land of Bhutan transpired in 2019. Since then, he has harboured a burning desire to contribute to Bhutan’s development, following in the footsteps of his forebears spanning three generations. This year, he returned with a project, aiming to leverage his expertise as an Oxford University scholar in energy systems to aid Bhutan’s solar energy endeavours. Collaborating with the Department of Renewable Energy, Arnaud aspired to make a meaningful impact.

During his two-month sojourn in the country, Arnaud embarked on a profound journey, retracing the steps of his great grandfather in Bhutan. Within a mere two weeks, he undertook the daunting Snowman Trek, widely regarded as the world’s most challenging trek. 

Arnaud confided his mixed emotions in his travel journal, noting, “It was a special feeling, but I was also filled with nervous anticipation.” His great grandfather had been the first foreigner to conquer these formidable peaks in a mere three weeks, accompanied by a devoted crew of six members, a feat achieved 56 years prior.

In 1967, Fritz, accompanied by geologist Augusto Gansser and Dr Blanche Olschak from Switzerland, spearheaded pioneering studies on Bhutan’s glaciers. Arnaud endeavoured to recreate his great grandfather’s photographs from 1967 while delving into research on various battery technologies suitable for the frigid mountains of Bhutan.

Arnaud’s work holds tremendous potential in advancing Bhutan’s solar energy prowess. He recognises the critical need for efficient and uninterrupted power supply, particularly in the remote and secluded areas like Lunana. He dedicated three days to meticulously logging data every hour, fully aware that manual data collection is not the most efficient strategy in terms of time and resources. 

To optimise the process, he envisions connecting the batteries to satellites, an innovative approach that would streamline data collection and analysis. Arnaud believes that the findings from his research will inform the government’s decisions regarding the most suitable batteries for future solar energy plants.

Amidst his research and projects, Arnaud also had the opportunity to spend time with the students of Lunana Primary School. He marvelled at the advanced educational systems in place, where children were immersed in a diverse range of subjects, including arts, dance, and ICT.

As Arnaud prepares to depart from Bhutan, he carries with him vivid memories of shimmering glacial lakes, majestic mountain ranges, and the rugged terrains of the Himalayas. Enduring the capricious weather conditions – seven days of sunshine followed by seven days of rain – left an indelible bittersweet impression on the young scholar.

Scaling the heights above 5,000 metres instilled in Arnaud a profound sense of purpose. He passionately proclaims, “I study what I study because of the visible impacts of the changing climate.” 

The traces of receding glacial coverage he encountered along the way were poignant reminders of the rapidly transforming landscape.

In his daily journal, Arnaud pens his reflections, attempting to recreate his great grandfather’s photographs with horses as subjects. He notes that while his circumstances differed from those of his predecessors, with snow and yaks replaced by horses, the alignment was not an exact match. Nonetheless, Arnaud’s journey brought him closer to understanding the remarkable legacy left behind by Fritz Von Schulthess.

In the memoir “Three Weeks on the Tibetan Border”, penned by Fritz himself, he eloquently captures the essence of their expedition: “After crossing the Gofu-La, towering at an altitude of 5,300 metres, we set up camp in a desolate valley nestled at an altitude of 4,850 metres. As the morning dawned, the biting cold of -10°C embraced us.”

Arnaud Oltramare’s quest to bridge the gap between generations, to honour his great grandfather’s legacy, and to contribute to Bhutan’s sustainable future serves a testament to the bonds forged between nations and the indomitable spirit of exploration and discovery.