Ladakh can be a difficult place to travel at a height of 11000 feet approximately above sea level. The mountains are steep and in the winter snowfall closes many of the mountain passes and makes the few roads treacherous. Some villages become completely inaccessible between November and March. One method of accessing snow-bound villages during the winter is trekking on top of the ice of frozen rivers. The Chadar trek is one such route, connecting villages in the Zanskar valley (deep in the mountains) with Chilling (on the road to Leh) along the frozen Zanskar River. This route has been used for centuries for trade and transportation and is most reliable in February when the ice is most stable.
Zanskar river is big and fast-flowing. For most of its length between Chilling and the Zanskar valley the river is confined within a steep canyon. If the idea of walking over frozen river ice with a large pack on your back and very cold rushing water a few inches below your feet is terrifying, then you are not alone.The hike from Chilling to the Zanskar valley takes more than a week, and at night porters usually sleep in caves in the canyon walls.
This trek is considered as one of the most exciting and unique, demanding and dangerous treks – a very special and an extraordinary trek on shiny ice on the bank of Zanskar River. We took our flight for LEH. e were a group of seven out of which two women. We were told to rest and acclimatize for the first day.In the evening at a temp of -12 outside we were told to take a walk and try to acclimatize to the harsh climatic conditions. I was very excited as it started snowing and it was my first tryst with snow.
Next day I woke up early and saw a white blanket covering the whole area as it had snowed all night, to go and visit the Thispay monastery which was also an hours drive.It was a beautiful drive with unimaginable scenic beauty. Also, we visited a glacier formation project to be made approximately 50 feet high, being down by an NGO in association with funds coming in from the US to provide clean and pure drinking water to the people of LEH all throughout.
Next day was the beginning of the Trek…for which I had been excited all along, We started an early day where we were taken by vehicles to be dropped off at Chilling Sumdo. ON our way we were told that there has been a landslide and as it was a Sunday, so no work of cleaning the landslide could be done. So we all decided to approach the army officer in charge of that region. A few phone calls and severe clearing work, the road was cleared and we were able to reach the spot we were to be dropped off.
Then we got off the vehicles and as it was late afternoon, we were told by the guide that we would be going down the valley and set up camp as the sun was already going down and it would be difficult to carry on further ahead. The evening was a fun-filled with fresh soup and hot fresh dinner prepared by the sherpas. It’s very difficult to cook in these conditions as everything takes a while to heat up as water is below freezing point. Then we retired to our tents, Here we were given sleeping bags of the type which army uses in Siachen. I took off my shell pants and got into the sleeping bag.It was freezing cold and we slept off dreaming of having frozen.
Day two began early …. I woke up to bed tea being brought by the chef and wake up call.As I got up found my nose red and freezing cold and icicles in the tent.To wear our shoes is also a major task here as you start panting even if a little work is done. Got ready, had breakfast to start for which was told to be at a distance of 12kms ht of3222 ft above sea level. Thus, all equipped with 4 layers of down jackets and shell pants and a backpack carrying extra clothes, if we fall into the water, we began the much-awaited journey. It was then the trek lead us in a narrow valley filled with breath-taking views of ice-peaks and unexpected hanging icicles that will attract your gaze for some time. We stopped midway for a tea break after which as we resumed our journey there were rough patches where the ice was very thin and we could hear as well as see the water flowing underneath.It was scary but using our poles we passed the risky stretch …Now came the slippery part where the ice formed was in the form of waves and made us slip here and there so much so that now the walk had our full attention so to avoid breaking of bones. Finally, the stretch of 12kms was over and heaving a sigh of relief, we sighted our camp. It also gave us time to admire the surrounding beauty of barren mountains without any plant or animals. This area is totally cut off from the world and it was our first realization point that if something happens we are not connected at all with anybody.
Now we rested and it was dusk …the sky looked breathtakingly beautiful with its array of colors and as evening turned to night, millions of stars shone bright and clear. Happy and tired of having done today’s bit we retired in our sleeping bags which would warm up after a while and keep us warm through the night.,Today we decided to use warmies and they really helped in keeping us warm.The night temp fell to a chilling -28.
Day 3 began with the same routine ….after coming back into 4 layers and having had a sumptuous breakfast the trek started to Chomo at a height of 3423 feet and 10 kms away.
Our daily trek begins at around 9:00 am and by then the sun’s up and blue skies bring cheer despite the cold temperatures. The trek goes along the Tsarap River in the region of Nyerag, Lingshed and constitutes toZanskar!
Trekking on ice is intimidating and you definitely need a good guide.It is difficult to assess the thickness of ice and at times you are trekking on very thin ice wherein you can see the water flowing below.This gives you shivers as you are not sure when it would cave in and you would land in the icy cold water beneath, which could be fatal. At times you are walking along the margins with the steep canyon on one side and the river gushing on the other.If you have a fall, you would likely be swept under the ice in seconds.
The Chader is a Life time experience for better or worse, which might fail to exist within 5 years as a road is being constructed out of the rock above which will lead upto the Zanskar valley.This will bring an end to the ancient local practice.
Zanskar is a mighty river of Ladakh which freezes in winter and a thick blanket of ice is formed on water the ‘Chader’ which is formed only during the extreme climatic conditions.The frozen Chader is the only way in and out for the Zanskaris.. It has been their traditional trade route in winter for Centuries.It is a mind testing Track where you are challenged by extreme temperatures of –30 to – 35 Degree Celsius as well as the tough terrain. Also, lack of communication with the rest of the world makes you think and also reflect back on the importance of life.
Day 3 was fun as we saw a hot water spring with water gushing out of it and adjacent to it an enormous waterfall all frozen up and eye captivating.
Day 4 was very windy and the trek started as usual …..after going ahead realised that the chader had broken and so we had to climb mountains and cliffs to cross the fast flowing river. After a stretch of about 6 kms it became worse so our guide took a call to go back to the last camp, as otherwise we would be stuck out in the open for nobody knows how many days. Climbing the cliffs was scary and difficult giving us goose bumbs initially as if you slip, you would go right into the gushing river below. Went back to the camping sight where the porters had reached back before us to set back the tents and make hot and tasty food for the trekkers.
We all sat down remembering our families and all the good things we have in life and thanking our stars, singing away as night sets in.
Day 5. We started early as had to reach the point where we were to be picked to go back to Leh. Though starting early did not help much as the ice had melted in quite a few places and had to cross by way of cliffs. The sun shone now and then peeping our spirits. Finally, we saw the vehicles standing way above on the edge of the rocky mountains. We felt saddened that in a while our beautiful journey would come to an end but also happiness on being able to go back to civilization.
We climbed the steep mountains with renewed vigour and reached the vehicles bidding adieu to Chader left back for Leh. On reaching here awaited a warm welcome followed by our trip to the Shanti Stupa, Ranchos school and the Tibetan market.
Next day packed our bags to fly back home. It was a sad departure as had made great friends for life on this trip. But a great sense of achievement was there on having been mentally strong to brave the extreme -35 temp and coming back home in one single piece,
All in all a great adventure trip which I would love to do again if ever given an opportunity in future.