MIND OVER BODY
Day Temperatures : -15 to -20
Night Temperatures: -25 to -35
Chadar Trek is one of the wildest trek in the world and a superb test of your mental strength. Chadar means veil of ice and this frozen sheet/river is the only road-way for the zanskaris living in padum or lingshed to go to Leh or from Leh as other passes are closed during the winters due to heavy snowfall. There are few if any adventure treks in the Himalaya to match the Chadar winter expedition for sheer awe inspiring beauty, and none to match it in terms of day to day challenges and excitement.
Suitable for both men & women (with less experience of trekking)
The Zanskar Valley remains un-trekable during the summer with the raging zanskar river(melted snow), but forms a long passage of ice in winter which serves as the only way, though a little dangerous, out of the Zanskar valley. Zanskar – a distant/remote valley in Ladakh is a land that is completely frozen during the winters, is cut off, but is incredibly-theatrically scenic, also known as the land of the snow leopard and the ibex, black wolves and the rare Himalayan blue poppy, and of spirits and monks. The strange aspect of this valley is that it has no entrance & its at an average height of 13000 ft.The two rivers that flow in it meet to carve a valley so long and deep that one cannot travel down it to enter or exit the region. The only way out is crossing the Zanskar range of mountains by walking on the frozen zanskar river, through high passes that are closed eight months in a year.
One needs to spend two days in Leh to acclimatize before you start the full chadar trek otherwise high altitude sickness will kiss you soon which becomes very dangerous at times. Leh city is at around 3500 mts and most of the trekking was at 3200 mts. This is because we were walking on a frozen river. I had been to Leh earlier but this was the first time I was there in winters. First time you look around your jaw will drop when the town is all covered in snow, second time you look around your jaw drops further and then you get used to it. Just flying down to Leh, spending a weekend there will be very relaxing. After two days of acclimatization and some sightseeing (including a couple of famous monasteries)we started our trek.
Know for the tough temperatures one has to face throughout the trek, as low as -40 at night and for the courage of the local zanskaris who continue walking on that treacherous path to earn a living.
Day 1 to 9
Drive for around 60 kms to reach the starting point of trek called Chilling. First 30 kms is on Leh Sri Nagar highway (NH1) till Nimmu, this is the point of confluence of Zanskar and Indus river. From Nimmu you start driving towards Chilling. The road was smooth, wide, open and covered with snow on either side, if you love riding then this is the ultimate place to ride only if you can handle the cold. During day temperature here was around minus 10.
Zanskar river, as the name suggests flows from Zanskar region, so while in winters one can only trek on this frozen river, in summers it’s one of the most sort after rivers for rafting expeditions.
From Chilling we started walking on the frozen river. We were group of 7 guys, one guide, one cook and 12 porters. Most of the porters who typically do this trek are from Zanskar region. While for us this was recreation and fun but for locals it’s the way of life. Zanskaris have been using this winter route for centuries to come to Leh even now they use this route. For the zanskaris it’s better than climbing across mountain ranges as most of them have taken no formal training of climbing.
As we started walking, porters started sliding their sledge with our supplies and luggage. First day of walking wasn’t that bad, we were still getting use to sliding or at times walking like penguin on smooth icy surface. It was our first night and we just missed the caves by few minutes as another group came earlier and occupied the place. There are many caves on this route which have been used by locals forever as caves are warmer and better protected from weather though slightly dusty. Sun was down by 4pm and it was dark by 5.30pm. Its strange to not have to do anything other than to gaze stars and eat early dinner. Food would typically be cooked on kerosene oil stoves or wood. By 7.30pm we were done with everything.
After walking for two and a half hours we decided to break for lunch. On our way we met few people who were on their way back from trek. They gave a very bad report of the Chadar (ice layer on river) further ahead. On Chadar trek every day is a new day because weather condition keeps changing and as weather conditions change the formation of Chadar also varies. A lot of experience is required at times to walk on Chadar as the conditions keep changing every now on then. On cloudy day the temperature doesn’t dip down as a result Chadar doesn’t form properly. Since our second day was a cloudy one things didn’t seem good for us further ahead. We were not sure whether we should move on or camp for the night at Shingrak which was the place where we had stopped for lunch. We were already late by a day. After some discussion with the porters we decided to move on as it started snowing. The problem with snow fall is that it gets very difficult to see the surface under fresh layer of snow and one can easily step on thin layer and slip. So today was also the day when few of us stepped on thin layer of ice and slipped over; and my count of falling for the day was at 3.
We were sure to face some water crossings further ahead so we decided to change into gumboots and it did help as we had to walk in the river at times. To pass time in the evening I decided to climb up a small hill and get some panorama shots. On a daily basis, once we would stop for night stay, porters would collect wood from nearby hills for evening fire and to cook food. While we would chat and experiment with our cameras, the Buddhist Zansakris would chant for hours.
Our third day started with the regular snow fall and another round of discussion on how to proceed further. Even though walking in the snow was fun, we had to be really careful as it had been constantly snowing for the last two days. The Chadar was not well formed so there were places where we were walking on the edge of ice blocks, and we could hear waves of river reverberating under those blocks. These were small waves waiting to become rapids. At times these ice blocks would crack when we would step on them. We were really disappointed with the weather condition but that didn’t seem to deter locals travelling for family affairs. If it was too cold they would gulp down some rum or local alcohol called Chhang or Arak and for food supplies roasted and powdered barley (sattu). Barley is major crop grown in this region and the locals love it. We ended our day at Dib caves. Most of us had started coughing and sneezing because of continuously breathing in the unbearable cold wind.
When you are travelling in a group one needs to consider capabilities of the entire group. While some were fast walkers, others would take it easy and as we were already delayed by a day we had to implement plan B.
Plan B – Day 1 (Chilling to Tilath Sumdoh) – Day 2 (Tlakth Sumdoh to Shangrik) – Day 3 (Shangrik to Dib caves) Day 4 (Dib caves to Nyerak) – Day 5 (Nyerak to Charakdo) – Day 6 (road travel to Zangla) and then further on.
Day 5 onwards the plan was all dependent on making a phone call through a satellite phone in order to arrange a cab at Charakdo. So we started walking towards Nyerak and thankfully it was a sunny day. Chadar was in good shape so we encountered very few. As a result we reached Nyerak after walking for 5 hours.
You enter Nyerak by crossing into the Zanskar region. Zanskar range is between Ladakh and Kashmir valley. Zanskar is part of Kargil district, with it’s administrative centre at Padum, which comes under the 16 days Chadar Expedition style trek. All of a sudden porters started grinning as they had obviously reached before us and were ready to welcome us in traditional way as we were in their homeland now. But what really welcomed us was this jaw dropping gorgeous frozen water fall. We had seen a few smaller onces on our way but nothing like this before. All of sudden all our cameras came out and we started shooting as if Megan was posing nude specially for us.After four days this was the first time we came across a sign of civilization. There was an marked camping place and there was also a guest house with bukhari. Bukhari is local heater that is used to keep the room warm. It consist of a wide cylindrical fire-chamber at the base in which wood, charcoal or other fuel is burned and a narrower cylinder on the top that helps in heating the room and acts as a chimney. Some of the group members opted to stay in guest house while others decided to stay back in camp. Soon we found out that campsite belong to a 80 year old gentleman called Phunsok Dorjey who also stayed close by in a small house. Everyone here calls him Meme Pullu, Meme means grandfather in local language. Meme lives in a small 10’ X 10’room with everything that he needs at an arms stretch, including a nice warm Bhukari. Meme was quite a chatter box and he had many stories to share. He obvioulsy couldn’t understand hindi or english properly but he loved to talk. If that wasn’t amusing enough, Meme agreed to sing for us and he also played flute for us. It was minus seventeen inside the tent and below minus 20 outside. Even though it was sunny, we still had to keep on atleast three layers, one inner polypropylene inner, fleece and an outer jacket. While walking we would prefer weatherproof jackets and during evening down jacket was a must to tolerate the cold. Gloves would be on most of the time unless we clicking pictures or eating, I’m not very comfortable with caps but keeping your ears covered and warm becomes a necessity.
Today was the day to relax until Dalah, our guide, could go to the village and make a phone call for cab. So we enjoyed the sun, flirted with mountain goats and one member even decided to take a hot water bath. That was truely a luxury since most of us had not even changed our clothes for five days and we had not even brushed our teeth more than twice and would even hold on to nature calls to avoid exposure of body parts to cold .Let me just say that he was the cleanest out of all of us now.By the time Dalah returned it was 1pm and he had not even been able to make the phone call. We had no option but to return from here as all of us had connecting flights from Leh and we wouldn’t have made it on time if we decided to trek further towards Padum. But then we had Plan C.
Most people end their Chadar trek at Lingshed. It’s a small village famous for its monastery & the Lingshed solar school. Our guide had informed us earlier that it was a 4 hour trek. I was really interested in going to Lingshed and so were three others in our group. So four of us decided to move further with cook and 3-4 porters and rest of them decided to take it easy at Nyerak.
The walk to Lingshed wasn’t similar to the path we had covered so far. First one hour was on Chadar but from there on, we gradual began climbing up the hill. The climb wasn’t steep but the path was very narrow, it seemed as if someone carved a groove on the mountain just deep enough to place your foot, at best half a meter feet and at worst 6 centimeters wide. Mountains here are not made of big stable rocks but rather, they are formed by loose gravel because Zanskar range is formed by strongly folded and imbricated, weakly metamorphosed sedimentary series. So while walking we had to make sure that we press our foot really hard on the mountains to ensure better grip as we would watch small rocks tumbling 70ft down into the valley. As we wanted to reach before it gets dark, we walked non-stop for three and half hours to reach Lingshed Village. Our cook quickly arranged a nice homestay. When I say nice I mean it was built house with bukhari in it and solar powered LED lamps. They were kind enough to offer us some Chhang for refreshment. It tasted really nice so we asked our cook to arrange for some more. Chhang is like local beer but its taste is very different regular beer. It’s slightly lemony in flavor. Rathore, our cook, got some fermented barley to prepare fresh chhang for us. He added warm water to fermented barley and it was ready to drink after an hour or so. He also arranged for some arak (‘extract’ in hindi) that has higher alcohol percentage. We enjoyed Chhang party as we looked outside through big window pane at clear moonlight which was making already all white surroundings even whiter.
Lingshed Village has been inhabited for nearly a thousand years. It was originally reputed to be a local hunting area, which is the source of its name. The village has been the site of several Buddhist monasteries also. Lingshed Monastery (or Kumbum, meaning ‘A Hundred Thousand Images’) was founded as a Geluk School Monastery in the 1440s by Changsems Sherabs Zangpo, disciple of the noted Tibetan preceptor Je Tsongkhapa. Lingshed Monastery was another hour’s hike from where we were staying. On our way we met some locals. Tourism is probably the major change that Zanskar has experienced during recent times. The opening of this region to foreigners has brought benefits such as the financing of schools and the restoration of monasteries and roads. Lingshed Solar school that is run by an Austrian NGO is an example of this. The school provides upto secondary education to students from Lingshed and nearby villages.
After visiting the village and monastery we were ready for our return trek to Nyerak, which took us only three hours.We spent few hours in the night chatting with Meme and few of his guests, though our main agenda was to avoid minus 20 something cold outside. We also got to know that Charakdo, which was supposed to be our next stop as per plan A sees even lower temperature, as low as minus 35. Parts of Zanskar valley are considered to be some of the coldest continually inhabited places in the world.
Day Seven and Eight
I woke up to minus 14 inside the tent. Just like every other morning our finger tips were numb immediately after we moved out of our tent. It would get very difficult to pack up as our numb finger tips would hurt even more without gloves. Packing up every morning and unpacking every night was a daily ritual that everyone hated the most. Only after walking for a while is when our fingers would come alive. By now most of us had, had enough of Chadar experience and decided to cover longer distance in next two days and reach Leh a day early. As last 2-3 days had been sunny, top layer of Chadar had melted, so our walk for next 2 days walk was very extremely slippery. We would skid and fall multiple times. This is where crampons come very useful but for walking only crampons are sufficient and full crampons are not advisable. The ice was so smooth that it was difficult to find right path to take in order to avoid accidents. Since our group would typically get split into two, one being the fast movers and other slightly slow we would often find ourselves completely isolated with no human till wherever we could see. This reminded me of the movie Ice Age, just that we were not cartoon characters and this wasn’t an entertaining animation movie. We had heard few stories of people going down in the river whose bodies were never recovered but most of them were lucky to have not been drifted away in river. Majority of them just fell in ice cold water in this subzero atmosphere.After two days of walking 6 -7 hours on each day and falling over a dozen times we managed to reach Tilath Sumdo at 3.30 pm. While it was sunny The juice pack I had just taken out to drink had frozen in the pack. Best bet here is solid food and dry apricots are recommended as a good source of energy and also to keep you warm. Our cook tried his best to keep us happy with limited resources.
Final Day:We couldn’t wait for next morning when all of us would head back to Leh. It was our last freezing night and it would be our last, finger numbing morning. We thought a lot about the incredible experience we had been through in the past few days as we started walking towards Chilling from where we would board a bus to reach our hotel in Leh. Our bus was two hours late and those two hours seemed almost like one full day. A hot water bath with half a bucket of water in a centrally heated hotel seemed divine. Sitting on chair, talking on phone, sleeping on the bed seemed amusing to us.
Adventurer & Co-Founder at Himalayan Explorers Club
Feel free to get in touch to join me on the trek !