Following the Zanskar

Chadar treks

Following the Zanskar

The land is so barren and the passes so high that only the dearest friends or fiercest enemies would want to visit us — Ladakhi proverb.

The dense fog and the sudden snowfall had delayed my flight. I was on my way to Leh for a enchanting experience over the frozen river, popularly known as chadar trek. Flight was about to land in Leh at an altitude 11,500 ft (world’s highest air strip) and the captain announced that it was -8°C outside. A cold current ran through me.

At 10 am on a bright and sunny morning, it was -8°C in Leh. I imagined what it would be like in the dark canyons of the Zanskar river. The chadar, which literally means sheet of ice or blanket, is essentially a walk on the Zanskar river. Every winter, the river freezes to form a gateway to Leh for the people living in the remote villages of Zangla, Padum, Pishu and Kharsha, the largest town in Zanskar. 

A chilling effect

My intention was to start the trek from a place called Chilling, the closest road head and army outpost 40 km from Leh. The drive to Chilling was spectacular. The road snaked through the wide, white frozen flats of Leh valley surrounded by snow-clad mountains, and climbed to a point just above the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers at a place called Nimmu. Frozen sculptures crafted by the sudden freezing of the tumultuous waves of water create poetry on the chadar. The waters carry the ice and snow, gurgling softly, as if murmuring a soulful song. Ice blocks that float on aquamarine water seem to be in a rush to meet the Indus originating from Mount Kailash.

At Chilling,I got a rewarding view of valley down the river and I walked down the rocky canyon to set my first tentative foot on the chadar. Our first camp, Tilatdo, was 2 km away. I didn’t think it would take me more than half an hour to get there. But my guess was wrong. Within a few minutes, I was sliding on an icy sheet, only to land on my bottom. I got some quick lessons about walking on the chadar from my guide Rinchen — you need to slide your feet on the sheet of ice or use soft crampons instead.

The evening sets in quickly and so does the cold — the temperature is -18°C as the sun sets. The cool breeze blowing from the canyons adds to cold. Our guide lights the stove to keep us warm in the kitchen tent. We settle into our tents after dinner and it seems like we are sleeping in a refregierator. 

At 8 am, a ray of sunlight torched the bottom of the canyon, bringing life in everyone. The rocks got a golden glow and the whole valley was in a riot of colours. On the way to Shukpa, our second camp, we decided to walk on the icy ledges of the Zanskar; the river was not frozen enough to form a chadar. The walls of the Zanskar canyon twisted and turned, and sometimes they spread out to make the flat white chadar seem wider than a vast playground. 

On a long, glassy stretch, Rinchen checks the condition of ice formation using ice axe, and we follow him. At one point, there was a huge outcrop of rock and the solid ice path was a few feet below it. Cold water flowed nearby. I had to lie face down and crawl under the rock for a few metres. On the third day, the upper reaches of the canyon received fresh snow showers. After walking for a kilometre, our guide asked us to stop: the chadar has broken.

The river was flowing over the frozen chadar. Besides walking, we had to clamber up the canyon walls and slither on its edges to drop down a few hundred metres ahead where it is hard. A small mistake here can prove fatal. The highly energetic Zanskari porters accompanying us dragged all our luggage on wooden sledges and also carried it on their backs when they had to negotiate a raging part of the river, or even jump over rods precariously driven into the ice walls. 

Out cold

Next day, I set out for Nerak, excited about seeing the frozen waterfalls on the way. The day was cold and dark. Drafts of icy wind bit into our skin, our breath froze in a thick fog and water dripped from our noses. Suddenly, out of a bend, the frozen waterfall leapt into view. It was gigantic and towered over us, rising almost to the height of 50-60 feet. A look at the icicles in the form of stalagmites and water dripping from it adds to the beauty of frozen falls. It’s difficult to imagine how falling water can freeze. 

I left the chadar to climb to a small rest house on the trail to Nerak. The village is hidden in the folds of the mountain. With increasing cold, the recorded temperature in the night was -25°C. From Nyerak, the chadar trail got tough, as we had to go over thin layers of ice; dig our feet into the powdery snow, or walk in ankle deep cold water. At a place called Woma, we crossed precariously over a narrow path with the help of ropes.

I walked over slippery stones near the river and then finally we had to climb a steep slope before we did some bouldering to reach Tsarak Do. Our guide arranged for a vehicle that took us to Padum, the capital of Zanskar. A quiet town with an idyllic landscape, this place has a population of about 900 people. The night temperature dips here to as low as -32°C, making life difficult. I visited the monastery at Kharsha on the hillock. I retraced the route over the chadar for yet another experience. An experience of a lifetime came to an end!

Fact file

* Chadar is a winter trek. The walks are long and the temperature is always sub-zero with easy gradient on the frozen river. Duration is about 14 days.
* Go armed with sleeping bags, jackets, a hiking pole, a pair of waterproof shoes and soft crampons.
* The best time for this trek is from the last week of January to the end of February.
* Nearest airport is Leh in Ladakh.

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