Chadar Trek – A Lifetime Experience
Ladakh a cold desert at an average altitude of more than 3000 m is adorned by visitors from across the globe. It has captivated visitors with its magical charm and beauty. On the contrary it becomes deserted in winters with one of the harshest conditions of the world with temperatures dropping to a level of -35 degree Celsius. Everything freezes in Ladakh be it water or soil along with low air temperature. Oxygen levels also fall as compared to summer. The entire region is cut off from the rest of the world and the only way to reach there is by air if weather conditions are favourable. My visit was on account of Chadar Trek & an endurance test for myself. With detailed preparation I am here to witness Ladakh in its harshest but truest form.
The Chadar Trek or the Zanskar Gorge is a winter trail in the Zanskar region of Ladakh. “Chadar” refers to the sheet of ice that form over Zanskar River as it transform itself from a rapid flowing river into a white blanket of ice during winter. Traditionally was the only means of travel in the area during the harsh winter months; the trail has become popular with adventure tourists. The trail connects village in Zanskar Valley with Tilad Do which is connected by road from Leh. It is the most sought adventure activity in the region. Walking miles on the frozen river in harsh conditions with basic facility is a test of your endurance. The most preferred time to cross the ice would be in February. During that time, the ice tends to be at its most stable state. The frozen river trek begins from the small village of Chilling from where the Zanskar River begins to freeze. It is considered as one of the challenging as well as tricky treks in the world.
Quick Facts about conditions
Temperature: -5 to -10 degrees (during the day) and -25 to -35 degrees (during the night)
Trekking Distance: 75 KM
Altitude: 10,390 to 11,400 ft
Difficulty Level: Difficult due to extremely harsh conditions
Considering the harshest conditions on earth, this trek cannot be taken very lightly. This trek needs respect and detailed preparation. The first and foremost step towards taking this trek is by preparing your mind to counter extreme conditions. Train yourself to expect and accept sub – zero level conditions. Your mental strength will signal your body to withstand the cold climb. Apart from that, I did extensive preparation for the trek. Basic packing requires woollens, warm shoes, woollen socks, gloves, synthetic gloves or surgical glove, warmer, goggle, sunscreen lotion, cold cream, cap, synthetic track pants, light towel, fleece jacket, full sleeves tees, thick jacket, balaclava, muffler, toiletries, & personal medicine. Advance equipments include gumboot, backpack (55 – 65 L), trekking pole, LED torch with extra batteries, head lamps, camera, memory-cards, batteries, power bank, etc. Trekking gear should be brought from home as there are not many places available at Leh during the winter where supplies can be bought.
Here I am with all my trekking equipments
The ultimate trekking expedition
Ladakh, I am all here to witness you in your harshest but truest form. When I started from Delhi the temperature was around 12 degree Celcius. The view of Himalayas from flight was an amazing sight and an experience in itself. After one and half hour the flight landed at Leh with a bone chilling announcement of outside temperature being -15 degree Celsius. An adrenaline rush and I was ready for the experience. Flying over miles and miles of Himalayan ranges tells you known stories about roof of the world. Leh has embraced itself into a different outlook as compared to summers. It’s important to take rest and acclimatize to tough conditions. I visited Shanti Stupa to witness the beauty of Leh and stroll through the market that was almost deserted. Very few shops and eateries in the town were open for business; but if required, some last minute-shopping for the trek can be done. The chill in the air will serve only as a preview of the temperatures during this winter trek. The group met at the guest house and got familiar with each other and spent the night in guest house to begin the journey next day.
Saviour in sub zero temperature
Meet the team
We were all set and started our journey with a drive of 65 KM to base camp Tilad Do via Chilling. It was a picturesque drive through panoramic landscapes and amazing view of Stok Kangri Range. On the way we crossed sangam “confluence of Indus & Zanskar River”. The turquoise blue colour of water was an awesome sight. The drive continues and the road begins descending right into the river valley. Amidst these humungous mountains you can feel the insignificance of your existence and no one can escape from this. The paved road is about to end thereby making a way for the trail. The camp and frozen river were welcoming us for a journey of lifetime. It takes a while to sink in the feeling of this beauty and get a hang of walking on the ice sheet. We did a small training session to be ready for final test. At the onset of evening, the team pitches tents on the banks of the Zanskar River, and hands out thick warm sleeping bags. The temperature started falling very quickly and the sleeping bags in the tents look quite appealing. I slipped into my sleeping bag with an anxious wait for the trek that will start from next day onwards.
First glimpse of Zanskar River & Chadar
Base Camp at Tilad Do
First walk on frozen river
Training session with some fun
The biggest challenge of the day was to get out of the warm sleeping bags and go out into freezing temperature outside. This will remain the situation for remaining days as well. A hot cup of tea was all that provided the initial thrust to start the day. Spending night under zillions of start in a tent under world’s harshest conditions is a dream of every adventure enthusiasts. The real trek starts today with a target of 10 KM walking session to Shingra Koma on Chadar. I needed a pinch to get out of the dream and come to reality with a feeling “Yes, I am here for what I dreamt of”. The trek leader gave us briefing about the day, and necessary tips on how to walk on the Chadar. Chadar is so versatile that it changes its form depending on the weather conditions. It can be a cold and hard surface of slippery ice, or it can have a dusting of snow over it, providing a good grip. The ice can be thick or thin, and its best to keep closely following the guide. When you are under alien conditions then it is always advisable to follow the path of your leader.
Thinking – should I come out
Completely frozen bed – unbelievable
Just adore the beauty of nature
Pug marks of Snow Leopard
Magic of sunlight and reflection
Eventually our group got used to walking on the Chadar, which looks like a fusion of gliding and skating. The porter-cum-cooks prepare food in between by setting up kitchen and it is important to keep up a decent level of food and fluid intake. After passing Shingra Koma we reached our campsite for the day at Gyalpo. This campsite was at a bend at the river side surrounded by high peaks and walls of rock faces. I just soaked in the pristine beauty and bounty of nature before signing off for the day post dinner. A trail through the dreamy world is all what I could say.
Such thick blanket of ice with different layers
Negotiating a difficult phase during the journey
The routine is same with a target of 15 KM to be covered during the day upto Tibb Cave. This is the longest walk in a day on the entire trek. The walk through the deep canyon of the Zanskar was astonishing. The giant walls of the mountains on either side of the river keep the sunlight away but nothing to worry as continuous walking keeps your body warm. The temperature is always below sub zero level. The moment a break is taken one can feel the chill and it becomes difficult to withstand the halt. There were numerous caves in the mountain and the sight of frozen waterfalls is reminiscent to the harshest conditions of the region. Trekking through various forms of ice is what we come for. The natural shapes and colour that they form was an amazing sight. As goes the saying that every mountain has a story and there is a story to this place as well. Once again I signed off the day filled with amazement and expectation.
Maggi the saviour
Kawa – Kashmiri Tea
Is it real?
The target for today was 12.5 KM of trek to the final destination Naerak waterfall. This is most enticing piece of journey that every trekker comes for. Today was the most spectacular of all days on this trek. We crossed deep gorges while walking on the chadar and reached a point where Juniper trees are covered with prayer flags. The porter handed us a twig of this tree as a badge of good-luck and good-health. The first sight of Naerak waterfall took away all the fatigue and exertion that we have gone through during this trek. This gave us the energy to rejoice our achievement and motivation for return journey. This is the mother-of-all frozen waterfalls – a huge instance of suspended animation several feet tall and equally wide, a dreamy land indeed. We cannot even think of such magnificent natural artwork. The reflection of various colours when sunlight plays with its surface was an amazing sight. I cannot explain the feelings through words as it can only be witnessed and absorbed standing in front of it. You can adore the masterpiece by standing still for hours and hours. As the saying goes keep the nature to itself, imbibe the beauty, and get back with self belief in your existence. Once can also go for a visit to Naerak village that lies several feet above the river by an hour long trek to take a look at the villagers and their life style. The camp was set up close to the river and we were all rejuvenated for the return journey via same route towards base came.
Passing through Slush
So, the return journey will have same stop over i.e. Tibb Cave, Shingra Coma, and then Tilad Do. Still have two night halts and almost 3 days of trek on chadar. After routine morning activity the return journey started and to our utter surprise the chadar formation has completely changed. The Zanskar River reacts to slightest change in temperature and Chadar gets different forms and shapes thereby making the trek challenging. The Chadar have assumed a completely new form, and it was almost impossible to say whether you have been here before except those long walls of mountains. On the way, we met lot of locals as well who were easily negotiating the Chadar as if it is a cake walk for them. It was a fascinating sight and keeps you amazed that how adept they are with the situation there. We crossed through the last phase of Chadar and chance to immerse in the pristine beauty of frozen river. After reaching Tilad Do, we bid adieu to Zanskar and thank all our porters for taking good care of us. It was indeed a memorable experience that will remain embedded forever in my heart till eternity.
Trek to Naerek VIllage
A house at village
Beautiful Kids of Nearek Village
Chadar trek is like no other trek in the Himalayas. Technically it is not hard as you trek down on a river bed but the conditions are so extreme & harsh that it makes it very difficult from others. Walking on a frozen thick glass like river, with dramatic mountains on both sides, is an experience of a lifetime. The temperature remains below sub zero level during entire trek ranging from -15 to -35 degrees. The porters carry the camping equipments and food supply on sledges for entire tour. This trek is a survival instinct involving mental and physical instincts, making it an eminently ‘one must do’ trip. The trek allows you to get to know the Zanskari culture up close through the locals you meet on the trek and experience their hospitality. It becomes a frozen spectacle of glass ice ranging from a bluish tinge to golden yellow that is seen during the few hours that sunlight reaches directly into the gorge to the milky whitish on a moonlit night. The frozen waterfalls on the way and various gorges were a sight that reminds you how miniscule you are in front of them. The most magnificent highlight of the trek was completely frozen Naerak Waterfall the mother of all waterfalls. The landscapes and overall experience will leave their imprints on your hearts forever. Chadar Trek was a life defining experience that will remain embedded in my heart till eternity.