This article is dedicated to my trekking group, “Special 26”, where I forged friendships for life! Special shout out to Chutki, Doc, Shanki and Anuj! You guys made the trek one of my best experiences.
“Wham!!”, I fell hard on the ice sheet and with that started my ‘counter’ for the number of falls during the trek. I was fortunate to have fallen on my back where my bag took most of the impact of the hard ice. Assisted by my fellow trekker, I got up and checked for mobility and injuries. Barring a minor scratch on my shin from my gumboots, I was good to go! Chadar trek, ‘chadar’ meaning a sheet of ice, had just started to become fun!
Chadar trek was the trek of trade-offs. It is a 8 day trek on the frozen river Zanskar which connects Zanskar village with Leh, the commercial city of Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Every year, there is a narrow window of about a month (mid Jan- mid Feb) when the powerful river Zanskar freezes creating a thick sheet (or ‘chadar’ in local parlance) of ice. During this time, it is the only way that connects the village with the city of Leh. Surrounded by steep gorges on both sides, this route became famous and one of its kind ‘Chadar trek’ where trekkers walk on the frozen sheet from Leh to Zanskar and back over a course of 7-8 days. It is not uncommon for the temperatures to go below -35 deg C in the nights.
It’s difficult to exactly explain what made the trek challenging. The sheet of ice was relatively flat but it was slippery to walk on with constant threat of falling on it. An unlucky fall could also lead to serious injuries (a few people from other groups got fractures and had to go back). Where the sheet was thin, there was the danger of breaking and falling into the ice cold water. The alternative was to climb through steep, near vertical gorges on the very uncomfortable gumboots. I still have the injury marks on my shin from the repeated scratching of my skin against those gumboots. I could finally see where we got the phrase “between the rock and hard place”.
People helping each other through patches with thin ice sheet. One of the porters eventually fell into the water in this patch but was quickly lifted up. Tells us about the hard life of the localites.
However, all this was nothing compared to the sub-zero temperatures. It gets worse when the trek stops for the day and body stops generating the heat from mobility. The tents are typically set up by the time we reach the campsite. There are 2 or 3 occupancy tents, a kitchen tent, dining tent and a couple of tents which act as the restrooms. Despite the multiple layers we wear, it takes immense mental strength to beat the cold.
Our day typically started with a whistle from the guide announcing the breakfast is ready to be served. I was in a 3 member tent that I called the girls hostel of the camp. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call my tent-mates, Chutki and Doc. Chutki is a real life personification of the bollywood character ‘Geet Dhillon’ from the movie ‘Jab we Met’. Bubbly and hyper energetic, she was a non-stop entertainment and my partner-in-crime-and-whine during the trip. We also made our mark with our ability to sleep like a log in those temperatures. The only thing that woke us up was the whistle for breakfast or when one of the porters shook our tent to start packing. Doc was the only member of the group with a background in medicine who was also, as I later learnt, a very brave and inspirational woman who came through some tough times.
Once awake, we would diligently finish the morning ablutions including a trip to the ‘restroom’. The restroom in question was basically a small dug out hole surrounded by 4 sheets of cloth to give us a semblance of privacy. After the first few users, it wasn’t really in a usable condition. For city dwellers like us, our sense of hygiene was the first that we had to kill. To find a relatively ‘clean’ spot, we would hike great distances to go through the morning restroom activities.
Breakfast was accompanied by a glass of hot tea. The tea tasted horrible but it had the priceless merit of being hot. In death inducing cold temperatures, that’s all that mattered. The breakfast varied everyday and it tasted yummy. We would quickly pack our bags optimized to not be heavier than 7-10 kgs and start for the next camp site. There would be a mid-day stop for lunch which typically included maggi in tea cups. Tasted heavenly.
The whole booking through an agency for the trek was an interesting experience. It basically worked through multiple levels of aggregations. There were a few ‘market facing’ agencies who had proactive sales reps and a commercial website through which most of us booked the trek for specific dates. Once they confirmed the payment, they would hand us over to a local, Leh-based agency that arranged for accommodation and transportation in Leh. This Leh-based agency would aggregate trekkers from different agencies to make sure the entire slots for a group were filled. They would then hand us over to a Zanskar based agency who would arrange for logistics and guides during the duration of the trek. This group consisted of porters, cooks and guides. They typically had 3 guides who always had a set formation- a lead guide who would mark the paths, a middle guide who was responsible for everyone who is not the first or the last and a guide at the tail end who usually accompanies the people in the end. They would constantly keep a count of the group no matter how spread out we were- it was an incredible skill.
After a couple of days, we finally got the hang of walking of the ice without falling after every few meters. The trick was to slide on the gumboots rather than walk. We also realized that walking in pairs, holding hands reduced the chances to fall further. Basically, if individually the probability of falling was 20%, in a pair, the probably reduced to 4% (yes, I actually explained the math behind this to my fellow trekkers).
The worst part was encountering the bad patches where the ice wasn’t formed properly or was too thin to walk on. The alternative was to climb the steep gorges assisted by our guides. With our bags and gumboots, we weren’t ideally equipped for mountain climbing. To top it all, we were gifted by a guide who took it upon himself to increase the adventure quotient of our trip every day. While the rest of the groups followed a path easiest for the inexperienced trekkers to pass through, our guide would choose to be the avant garde and take us through a cliff hanging path (literally!). I once asked him the reason for this for which he simply shrugged and said “lesser traffic”! He was the ‘bhai’ of the group.
The evenings were the worst. We would typically reach by 3 or 4 pm on any day and then started the horrendous waiting period till we fell asleep. Our group started getting creative to kill the time. Our favourite activity was to explore the nearby routes, search for dry wood and burn them for as long as they lasted in the night. Surrounded by the bonfire, we would share stories, play games and generally have a good laugh. The nights were clear and the sky sparkled with millions of stars usually not visible in the cities.
If this was ever a ‘survival’ competition or one of those corporate team building exercises, my group would have won the event hands down. We were one of the most well-bonded groups and it showed in how we all made it successfully till the end without incident despite being a large group of 26 people. We had someone who had the natural ability to pull everyone into our ‘group activities’. We nicknamed him ‘the leader’. We had a strong climber who fit in quite naturally in the terrain (I nicknamed him ‘the mountain goat’). He kept pace with us and sometimes even assisted the guides in helping the rest of the group cross-over a difficult patch. We had a couple who were the slowest trekkers but made up for it in their humongous ability to laugh at themselves. They also took on the role of interfacing between the group of trekkers and the group of guides and porters. And bottom-line, we were all taking care of and watching out for each other. Our constant banter and bonhomie took us through the harsh conditions.
The final stop was a village ‘Nerak’ which had a humongous frozen waterfall. It was truly out of world sight. Due to poor formation of the ice sheet just a few meters before the waterfall, we had to climb and descend a steep hill to reach the waterfall adding more than an hour to the journey; something that would have taken 5 minutes through ice sheet. A Nerak, we were also able to get a roofed hut to stay the night for an extra cost instead of the tents. So needless to say, that was a party night!
We trekked back from Nerak to the starting point via the same route but ironically, it was now that we started noticing the beauty of the scenery around us. Given our increased comfort with walking on the ice, we had our eyes focused lesser on our feet and more around the scenes in the valley. Naturally, most of the pictures were clicked on our way back. The white sheet of ice surrounded by gorges in shades of brown overlaid by clear blue sky constituted the spectacular views. It made the whole trip worth all the effort!
On the final day and back at our first camp, most of us went through what had become a tradition for the trekkers- jumping into the ice cold water. With people surrounding and cheering as each one of us jumped in and took dips into the water, it was definitely the perfect closure to the trek we all needed.
Though this isn’t a trip for everyone, I would encourage those with any streak of adventure to definitely visit soon!