Chadar - Frozen Zanskar River
Chadar takes its name due to the formation of the thick ice on the Zanskar river.
It used to be a mode of transportation for the villagers of Zanskar Range in Ladakh to reach Leh and the other parts of Ladakh.
It was my first trek and lucky I was, to be on Chadar. I was all prepared, well before the trek, with good equipments and winter clothing. I practised the packing of rucksack more than thrice, so that the backpack would stay light with my every step on ice, but the story completely changed after I arrived in Leh, where the temperature was -10°C. I landed in the warmth of three layers of clothing from the flight. My group and I were excited by the cold as it was the first time experience for all of us. One of my friends who had landed wearing sandals began jumping all around the place and when he came to the Hotel, he began to feel the real cold sooner than the others. My legs had begun to feel the cold too. The pants I carried were good, but I had to get a windstopper which protected my legs well. Initially, I thought it was unnecessary, however later, I thanked one of my friends for insisting that I got inzñuy pants. I would say that was my saviour throughout the trek.
We stayed in Leh for a day where I witnessed the first snowfall of my life. It was a very good feeling as I had been wanting to experience a snowfall ever since I was a child (One wish off my bucket list).
January 16th was the day we started for the Chadar Trek. We had to camp at Chilling for a day.
The evening was a test walk on ice for us. All of us wore the gumboots which were so heavy and I had no idea if I would have a good grip wearing it on the rock and mud. I was using my trekking pole while getting down and suddenly I a rock hit me on my butt. That sent me sliding over the mountains, ripping my down jacket in two places(My expensive jacket!). I took slow steps to reach down to the river and there we were- The first time we stood upon the ice and I felt how hard the ice was to walk on. It was stronger than a rock. We were warned to be careful since a fall on our elbow or knee could cause multiple fractures.
The night was much colder than expected. This was the time where I felt the real cold pierce against my skin.
Fortunately for us, we got two layers of sleeping bags which kept us warm during the nights. The food we got was delicious. Every evening, it was the Hot soup which kept our blood flowing consistently and helped us fall asleep.
Zipping up the sleeping bag was a painful task. We got tired by closing ourselves inside the sleeping bag and we searched for water just before sleeping. The first experience was tough, but later we figured out the way to use a sleeping bag properly.
We rose early in the morning to the sound of “Kavah Chai”. A cup of hot tea is the best thing for the day to start with. The cooks who rise early in the morning and prepare food are like magicians who make your day healthy and ensure you have good food. The cold in the morning was too bad that we had to stand near the fire to keep ourselves warm. Later we decided to use warmers which helped us stay warm during the nights and early mornings.
We felt the cold dissipate when we started to walk on the Chadar as the physical activity generated heat within the body. Walking was no more difficult, but, if the Chadar broke, we would have had to climb cliffs and take an alternate route through the mountains. On Day1, we had to climb a little here and there. Since it was a short distance that we had to cover, it was quite easy for us to finish the first day walk and we reached Gyalpo, a campsite comparatively warmer than the others. The sun rays hit us directly on our faces. The heat along with the cold was amazing but the nights and early mornings were intolerably cold.
This was the campsite where I woke up early in the morning to experiment timeplase and star trail photography for the first time. I was roaming around the campsite to find a good spot for me to take photos and I found a lot of places where I could avoid the tents from peeping into my shots. Controlling the camera with gloves is a tough task, tougher if the camera has a metal body. Yet I managed to capture some shots. At this campsite one of my camera batteries had drained completely and I had to use the last one I had for the rest of the trek.
We started to Tibbs cave that morning. We thought it would be an easy way on Chadar to reach our next destination, but it almost fooled us there. The chadar wasn't well-formed in the middle so we had to climb the mountain. We had the micro spikes on and if the chadar had not formed well, we would have to remove the spikes. Few people actually fell into the chadar with water up to the knee level. The water crept into their legs. I managed to remove the spike, standing on the ice and jumped to the cliff as fast as I could. Imagine the temperature outside was -17°C and the water would freeze in no time. Those who fell into the chadar had to change their socks immediately and continue soon. We took a long walk on the mountains and walked again on a strongly formed chadar. That day, we walked 50% on land and 50% on ice. We had to slide across narrow spaces of ice. That was a chilling experience, literally. We slid our bags to our guides and then we slid ourselves through the ice, keeping the rocks as a source of support. The river was flowing at a great speed, a few centimeters away from us. It was undoubtedly the longest walk of the trek. We walked nearly 12-14 km on that day and we were exhausted for the last couple of kilometers.
On reaching Tibbs cave, we began to feel the cold more intensely in the evening since three sides of the Camp site we open. We had warmers and fire to our rescue during the stay.
We did not wake up early as we were too tired and we started a little late to Nirak, the last campsite of the trek. Just before we started to walk, we were warned to be safe since the Chadar was not formed properly. We assumed it would be a nightmare, and it turned out to be one. This was the hardest day of the trek where we had to take a lot of diversions on the mountains. There was a particular place where we could not climb the mountains either. That left us with no choice but to take the river side where it was broken till the knee level. While a few managed to cross the broken part, the others took the guide's help. One of my friends got stuck in a place and we needed 3 people to lift him to the cliff. We had one more elderly person with a lot of trekking experience. There was a place where we had to climb down and the rocks were so soft that we had very less grip with the gumboots. The trek leader and the guides were of much help there. One miscalculated step from the older person on the rocks sent him on a 12 feet fall on his back with his backpack. Luckily, he was alright after the fall. After that it was good for everyone since we made the walk on the Chadar and were soon approaching Nirak. We saw a campsite and got excited at the idea of grabbing some rest. Unfortunately, it wasn't a campsite. Nearby, we saw a huge hill where everyone made a climb. It was indeed a tough one. But there was something behind that hill. We decided to make that climb and went to the other side of the hill where we saw Nirak on the top of a mountain with very few houses and the huge 150ft frozen waterfall meeting up with zanskar river. The entire waterfall was completely frozen. Quite obviously, it was photo posing time for everyone after that huge climb and seeing something as beautiful on Earth. I would say I felt like I was in heaven for the couple of hours that we stayed there. Then we headed to Nirak campsite and were really surprised to see a building there where we all stayed in a cozy room with a heater. Trust me, the outside temperature was -35°C during the night and early in the morning. We did not know any of it since we were all inside a heated room.
Our return journey was incredibly good. We had some difficulties, but the Chadar was completely formed due to the consistently cold weather. I did not shoot much photos on this trek since I had to choose between survival and shooting and I chose the former. Fighting the cold was a tough task for me. We finger-counted the number of days to reach leh and back to the comfort of our house. It was such a happy feeling returning from the biting cold to Leh. After being back home, it was a welcome, back to the sheer monotony of staying inside a concrete room with tables and other furniture.
This feeling existed even after I came back from my previous trip to the Himalayas, but this time, the effect had been too fast and too hard on me and I am still recovering from this feeling of innate happiness, a sense of belonging to the mountains. This, is what the mountains can do to you. It always calls you back. Hoping to explore the Himalayas many, many more times.
A thanks, as big as the Himalayas itself, to all my fellow trekkers and friends who travelled with me on this trek. It was a worthy, life time experience with them by my side.