Chadar - Frozen River Trek (Zanskar valley- Laddakh- Leh)

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March 12th 2017
Published: March 12th 2017
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This was my first winter trek and by far the most thrilling and adventurous. After a gap of two years I was again planning to do the thing I love most “trekking to offbeat locations”. The month was December which is among few months where we have winters in India. Though the southern part of India remains warm and humid throughout the year the northern part can witness very cold climate at the plains and freezing subzero temperatures in the mountains.

Having done a lot of research about the place where I should visit this winter, I finally zeroed down to the “Zanskar river” trek also known as the “Chadar river trek “(Chadar in English is bed sheet or blanket). During winters the complete length of the river develops a thick sheet of ice over it (though the river flow underneath) which enables people to walk over it and also carry loads on sledges. The natives of Zanskar village have used this route for centuries to connect with the city of Leh as there was no road connectivity. Today also the road is only till “Chilling” and the other half is under construction.

Geographically the river stretch is about 80 Kms and it lies in the Laddakh region , in the “Leh” and “kargil” districts. This is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, bordering the state of Himachal Pradesh but not very far from the Pakistan and China controlled regions. The climate throughout the year is quite cold and during winters (Dec to Feb) the day temperatures are generally in the range of negative (-)10*C to (-15 *C which goes down to (-)25 to (-)30*C by night, and with wind-chill it feels ever lower.

The planning Phase:

Once decided, the next part was to book the trek with a trekking company. This required a lot of online research as you always have a tradeoff between price and credibility of the firm. I finally booked the trek with “Adventure Nation” which was INR 20K for a 9 day long trip which included food and camp stay during the trek and two days complementary (arrival and departure day) stay at a small hotel in Leh. However when we reached Leh it came out that they were not the guys who will do the trek for us instead they are just an aggregator who have offloaded us to a local tour operator “geographic tours” who in turn will arrange all trek , porters and guide for us. It’s a suggestion that directly book with “Geographic tours”.

Any ways after booking the trek the next item on the list was to book flight for Leh. Leh is accessible only by air for about 6 months a year as roads leading to the city gets closed due to heavy snow. There are no direct flights from Pune (my place of stay) and all connecting flights are through New Delhi. If you book the flight about 2 months in advance the return fare will be close to INR12k which will up to INR17-18K if you book 15 days prior to your departure. However just booking a flight does not ensure that you can reach Leh, have written about it in the later part of the blog.

The third and most important part of the planning stage is buying right clothes for the trek. For the total time we sent on the trek we will either be walking or sleeping on the thick sheet of ice. In nights we will be sleeping inside the tents in the sleeping bags. With the temperature going down to extremely low levels it’s important to wear warm clothes in layers. A thermal, over it a T shirt, then 2 layers of thin thermals, a fleece and a water and windproof thick bottom jacket on the top. For legs same kind of layer with a ski pants on the top. Need to also wear a knee length warm socks and gum boots. Gum boots are mandatory as several times your legs get into a feet of freezing water and you don’t want to your feet to get wet under these circumstances as it will only cause frost bite and even worse a blood clot.

This trek does not requires a lot of climbing (maximum height about 11500ft) hence it’s not a difficult walk but the extremely low oxygen level and awfully low temperature makes this trek garaged as difficult. If you have a cardiac issue or asthma this trek is not advisable.

I booked my trek for the batch of 7th to 16th Feb 2017 with adventure nation. Will fly to New Delhi on the night of 6th Feb and will catch a flight to Leh on 7th Morning.

Day 1- 6th Feb Night –

All set- I left my home at night to catch a flight from Pune to New Delhi on 6th Feb. I got a message from the airlines that I have been upgraded to Business class free of cost which was a pleasant surprise. Enjoyed good food/service and landed at New Delhi at around 1.30 am on 7th Feb. My flight to Leh was next morning at 7.30 and had to spend the whole night at the airport. New Delhi airport is very busy and it’s difficult to find a proper place to sit or relax, however got a company of a girl travelling to Chennai the next morning and the night was spent chatting and sharing adventures stories of similar trips.

Day 2- 7tH Feb ’17:-

In the morning was waiting for the boarding announcement for my flight to LEH. Flights for LEH are very tricky as it may get postponed or cancelled depending upon the weather there. The Leh airport do not have night landing facilities and aircrafts cannot land if there is snow on the runway. Last week due to heavy snow fall many flights got canceled which jeopardized the trekking plans of many groups. In fact one of my friend who went to LEH could not start his trek due to heavy snow and had to stay in the hotel all along his trip, his return was also delayed as flights where not going to Leh from Delhi (same flights takes passengers back from LEH).

However I was lucky that the weather was clear that morning and the flight took off at the scheduled time. The flight duration from Delhi to Leh is about 45 min and we fly over some of the highest peaks of the world covered by a thick sheet of snow.

We landed at 8.30 am in the morning, Leh welcomed us with a clear and sunny sky though the temperature was negative 13*C. As soon as you come out of the plane you feel the lightness in the air and scarcity of oxygen. It was announced in the flight that it’s advisable to rest and acclimatize in Leh for first 48 hours and not to do any major physical activities. If symptoms like headache, nausea persist than you should quickly rush to nearby medical center run by army and local admiration for oxygen level check.

Leh airport is military controlled airport and situated in the valley, it’s a small airport with basic facilities and huge army presence. I wore my extra warm clothes, jackets, cap and gloves before coming out of the airport. As soon as I came out the airport I took a taxi and left for the hotel – “Bimla” where my stay arrangements were made by the travel company. It took about 15 min and INR 250 to reach hotel. The hotel was quite small, very basic amenities and no running water. The water in the pipe lines gets frozen and hence no supply, they will put water in buckets for you in the bathroom. We need to share rooms with one or two fellow trekkers depending upon the size of the room. The room does not have any heating facility and for people not accustomed to this temperature it will feel like sitting naked in an ice tub. In the small lobby of the hotel there is a little fire furnace where most of the trekkers sit and chat. One good part about my room was that it had glass windows from three sides and with lot of sun that day I had a very warm few hours of sleep.

I got up and then went to the nearby market to buy some important stuff for the trek and most importantly a pair of Gum boots which are a must for this trek. During the winter season most of the shops remain closed as many local residents move out of this place to the planes to avoid extreme climate and bleak business. However still a number of shops are operating to cater the needs of the winter trekkers and left over local population. I purchased a pair of gum boots for INR 400 and few pairs of warm woolen socks. Leh is a quite city with a heavy army presence, it’s not to be forgotten that India fought a war with Pakistan in the year 1999 not very far from this location. You will find presence of army everywhere as many battalions are located or headquartered at this place.

In the evening we got introduced to all our trek mates who were going to be part of our group for next 5-6 days. We had a briefing by the tour leader about dos and don’ts of this trek and a detailed itinerary. We sat in a lobby near the fire furnace that evening chatting about our experiences with fellow trek mates and had dinner (note that the food at the hotel is not included in the package). We also had to pay environmental tax levied by government and permit fees which totaled to about INR 2500K.

Day 3- 8Th Feb:

This was the day we all were waiting for, as per the itinerary we had to start at 10 am in the morning from Leh by a mini bus to “chilling” (name of a place) about 3-4 hours’ drive and then camp for the night. The trek on the “Chadar starts from there. However when we woke up in the morning at the hotel we were greeted by heavy snowfall , which means that we may not be able to dive to “Chilling” as heavy snow make it difficult for the bus to keep traction on the roads which runs through few of the highest passes of the world.

But then the luck favored as the snow fall intensity got reduced and the trek leader said that we can start the ride with a bit of luck on the way. We started our ride (16 of us) in one bus and about similar number of porters, and cooks in the other bus. The route to Chilling was extremely beautiful and dangerous with the complete landscape covered with snow. Many a times the heart beat goes up when either we are just inches away from a thousand feet deep fall or when the bus gives side to other vehicle coming from opposite side with almost one set of wheels hanging out of the cliff. On the way again the intensity of snow fall increased and the drivers decided to put chains around the wheels to increase traction with the ground. On the way many times we had to stop as the army was either clearing the roads from the falling debris or widening the roads. The roads are taken care by the army owned “BRO” Border roads organization. On the way we stopped for some time to view the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus River at “Nimoo”. The mighty Indus then flows through the whole of Kashmir before entering Pakistan.

Finally after a drive of about 4 hrs we had reached to “chilling” which was going to be our camp for tonight. We said good bye to our vehicles as they rush back in order to reach leh before the sun set. We had to trek down to the river bed from the point where we were dropped by the bus. It’s a cold desert, wherever you see you will not find a single tree or sign of greenery. White and brown are the two dominant colors in the landscape.

The porters carried our ration, tents and sleeping bags along with their belongings. The kitchen tent was raised first followed by toilet tent and then our sleeping tents. Three of us had to share a tent and we were provided two sleeping bags each. We already have started feeling the effect of cold and dry climate while camping over an ocean of snow. Our feet got numb and even moving your hand for some small activity required a lot of effort.

As soon as the tents were erected we were served hot tea which felt not less than a blessing to us. At night we had dinner “rice, lentils and vegetables” and then went inside our tents to sleep. Setting ourselves in a small tent and adjusting two sleeping bags over each other was humongous task which we had to do every night.

Day 4- 9th Feb’17.

Woke up in the morning with a call of bed tea from the cook. As soon as I zipped down my sleeping bag I found my sleeping bags covered with snow. This happens because of the condensation of the air which comes out of our breathing process whole night. We were served local drink “Kaaba” (like green tea) in our tents. Coming out of the tent was itself a big task as it was not easy to convince your mind to come out of your warm sleeping bag again into a harsh open environment. However we came out then went to the make shift toilet and yes every day this remained as one of the most irritating and tough experience. Siting pants down in negative 20*C is an experience in itself. We also came to know that four of our group member two girls and two boys were not able to deal with extreme weather and have called off their trek. The group size came down by two to 14.

After the breakfast the porters quickly dismantled the camp, loaded the stuff on their self-pulled sledges and started before us. We started our walk for the first time on the “ Chadar”. As described earlier we were walking on the thick sheet of ice formed over the river mostly 4-5 feet wide on the sides and many times covering the entire width of the river. As soon as we started walking we felt warmer and our feet were much more relaxed. We realized that in this climate its better to walk than to sit or sleep as our body remains warmer. We walked briskly and cautiously over the river as there are chance that a thin sheet of ice may break under your feet which can suck you down under a neck deep water.

While on the way we came across many of the trekkers who were returning from the trek, most of them informed us that due to snow fall the “Chadar” has broken at many places which is making impossible in some cases to travel beyond a certain point. Most of the trekkers travels till “Nyerak” termed as the summit of this trek, where a huge waterfall is frozen and the sculpture such formed looks like from an alien world. When the snow fall is heavy due to weight of snow many places the Chadar breaks which stops the progress of trekkers till the new Chadar gets formed in few days’ time.

However despite some demotivating news we continued our trek and soon came to point where the Chadar was broken, but as the water at that place was not deep the guide suggested that we can walk though it to the other side from where the Chadar continued . The only thing which we had to avoid was to get our self-wet in the freezing water. There were two option either your remove your socks, fold your pants up and cross the freezing water bare footed or tie a rope across your water proof pant so that water doesn’t enters your shoes. I chose the latter options and was lucky to cross easily. However we had one casualty, one of the member of our group stepped on a thin sheet of ice which broke under his feet and he went down quickly, before he was rescued by the people around him he already went inside neck deep water. This was very dangerous situation he had to quickly change his clothes as the water on the clothes turns to ice in seconds and cuts the body like razor sharp blades. He changed his clothes quickly but his arms and hand got bruised seriously with ice traces and had to take first aid and was advised to return to the base camp, but he refused to do so and continued with us for the rest of the journey.

After all this dramatic event and a walk of about 12 kms we had reached our camp for the night “Shingra Koma”. Shingra Koma is one those camps which gets ample amount of sun shine during the day. We were lucky that the time we reached the camp sun was still shining brightly.

We took this opportunity to take out few layers of our clothes and dry it in the sun. This camp was a bit crowded as many groups have camped here, we also had many porters from different groups who have collected some woods from the mountain and set up small bonfires, we never hesitated to invite ourselves to join them. Like our daily routine we had dinner and went to sleep.

Day 5- 10Th Feb:-

Day started again with similar routine, the next camp which we intend to stay was just ahead of the “Tibb Cave”. We started walking and after a walk of about 3-4 hrs we reached “Tibb cave” and rested there for some time. This is a small natural cave and generally used by the locals to take refuge at the night from the cold. The walls of the cave have gone black due to smoke generated by kerosene stoves used by porters to cook food. We had a quick lunch (noodles) nearby and continued our journey. Every step you put on chadar is filled with excitement as some times your foot gets into a feet of water and sometimes you a get a warning from the trek leader that water can be deep and the Chadar is weak, in that case we have to climb the mountain on the side to advance further. The camp which we were going to stay tonight is very windy and wind-chill will have an impact, which may bring down the temperature drastically during the night. With all apprehension we reached the camp site and spent another extreme night on the snow. On the way we were taking photographs every minute as it was like a moon walk on the earth. But taking out hands from the gloves for clicking a photographs was difficult task.

Day 6- 11Th Feb:-

This was the day we all were waiting for- we were to trek to the summit point “Neyrak” where a huge completely frozen waterfall has an extremely unique architecture. It’s like nature has drawn a wonderful painting on its canvass. We started our day with a lot of enthusiasms only to get a bad news from one the returning trekker that the chadar in front of the waterfall is broken hence it was very difficult to reach that location. But there was another route by which we can witness the waterfall that was by climbing an almost vertical cliff and getting down to the other side. The plan sounded well but it was very risky as with flat gum boots & without crampons it was almost impossible to walk a vertical hill and then descent without slipping to death. We moved further towards this point thinking that nature may give us a chance. However when we reached near the summit, we found that the trekker was correct, the chadar was completely broken & we had no chance to reach that location by walk, the only option was to climb the mountain.

It was decision time the trek lead left the choice to us, but said he will not take responsibility of any mishaps . After a deep though I raised my hands to risk the climb without crampons. Barring few most of us took the challenge of winning this task and started our climb.

We started climbing slowly as there where many places where we slipped and somehow managed to keep our foot on the track. We took one rope which was tied to everyone, in case if any one fell down he will be saved by the others. There were many places where we avoided looking down as it was extremely dangerous.

With all hardships and with brave heart we finally reached to a point from where we can see that wonder of the nature which we all have dreamt about. We cannot believe that it was now in front of us. We started shouting in joy and disbelieve. The feeling you get on reaching a summit cannot be explained in words it has to be lived.

After spending some time and taking few photos there we returned to the camp which where stayed last night.

Days 6, 7 , 12th- 13th Feb :-

After a satisfactory onward trek we took another 3 days for our return journey by the same route. On the way stayed at the same camps and with very passing day our respect for the nature was growing proportionately. There where nights where we felt like crying as we were not able to cope up with cold, many times we discussed how we missed the warm climate back home and how come people are living here. We had developed a very heartfelt relationship with all trek members & porters. Many nights porters sang their local songs and danced with us. In all it was big family in a no man’s land sharing our grief and happiness together. Finally after a 3 days walk we reached to the location where we had started our trek. As we boarded the bus which would took us to Leh , we reached by evening.

Days 8th , 9th 14th,-15th Feb :-

The trek was officially over but as we had two days with us before we return to our homes, we took this time to visit the third highest motor able pass of the world “Changla pass” and the iconic “Pangong lake “I will write about this these two places in my next blog.

Day 10 -16tH feb :-

This was the day of departure, my flight was in the morning and was fortunate again as there was no snowfall, the flight took off about an hour late. By noon I reached my home town “Pune”

My face was in very bad shape and skin on the face was peeling off, there was evidence of sunburn on every side of the face. I joined the office next day and every one noticed my awful face and laughed about it. People said why to choose difficult locations like these for holidays when you have many relaxing places available.

My answer to them “It cannot be explained, it has be lived”


16th March 2017
Group photo after the summit

Great photo

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