“Nobody is born to withstand extreme temperatures; it is human instinct to adapt as much as we can or at least try. It’s only when you put yourself in such situations you realise what your body is ready to endure. The question is how far are you ready to go?” – Abhilash Mithren
Ladakh- the “Land of High Passes”- it is the insatiable desire of every motorist to traverse the high altitude roads of this region. It is the highest plateau in India with a major part of it lying over 3,000 m (approx 10,000 ft). During the winters, this region is virtually cut off from the rest of India- roads are closed and they are covered with snow. The temperature drops to minus 10 (or below) and almost everything freezes. This is definitely not the time for a tourist but what about an adventurer?
For an adventurer, beyond any doubt, this is the time to head to the North. In fact, the month of January and February is the only time during the year when you can experience the ‘frozen river’ trek. Zanskar is the main river in the region along with its tributaries; during winter the river freezes and this is the area for the thrilling ‘Chadar Trek’. The Chadar Trek is the only glacier trek and undoubtedly the most difficult winter trek in India. The trek is so popular that it has been filmed by the Discovery and National Geographic channels.
The trek is considered to be difficult- not for the altitude because you will acclimatise to the altitude in Leh but, for the conditions you will face while on the trek. I’m talking sub-zero temperatures varying from -10 to -35; walking and living in such an unfavourable environment. Forget walking, trying to stay on your feet is almost impossible let alone walk on the unpredictable ice for 80 km over the span of a week.
What is the Chadar trek?
Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar is located deep in the mountains. The only route (via Kargil) to this remote town remains closed during the winters. Traditionally, only overland route to Padum is by walking on the frozen Zanskar river which eventually became popular with adventure tourists. This trail along the Zanskar gorge which is about 100 km from Tilad Do (base camp) to Padum is called the Chadar trail.
How do you plan your trek?
The Chadar trek itinerary (the duration) can be either of 9 days or 10. The difference between the two itineraries is that the 10-day trek includes a visit to the Lingshed village. There are numerous adventure companies that organize the Chadar trek and they are all priced pretty much the same. Some of the popular names are Thrillophilia, India Hikes and Adventure Nation– to name a few. I came across the Chadar trek for the first time on Adventure Nation and so I booked with them.
The guides and porters who work with the authorities are locals from Zanskar and they know the Zanskar gorge relatively better than the others. In fact, they would be the first to walk across the Zanskar gorge before the start of the season. This brings me to the most important tip for the trek- trust your guide and do as he/she says! They have experienced such conditions since childhood- they’ve practically aced it to a certain extent.
How was the experience?
Words like challenging, intimidating, adventure has a whole new meaning to me. I am not someone who would walk away from a challenge but there were times during the trek that I felt I had to. How often have you felt the need to slow down but couldn’t for fear of falling behind? How often have you been isolated from the rest of the world- say, your family, friends? It’s a different world out there- baring the sub zero temperature is just one aspect of it. Living in tents, tucking yourself into your sleeping bags at night and trying to keep warm is an experience but more- a survival instinct. Walking close to the icy-cold turbulent river, trying to capture that moment with a camera when you should rather be focusing on every step which could be your last- is stupidity. Then again, isn’t that what being an adventure tourist is all about? The Chadar trek truly deserves its status as one of the most difficult treks in India and I’m pretty sure many articles have been written to scare the bejesus out of everyone who aspires to conquer this circuit.
You learn from your experiences!
You learn from your experiences and I learnt quite a bit from this trek. Personally, the first and foremost thing is to prepare yourself mentally. I did this by reading articles about trekking on high altitudes, keeping warm in harsh winter weather etc. This way you run scenarios in your head and when you face them during the trek- you’re calm. Your adventure group will provide you with a detailed itinerary- things that you need to carry, Dos, Don’ts and enough details to make sure you are good to go- theoretically, so to speak (LOL). They will have all the details you need and more but if you need details from someone who has experienced the trek- post your query below.
Crampons are good but they are not fun- wearing them you don’t have to keep watching where you go because the spikes have a good grip on ice and you can enjoy the beauty of the gorge. Personally, I wanted to experience the difficulty of walking on ice and so, I didn’t consider buying crampons. I will fall and dance on my feet a hundred times but still I will not buy crampons. To help with stamina, I recommend a daily run for about 4.5 km and covering that distance in 30 mins. Go easy on your smoking and drinking habits (if possible) on the days leading to your trek. If you cant, don’t fret, people smoke during the trek- beedis too- but I won’t encourage it. Carry water with you at all times during the trek- you will need to re-hydrate now and then.
It’s good to carry a light backpack but don’t be in a situation where you feel you carried less. As far as I know, the lowest recorded temperature during this trek was -40 degrees Celsius. If it does dip to -40, you don’t want to be short on warm clothing. Gumboots are the best but not while you’re sleeping so, carry a pair of light trekking shoes to use when you’re not on the ice. As the days go by, your stamina and adrenaline is likely to free fall so, don’t pace yourself and act a fool. You’re here to complete the trek successfully and not ace it.
The Chadar trek has it’s complexities no doubt but the view is what puts your mind at ease. The view of the steep rocky walls on the side and the turquoise coloured water flowing beside your feet. If you think that was enough, wait till then sun sets because the night sky is a spectacle to behold. I can’t believe I didn’t hear about this trek or the other incredibly adventurous circuits in North India any sooner. Better late than never- I say!
Those seven days in the mountains have now become the most incredible few days of my life yet- it’s a whole new realm that I’ve unlocked. The uncontrollable urge to go back to the mountains- the calling to walk the high altitude terrain again. That feeling has made me extremely selfish- so much so, that I’d leave everyone that I love to be on the mountains. To become a Pahadi from the South- this is about my experience. The Chadar trek has been crossed off my bucket list but it is a precursor to a more colossal experience. For, I intend to complete the Stok Kangri or the Annapurna circuit before I head to Base Camp Everest.