Walking in freezing temperatures on a frozen sheet of ice for four days, a group of adventurous trekkers have one of the most challenging but exhilarating experiences of their life in Zanskar Valley in Ladakh. At the end of the trek, they were rewarded by the most spectacular sight – a mighty, frozen waterfall and wonderful memories to last a lifetime.
Text & Photographs : Sucharita D. & Ankur K.
Chadar means a sheet. Imagine a river flowing with all its might. And suddenly it freezes… and you can walk on that sheet of ice. Isn’t that cool? Well, this is exactly what happens in Chadar, in Ladakh – a dream destination for adventure enthusiasts.
On Chadar trek, you walk on a vast sheet of ice, which is none other than the frozen River Zanskar. This beautiful tributary of River Indus, freezes in winter in the extreme temperatures of -25 to -30 degree Celsius, and you get to trek on it. The journey is adventurous and the dream destination spectacular!. While on other treks there is a summit at an higher altitude to look forward to, in Chadar trek there is no gain in altitude. Basically it’s a walk at an altitude of 11,500 ft and the final destination is a mighty frozen waterfall at Nerak. The shorter version of the trek to Nerak is five-day long. There is a longer route too, which is an 18-day-trek that takes you upto Padum village in Zanskar valley, but we decided to do the shorter version.
What makes Chadar trek challenging are the extreme temperatures and the fact that throughout the course of the trek, you walk on a frozen sheet of ice. Not snow, but ice. And you need to learn to adapt your walk and the rhythm of your pace.
The prep for the journey
Chadar can be trekked only in the month of January and February, when the sheet of ice is 9-12 inches thick and can withstand the footfalls of the trekkers. An incomplete formation of chadar or loose sheet of ice can be very risky, and may even cost one’s life. Hence, it is advised to attempt the trek with help of local guides. By doing this, you not only safeguard yourself but also their economic interests.
Permit for the trek
The trek requires a permit which you can get in Leh at the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC). The permit is mandatory to commence the trek and includes a wildlife permit of Rs 2000 and medical insurance of Rs 3000. So the combined cost of the permit works out to Rs 5000 per person – in addition to the trek fee. This rule of permit-based trek was issued recently – in 2019 by ALTOA (All Ladakh Tour Operator Association). The permit ensures that you are fit enough to commence the trek. There is a medical test that checks your blood pressure and oxygen levels. If your blood pressure is normal and your oxygen levels are good (generally above 80), you are deemed fit and provided with the permit.
We attempted the Chadar trek last year and our excitement had no bounds. We were a group of 10 trekkers, all experienced, but sadly only seven were able to complete it. We took a flight to Leh from Mumbai, connecting via Delhi. The first day when you land in Leh, your head might be spinning a little or you might feel a little dizzy, basically a sudden altitude gain of 11,000 ft takes a toll on you. So it’s good to take the day easy and rest. A stay of two nights in Leh is compulsory before starting the trek as it helps in acclimatisation to the weather. So we chilled, acclimatised ourselves after landing by soaking in the beauty of Leh city.
On the second day, we did local sight-seeing in and near the city of Leh.
On the third day, our guide had asked us to meet him at the tourist centre near the main market at 10 a.m. It is the busiest place at that time of the day, especially in January and February months because everyone is here to get their permits.
After we got the permits, we headed to the market to purchase essentials required for the trek.
It is better to purchase all the essentials from your own city, when you are planning any such trek; but in case you have not been able to, no worries as Leh is such a place where you find all the essential clothing and accessories required for your trek. Some of the things that you need to carry on this trek are: a 50/60 ltrs backpack along with a 20-30 ltrs daypack, 5-6 layers of upper clothing including warm clothes, thermals, down jackets and wind cheaters (along with the spare), few layers of lower clothing including trek pants and thermals, few pairs of woollen and military socks, a pair of gumboots along with a pair of floaters, gloves, mufflers, woollen caps, balaclava, goggles, quick dry towels, torch, thermos flask, hiking poles etc.
After we were done with our shopping, we headed back to our lodge, packed our backpacks for the big day and dozed off.
The trek begins
This is the day you would want to take a good hot shower before leaving for the trek as the next shower you can look forward to will only be on your return. We had two hours of road journey ahead of us to the base village Chilling – the starting point of our trek. Earlier the base village used to be Darr but now the roads have been extended till Chilling and the work is still in progress. The plan is to have the roads reach the last village – Padum, on that route.
The drive to Chilling is beautiful, especially when the first sight of confluence of River Indus and Zanskar unravels itself in front of you. Both the rivers were frozen and the milky white hue of the confluence was a beautiful panoramic sight to behold.
We reached Chilling around 12:30 p.m., and were given some instructions by our guide for our journey ahead. (Those who cannot carry their heavy backpacks can take help of porters by paying extra. However, the decision has to be made while booking the trek. My wife and I had decided to carry our own.)
Finally, with gumboots on our feet, six layers of clothing and a heavy backpack, we started our journey. It was windy out there in the valley and we were freezing. We were numb with cold even after layers of clothing. Our feet were frozen and it was difficult to walk. And this was just the beginning of our journey! We were wondering how we were going to manage walking on frozen ice for the next four days.
I still remember our first step on the ice — the first touch of chadar. We fell. It may sound funny now, but then it hurt a lot. Ice is slippery. The first day went in falling, rising, balancing, and striving to reach the campsite. A distance covered in mere 15-20 minutes by our porters, took us an hour and a half to reach. But finally we reached our first campsite – Shingra Kogma.
The Zanskar river takes a beautiful turn right in front of the camp site. Shingra Kogma has a big camping ground on the right as you walk up the stream. Camps were already set by the time we reached. We had another round of medical checkup at Shingra Kogma. There was a medical camp, where the doctor did the basic checks but we were all fine – freezing but fine and full of energy, zeal and enthusiasm.
Talking about food – it is well taken care of. Our cook was great, he had set a different menu for each day and the food used to be delicious!. Our day used to begin with black tea at around 7 a.m. followed by a breakfast around 8 a.m. before leaving the camp. Midday meal would be around 12 noon, evening tea and snacks on reaching the campsite and finally the day would end with a sumptuous dinner by 7:30 p.m.
Days in the valley are short. It gets dark by 5:30 p.m. The whole valley becomes quiet. No matter which campsite you are at, when you look around, there is only beauty everywhere. The whole valley is like a frame right out of a poet’s imagination – like a beautiful maiden with exquisite curves, mysterious and terrifying but beautiful.
As night fell, we retreated into our tents. The sleeping bags were double layered and designed to give us comfort in freezing temperatures. But it’s a task getting inside the bag. It takes a lot of effort and a good 15-20 minutes to get inside the bag and make yourself comfortable. The nights are biting cold and unbearable – and one may not get good sleep the first two days. But luckily, we managed to sleep even the first night.
Our next day began with a wakeup call of morning tea and a served breakfast. We started for our next destination – Tsomo Paldar about 3 to 4 hours from Shingra. As we moved ahead – we were informed that the chadar ahead was broken and the waters were above knee level. Our guide Donchok gave us the confidence to give it a shot, and if at all we encounter any broken chadar we would return, not taking any further risk.
When you’re in Chadar, the weather extremities are such that the first two days feel like you are subjecting your body to torture. But your body learns to adapt after two days, and that is when the fun begins as you start enjoying the trek. As we moved ahead, we were happy to find that the chadar was well formed, at least on the side of the river which we were walking. The other group, we thought, may have walked the other side of the frozen river.
Our guide inspected the dependability of the icy road to walk on, and with his experience, he made our trek trouble-free. There is always a notion about the guides and the porters you choose to take along. They are often taken for granted, as tourists/trekkers feel that they are doing their daily jobs and being locals, they are accustomed to extreme temperatures, so not a big deal. But to be honest, they are the real unsung heroes out there. Without them Chadar would always have remained a trade route rather than becoming a trek for us to enjoy.
After a number of falls, we realised that the trick to balance on the ice is to do the penguin walk. Do not lift your feet too much off the ground while walking. You will still fall but far less than before. The more cautious you are – the more you fall – atleast that was my firsthand experience.
Tsomo Paldar was a campsite which was quite restricted in area in contrast to the previous one. While we were tired after a long, strenuous day, there was a magnificent sight to behold at night – the twinkling stars in the sky. Millions of them watching over us. The Chadar Trek is a haven for stargazers. We had never seen so many stars at a glance with our naked eyes. It was an unforgettable sight.
We opened our eyes to a cloudy day. Apparently if the weather is cloudy, the chadar formation is not good. So, Donchok came and announced that we would be heading only till Hotung Caves, a campsite about an hour and a half before Tibb Caves – our designated campsite as per the initial itinerary.
This campsite is a bit special as the valley divides into two here. It is the most beautiful campsite we stayed at. And since our tents were surrounded by valley in all three directions, it was all the more windy. But we had reached the moment where the chills were bearable and enjoyable. The Chadar had a broken patch, from which the emerald green waters were flowing, making the whole experience magical. As the name suggests, there are few large caves at Hotung. But again, it is generally the porters who take refuge in the caves. The trekkers stay in the pitched tents.
We had our dinner, enjoyed a small campfire over the rocks, dried our wet clothes and headed to our tents.
It was the day when we would reach our final destination – Nerak, the frozen waterfall. Today was supposed to be the longest walk for us. Since we had not reached our designated campsite the previous day, we had to cover that distance as well, reach Nerak and then return back to Tibb – our campsite for the day.
We were asked to start early as sunlight in the valley can be seen only after 9 a.m. and lasts for only two hours. It’s not that it gets dark that early, but you can’t enjoy the warmth of the direct sunlight, which you crave for so much in the ice cold valley. The pace was a bit faster today because over the past three days we had got accustomed to the ice patterns making it a little predictable to walk. During the walk to Nerak there are several small waterfalls frozen into dangling icicles. But you forget all the previous ones the moment you set your eyes on the magnificent waterfall at Nerak.
We were in awe of its grandeur. The rendezvous just swept us off our feet. For a few moments you just stand still and want to soak in the sight in silence. The waterfall is 56 ft high and about 30 ft wide. You see tinge of blues in that waterfall. You want to go near it, feel it, bow to its splendour, even kiss it. You just fall in love with it. This was the sight for which we had endured everything on the way since we began the journey. There were not many groups with us because most of them had returned to the base midway or a little after the start of the journey. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us as the valley was quiet. Time stood still and the solitude was bliss. We were there for almost an hour taking in the sight as much as we could. Before turning back, we all gave one last hug to the waterfall that stood still – overwhelming us, and then headed back to our campsite.
It was the last day of our trek. Chadar was broken at many places and we had to wade through water at many places. It was a whole day walk back to the starting point. But finally we made it. We had fulfilled our dream – we had one more life time experience added to our travel diary. We finished the walk by 5 p.m. and headed to the resort.
Chadar was one trek, where the whole journey was as exciting as the final destination.