Warning: This is going to be a long read so you’d better get a cup of tea and some biscuits ready!
When I went for my first trek, as we neared the end of the trek, our trek leader was telling us about all the different treks that his company conducted. One of the ones that he spoke of was the Chadar trek. As he described it, it was a beautiful trek which was a must-see for all trekking enthusiasts. He also said that it was going to be over in a few years so whoever wanted to do it should probably hurry. I decided that I would take it up at the soonest possible.
The reason for the hurry was the fact that even as we spoke, there was a road being built along the valley in which the river Zanskar flows. The aim was to connect that region to Leh via a road since they are almost completely cut off from the city at times, especially during the winters.
Since the trek involves walking on a frozen river away from most of the distractions of the modern work, it would be rendered pointless once the road is completed, which would be just a 100 meters or so above the valley floor. It would be 3 years before I arrived on that trek but it was worth the wait.
Arrival in Leh
I arrived in Leh in January of 2016 for the trek. The first thing that struck me as we got off the plane in Leh was the cold. It was mid-morning when we landed and as we stepped out of the aircraft, we were greeted by temperatures of -15 degrees C. I silently thanked my foresight for having kept my heavy jacket with me and not checking it in with the rest of my luggage. Once I had claimed my bags and read all the instructions meant for first timers to Leh, I caught a cab and headed to the guesthouse I had booked.
I was a bit early in my arrival in Leh since I had decided to reach the city two days before the day we were to report for the trek. I spent the days exploring the city a bit and visiting a few of the monuments that were close to my guesthouse. Some trips were also made to the market and I met up with another trekker who, like me, had come in early and was going to be a part of my batch.
Together we roamed around the market and explored some of the eating joints, mentally making a note of the ones that were good and the ones that were not to be visited again. We settled on a place called Friends Corner as it served some really delectable food. We even tried some of the yak milk tea, which I didn’t really take a liking to. Give me a good old fashioned cup of tea any day. With the first two days over, we both reported at another guesthouse where all the trekkers from my batch were to gather; there were about 12-13 of us in total. Introductions were made by the trek leaders and we were briefed about the days to come.
That night we all sat and watched the temperatures dip to a -27 degrees C, and that really set the tone for the trek; as far as the temperature was concerned anyway. This was day 1 of the trek and day 2 would be the one where the trek would actually start.
The trek itself
To get to the start of the trek we needed to drive down from Leh to about 10,000 ft. The drive takes a couple of hours and ends where the construction of the road does. From there we put on our backpack and went for a short walk down the road then climbed down to the riverside. This would be our first campsite and also our first introduction to the frozen river. The river itself was about 30-40 ft wide but the middle was not frozen so we were advised to stay away from it since the ice is very slippery and the river fast.
If you fall in, you will be swept away. We camped there for the first night since half the day was already over. The cooks made us a lovely lunch and we got to grips with the cold. The trek leader gave us a briefing on the routines for the coming days and there was some enthusiastic discussion about starting earlier in the morning so that we could get ahead of the other groups and get better campsites the following day.
The next day we packed up our stuff and got on the Chadar trek for the first time. Now this being a walk on ice, we were not using trekking shoes. We had been told to use wellingtons (gumboots). We had also been issued crampons but another trekker, a doctor, and I decided that we shall brave the ice without them. It all seemed quite possible since all the porters were walking without crampons. I took a few steps on the ice and, after much slipping and numerous funny poses, learned how to balance myself on the ice. Thus began the Chadar trek.
The distances we were to cover each day were far greater than other treks I had been on. Since this was not an ascending trek, but a flat one, we were going to be covering up to 10 km or more in a single days trek. Lunch was to be served en route and to get it ready our porters, along with our cook would trek ahead of us and set up a temporary cooking site to prepare lunch.
I would often stop to take pictures and at one such stop, once I was done taking the pictures and putting the camera away, I picked up my walking stick and turned in the direction I need to head in. Soon as I took the first step, my boot and the ice got into an argument over grip, which my boot lost, and in seconds I was down. I picked myself up and decided that this was probably the traditional way to start the Chadar Trek, on your ass. There were to be 2 more falls in the next couple of hours.
The first day on the ice was not entirely uneventful. The doctor and I had been chatting quite a bit so we ended up walking together. The rest of the trekkers were some distance behind us and we preferred it that way because both of us had realised that walking with crampons on was rather a noisy affair and we both liked to tranquillity walking without them. We actually noticed that as our fellow trekkers drew closer we would speed up because all of them had their crampons on and the noise was rather annoying.
As we were walking we came across another group of trekkers huddled around one of their numbers. He had had a bit of a fall and was experiencing some pain in his left arm. Since the doctor was with me, he did a quick examination and determined that the chap had indeed fractured his arm and would have to return to Leh. Apparently, the chap had slipped on the ice and managed to pin his arm under him as he fell, which caused the fracture. After the doctor had patched him up and tied his arm up we sent them on their way while, without exchanging a word, the doctor and I fished into our packs and brought out our crampons. From that day on, if I was to walk on the ice, I was going to do it with the crampons on.
We reached our second campsite soon after that (walking with crampons on is much faster than sliding from one campsite to the next on your butt). It was rather a rocky spot where our tents were set up. As per our instructions, I removed my boots and socks and changed into a fresh pair and switched to my trekking shoes and set about exploring the campsite. It was pretty big but the problem was that other groups had reached earlier and taken all the soft sandy spots, hence the rocky campsite for us. There were at least 5 or 6 other groups there and most of them were on the same schedule as us. The rest of the day was uneventful and we had our dinner and retired to our tents.
The next morning we headed to the next campsite, Tib, which we reached just after midday. By now we had started setting up our own tents and didn’t need help from the porters. Once our tents were set up we settled down to another day of exploring the campsites and waiting for dinner. The next day started like the previous one, once we had had our breakfast and packed up our stuff, we headed out to the next campsite at Narek. This would be the furthest campsite that we would go to. It would also be the last site before we were to start on our way back. The walk started and the day was progressing much like any other except for the fact that the ice was a bit softer in places and we were more spread out today that the previous days. There were times when I could see no one else ahead of me or behind me.
As I continued walking I saw, to my left, a large group of people on the riverbank a little ahead of me. One of our porters, who was also a guide was standing and waving his arms at me in big sweeping gestures. At first, I thought that he was signalling to me to join him but it seemed odd since it was too early for lunch. It was a few moments, and couple more steps before I realised that he was trying to tell me to change direction. Realising that the ice might be thin in the direction I was heading in, I quickly changed directions. As I got closer to him, he pointed out a very specific route to me and told me to use that route to get to the shore.
To get to the shore, I realised, we would have to go over a boulder almost as tall as me and had our trek leader and second guide standing on top of it ready to pull people over the rock. All this seemed rather a silly exercise to me since there were better places to get ashore to the left of the boulder. As I reached the boulder I was told to take off the crampons and go over to the boulder and not to step anywhere else since the ice was weak all around us. This was getting scary now.
As I positioned myself at the boulder to be pulled over, I realised that there was due cause for caution. The ice up to a couple of inches from the boulder had already broken when someone unwittingly stepped on it. The shore itself was not flat. It was rocky and undulating. When I was safely on the bank of the river I realised that there was a roaring fire which seemed odd given the lack of wood around us and the fact that wood was used only by the porters at night since they slept in open caves.
Once everyone was gathered we were told that the problem was that the ice was melting and it was getting dangerous to walk on it. Someone had apparently already gone through the ice and fallen in the water. The person had been pulled out in time, all be it soaked to the skin, and was safe now as he quickly changed into dry clothes in front of a roaring fire.
As our trek leader explained it to us, the ice between us and the next campsite had begun to melt. It was thin as well, in places, which made it more dangerous to walk on. There was no route to Narek except the one we were on and another over the mountains to our left but that was a very long route. We were also told that now the possibility of getting stuck at Narek was very real and that we were carrying limited supplies.
He told us that we had a choice; we could carry on, stick to the shore as much as possible and see if we could make it to Narek, or we could err on the side of caution and start the return journey. There was much debate among us with some favouring the return and other advocating that we carry on for as long as possible. In the end, it was decided that, in the name of safety, we would head back.
We got off the rock and made our way back to the campsite at Tib. It was not a long walk but it felt like the longest ever now that we knew the ice was melting. All of a sudden it felt as though every step we took was making the ice crackle and groan under the weight of each of us. Of course many a time such sounds were mere figments of our imagination, but on the rare occasion they were not, the heart did skip a beat or two. At long last, we all gathered at Tib and it was decided that since it was still early in the day, we could make an attempt at reaching our second campsite.
We all agreed and started the walk but even before we could 400 meters from Tib we were in trouble since the ice had melted. In its place was freezing cold water. There was still some ice but it was under the water and the water was at least a foot deep already. Walking through it meant that it might pour into our wellingtons. We were a bit stuck now since we could go to Narek, nor could we return to our old campsite. We decided that failing to make it to Narek had put us ahead of schedule as far as the return journey was concerned, and would mean that we could afford to spend a second day a Tib and try our luck the next morning. The hope was that, with temperatures regularly going to -30 degrees C, the ice would form once again overnight. With that, we returned to Tib and prepared to spend another night at Tib.
The next morning we packed up once again and it was decided that today, we would carry on even if the ice had not formed. We soon reached the spot where the ice had melted and sure enough, it had not formed. One of our guides went ahead to see if he could find a way out. The route that was selected required us to wade through the water for about 20-30 ft and then climb the side of the mountain.
Since almost everyone was wearing wellingtons bought in Leh, this meant that water would pour into their boots. I was a bit safe since I brought my boots with me and the turned out to be taller than the rest. This meant that while water would not pour into my boots, some of it would still come over the top and wet my feet. At temperatures we below 0 degrees Celsius, that was not a fun proposition.
We waded through the water and reached the point where we were to climb the side of the mountain. We all made it out of the water and then we were told that we were to take off our boots and change our wet socks. The only warning we were given was that we should not let our feet touch the rocks, which were all around us, since the cold temperature would mean that our feet would get stuck to the stone. With much shivering and chattering of the teeth we got our socks changed, which is not as easy as it sounds when it’s that cold.
We then began to walk along the side of the mountain which proved to be quite intimidating owing to the fact that the rocks were slippery and steep and in places the path was no broader than a few inches. One false step would result in a loss of footing and a fall into the freezing, fast-moving waters below.
For the rest of the day, we followed a similar pattern of movement with the exception that the water was not at deep anywhere else. It was then that we reached a particular point, barely 800 meters from our destination where we got stuck in a traffic jam. Yes, you read right. We were stuck in a traffic jam, in the mountains on a trek. I never thought it was possible but there you are. The problem was that at this particular point there was traffic from both sides, from our side were those that were heading back and from the other side came those who were determined to head to Narek. We decided to have our lunch there and wait for our turn to cross the little bit left.
To reach our destination all we had to do was walk around the bend in the river but since the ice had melted, we needed to go over the bend along the side of the mountain. This proved to be especially challenging since the path started with a walk across a steep slippery slab of stone and then up, and eventually down, the narrowest muddy path imaginable. All the while a freezing cold river flowed 50 odd feet below you waiting for you to make a mistake.
Once we were over the treacherous bit we found that we were on the wrong side of the river. To get across, we would have to climb down to a bit where the ice was still firm and walk straight across to the other side. Compared to the rest of the day, this was the easiest thing we had done all day. 20 minutes later we were at the same campsite where we had camped on our second day on the trek and this time we had a nice soft sandy bit to pitch out tents on. We had crossed the worst of it.
The return to Leh
That night as we waited for dinner to be prepared, I was informed of some rather disturbing news. Some of the trekkers had spoken to the trek leader and convinced him that we should go back to Leh a day early so that they could use the extra day to party. After some arguing, with me doing most of it, the matter was put to rest and it was decided that we will stick to the original return date.
The return to the first, and now the last, campsite was mostly uneventful. There were still some places where the ice had not formed causing us to take detours like the previous days but such detours did not constitute more than 20% of the walk back. At the last campsite, we set up our tents for one last night out by the river. The next morning we walked back up to the road where we had started the walk from. We caught our bus back to the same guesthouse we had all gathered at and a few hours later the trek was officially over.
Since the trek had not gone as planned (not reaching the end and the argument about when to return), I felt a bit low but I was given a sort of cheer up by Leh. In the evening as we made our way to wander around the market, it started snowing! The last two days I had in Leh were spent back at the same guesthouse I stayed in for the first two days just relaxing and roaming around Leh.
The awesome part of the trek
The most awesome part was the cold. There were times when we went all the way down -30 degrees Celsius. Another awesome thing was the sights that we got to see. There were some really grand vistas to behold on this trek. They were a bit different from my previous two treks because there were no trees but there were still some absolutely stunning scenes to look upon. Even though the return journey was not made via the ice, as intended, I quite liked the whole idea of wandering up and down the hillsides looking for paths to keep moving. There was a bit of a sense of adventure to it.
The not so awesome part of the trek
The not so awesome part was the cold. This was the one thing that can fit in both the categories. Yes, it was nice to be experience these temperatures (especially when you take into account the fact the I actually love the cold) but when your foot won’t fit into the boots in the morning, since they are frozen stiff or when your feet feel like lead blocks when walking till you warm up, you tend to tire of it. There were some other things that also were less than likeable but to read about that you need to go to my rant about them.