A trekker's team relives its trail across river Zanskar

A river notorious for extreme turbulence spends one month every year in frozen submission to the elements around it — the harshest of winters and the towering mountains of Ladakh through which it reaches the Indus. Frozen throughout January and February, the Zanskar River is a snow-white blanket that winds a length of 160 kilometres, recently popular as the Chadar Trail.

Meet J. Ramanan, Vrinda Ramanan, Saravanan, Mahesh Khanna and K. Ramnath Chandrasekhar from the Trichy Science and Adventure Club, who have recently returned from Zanskar as the first group from the State to attempt this trek, a trail until now explored by foreigners and just a handful of Indians.

“The Chadar lets you see the river's perspective, while it flows beneath you with a pulsating presence,” says Ramanan, who founded the club along with his wife Vrinda. For the couple, formally trained in mountaineering, this was their 30th Himalayan expedition. However, it was a debut trek over the Chadar for the entire group, joined by five more trekkers from around the country.

“For centuries, Zanskaris have been crossing the frozen trail by foot for trade and in case of emergencies,” says Vrinda, adding that most of them leave their villages when the winter is at its peak. “With the trail becoming popular, a few of the locals now stay behind to work as guides and support staff for trekking groups.”

Mahesh talks about the route they took. “We spent two days at Leh to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude and climate. We drove to Chilling, walked to Tilat Do and the next day we began our trek.” The group stopped at Markala, Trips Cave and other points before encountering their most anxious moment at Nyerak Pullu.

“After we passed a frozen waterfall, we came across the group which had left before us. The trail ahead hadn't frozen fully, making it impossible to walk over,” recalls Ramanan, for whom the unstable ground made it one of the most challenging treks ever. With snow fall quickly following, the trekkers were back on the trail, though they had to be roped up for safety. From the last stop, Tsarak Do, the group drove to Padum, their destination. Says Vrinda, “We reached Padum on January 26 and took part in the Republic Day celebrations there. It was extremely touching.”

On their way back on the Chadar, the group sighted a variety of wildlife endemic to the region. “We spotted the Himalayan magpie, yellow-billed chough, snow wolves, kiangs, chakoris and lammergeier, the biggest among vultures,” says Ramnath. They also came across pug marks of snow leopards and a frozen Himalayan red fox that bore marks from a predator.

Being the only doctor on board, Dr. Saravanan had to ensure that everyone was well during the trek. “Though we experienced mountain sickness initially, we were all right throughout as we had extremely effective gear and were prepared both mentally and physically,” he says. Generally, in conditions as harsh as this, people can get affected by hypothermia, frostbite and severe sunburns.

Completing the trek two days ahead of schedule, the group visited several monasteries and were taken to the homes of the locals. “With sunshine being such a luxury in their simple lives, the Zanskaris have utilised solar energy in some very interesting ways we all could emulate,” says Vrinda.

For Ramanan, it is a once in a lifetime experience: “It's not a trek that can be done more than once. The river freezes only for a month, you need to be extremely fit and the trek requires human help throughout because mules cannot walk on the ice.” Besides, he adds, the trek can cost up to Rs 1 lakh per head to organise.