Dhanya Rajagopalan takes you on a ‘chadar’ trek over the Himalayas in temperatures below -20 degrees C

If the idea of walking on a frozen river with a 9 kg backpack on your back and very cold water gushing a few inches below your feet is terrifying, you are not alone. Those were the exact same emotions we went through on our bus journey to Tilat Somda, the starting point of our chadar trek.

Chadar means a blanket, a blanket of ice that forms over the Zanskar river during winters. Zanskar is a wild river flowing through the gorgeous ravines and canyons of Ladakh. In winter, especially during January and February, the river freezes and calms down. While the locals trapped in villages due to snow blocked roads walk over her and carry essentials, the adventurous trekkers walk over her to test their limits and push themselves for an experience that last a lifetime.

The chadar trek is definitely a unique experience of ice, snow, mighty Himalayas, climbing, descending, wading in knee deep water and more. Especially for me, it offered a lot of firsts – first long trek, first time at high altitude, first time at Himalayas, first time experience -20C

It was a 7 day trek on the frozen Zanskar river from Tilat Somda to Shingda Kauma to Tibb and Nerak and back each campsite about 13 to 15 kms apart. The plan is to start everyday from one campsite and get to the next campsite before dusk stopping for lunch mid-way.

Our batch, 9 Feb batch, had around 15 people with the oldest participant being 74 years old. (Yes, you read it right.) The adventure, however, started a day early for some trekkers with the flight cancellations on Feb 8. Ladhakis deal with a lot of uncertainty during winter and this was just a sample for us. Trekkers from the 8 batch who could not reach Leh joined our batch on 9 making our batch size grow to 25. More the merrier (Except when it comes to the long queues for the toilet!)

Senthil and I boarded the flight from Delhi and met Rohit (Prof) and Rohan (Cadbury boy). Having these people around didn’t help build my confidence much as they spoke about their experience in Goechala trek and mountaineering in New Zealand. We checked in at Hotel Auspicious and met Husain and Doc (Hardik). After a sumptuous lunch, we went shopping in the Leh market for gumboots. The economics of supply and demand was in play when a Rs 200 gum boots was sold for Rs 600. That evening, I was relieved to meet Rahul and Rashmi who were also first time trekkers. (Finally, I have company).

We set out on our bus ride to Tilat Somda on 10 morning along with our trek leads Rashish (Babaji) and Saranbir (Bir). The two and half hour bus journey was filled with mixed emotions – apprehension about the trek, everyone focused on conserving the energy and more importantly, most of us were strangers.

We met Passang (Ladakhi trek lead) and his team at Tilat Somda. (This was Passang’s 92 time on the chadar). The trek started with a descent down a muddy slope on to the chadar. We could feel the piercing heat of the Sun on our faces and the icy wind through the legs at the same time. Small chores like tying the shoe lace and wearing the micro spikes seemed impossible with frozen fingers.

The trek from Tilat Somda to Shingda Kauma was a pleasure with breathtaking views of the Himalayas, the frozen Zanskar, the icicles and the myriad formations of ice. By the time we reached the campsite, the porters had already set up our tents and were ready with garam chai. They were always just there for us to help us get through the cold. Every morning, they would wake up all the trekkers with their call “Quick Action” which became very popular instantly. The cold hit us the most in the morning from the time we got up till we started walking - the wait in front of the toilet tent being the longest. Thanks to India Hikes for making it less cumbersome by providing bio bags made of corn starch.

The journey from Shingda Kauma to Tibb was more of a recovery from the chill faced on the previous night. We experienced one of the coldest nights in Tibb when the temperature dipped to -26C. We woke up the next morning to hear that water had flown over the chadar due to pressure changes. Our trek leads took a call to stay back at Tibb and give the chadar a day to get back in form. Though we were a little disappointed with this, 12 of us got into one tent and played cards like there was no tomorrow: As Prof explained the rules with his golden words “Pass on the rules and not wisdom”, we played Hearts and judgment all day with Rohan supplying Cadbury chocolates and Aditi entertaining us with her Uzbek stories. The water level on the chadar did not recede much the next day but we decided to go as far as we can enroute to Nerak and return back to Tibb. We had to climb up the hill a few times and this is when my acrophobia hit me. It was Rashish who was with me teaching me how to climb up a hill and walk on the slopes rather than just hold my hand and get me through the tough parts. Rashish moved forward to help Rashmi who was stuck while jumping from a rock. Then came Passang who took my hand and ran a 100 m sprint on the hill. What a roller coaster ride it was. I did not have time to get scared and could just focus on placing my foot correctly and ensure I don’t skip a breath. Needless to say, that was the talk of the camp that evening. We returned back to Tibb without reaching Nerak.

Water did not recede the next day as well and our leads decided to head back to Shingda Kauma and spend an additional day there where we could take a detour and climb through the mountains to see a frozen waterfall. The journey back to Shingda Kauma was one of a cautious walk with doc falling into the water as the chadar broke under his feet. This was the call for the rest of us to change into our gumboots. The way back took longer as we had to climb the mountain quite a bit and not walk on the chadar. Breathtaking views and gasping breaths. During our descent from a steep climb, I had to make a choice – either walk down on my own and get over my fear or stay there as the team goes away. The next 20 minutes was full of anxiety for me and entertainment for the rest of the team and ended with another roller coaster ride with Passang. I must admit that the shock treatment helped me get over the fear.

The trek to the waterfall from Shingda Kauma was amazing. At several points, we felt like we were in a cave with mountains on all sides. There were three steep climbs, which we conquered with the help of ropes, ice axe and our trek leads. All the pain was worth it and disappeared as we saw the frozen waterfall in all its glory. 20 of us standing for 15 minutes and clicking pictures led to melting of the waterfall. As I started descending down the first descent, water started flowing (I was the5th person and there 14 more to follow). It was a tough one with most of us getting wet and Pawan making a 360 turn as he left the rope and his leg got stuck to ice. Rashish and Senthil got hold of him and brought him back to standing. We braved the last descent without the ropes with Rashish’s help.

That was our last evening at the camp and we heard from fellow trekkers that there was knee deep water near Tilat Somda. As we left the camp on 16 morning, Bir announced that the Sun is with us and we will wade through the water. Most part of the day was a pleasure – walking slowly taking last looks at the formations, nostalgia, pictures and fun. The last 20 minutes was chilling. There was knee-deep water for Bir (who is 6’4” tall). That meant, mid-thigh level freezing water for me. All of us rolled up our 3 layers of pants and in one line started wading through the water. Our legs froze as the water entered the gumboots but the trick was to not stop and continue walking as we talk. We should make sure we don’t freeze and we did it. It took some time for us to feel our legs once we were on the chadar. I climbed the last stretch on my own this time and we boarded the bus. We could not wipe the smile off any face during the journey back to Leh despite the dusty ride.

The trick to enjoy this trek is probably being able to hold on to that rare occasional feeling of warmth somehow amidst the myriad weather variations and share it with the friends around you.

We all went down to Tilat Sumdo as strangers but came back as a big family.