The Chadar Trek or the Zanskar Gorge in Ladakh, over the Zanskar River, offers an exhilarating experience and more often than not, a few life lessons.
The Chadar trek is one of the most exhilarating winter treks in the world, attracting hordes of thrill seekers every year between January and March, the period when the Zanskar river is completely frozen over.
I landed in Leh with two friends in the early hours of the morning to temperatures of -17°C. We spent two days just trying to adjust to the high altitude by strolling through town in full trekking gear. We even walked to the Shanti Stupa, including 700 steps, all the way to the top just getting used to temperatures and the terrain! The next day we headed off towards Leh Castle and Leh Palace in a tough one-hour long climb, that was totally worth it for the view.
We drove to the first camp, at Lower Shingra, the point where Chadar Trek officially begins. The campsite looked like a mini-town of tents and porters. Now that we were used to the temperatures, we had to get used to walking on the icy river surface. With the setting sun, we hung around outside our tent with glasses of hot lemon-ginger-honey tea, watching the clear, star-filled night sky — unlike anything we see in the city.
Soon after breakfast the next day, we left our camp with our expedition leader. Within 30 minutes of walking on the iced-up river, we came to a spot where the water had not fully frozen. It caused a bottleneck of trekkers who were ahead of us, trying to climb over the rocks on the sides to get to the other side of the water. We helplessly watched a few other trekkers (who weren’t suitably geared up) slip, fall and hurt themselves. We covered 14 kilometres in four hours, and successfully reached Tsomo through stunning mountain topography.
The next morning, despite heavy snowfall, we started the 11-kilometre-long walk and reached Tibb. Due to the heavy snowfall, we had given up trekking until two men from the campsite ahead of us informed us that it was safe to move ahead.
That was when we left Tibb. Amidst the snowfall, we realised how trekking was even more exhausting than we imagined.
Five hours, six breaks, and 20 kilometres later, we reached a point where our advance team was waiting for us. Unfortunately, this wasn’t our much anticipated campsite. An ice bridge essential to our continuing the trek had sunk and there was absolutely no way forward. At this point, we were very close to Naerak, our next campsite, but had to head back the way we came.
We wanted to catch an empty cave on the way back to pitch our tents in and retire for the night, but we found none. It got dark fast, too, and we started walking with our head torches on. The combination of the freezing temperatures, exhaustion from walking all day, snowfall and darkness started working on our minds and it began to feel beyond surreal. At one point, I felt I was hallucinating and ended up imagining all the worst possible scenarios of never making it back and not seeing my loved ones. What kept us going though was the urge to make it back to Tibb and finally back home.
With nearly zero visibility and no idea about our whereabouts, we continued walking till we finally reached our campsite at 9 pm. We were beginning to freeze and for the next 30 minutes, we just waited quietly for our entire team to make it to where we were.
When the team finally did, it took us another 30 minutes to set up camp and we finally got into our tents. We were advised to shed all our wet clothes and get into our sleeping bags, where we were shaking and shivering. Somewhere, before I fell asleep and slept like a baby, I vaguely realised that we had walked around 40 kilometres that day!
The next morning, we were told that we had to leave for Leh since the weather was going to worsen over the next few days. We walked back on the same route, which was now completely covered in white. We rested for the night at Tsomo and left the next day for Lower Shingra, where we reached in the afternoon.
The following day, we trekked 12 kilometres towards Chilling, the nearest town, climbing through two landslides that had occurred in the past few days. As we got closer to Chilling, we met the van with the two team members who had left the previous evening to arrange for us to get out of the mess. Without any delay, we jumped into the van — relieved, tired and happy.
Finally home, I will say one thing for any one who plans to experience this trek — be prepared to come back changed. Life as you know it will never be the same again!