A thrilling experience of an expedition to Chadar from the diary pages of Sudip Das
“On the mighty Chadar, Everything freezes but tears”
Day 1 (2016, January 22nd)
New Delhi Airport
It's cold here, especially when you fly from Mumbai to Delhi in January and land at 4 in the morning. I am shivering. As are my teammates. Our connecting flight to Leh is in an hour. It is January, hence, both the roads leading to Leh (one from Manali, another form Srinagar) are already blocked due to snow.
I cannot express how allured I am. This is a damn beautiful place. I have never been to a cold desert ever and here I am, in the capital of Ladakh kingdom.
It’s the oxygen-lean air that’s taking the toll on the body. Also, as the whole region is a cold desert, there are very few trees, that too are naked with fallen leaves being covered in about a foot-deep snow.
Leh airport is a combat airstrip, and only for a small window each day. Also, the security is pretty strict, I could see more security personnel than the number of passengers in the Airport itself. Photography in and around the airport is strictly prohibited. Just outside the airport, there is a taxi stand. One can pre-book any hotel/homestay or in the winter, even if you do not pre-book your accommodation, you can do that on the spot. Approximately 80% of the business of the Leh city is closed due to the extreme weather. Most of the hotels are closed and income for the locals is scarce. Just check whether they have a room heater or not. Mostly they would have one. Who wants to carry the burden of a frozen soul of a tourist!! After we reached our pre-booked hotel we just came to our rooms and dropped dead for an hour, and then had our lunch. we had aloo paratha, curd, and chicken/paneer curry. It is -8 C now and it's sunny.
Day 2 (2016, January 23rd)
We were made a team of 15 people now. We were 10 people initially, 5 mates joined us who were from NCR. We did not book the trek using any commercial organization, i.e., trekking planner. We directly approached the local guide. Local guides are way more experienced about the weather, trail, and properties of ice. That is why it is made mandatory by the local administration rightly to ensure every expedition team has at least one certified guide, cooking team with required human porters. No animal (mule/horse/yak) can pass this trail because of the unpredictable nature of Chadar.
Today morning we woke up early and after having breakfast in the hotel itself, we went out for our acclimatization hikes in and around the city. We only had today for acclimatization, There is a Tibetan Refugee market near our hotel, and we bought many trekking related stuff from there. You can buy everything you require for trekking at reasonable prices. Branded materials from appreciated brands like Quechua, Wildcraft, North Face, Sherpa Outdoors, Mammoth, etc can be found here.
What you wear during the trek is a remarkably interesting assignment for the Chadar expedition. The temperature can drop to -30 C at the night. Whereas during the daytime it becomes approximately -15 C. So, we are going to feel that we are in a damn big refrigerator for the next few days. Here are the details of the clothing layers I am going to rely upon. Had a good Tibetan lunch in one of the shops and then we hiked till the Shanti Stupa of Leh. It is a significant location in the outskirts of the city from where the whole Leh city, Let Palace, Khardung La, and Stok range could be visible.
In the meantime, Lapu (our trek guide) also had managed to get our permits done from the local TIC (Tourism Info Centre). We had to carry our recent passport size photographs and a fit certificate issued by a registered physician from our respective starting locations (for instance, for me it was Mumbai). A permit is worth 1550 INR per person which includes emergency medical check-ups, emergency evacuation, Wildlife conservation fees, ALTOA (All Ladakh Tour Operator Association) fees, etc. Also, we managed to get 2 post-paid BSNL SIM cards from Leh. Please note that No prepaid cellular phone network provider works in that region.
Here is the list of the things I will be carrying during the expedition. Boom! Yes! Now we are good to pounce for the (in)famous Chadar trek!
Day 3 (2016, January 24th)
Campsite 1 (Tso Ma Polder)
It is freezing here, the temperature is -27 C now. Everybody of us was told to take extra precautions about any metal wearing (take all of if possible) because there lies a hazard of metal biting. We started from the hotel to Tilak Do, the starting point of the Chadar trek. After a small briefing, we departed from Leh. The drive till Chilling was fast, smooth, and beautiful. At Chilling, the Zanskar river meets the Indus, and both of them flows towards Pakistan.
After chilling, the drive became challenging, treacherous, and scarier yet amazing. The adrenaline rush was building in by just seeing the road and the frozen white Zanskar River beneath. By around noon, we reached Tilak Do. We had a quick tasty hot lunch made by our cooks along with hot black tea. Then, it was time to pack and push towards the first campsite. It was a technical walk of around 3 hours and by 16:30 hrs we reached the campsite.
The daytime was quite shiny, and the temperature was around -10 C. The temperature here drops dramatically after the sunset. The best remedy to curb the cold was the hot soup prepared by the camp chef Norbu that helped us keeping ourselves warm. I have never seen such a diverse formation of ice in my whole life. The equilibrium between the water and ice can make anyone spellbound. And after the sunset, the sky talks. So dark, so silent, so cold. Chadar, the sheet of ice spread over the partially frozen river Zanskar.
Day 4 (2016, January 25th)
Campsite 2 (Tibb)
Chadar is a narrow (somewhere 100 ft wide, somewhere even less than 30) riverbed with steep rock patches at both the banks. We encountered some Bharals today. Bharals are mountain goat-antelopes. The Bharals move at the top ridge of the mountains and due to their movement, loose rocks fell on the icy sheet beneath. If one small pebble lands on you at such conditions from 500 ft altitude, it can kill a human being. The best way to avoid is to be aware of the surroundings and move as close as possible to the rock patches. Yeah, you can move away from the rock patches to avoid the falling rocks too, but in that case, you may go into the water if the Chadar is not firm enough.
Next, we crossed Tsomo Ganga waterfall today. It has an interesting myth behind its origin. It is told that, long ago, the nomads of Zanskar valley had no water source in the winters. So, a nomad chief decided to trek to a Gompa (Buddhist temple) for advice from a monk. The monk gave the chief a locked box and told him to open the box upon reaching back to his village. The chief started his journey back to his clan with the locked box. But, being very much eager to know what was there in the box, he opened the box one night, and a fish jumped out of the box and vanished in the dark. The next morning, he saw a waterfall that had emerged there, it was named Tsomo Ganga. Surprisingly, Tsomo Ganga is still the only waterfall in that whole region that never freezes, all other waterfalls become icefalls in the winter.
We reached Tibb campsite at around 16:45 hrs. Tibb campsite is a natural cave and is comparatively colder than Tso Ma Poldar, but by now we were accustomed to the cold. Temperature is -32 C now. Porters had arranged a small fireplace for us, only after we could arrange some woods.
The last thing of the day, we met some Australians today. They were heading back from Tibb. They said they could not reach Nerak nomad village, our trek destination. Chadar formed en route Nerak is not sufficiently firm. The banks are unscalable vertical walls of rock, hence, they had no scope of advance towards Nerak.
Day 5 (2016, January 26th)
Campsite 3 (Outskirts of Nerak)
No, we could not reach the Nerak village, we will have to go back tomorrow. Currently, we have camped in a quiet corner of the riverbed, approximately 300 m away from Nerak village. We had to cross at least 5-6 steep rock patches to avoid loosely formed Chadar, but here we had to stop as neither we had proper climbing gears to climb the rock patch in front of us nor all of the teammates wanted to move ahead with a hazard of being stuck in Nerak itself. In that case, we will be stuck and cut out from the outside world.
It was again a 7-hour trek today. I think I am tired because climbing these rock patches with these gumboots is difficult without rope and I am a bit disheartened to understand that we will not be able to reach our destination. Anyway, due to the extreme cold, the flexibility of muscles is also less. As mother nature did not allow us to reach Nerak, we decided to hoist the national flag on Chadar near the campsite only. It was a remarkable moment. Temperature is -29 C tonight.
Day 6 (2016, January 27th)
Campsite 1 (Tso Ma Polder)
It took us 8 hours to come back to Tso Ma Polder directly without halting at Tibb. We had a plan to camp at Tibb, but many groups had already pitched their tents there. Probably because the teams did not want to venture through the vertical rock patches.
Day 7 (2016, January 28th)
Everyone has safely returned to Leh. A small 2 hours trek back to Tilak Do, journey back to Leh. Leh city does not feel that cold anymore. The temperature here is now -19 C. Tomorrow we have a free day to roam around Leh and day after tomorrow we are going to fly back to Mumbai.
About the Author
Sudip Das is a senior research scholar of Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay. He has summitted many well-known Himalayan peaks like Stok Kangri (6153 m), Kang Yatze II (6250 m), Golep Kangri (5884 m), Mt. Goeche (6011 m), Mt. Nun (7135 m), Mt. Kun (7077 m), Moon peak (4645 m), Kedarkantha (3812 m), Pangarchulla (4575 m). Mt. Kanamo (5960 m). Along with that, he has trekked various Himalayan passes and lakes in India and Nepal. He has done more than 100 treks in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Goa. He also has done a few coastal hikes in both the Eastern and Western coastlines of India. Sudip wants to do some rainforest hikes in the future, and is always keen to team up with like-minded people. Check out more of his photographs at @cam_ahh_sutra
“Adventure is always calling you, The question is will you go.”