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Walking on thin ice

Arjun Majumdar 

Spectacular, stunning and dangerous - Arjun Majumdar recounts his experience of the Chadar trek on the Zanskar river.

I have often been asked to describe the Chadar frozen-river trek and every time I have only one thing to say: the Chadar is not a trek, it is an experience. First, let me clear some myths. Doing the Chadar trek is not a superhuman feat. A lot of the extreme situations that people talk about are true: temperatures dip to -25°C at night; the frozen river breaks every now and then; and sometimes you have to ford an icy stream. But that’s about it. The difficult bits are not hard to tackle. Layered clothing and high-altitude sleeping bags manage to take care of the cold. Trekkers seldom venture near the broken ice-sheets and rubber boots help you cross icy streams.

* * *

Our flight is about to land in Leh and the captain announces it is -7°C outside. I look out of the window and a cold shudder runs through me. If at 11 am on a bright and sunny morning, it is -7°C in Leh, I wonder what it would be like in the dark canyons of the Zanskar river. I look nervously at my trek mates, put on three layers of woollens and step into the sunlight. The temperature doesn’t feel any colder than the winters of Delhi. And I know, at once, it is going to be okay.

The Chadar, which literally means sheet (of ice), is essentially a walk on the Zanskar river. Every winter, the river freezes to form a gateway to Leh for the people living in Padum, the largest town in Zanskar. In winter, when snow closes all roads and Zanskar is impenetrable, the frozen river serves as the only gateway to the outside world for Zanskaris. During the trek, it is not rare to see children being dragged on wooden sledges to reach schools in Leh in time for spring classes.

Our trek starts from Chilling, the closest road head and a tiny village and army outpost 62 kms from Leh. The drive to Chilling is spectacular. The inky, dark road snakes through the wide, white frozen flats of Leh valley and climbs to a point just above the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers. We get out of our vehicle to take in the first sight of Chadar. Small ice floes float in a rush to meet the Indus. The Indus carries its own share of floes and together they merge in a triangle of white ice and dark-green water.

  • Difficulty 
    Moderate. The walks are long and temperature always sub-zero 
  • Trail type
    Easy gradient. It is almost a flat walk on the frozen river
  • Nearest airport
    Leh in Ladakh
  • Altitude
    Highest 10,900 feet (Nerak). The entire trek is below the altitude of Leh. If a trekker acclimatises to Leh, then he/she needs no further acclimatisation
  • Best season
    The third week of January to the first week of March
  • Temperature
    -5° to -10°C in the day; can drop to -25°C at night 
  • Cost
    Depends on number of people and route. A six-day trek from Chilling to Nerak and back can cost around Rs 20,000
  • You need to be in good physical condition. You should be able to jog 4.5 kms in 30 minutes
  • Carry trekking shoes (not sport shoes); four pairs of track pants; four full-sleeve cotton tees; two full-sleeve sweaters, a thermal and a thick jacket. Dressing in layers is the mantra
  • You will always need a woollen cap, a scarf and gloves
  • Carry sunglasses to prevent snow blindness — curved ones will cover your eyes well 
  • Carry chapstick or lip balm, cold cream and sunscreen lotion
  • Trekkers are expected to carry their backpacks on the trek, so make sure you pack light and sensibly

The jeep drops us a few kilometres ahead of Chilling. I scamper down the rocky canyon to set my first tentative foot on the Chadar. Our first camp, Tilat Sumdo, is 2 km away. I didn’t think it would take me more than half an hour to get there. But I am wrong. Within a few minutes, I am sliding on an icy patch, only to land on my bottom. I learn some quick lessons about walking on the Chadar — you need to choose sections that are dusted with snow. On icy sections (and there are quite a few), it is best to shuffle along. The common sense advice is to follow sledge marks on the snow. We reach the camp in an hour.

The evening sets in quickly and so does the cold — the temperature is -18°C at 6 pm. Our team of porters climbs up a narrow valley to bring deadwood and a fire is soon raging. We settle into our tents after dinner and it seems like my sleeping bag is stuffed with blocks of ice. Mercifully, two layers of sleeping bags and a hot-water bottle lifts the temperature.

* * *

Next morning, a shaft of sunlight torches the bottom of the canyon sending everyone scampering for their cameras. The light bounces off the frozen Chadar on to the canyon walls in a kaleidoscope of colours. The orange is orange but more so; the canyon walls purple and the sky, a blue that could not get bluer. The Chadar experience had begun.

On the way to our second camp, Singra Koma, we decide to walk on the icy ledges of the Zanskar; the river is not frozen enough to form a Chadar. The walls of the Zanskar canyon twist and turn, and sometimes they spread out to make the flat white Chadar seem wider than a football field. At other times, they curve around a corner into a narrow gully. On a long, glassy stretch, I throw a few chunks of ice on the Chadar to see how far they go. They slide endlessly.

On the third day, we wake up to light, intermittent snowfall. The upper reaches of the canyon are now dusted with snow. We get going but not for long. After walking for a kilometre, our guide tells us to stop: the Chadar has broken. The river is flowing over the frozen Chadar. We clamber up the canyon walls and slither on its edges to drop down a few hundred metres ahead where it is firmer. Returning to the canyon walls, team members guide each other to firmer ground. It isn’t difficult but a humbling reminder of the ever-changing nature of the river. We camp at Tibb in a section of the Chadar dominated by narrow ledges and not the wide flats that we were used to.

Next day, we set out for Nerak, excited about seeing the famous frozen waterfall on the way. The day is cold and dark. Drafts of icy wind bite into our skin, our breath is frozen in a thick fog and water drips continuously from our noses. It is hellish and we walk faster to warm our bodies. Suddenly, out of a bend, the frozen waterfall leaps into view. It is gigantic and towers over us, rising almost to the height of a seven-storey building. It’s difficult to imagine how falling water could freeze. But freeze it did — and in such a magical way that even droplets hung frozen in mid-air.

For the first time on the trek, we leave the Chadar to climb to a small rest house on the trail to Nerak. This is a camping ground and not Nerak village. The village is hidden in the folds of the mountain much higher than us. The switchback climb to the village looks formidable. A few of us make an attempt to get there. With increasing cold, fading light and slippery trails common sense prevails and everyone turns back. That night I record -23°C. It is the coldest night I have ever spent in the open.

The Chadar trek returns along the same path from Nerak to Chilling. The Chadar changes ever so often that the return looks like a new trek. Every hour presents a change in scenery that makes you want to continue for another hour just to see what is next on offer.

The Chadar itself is spectacular. At times, there are patterns within patterns in the frozen ice as if caught in time. At other times, it plays an orchestra of colours. The canyon walls are so high that they rarely let the sun come through, but when it does, the sun sets up a canvas of colours and patterns of unimaginable scale.

The writer, an avid trekker, is a partner at, a hiking portal

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First Published: Sat, November 17 2012. 00:59 IST