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Chadar- The mystical frozen land of Zanskar !

The narration is about an expedition to one of the ineffable lands located in northern region of India, in the union territory of Ladakh. Zanskar is a tributary of Indus river, equal or greater in volume than Indus itself and it means "white copper". In winter when the road to Zanskar valley is closed by snow, the only way to high passes is via trek over the frozen river bed. Over the years the trek has become popular, attract trekkers globally who visit the place in the months of January & February, when the ice sheet is thick and strong. The cold here is known to be extreme and in worst scenarios temperature can go down to as low as -40° C. Its been five years I returned from the last trek to Himalayas!. To go on a trek of grade: Extreme, will require me to get back to my fitness levels of 20's, or may be get much better than that ! But the question is what motivates me to go back to those days. Chadar trek has always been part of my bucket wishlist since I time started trekking . And that was eight years ago. I have heard amazing stories about the trek, the extremities, the thrill the trek offers and its own way of testing your limits. I was even asked a question in one of job interviews whether I did complete this trek. Unfortunately the answer to that question was 'no' on that day ! But since then I do have this on my mind that I can change that answer. Approximately 60 days of training on the power cycle at gym, focus on the legs workout, control on diet, shopping technically so that I can survive the extreme conditions at Ladakh and I was ready to go ! Day 1 | 20th Jan 2023 | Leh City Day 1 is about journey to top altitude acres of the world. Leh welcomes you at 11000ft at -10° C right at the airport. Sparse population in cold desert. Less amenities, no franchises of top city brands, less city like facilities. It intrigued me that what provides the comfort on those hills ? May be the comfort of people surrounding provides the necessary warmth. This is onset of 72 hours of acclimatization routine before heading over to Zanskar. Intense 3 hours of briefing session held by the tour coordinator for the days to come . Followed by some ice hockey practice. Surprisingly, snowfall happened at night on the the 1st day of our arrival and that made our day. An old man from among the locals informs us that this is the highest snowfall recorded in three years I do miss my stubble ! Acclimatization Day 2 | 21st Jan 2023 | Leh City Temperature on digital thermometer reads -14° C. A thick sheet of shiny white fresh snow hugging muddy brown terrain covers the entire Leh town, is what you see through the window when you flip your eyes early morning. The humungous Mt. Stok Kangri standing tall at 21,000 ft is visible when clouds cleared up. Post I had my morning tea, when an old Ladakhi man narrated tale of his summit climb, made a chill go down my spine. Tour to Leh market that has quaint little shops of jewellery and arts makes you believe ambience is inspired by Tibetan culture. Gigantic prayer metal wheels are at every corner of the street. While the view from the 9th storey of Leh palace leaves you stunned, the palace and the city itself prepares for G20 India meet. Rohtang pass route was vividly visible from Shanti Stupa - a place where you can witness the most serene sunset. Tried my best with ice skating for an hour, but only resulted in fall thrice. Advise: - do not try that sport without some practitioner. Ladakh is indeed one of the most Instagrammable place in the country ! Acclimatization Day 3 | 22nd Jan 2023 | Leh City Though the temperature is -18°C, the sun shines brightly and reflection from snow is hard to bear without glasses. Its the day of mandatory medical checkups and issuing trek insurance ! These are conducted by local government agency before a trekker moves to Zanskar for Chadar trek. Long que at tourist information centre (TIC) for Covid/BP/Oxygen and multiple other medical checkups. I just realized , of all events, medical checkups are the only place where vocal sound of 'negative' will provide comfort to ears. Restaurant serviceability is not the fastest in Leh and our lunch at a popular city restaurant ' Neha Snacks' took 2.5 hours to arrive. But Ladakis do cook well! In the evening , necessary gears picked up from army store for the adventure starting tomorrow. Reaching back to base, the morning shiny white mountains with fresh snow, now contrast their brown color to blue sky. Mockingly towards the night, the same mountains appear deep blue. We are informed we will be out of mobile network for next five days. That is what makes me happier ! ;)

Ice hockey stadium - Leh City
View from 7th Storey, Leh Palace

Back to network zone today evening . Continuing from where I disappeared... Day 4 | 23rd Jan 2023 | Chadar Trek Day 1 Mercury is down to -20°C. We are in transit from Leh to Somo in a private vehicle. An ice sheet of Zanskar river with crystal clear blue water flowing under ice patches, cutting through humungous sand and boulder mountains, seen on the way from Leh to Shingra Koma (Somo). Motorable roads are filled with fallen shooting stones and the vehicle keeps making sideway movements. The azure sky is occupied with military chopper that frequently break the desert silence. Rock patterns on the Ladakhi mountains are unrivalled and takes away the attention from white Chadar. On the way you see confluence of green Indus and ice blue Zanskar (popularly Sangam) to form into one and flow towards the borders. Base camspite at Somo is picturesque. Took a short walk towards the boulders, and the 360 degree Ladakhi mountains view made it look like we were passing through the grand canyon. Lunch and dinner suddenly has more taste and bonfire at night is filled with stories that beats the cold, coming all around from fellow trek mates. Temperature kept dropping towards the night & army sleeping bags are the only relief.

All set for adventure to begin !
Campsite: Shingra Koma (Somo), Zanskar foothills

Day 5 | 24th Jan 2023 | Chadar trek day 2 Mercury is down to -20°C at foothills of Zanskar valley. Late at night close to 4am when you are sleeping in a pitched tent packed inside a double layer of sleeping bag, trust me it does take some courage in extreme conditions to come out and take a leak outside. Disheartening to see that in the morning, one of our teammate had lost the will to continue with the trek, owing to cold conditions and lack of sleep. He decides to return back to Leh. For rest of us trek from campsite Somo to Tibb Cave has just started. Slide, fall, getup, repeat ! Walking on ice is a game of attentiveness. Even if you are padded on with gumboots, holding a walking stick in one hand, your fall is only subject to how long you keep your concentration on your next step. A blink of an eye away from where you put down your gumboot, and in no time you are flat on the ice block. Few of us including me have lost count of the number of times icy glacier patches got the better of us. But end of the day's trek, many have mastered the penguin walk. Most of trekkers reached the Tibbcave campsite by 13:00 hours . Trek distance~10.5 km | Time~ 3hrs | Pacer steps~ 20,000. Time availability and high energy levels, made us take a short trek to the nearby canyon and back. Enroute gathered dry sticks for night campfire. One of the better ways we found, to avoid getting into tent and fall asleep before night is to play football on ice using a piece of ice as the ball. We found the activity revitalizing though it lead to many more slips ! Everything tastes great today no matter what lunch or dinner we were served. The dining tent serves more purpose than just a place to have food. It forms the place to reunite, laugh out at day activities and then discuss plans for the next day. Chadar- the frozen river trek is believed to have been discovered by few foreigners back in 1975, who started trekking over frozen Zanskar bed from Sangam to Zanskar valley via Nerak. Since then the trek is a craze for global trekking community. Learnt that Zanskar (Chadar) trek is back operational post 2 yrs of shutdown due to pandemic . It will be stopped next month itself due to high snowfall forecast leading to risk of Chadar breaking up. Border Road Organization- BRO plans for permanent closure of trek next year onwards owing to mountain road construction activity upto the summit point of the trek circuit !

Enroute Somo to Tibb Cave
Slide, fall, getup, repeat ! Penguin walk is not everyone's cup of tea.

Day 6 | 25th Jan 2023 | Chadar trek Day 3 Chadar is the most unpredictable trek where the adventure comes to reality. Mercury levels have breached the - 20°C and its biting cold. After all you are at 12000ft and everyday is a battle to keep going! Windspeeds cross 80 mph limits in no time. 4 am under the dark cloudy sky I woke up when I realized our tent has broken and fallen over two of us sleeping inside. Heavy night snowfall caused it. Krishna (my tentmate) ran towards the dining tent in haste, woke up the guide, who got the tent fixed back in next 1 hour. The trek dynamics overhauled in the morning. Thick layer of snow surrounds the entire horizon the human eye can possibly see. It was the day of summit and now it stands cancelled, as the weather has played a spoil sport. Heavy snowfall results in hike in ambient temperature and that potentially cause the frozen riverbed (Chadar) to break up. From the stationed camp of trek police, message comes out to standby for the day. Trekkers are left with no choice. Forecast is that the snow may continue to fall for a day more. We are trapped on snow, risk of chadar breaking up is equally on both sides - so can't go forward or backward. Enthusiastic trekker faces are changing to disappointment ! The herd of trekkers engage themselves in multiple activities. It’s a war zone on ice and snow for some. Three of us are building a snowman. There is a group performing march-past on the snow with the national flag. Native state slogans echoed the mountains, and flags are waving in the sky. Conversations in smaller groups of 3-4 noticeable near all tents. To exacerbate the problem and shook the will, following the latest info received from trek police that it is safe to descend and that the summit will be improbable next day as well, a group of 28 trekkers along with all their porters and guide, decides to leave the camp and return to Leh. When I enquired one of them who was just starting to descend, he replied saying 'Jan h to Jahaan h'. My group has people from diverse backgrounds - legal, finance professionals, vlogger, photographer, consultant, director, IT leads. Surprisingly, even though the chance of summit is negligible, everyone in this group is united on the idea that we need to take that 0.01% chance of summit tomorrow, if that happens. Team decides not to return and stay back for a day, waiting to hear update from 4-member rescue team that went ahead towards summit for inspection. Trapped on snow, entire day has vitality. Playing cards, exhibiting photography skills, walk near campsite areas followed. Afternoon, team met a French guy named Tony, who is enroute to summit Chadar. He halted like the rest of us, residing in the Tibb cave along with two senior French men & their 11 porters. The 56 year old Tony is believed to have summited the Chadar till Zanskar valley for 40+ times starting from the year 1989. Tony is not happy with trek police, who asked him to stop moving forward after snowfall. Tony does not believe in avalanche stories at Chadar and he says he understands the route to Zanskar summit very well. Discussion with him revolved around stuff that included French lifestyle, French revolutions, Ladakh mafia and Ladakh tourism business models. Night at 8pm snowfall is still on. Post dinner, in the dining tent, the guide informs that the definitive statement to go ahead or back will depend on the weather tonight and the condition of Chadar. Trek police decision will be binding to all! I can see few trekkers return to own tents with prayer on their lips.

Campsite: Tibb Cave | Altitude: 11,300 ft
A day of self curated activities !

Day 7 | 26th Jan 2023 | Chadar trek Day 4 Day of Nerves! Drama! Emotions! 7 am | Cries of 'Vande Mataram' and 'Bharat mata ki jai' echoed from all corners of the Tibb campsite. Coming out of tent we see lesser snowfall in the night compared to the previous day. Trek teams impatiently waits for update from rescue team. An hour later, witness trek teams & porters wrapping for descend. The miniscule hope to summit is dead. Guides communicate to end the trek. Teams gather in large numbers to take final pictures, cherish and celebrate republic day at an altitude 11000ft- a historic moment for each of us, and then return. Though disappointed of not getting the summit opportunity, we decide to leave by 10am, once all teams vacate and we ourselves have a word with the trek police. We approach the police camp, met the personnel's in-charge, seek permission to go forward till we reach first campsite towards the summit. An act to fill the soul, though it may not lead to summit. Promise is made to police team to return where there is threat of Chadar breaking up. Well some days are lucky and, on some days one has to work to build their own luck. We got the approval to move till the station 2 hours away from campsite. We moved like a flash. 1.5hrs and we reach the midway campsite and halt. Drama unfolds and we see French and Russian groups are moving forward towards the summit. Right in front of us foreign teams move and we are asked to prepare for descend. Summit is so close yet so far ! Guide refuses to move forward due to risk of Chadar breaking up and unavailability of police permission. This is unacceptable to us ! Its more than an hour now and conversation with guide has turned into heated argument. The youngest of us, the 25-year-old has tears in his eyes. The passion to summit is so high that we decide we move backwards towards Tibb for another 8km trek in order to get the police permission. While everyone among us including the guide is charged up on the idea of summit from this stage, numerous thoughts cross my mind during my return trip to Tibb cave. Two senior folks in team who iterated to everyone that they have families and children to go back to ! Life risk to walk on uncertain terrain. Chadar can potentially break and that can lead to casualties. I also recall that 5yrs ago my last trek experience at Roopkund, where I did not push to apex point post summit, but my co-trekmates did. I had that regret in heart till today. Another message illuminated, that from a lady on my last trip to Assam who motivated me saying hard work can get you what you do not have. When we all reached back Tibb Cave, the only message I passed on to rest of the team, specially to the few of us who had lost heart and will to summit after tiring to-fro movement was that "pain is temporary, but glory is permanent". I don’t know what changed things in our favor, but the police guys agreed to allow us to summit. It may be that the rescue guys who might have returned with a positive feedback on Chadar. Or they couldn’t resist saying yes once they saw us back in same spot in 4 hours. 2 pm | The trek bags are now back at our backs, hands occupied with camera, water bottle and trek poles, ready to march ahead. One teammate decides to drop out due to acute mountain sickness (AMS) symptoms observed. He decides to descend, wishing the rest of us the best. Everyone singing the tale of epic turnaround. From situation of returning back to base and may be living an entire year in the hope of coming back to Chadar; doing the summit another year if at all Chadar trek continue to exist that day, to the situation now when suddenly blood is gushing through veins to reach the summit as early as possible. This is not going to be easy. The stretch is more than 15+ km and all on ice & snow blocks. Less time left to dusk. The guide is walking forward, with lesser confidence and more of caution. Rest of the team follows him with more of excitement and less of skillset necessary to go through. Last patch is always difficult.... and if its cloudy you need to be extra cautious. I see him hit every glacier block before putting foot to be sure . Hardly any precedent footmarks on snow. Cross river, up and down the mountains, hold ropes, keep going. 5:00 PM | Bodies are drained and eyes are red. Thermometer may have recorded close to -40°C. The first sight of Nerak waterfall rejuvenates everything ! The humongous frozen waterfall is before us. Words have fallen short. Summit is done ! We stay there for two hours. Then decide to move uphill to lookout for a homestay for night shelter at Nerak village.

'Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast'
Chadar Summit point : Nerak Waterfall - 26/01/2023

Day 8 | 27th Jan 2023 | Chadar trek day 5 ‘Julley’ is a magical word of Ladakh. It works for all reasons. Be it to greet, communicate all is good, or to say to proceed. Julley is a respect. Ladakhi earn it, spread it and wear as an ornament. Be it co-trekkers, porters, guide, French, Russian, Cehz groups or Tony the 56-year-old veteran Chadar trekker, whomsoever I met on the journey greeted by voicing ‘Julley’. A mesmerizing way to start a conversation here! 12:00 AM | Nerak Village: the room heater inside the mud house where we took the night shelter, is out of wood. The warmth coming from the fire that made us all five fall asleep, is no longer available. All struggle to sleep again. 30km of trek done on the day and it is going to be another 30km tomorrow. Back from Nerak to Somo at a stretch. Sleep is essential. Some smart moves midnight & we get the wood from adjacent room. Power nap at 4:00 am till 7:00 am. 3 hours of sleep and then left the Ladakhi mud house by 8:00, on way back via the frozen waterfall. Chadar trek is indeed unique where a river is flowing underneath my shoes and I am walking on it for infinite distance. I observe Chadar is thick and stronger today. Each pitstops on the way is a reminiscent of achieving the summit after a well fought battle with external & internal hurdles. Mostly keeping belief on the possibilities till the stage you can create a twist in the plot. Each one sings the tale of turnaround that happened in matter of few hours. Momentarily nothing can beat that! 3 month of fitness training before coming to trek, efforts by trainer, sticking to diet plan all has come to play. Grace of mountains and local porters had biryani, kichdi and lot of dry fruits on the way. All borrowed or gifted. Porters are the real heroes .. they make it possible else no trekker could do this trek alone. Imagine how tough it is for a porter on a chadar trek with the responsibilities, luggage and essentials they carry. 5pm | 8 hours of trek done. Everyone is back at Somo, the place it all started. A landslide on the way from Leh to Somo had stopped the vehicles incoming from Leh till 4pm. Routes are now back open and our vehicle is stationed at the visible uphill over Somo. Mutuk, a local porter and now a friend who taught me few card games, carries all my luggage uphill till the vehicle and signals goodbye ! In 2 hours we are back to habitation. On the way, from top of mountain I see the untouched thick white sheet of frozen Chadar till the Sangam runs along with us. Views from window are better than those wallpapers collection I have on my computer monitor. Hot water bath and offloading the heavy Eskimo jacket, both after 6 days are the only thing on my mind! Day 9 | 28th Jan 2023 | Leh City Julley !

Story by
Ashutosh Niraj

A consigliere during the day, traveler and photographer during weekends, trekker on holidays and...

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