Ladakh is a region perched on top of India like a cherry on top of a ridiculously tall glass of sundae. Beyond ladakh is the fifth dimension. Well, China actually, but you get the idea.
Add to that the insane climate – it is a cold desert, our very own mini Taklamakan, and the elevation – eleven thousand feet and more – and you got one of the craziest places in India.
The Chadar trek is one crazy trek in this crazy region, where you walk on a frozen river for 7 days. For centuries (before the age of tripadvisor and before hikers looking for brag value turned this into one of the most pouplar Himalayan hikes), this frozen river has served as the sole conduit for locals between two valleys – Leh and Zanskar – in the winter. The passes freeze over and the Zanskar valley gets cut off for a few months, connected to the world through this thin sheet of ice. Locals make this journey routinely every year, dragging their improvised sledges over the ice, spending the chilly nights in caves. Now they have fancy hikers flaunting Decathlon gear for company.
I had wanted to hike the Chaadar trek since I watched a program about it on Discovery. Like I have wanted to go to Mars and dive in the Mariana trench. But unlike Mars and the trench, Chaadar is in India, so last January I signed up with a group called Trek the Himalayas, borrowed all the woollens I could from my friends, and landed up in Leh city. Welcome to twenty degrees below zero.
Yes, I know there are Inuits and Scandinavians who would think that a night-time stroll in minus twenty degrees is pleasant and good for health, but I live in Mumbai. In my city, we know its winter when at night you forget to switch on the fan and it is ok. So that first night on the Chaadar trek, shivering inside my flimsy tent, for the first time I felt I might have bitten off more than I could chew. We were camped on the shoulder of a gorge, with the frozen river shimmering some fifty feet below. An icy gale lapped at the canvas of our tents. Our guide nonchalantly told us to get used to it quickly, as it was going to get worse in the coming nights; how encouraging.
The hot soup for dinner helped for a while; like thirty seconds. The real respite came only once we were inside the double sleeping bags. Apparently they were military grade, used by soldiers high up near the Tibetan border. I slept with my heart filling with patriotic warmth for my country’s brave soldiers, probably generated by layers of down.
The subsequent nights did get colder. But surprisingly, the body did get used to it. Somewhat. By the third night I realized something: It wasn’t the cold that troubled you so much as the fear of it. In a few nights it turns into a mere physical discomfort as opposed to a terrorizing chimera.
The worst effected were the rubber boots. Some people in the group cut corners and bought cheap ones. They would wake up in the morning to find their boots frozen stiff in the shape they had left it at night. God help you trying to get your feet into them if you left your backpack squishing your boots in a weird shape.
We began walking on the ice only on the second day. The river rarely freezes completely from edge to edge. The sides freeze first, with the sheet getting progressively thinner and ridden with holes as you get to the middle of the river. Usually through the centre there is a clear blue torrent of ice cold water rushing past in the opposite direction. The trick is to stay close to the edge, where if your boots broke through the ice, you’d meet the stony shore a few inches below instead of the rushing torrent. The river runs through a deep chasm, with near vertical walls on both sides. This makes things complicated when the ice starts to melt – which is almost daily, as the few hours of direct sunlight hits the sheet. Sometimes there is no walkable ice ahead of you and your are forced to find a way over the sides. The porters have it worst, hauling their 50 KG plus sledges on their shoulders over insanely steep climbs.
The only day we got excellent ice to walk on was on the second day, when it started to snow in the afternoon. It was the only time we saw the river freeze bank to bank.
There are two ways of walking on the ice. You can either drag your feet looking like penguins, or you can use crampons. Irrespective of which way you use, you’ll fall many times. Sometimes you’d just slip on the ice. Sometimes the ice will just crumble under you, landing you – if you are lucky – on harder ice, and if it isn’t your day – in water. In the second case you are forced to walk in wet socks that start freezing as soon as you stop. So you can’t stop until you can take off your socks, which isn’t untill you reach the next campsite.
We made good time till the third day. After that the ice started melting very rapidly. At every curve of the river our heartbeats would quicken, expecting the ice to end, forcing us over the rocks. Often it looked like there was simply no way forward. But the local guides always found or fashioned a way out.
We were incredibly lucky. Of all the groups that started the trek that week, we were the only ones who could go all the way to Naerak, a village on the river from where you turn back. I could empathise with Capt Scott.
In Naerak we got to stay indoors. There was even a wood burning samovar. We felt the same way Robinson Crusoe must have felt upon being rescued.
The Chaadar is disappearing. It could be Global warming, collective bad Karma of the materialistic world, or the increasing throng of hikers like me, but it doesn’t look like it will last in its current form for much longer. Also the Government is building an all-weather road to connect the Zanskar valley, which would finally end the historical role this frozen river has played. So if you are planning to do this, do it soon. And do it responsibly.