Chadar Trek: Jan 4-11, 2020

by - Thursday, February 06, 2020



No trek is complete without my headstand :)



Some things in this world can only be experienced. No pictures can do justice to them

फिर भी दिल है हिंदुस्तानी :)

What is Chadar Trek?

Chadar means sheet in Hindi. In this case it refers to trekking on a sheet of ice on a frozen river. Zanskar river is in the Himalayan region in India, about 70km from Leh (biggest town in Ladakh). The river partially freezes in winter and this trek covers about 80km distance (round trip) on the frozen river.

Our Group


There were 18 people in our group + a staff of 13-14 including guides, porters and cooks. Group members in alphabetical order: Aditya Natani, Anant Chopra, Anjali Rawat, Anu Palnitkar, Arpit Goel, Ashok Meni, Awadhesh Kumar, Bharat Rawat, Jai Rawat, Kanika Khandelwal, Nitesh Tibrewal, Nupur Khandelwal, Rajesh Nailwal, Samir Palnitkar, Tarishi Garg, Vikas Khandelwal, Vikram Saini and Yash Khandelwal, 

Someone decided to name the group Jai Ho. That became our rallying cry for the trek.

Trek of Many Extremes

I have done several treks over the years including Everset Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Mount Whitney, Mount Shasta, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim etc. I have run multiple marathons and ultramarathons including the 50 mile North Face Endurance Challenge and I have biked 500 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. However, the Chadar Trek stands out as one of hardest and most adventurous.

It is a trek of many extremes - extreme beauty, extreme cold, extreme terrain, extreme uncertainty and required extreme mental and physical determination. But it was also extreme fun!

Extreme Beauty

Words and pictures cannot begin to describe the incredible, pristine beauty of the Chadar Trek. We were flanked by tall, rugged mountains on the sides and were walking on the ever changing Chadar which looked different every few minutes. You are completely disconnected from the outside world for 5 days allowing you to soak in every moment without the urge to check emails or post pictures on Instagram :) I thought the trek would become somewhat monotonous and repetitive specially because we were to return back the same way. However, the Chadar keeps changing all the time and looked completely different on the way back. We saw nature-made ice sculptures, frozen waterfalls, unreal blue hues of water and experienced the kind of serenity which can only be experienced when you are one with the nature.

Leh - Winter Landsacpe. Eerily beautiful
View of  Zanskar river from our bus ride
Where it was not frozen we could see the fierceness of Zanskar river
Frozen waterfalls - we saw them throughout the trek
This beautiful section was also one of the most treacherous. We had to wade through freezing water
Nerak Falls. This was our destination. We turned back from here
Area near Nerak Falls. The water color was simply unreal
Check out the colors on the rock
One of the camp sites

Extreme Cold

I have lived in Iowa for two years and have experienced -30 degree temperatures. However, it is one thing to be outside in that weather for a few minutes and quite another to spend 5 full days and nights in the butt chilling, finger numbing, snot freezing temperature. Daytime temperatures were between -15C to -20C. Nighttime temperatures hovered around -35C. Anything wet froze instantly and became stone-hard! We all had varying degree of numbness in our limbs - it was a matter of numb and number :)

There were some really interesting side-effects of this. E.g. when someone took off their wet socks and put them on a rock, the socks froze immediately to the rock and were impossible to pull out. We saw several rocks with abandoned socks! At one water crossing someone folded up his pants and but the water got into the folds and froze. It was then impossible to unfold the pants!

We were drinking warm water throughout. We filled our thermoses with hot water in the morning and surprisingly it stayed fairly warm for many hours.

It has been over a month and many of us still haven't yet regained complete feeling in our fingers. They still feel partially numb! 

//BEGIN GROSSNESS ALERT
The extreme cold also meant that relieving oneself was a challenge. I carried a pee bottle so I wouldn't have to get out of the tent at night. However the morning dump had to be done outside. The flimsy toilet tents didn't really provide any protection and were super stinky to boot. The stone configuration changed everyday and accordingly we lowered ourselves into a wide squat, narrow squat or lop sided squat. I would lose sensation in all exposed areas very quickly including my fingers and butt which made it hard to ascertain that the toilet paper was wiping the right areas!

Anatomically speaking the Indian style is the most efficient pose because it lines up everything for a smooth 'motion'. Add -25 degree temperature to it and you can be sure that the business will be done in less than 2min.

During one of the pre-trek briefings, one of the guides said 'hygiene is a myth in mountains'. We really took it to heart and stuck to the minimum possible hygiene. No one even bothered to brush :)
//END GROSSNESS ALERT

Extreme cold froze the waterfalls in midstream. They looked as if they are waiting to come back to life
Guide (Sachin) demonstrating the use of double layered sleeping bags - the only thing protecting us from becoming an ice-age artifact
Even the mighty have frozen!



Finger numbing cold. Had to dip my hands in water and it froze on the gloves instantly
I did say snot-freezing cold, didn't I? Also notice the frost on my eyebrows!




Some stretches of Zanskar were completely frozen

Bet you wouldn't want to be in my shoes :)
Where is global warming when one needs it?

Extreme Terrain

"Happy Birthday to You" is how we cheered everyone who had a fall :) It was not a matter of 'if', it was a matter of 'how many' falls you had. I was in the middle of the pack with 7-8 falls over 5 days. The terrain was ever changing. It was extremely slippery at times and we had to shuffle-walk to avoid falling down. We were told to not break the fall with our hands and fall backwards on our backpack. However, the instinct was to use our hands and unfortunately my sister-in-law broke her wrist the very first day and she and my brother had to head back. That was really unfortunate. Samir ended up with a sprain the last day and I have leftover memories in my right wrist and left elbow as well :)

I was expecting a rather monotonous scenery but boy was I wrong. The frozen ice took unimaginable forms. We shuffled our way on slippery surfaces, hiked confidently on fresh snow covered sections with good traction, waded carefully in shallow water, walked over crunchy, crumbly ice, tip toed carefully over thin ice with flowing water underneath and had to scramble over steep rocky mountains when the river was not walkable at all.

Chadar kept changing - we had to be careful and not get too complacent
We got better at finding the right areas to walk on
Anjali bhabhi unfortunately broke her wrist on the very first day. Bhaiya bhabhi had to head back :(

Safe or not?

What could have caused this formation?

Incredible how one porter is carrying another one because he didn't have gum boots

Crunch time! This was fun to walk on

Snow and sand!

Looks like a flower but don't be फूल 'ed!
Amazing formations - multiple layers of ice. Is someone playing 'satolia' down below?

Out of this world!

Walking on thin ice. You can see the water and river rocks below
Freshly polished for your slipping pleasure :)  आज रपट जाएँ तो .. 
Difficult mountain crossing. River was not walkable. Guides had to set up ropes. One slip and Zanskar mein antim sanskar :)

Chadar was full of amazing formations

Extreme Uncertainty

There is a good reason why "walking on thin ice" is associated with imprudent recklessness but we didn't have any other option! There were sections where we could see the water flowing below the sheet of ice we were walking on. The river was not completely frozen as I had expected. There were many sections where the water was flowing freely. The sides were usually frozen which gave us a narrow passage - just 1-2 feet away from from fast flowing water. However at times we had to abandon the river completely and use the steep rocky section instead. Walking on sharp rocks with gum boots was not only really hard but also dangerous because we could rip a hole in our plastic boots sole! That would be the end of the trek. 

There were mini-crevices, long cracks and deceptive terrain. We remained very careful and did not get close to any treacherous areas but as you can see in the pictures and videos below, there was a fine line between adventure and misadventure.

Even reaching the starting point was full of uncertainty. The bus route was blocked due to landslides just a day before we were supposed to leave. Fortunately the roads cleared up just in time but they were so narrow and in such poor shape that even the staunchest atheists in our group were praying with deep devotion. 

Chadar was ever changing. It looked completely different on the way back. It was highly unpredictable. The section that was covered with fresh snow in the first couple of days and was easy to walk on, was extremely slippery on the way back. The high winds over the next couple of days relentlessly polished the chadar to create a near frictionless surface.

Probably the most terrifying moment was when Anu was walking alone and heard a loud cracking noise. The chadar was starting to crack around her. It stopped just 5 feet from her otherwise she could've fallen in the river with no one to rescue her!


One small step for mankind will be one giant mistake !

Landslide area. All these rocks fell from the surrounding mountain area but the chadar held on just fine

Chadar was full of cracks. You can see the thickness here. Anything more than a couple of inches was strong enough to walk on
Some sections made you wonder if you should really walk on this surface

One slip and you will be cryopreseverd for eternity

See how fiercely the water is flowing underneath. You don't want to be the One in Hole !

This was a really treacherous water crossing. Very slippery

One of the difficult water crossing areas. You can see me remove an ice chunk from the water to make it easier for those behind me

Wading through water. Looks really pretty but it was very tricky

Water or ice?

Just a few feet separate you from becoming a floating inanimate object


Walking on thin ice - you can see the flowing water below

Extreme Determination

Not that we had any other option once we started the trek, but getting up every day knowing that we have to spend another long day on tough terrain with extreme cold required immense mental fortitude.

The trek was supposed to be only 50km over five days according to the website. It was nearly double that distance! First day was really short because our bus got delayed and we could only trek for about 1 hour. To make up for that we walked for over 8 hours and covered 25+km on the second day. We covered around 20km every day after that. We were carrying heavy backpacks, not able to walk normally due to slippery surface, battling cold and wind and not to forget that we were at 10,000+ ft of elevation.

There was a particularly nasty water crossing where we had to go through knee high water. This was higher than our gum boots so all of us had wet feet after that. Water crossings were very tricky because the ice underneath was uneven and you couldn't see it. You could easily step into a trough or step on a piece of slippery ice chunk. Couple of people in our group did slip and got their clothes wet. Vikas had to change all his clothes and was down to his underwear for a while. Anu had tears in her eyes. Nitesh fainted briefly even before he started the crossing. Kanika could not feel her hands and feet and thought there was no way she could continue. I gave my gloves to her and stayed with her for the rest of the day making her jump, run and focus on her breathing. Her gloves needed to be defrosted over the stove that night. We were all helping each other whenever the need arose. Extra socks, gloves and jackets materialized out of nowhere.

There is special, life long bond created within the group when you go through such extreme experiences.

Bad-ass attitude

Checking out how it feels to pull a load

Slippery slope!

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

Middle of nowhere. No connection with the outside world. Earliest help is at least 24 hours away

Extreme Fun!

It was not all hard work and misery. We really enjoyed ourselves as well. Being disconnected with the phone meant we connected with each other! We played games every night, spent time getting to know each other, and got a lot of time to just enjoy the beauty without feeling the need to share every picture on WhatsApp. 

Anu had created special T-shirts for everyone. It took a lot of courage to remove our jackets for this photo-op :)

Praying for the trek to be successful ?

Real feelings coming out :) :)

Did I break it?

With my niece. She is special. My favorite picture from the trek. 

गिली गिली गिली गिली धूम धड़क्का।  हू हा हू हा :)


Frozen landscape can't dampen our spirits
Sleeping felt like this every night ...



Game of thrones - we took turns pretending to be the king. Winter is already here!

Most unique warm-up ever!


Quality of cooking didn't matter. Anything warm tasted delicious

Almost done with the trek - trying out some moves now :)


Time to hang up the hiking boots...


...and put on the dancing shoes

Party time!

When you dance, dance as if no one is watching you :)

This old guy still has some moves left !

Itinerary

This section is really a log for myself to remember what we did every day. It may be useful for others who are considering doing the trek.Thanks to Samir for documenting it :)

Here's a video which captures the entire trek:





Acclamation Days (Jan 4, 5, 6)

  • Three days in Leh
  • Stayed in Hotel Mountain Retreat
  • Rested on day 1, walked around on Day 2 and 3
  • Visited Shanti Stupa, Leh market, got medical check up and insurance done. Medical checkup and insurance is mandatory now
  • Bought gum boots and some additional gear for the trek
  • Got briefings from Captain (name?). Met our trek guide Sachin

Day 1 (Jan 7):

  • Left Leh at 10am by bus. Had to spend 2 hours at check post due to some paperwork issue
  • Reached gar at 3.30 pm. This was the starting point
  • Started at 4.10 pm. We decided to skip lunch to avoid further delays. The guides showed us how to walk and shared basic safety tips
  • Reached at 5.40 pm at lower Shingra, also known as upper bakula
  • About 3-5 km

    Day 2 (Jan 8):

    • Started at 8.40 am
    • Passed security checkpoint at Shingra Koma at around 10.15 am. 
    • Reached lunch point (Tchomu) at 1 pm. 
    • Left lunch point at 1.50 pm. Reached camping point (Tibb) at 5.50 pm.
    • About 25 km. All watches showed different distances!
    • -30 C at night with wind chill
    • 8+ hours on our feet

    Day 3 (Jan 9):

    • Started 7.45 am from Tibb.
    • Reached Yokma-Dho at 9.15 am where our camp is to be set up for the night. Instead of camping at Nerak, we decided to set the camp here so we will have less distance to cover the next two days and also not have to carry our entire backpack today.
    • We kept our stuff, took a day pack and continued on to Nerak falls at 10.35 am. We reached Nerak at 12.55 pm.
    • Had lunch at Nerak falls
    • Started from Nerak at 2.15 pm  and reached the Yokma-Dho camp at 4.15 pm.
    • 20+km walk
    • Coldest night today. -35C with windchill. Really strong winds.

    Day 4 (Jan 10):

    • Left Yokma-Dho at 8.22 am. 
    • Had to climb up a difficult mountain along the way. We had to hug the rocks and use slim footings to make our way across. Many people needed to be helped by the guides.
    • If the mountain adventure was not enough, we had some extreme water adventure in store as well. Immediately after the rock scramble we had to go through a water crossing. Chadar was broken. We had to wade through knee deep water. Many people lost their balance and got wet. There were tears, frozen fingers and toes, under-the-breath cursing, questioning our sanity for coming on this trek and general chaos.
    • Kanika was in really bad shape due to her fall during water crossing. Stayed with her for the rest of the day. She had amazing determination and pulled through despite being in terrible condition.
    • Chadar was like glazed glass surface today. Polished by the heavy winds. It was very difficult to walk on
    • Reached lunch point beyond Tibb at 12.25 pm. 
    • Left lunch point at 1.05 pm. Passed Tchomu at 3.15 pm. Continued on to Shingra-Koma so that we could reduce the distance for the next day. Reached camp around 4:30pm
    • Anu had the terrifying experience of chadar cracking around her. Thankfully she was safe.
    • 20+km over very slippery surface. Tough day but also the most memorable day.

    Day 5 (Jan 11):

    • Started from Shingra Koma at 9.15 am. Today was a leisurely start
    • Had to immediately cross a very difficult section via mountain. Guides had to put up ropes to make it safe.
    • Reached a point where the guide suggested going back up to the road. Aditya and I were ahead of the pack and refused to do that - we wanted to stay on the chadar. Rest of the group took the road route for about 2km.the point where we got off the chadar at 11 am. 
    • Surface was really slippery today as well. Fell a couple of times and had a minor sprain in my right wrist and left elbow.
    • Reached the end point near Lower Bakula at 12.00 pm. Took lots of pictures with porters and cooks and gave them generous tips.
    • Team lead Sachin Lama was really nice. Tenzin Chumdan was the other guide - he was also really nice and always said 'do ghanta (two hours)' when we asked how much more we had to walk :) One of the porters, Tashi was probably the most experienced in the group and went out of his way to help everyone during the trek.
      Am I glad I did it, absolutely! Will I do it again? Absolutely Not !

        10 comments

        1. I just loved picture captions.
          I totally agree with your last line Jai 😍

          ReplyDelete
          Replies
          1. Thanks Tarishi. We had such an amazing group which made it extra special :)

            Delete
        2. Beautifully scripted with pics, videos and captions.. Nostalgic and hilarious..and yeah gross too :-p

          ReplyDelete
          Replies
          1. ha ha. I had put a warning sign for the gross section but I guess that made it more irresistible for people?

            Delete
        3. What a beautiful read, and what an amazing trek! Congratulations, Moni, you are such an inspiration!

          ReplyDelete
          Replies
          1. Thank you jiji. It was indeed an amazing trek. But inspiration is a big word. I think it is more of a mid-life crisis :)

            Delete
        4. Wow, great blog! It really helped me visualize your experience.

          ReplyDelete
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