Trekking on a frozen river
Snow leopard Pug marks.
Frozen waterfall, approximately 60 feet in length
Moonlit mountains at around 10 pm
Ariel view of the Himalayas
Another partially frozen waterfall
“ The Zanskar tries to take your life once. If you survive, nature will protect you forever” -Ropchek, Porter on the Chadar Trek
Leh, a small city in the Himalayas, is visited every year by a large number of people for the spiritual awakenings that the Himalayas have to offer or for the thrill of biking across the ‘most treacherous road in the world. However, in the winter months, the only people that one could spot in Leh are either the people that love their home too much to leave it for something like -30 degrees Celsius or the fanatics who decide to do the Chadar trek. I belong to the latte.
The Chadar trek takes place in the months of December, January and February. Known as one of the wildest treks in the world, it is a 111 km long trek that involves walking uphill on the frozen Zanskar river. After i read an article which spoke about the trek coming to an end as it was considered to dangerous in the recent times to be an adventure sport, i could not stop myself from signing up for it. Three months of rigorous physical training gave me the confidence, if not the strength, to complete it.
The trek started at Tilad do which is about 70 Km from Leh and very close to Drass, the second coldest place in the world (it witnessed a temperature drop to about -50 degrees Celsius in 2012). It was also our first campsite that we shared with another group of trekkers who were returning after completing it. Once, we had settled down, and gotten comfortable with half a dozen layers of clothing on us, we sat down to look at the view. It was nothing short of experiencing heaven. The beauty of the place we were at provided us with warmth and motivation to just be there. I was sitting n the frozen part of the cleanest river i had seen, with an ice capped peak at a stone’s throw from me. There was no sound except that of a flowing river, no hustle and bustle of the city life and nothing that could disturb this setting. It was like we were in a different world altogether.
The night was tough, and doing no activity meant that we could only rely on the sleeping bags and our warm clothing for comfort, which was little, because the temperature in the night went down to about -32 degrees Celsius. We woke up to see that the inner lining of our tents had ice on it, we were told later that this was due to the moisture in our breath that had gathered on the tent and had turned to ice because of the cold.
The first day of trekking started after a cup of tea that was provided to us by our porters who are the people that help out trekkers with the direction of the trek, the stories of various places and if they feel good, occasional treats in the form of a morning tea.
The trek unfolded a new facet of itself every day, from frozen waterfalls to a little cave where we saw the pug marks of the snow leopard, which is the rarest animal to spot in the whole world. Our porter told us that at any given point of time, there were at least 4 snow leopards that were watching us. The closest we could get to them was just the pug marks, perhaps that is the reason they are also called Ghost cats.
On the last day of our trek, we experienced something that was life threatening at one point and at the same time gave an adrenalin rush that none of us had experienced before. While walking on a particularly thin mass of ice, one of the trekkers dug his trekking pole into the ice for support. This was followed by the sound of ice cracking and in a matter of split second, the trekker was waist deep under the ice, only being held up by his bag. The sight was similar to that of a person falling in a manhole. The only difference was that there was extremely cold water flowing under the ice with a current strong enough to pull him. The porters rushed to help him and got him out of the water. Following which he was made to rest by a bonfire and given some of the special tea while telling us about a local saying that they had, “ The Zanskar tries to take your life once. If you survive, nature will protect you forever”. We did not know how to react.
With similar events taking place in the coming days and a few bruises, we reached the end of our trek. We did not know if we enjoyed it or not because at that stage we were still overwhelmed by the sights and experiences. But now it seems like we did. Even the times when we thought we would not make it, and especially the times when we had made it.
Photographs by Yash Chansoria