The Chadar Trek – Life Below Zero

Chadar Trek – a trek which is in the bucket list of almost every trekker, be it amateur or hardcore. Apart from offering some breathtaking views, the trek also treats you with temperatures plummeting to -30° C levels at night. Graded as a difficult trek, it definitely tests how much cold you could tolerate, that too at an altitude of about 3,400 m (~11,400 ft). Something that even I wanted to test and so I booked this trek for the 3rd-10th February 2018 batch. Many other good trek organisers like Trek The Himalayas (TTH), Adventure Nation, Renok Adventures, etc. arrange The Chadar Trek. But, I would call my experience with Bikat Adventures one of the best ones ever. After the hectic fortnight-long trip to Bidar, Gulbarga, Bijapur, Badami & Hampi, I had only a month to prepare for this trek.

SO WHAT IS CHADAR TREK?

First of all, Chadar is not just another trek, it is an experience. An experience that completely changes your approach towards the challenges you would face in life. It is basically a winter trail on the frozen Zanskar river. During the months of January and February, this frozen river resembles an ice sheet (or a blanket/ quilt) and hence the name of the trek. It starts and ends in the Zanskar region of Ladakh, in Jammu & Kashmir. The total distance is approximately 70 kms (to and fro). The trek begins at Shingra Koma (inside Hemis National Park) and ends at Nerak/ Niraq waterfall. The frozen Nerak waterfall is considered the summit point.

Chadar Trek involves walking on the frozen river for most of the part. There are few small patches along the trail where the Chadar doesn’t get formed well. In such situations, one needs to climb the embankments and then descend to the patch where Chadar is thick/ stable. Apart from this and the extreme cold, the trek is relatively moderate. However like with any other trek, you cannot take things for granted. If prepared well, Chadar Trek can be easily completed by even a first timer. You may want to read my article on “How to prepare for The Chadar Trek” for more details.

ACCLIMATIZATION DAYS IN LEH (31ST JAN – 3RD FEB 2018)

When I camped at Chandratal Lake in 2016, even 4° C seemed extremely cold to me. Since I cannot stand cold, I wanted to make sure that I get used to it well in advance. Hence I landed in Leh on 31st January only, three days before start of the trek. The moment I heard the announcement before landing that the outside temperature was -7° C, I was speechless. But the moment I stepped out of the flight, the weather seemed pleasant. Maybe it was because the layers I was wearing or the fact that it was not that windy out there.

One of the cab drivers outside agreed to drop me to LEDeG’s Ecology Hostel, 5 kms away from Airport, for Rs. 400. If you have a group going in the same direction, the fare would get shared. As advised by the Ecology Hostel staff, I preferred to take rest for an entire day on Day 1. Ecology Hostel is a very budget friendly hostel located near Shanti Stupa. It has dormitories with double and triple bed system and the rooms are very warm. Most importantly, the hostel has a WiFi which is essential when your prepaid networks are of no use. The temperature used to drop to -15° C to -20° C at night but the place was perfect for stargazing, so I didn’t mind staying out at night.

On Day 2, I visited Leh Palace and Leh Market along with my roommate, Niranjan. We bought gumboots (Rs. 375 per pair) and Military woolen socks (Rs. 60 per pair) in the market. Since it was winter, most of the shops and restaurants were shut and hence we were left with only two options – The Red Sauce and Meal Mastiyaan. We preferred The Red Sauce as Meal Mastiyaan is a pure veg restaurant. The food at The Red Sauce is very good but service is equally bad. We spoke to couple of cab drivers in the market and asked one to pick us up next morning at our hostel for local sightseeing.

  • Shanti Stupa, Leh
    Shanti Stupa, Leh

Next morning, another guy in the hostel and Sourabh (one of my Chadar Trek batchmate) agreed to join me and Niranjan. As instructed, the cab driver reached our hostel around 10 am and we left for Shey Palace, Thiksey Monastery and Hemis Monastery. Although I am not a fan of monasteries, I went along to acclimatise better and to kill the boredom at hostel.

There’s nothing much to see at Shey Palace, except the Buddha Temple. Comparatively, Thiksey and Hemis monasteries have a lot to explore and admire. The main attraction of the Thiksey Monastery is Maitreya Statue (or The Statue of Future Buddha). It took three years to build the 40 ft high statue with 30 people working continuously. The statue is made of clay and terracotta brick painted with gold. Do not forget to go to the top of both the monasteries to witness an amazing view of the mountains.

All the participants were asked to report to The Tiger Hill Hotel for a briefing. There were 15 participants in total. The trek leaders Manjeet and Sandeep from Bikat Adventures briefed everyone about the intricacies of the trek and addressed their queries. The session lasted for couple of hours post which everyone was asked to shop for pending things for the trek from the Leh market. Manjeet advised us not to carry unnecessary things and too many clothes for the trek. Therefore, we chose to keep some stuff back at the hotel.

TREK DAY 1 (4TH FEB 2018): LEH – CHILLING – SHINGRA KOMA – BAKULA

On the chilly morning of 4th February, we left for the trek in a Tempo Traveller at around 9 am. The weather had changed suddenly that morning and we were compelled to wear multiple layers in Leh only. It took us almost 4 hours to reach Shingra Koma via Chilling, a distance of about 70 kms. Make sure you keep your camera and phones ready to capture some good shots of the frozen Zanskar river on the way.

Shingra Koma is a place where the actual trek begins. The other trek groups back from their trek were taking the dip in the cold water of Zanskar. Our local guide for the trek, Chomdan asked us to wear the gumboots. Sandeep gave us a demo on how to walk on the ice and how to fall as well. When you fall, your brain instructs you to fall either on your wrists or elbow as a kind of safety mechanism. This is something trekkers have to avoid while walking on the Chadar. Sandeep showed us how to make sure that you fall on your rucksack without banging your wrists/ elbows on the ice and getting them hurt.

  • Somewhere near Chilling, Leh
    Somewhere near Chilling, Leh

After 5-10 minutes of practice, we finally started our trek. The distance between Shingra Koma and Bakula is merely 1.5 km and takes about 30-45 minutes to cover. We reached the Bakula campsite at around 2 pm. The porters put up the tents at a distance from the Chadar on a hillock and served us tea and lunch.

After some rest, we assembled on the Chadar for another practice session. It was an icebreaker session in a way. Apart from walking and skidding on the ice, we played Ice Kabaddi and Football which was full of fun. While on our way to Bakula, I was under impression that I had learned to walk on the ice pretty well as I never fell during this short journey. That happiness didn’t last long. It was this session during which I experienced what it feels to fall on the hard ice sheet. Nonetheless, it turned out to be the best part of the entire trek. The session actually succeeded in turning all strangers into friends.

TREK DAY 2 (5TH FEB 2018): BAKULA – TSOMO

Our trek leaders, Manjeet and Sandeep had set a time rule for the morning – 6:30 am (get up), 7:30 am (breakfast) and 8:30 am (start the trek). The trek began with some stunning views as the sunlight started to find its way inside the valley. And then it was all about skidding and falling on the slippery ice. People were falling down on their wrists, elbows, back. I even managed to fall flat on my face. We even got to slide down couple of small frozen waterfalls.

  • Somewhere near Bakula campsite
    Somewhere near Bakula campsite

The only sounds one could hear throughout the walk were the sound of ice cracking under your feet, sound of the strong winds and the rumbling sound of the Zanskar river. We managed to cover the distance of 14 kms in about 5-6 hours. Our camp activities used to be stretching session after reaching the campsite, lunch, then rest followed by games inside dining tent and finally dinner. The meals during the trek used to be tomato/ corn soup, noodles, dal, rice, vegetables, etc. The cooks and porters ensured that our experience in terms of food and other arrangements would be the best.

TREK DAY 3 (6TH FEB 2018): TSOMO – TIBB CAVES

The trail between Tsomo to Tibb Caves was probably the best one during the entire trek. Just visualise the combination of white snow, caramel coloured sand, turquoise water and the ever changing colours of the mountains. It was a perfect setup for the photographers to capture the beauty of Zanskar valley. The temperatures during the day used to be subzero only. The pleasant climate and the landscapes were kind of motivation to walk the distance of 10-15 kms daily with a 8-10 kg rucksack on your back.

  • The stunningly beautiful landscapes on way to Tibb Caves from Tsomo
    The stunningly beautiful landscapes on way to Tibb Caves from Tsomo

It took us 5 hours to cover the the distance of 12 kms between Tsomo and Tibb Caves. In comparison to Bakula and Tsomo, it was way too cold at this campsite. Hence, we preferred to take rest in our tents. Although the conditions were good for us to play Football on the frozen river at the campsite, fatigue and the extreme cold played spoilsport and we had to cancel our plans.

TREK DAY 4 (7TH FEB 2018): TIBB CAVES – YOKMADO – TIBB CAVES

On Day 4, we were supposed to reach Nerak Frozen Waterfall, also called as the summit of Chadar Trek. But it seemed as if we were not destined to see it. The other trek groups had started their day way too early. Maybe to avoid the crowds at Nerak for the photo-session. However, hardly 1 hour after starting the trek, we started seeing these trekkers returning to the Tibb Caves camp. We got a confirmation from them that it was indeed not possible to reach Nerak that day. We still decided to take a chance and started walking to reach as much closer to Nerak as possible.

  • Frozen waterfall on way to Tibb Caves from Yokmado
    Frozen waterfall on way to Tibb Caves from Yokmado

After walking for 6-8 kms, we reached Yokmado in couple of hours for lunch. Manjeet and Sandeep took couple of trekkers from our batch to go ahead and check the situation. By the time they got back (some 30 minutes), some of us climbed the nearby hill to get an aerial view of the Zanskar river. As expected, the feedback from the recce team was negative. The Chadar had broken some 1.5 km away from Yokmado, leaving no scope to walk on ice. The option of climbing up the hill for the melted patch and descending to the frozen walkway was useless. The loose rocks on the hill and the scree would have led to a possible fall directly into the freezing cold water. Since we were not going to camp at Nerak, we got an extra day.

TREK DAY 5 (8TH FEB 2018): TIBB CAVES – BAKULA

As we had an extra day on hand, we decided to utilize it in Leh for local sightseeing and for some rest. So we planned to reach Bakula on 5th day, skipping Tsomo. But that meant we had to cover the distance of about 22 kms in 6-8 hours. Another challenge was the melting Chadar. While on our way, we realized that almost all the routes we took while reaching Tibb caves from Bakula seemed totally different.

  • View from the Bakula campsite on final day
    View from the Bakula campsite on final day

The Chadar had started breaking at many places and there were couple of patches where we had to climb the rocks on the banks of the river to move ahead. At one such patch, we came across a group of foreigners who had lost couple of their trekmates. Chomdan later told us that one of their trekmates had drowned while the other died due to AMS. The porters from other trek groups immediately emptied a sledge and carried one of the dead bodies. After almost 8 hours of walk, we safely reached our favourite camp, Bakula.

TREK DAY 6 (9TH FEB 2018): BAKULA – CHILLING – SHINGRA KOMA – LEH

Since we had to cover only 1.5 kms to reach Shingra Koma and then 3 hours drive to Leh, we started Day 6 at around 10 am. The sad feeling of trek coming to an end was subsided as trekkers were excited to take a dip in the water at Shingra Koma. Although I had maintained throughout the trek that I wouldn’t be going for it, I somehow agreed to experience that madness. You can watch it here in this short video:

We reached Leh an hour late than what we had expected, thanks to the landslide somewhere near Chilling. While on your way back to Leh, do not miss seeing Sangam (confluence of Indus & Zanskar rivers), Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib and Hall of Fame Museum. We preferred to spend the next day in local shopping and rest only.

  • Chadar trek group photo
    Another wonderful trek, another wonderful group

There comes a time when you go somewhere you hardly know about. A place not many choose to go. An experience people only dream of, all their lives. Chadar Trek was that experience for me. Something that gave me a sneak peek into the lives of some wonderful strangers. An experience that showed me the life of porters. How they find happiness in small things and put your safety above all other priorities. An experience that made me believe that I can achieve whatever I am doubtful about. An achievement that turned my doubt into confidence that “Yes, I can do it.”

For those who want to know the typical expenses for Chadar Trek, here’s a summary of my expenses (approximate figures):

  1. Accommodation and meals at Ecology Hostel: Rs. 1,700 for 3 nights
  2. Trek fees for Bikat Adventures: Rs. 18,000 (after 25% discount for booking 180 days in advance)
  3. Mumbai – Delhi – Leh Return Flights: Rs. 10,000

Please note that I haven’t mentioned expenses related to local sightseeing, extra day stay at Hotel Tiger Hill, local shopping, other meals etc.

BEST TIME TO GO FOR CHADAR TREK

Mid January to Mid February during which the Zanskar river is completely frozen and much safer to walk on.

HOW TO REACH LEH

During winters, the only transport option available is Air travel. The flights for civilians ply daily in the morning, between Delhi and Leh by Go Air, Jet Airways, Vistara and Air India.

ACCOMMODATION IN LEH

During winters, most of the hotels are shut. So it is better to book hotels 3-4 months in advance. Some of the good budget hotels/ hostels during winters are:

RESTAURANTS IN LEH

  • The Red Sauce
  • Sorriso Pizza and Meal Mastiyaan (Pure Veg)
  • Himalayan Cafe

THINGS TO REMEMBER

  • Try to reach Leh atleast a day prior to the beginning of the trek. The trek itinerary of almost all trek groups typically has first day reserved for briefing and rest so in total you would get atleast 2 days for acclimatization.
  • Prepaid SIMs do not work in Leh. It’s better to carry postpaid SIM (Airtel, Vodafone and BSNL).
  • If you are carrying a DSLR camera, make sure you carry a tripod as well. Chadar Trek is the best opportunity for star-trail and time-lapse photography.
  • If you fall while walking on the ice, make sure you fall on your rucksack and not on your wrists or elbows.
  • Answering Nature’s call in the morning could be inconvenient for some people. You have to get done with your business in the toilet tent only as it’s too cold in early morning to go out in open.
  •  Read all the preparation related tips here.

Here’s a short video I have made on my Chadar Trek experience:

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Till then…Happy Travelizing!!!