The Chadar Trek is indubitably one of the the most extreme adventure activities in the world. When Shubham Sharma decided to try this out, he wasn’t sure that this journey will turn out to be a life changing experience for him. Let’s get a detailed insight into his glorious journey through his story.
Being a travel enthusiast and nature lover, one channel I can watch all day all night is National Geographic and it was the day when I watched a documentary about the most extreme trek in the world. The documentary itself sent shivers down my spine and I had decided that I wanted to go experience the Chadar Trek. Having seen the extreme conditions that one has to bear, I was a bit apprehensive and I kept discussing with my friends about the trek and preparations. Months of futile discussions and inquiries made me even more restless and I decided that I wanted to make this dream come true this year for sure.
Soon I came in touch with a group who was anxious and fully prepared to go on the trek and I joined them. Everything got finalized in a couple of days and the beautiful morning came when we boarded our flight from Delhi for Leh. We knew that the flight will be delayed due to the weather conditions and a traveler definitely knows the exact amount of excitement and restlessness that waiting brings.
I had seen snow-capped Himalayas but they never felt like this before, our plane was entering Ladakh Valley and I could not believe the splendid sights. As soon as we landed at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport at Leh, our journey in the cold white desert of the Ladakh valley began. We relaxed and tried to get acclimatized to our surroundings in the first three days. The subzero temperatures at high altitudes can get you into trouble and we had just saved our friend with available medical facilities.
On the fourth day I began the much awaited journey with 20 other people and as soon as we reached the starting point of our trek I could feel butterflies in my stomach and my heart beat began to throb faster. We were at Tilat Sumado, the beginning point of Chadar- the frozen Zanskar river. It was a good 5 to 6 hours journey from Leh to Tilat Sumdo that descends into the Zanskar valley and reaches a point where Zanskar meets river Indus at a place called Nimmu.
Just to give you an idea of how cold it gets, the average mean temperature during the day is minus 10. In the night, temperatures fall to minus 20 and 25. Nimmu was the lowest point (~2800m) in the whole Zanskar Valley and the highest point of our trek up was to Nerak (~3400m). That’s where we had to reach.
Tilt Sumado is the place where the local tributary joins Zanskar and the location is quite a site to behold with a few caves on one side which accommodated the locals who had decided to join us. As soon as we started to walk on the thick sheet of ice I recollected all things that I had seen in the documentary. With ice sheets below my feet and huge mountains all around, it was like a dream which I could not believe had come true until I slipped! The ice sheets were dangerous and slippery and we had to tread very carefully.
The temperature reading at night was -20 which was hard to fathom when we gazed at the sky, it as the single most mesmerizing sight that I had ever got to behold with my naked eyes! The milky way galaxy never looked so bright, clear and stunning anywhere I had been to before. Ladakh truly is a stargazer’s paradise with crystal clear sky and fresh mountain air. I did not realize when I slipped into my sleeping bags given to protect ourselves from the bone chilling cold.
The guide kept helping us in finding a better chadar to walk as the chadar was not uniform which posed a challenge to us. It was a 10 km long trek from Tilat Sumdo to our second campsite Shingra Koma. The guide told us that the chadar surface can be of various kinds, you may have to trek through different kinds of surfaces during the trek. At times, you come across coating of fresh powder snow, other times, pretty hard and shiny ice, sometimes a freshly formed chadar (sheet of ice) or weak and breaking chadar.
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The best way to walk on the chadar is to copy the penguin and do not lift feet too much off the ground. Initially, it is common to keep falling as the sheet of ice is super slippery and thick and that adds great fun to the trek. As we kept trodding forward, we came across a few frozen waterfalls and a cave called Bakula Bawo. There was a juniper tree above the cave which is considered holy to the locals.
It took us a good 7 hours to reach Shingra Koma campsite from Tilat Sumdo. The dramatic settings caught everyone’s attention and the guide was once again in his full form giving out information on every single point. We came to know that Shingra Koma gets its name from a medicinal plant called ‘Shingra’ which is abundantly available in that particular valley. The beauty of Shingra Koma was breathtaking with wider walls of the gorge and artistically formed cliffs.
Our guide and other team members were excited to spot a snow leopard and the excitement reached another level when we spotted pug marks of the leopard. Our next camp was at Tibb which was almost 17 kms from Shingra Koma. It was a unique experience in terms that we had to crawl below the narrow cliffs at places. It is always great to know about places and on this day we not only learned but also experienced the beautiful sounds that chadar makes while forming. While we had only seen frozen waterfalls till now, the entire team was surprised to hear the sound of gushing water and we realised it was a live waterfall! After a thrilling experience of walking on the narrowest strip of chadar, we reached Tibb which means Shade in Ladhaki language, we realised it was aptly named so as the campsite was under the shade of the huge stone wall.
The trek from Tibb to Nerak was about 12 kms and we were all exhausted. The only thing that could make our trek a bit easier was a good snowfall and to our delight, the very next morning when we woke up we discovered snow all around us! The entire team jumped with joy as the chadar had formed well enough for us to walk comfortably.
We witnessed some incredibly moving sights today – from hot springs to the most beautiful frozen waterfall that looked so surreal. The warm and welcoming locals of Nerak greeted us with juniper tree. It was heartwarming to be welcomed by such smiling faces on the last camp of the trek. Nerak is notorious for its cold nights and winds as the temperature can dip as low as -25 here.
Day temperature read -18C and it was the coldest point of our trek. Nerak village is based at 2000 ft higher elevation from the Zanskar river bed and requires a 45 minute steep climb. Though we wanted to visit the village, however, we decided to relax at the shelter and get some rest. The snowfall had not stopped yet and the entire place had transformed into a fantasy land covered with glittering white sheet of snow.
It was time to return and our guide had already informed us that the way back was going to be easier due to the heavy snowfall which had created a uniform chadar. It indeed was smoother and it was even more thrilling to witness such a dramatic change in such a short period of time. nature truly is an artisan!
Things that nature can create and destroy within a short span! The sky was clear and the sun was shining bright on us adding some shine to the magnificent, white chadar. There was this perpetual silence which made the entire location feel isolated and lifeless and yet there was life. There was life in the formation of chadar, in the sound of feet and in the icy breeze. The feeling of being here was difficult to comprehend all the time.
It was unbelievable to watch the locals walking effortlessly on the chadar while we were just trying to tread without falling. Some of my team-mates could run but slipped and fell quite a few times which was a lot of fun to watch!
It was the last day of the trek and to be able to cover the distance in lesser time than earlier and more easily felt like an achievement. The Chadar trek is indeed the most extreme trek of the world but it is worth all the pains. The temperature was very harsh and irritating initially and it never got any better, you just have to learn to cope with it over the period of time to get comfortable with the surroundings.
One way to stay warm is to dress in layers of course. Occasionally my legs felt numb while relaxing in the camp or shelter due to the extreme weather conditions and the long trek. All the while, I enjoyed the glistening snow capped landscape during the day and stargazing during the night. It indeed was a life changing experience for me- it was beautiful, meaningful, surprising and at the same time quite spiritual. The best thing about such journeys apart from the trek itself is that they make you more confident as a person, you know that you can face any challenge no matter how extreme it is because what else can be more challenging than the Chadar Trek?
The Glorious Chadar trek brought along a number of self-realizations, it was the first time ever that I went through a real introspection. While walking on the thick sheet of ice with high mountains looking down at me I could think deeply in the silence which takes one to the path of spirituality, it is that spirituality which attunes one to the spirit of the being. It was a thrilling experience which changed my life for good.