Now this is something I am not going to miss. I mean, I, yours truly, will be on the trail. I do look forward to this trek, which has been deemed by those deeply in the know, to be literally, really and without an iota of exaggeration, ‘the trek of a lifetime’, ‘the ultimate adventure for a trekker’ or simply put, a life-changing, mind-numbing trip for any mountain lover.
Through with the preamble, let us consider what to expect. Yes, as is increasingly known now, ‘CHADAR’ refers to the snow sheath that the Zanskar river transforms into at this time of the year. In doing so, it becomes the lifeline for this otherwise snow bound and inaccessible region in the winters. Yes, we know Zanskar to be beautiful any time of the year. But in winters, the order of magnitude changes, leaps and multiplies, leaving jaws hanging quite like the towering whitened crags and gorges, a frozen world of spectacular blue ice, the scale amplified, like nowhere else in the world. But with mountains as you know, with great beauty, comes great deception. Now here’s a trek at a serious high altitude, where you cannot really pause too long, for the slippery ice on which you gingerly step, lies in treacherous wait, ready to crack and crumble, when you least expect. And any mountain goat knows that hypothermia, the medical condition to describe an amusing slip into a frozen Himalayan river, can kill in minutes. A seasoned mountain goat also knows that sharp ice can be sharp as a knife and can leave you bruised and bleeding. And if a tall and bold adventurer wishes to know how small he truly is, then Zanskar in winters must be his measuring rod.
So this is the trail you take when you seek fulfillment by pushing your known limits. And even before you put your foot on the ground, be prepared for the most breathtaking sight from the plane itself. Again, unseen anywhere else in the world.
Now, about the experience.
After a couple of days of acclimatization at Leh, the trek begins from the road-head aptly called Chilling, a two-hours drive from Leh. After a muddy start, it’s a slow and unsteady tread on the frozen river. But how slow can you be when 150 kms must be walked in the thin air in 10 days. But the first day is a short one though it feels anything but short. The first night at camp is in freezing cold. If you ever wondered what ‘arctic conditions’ are supposed to mean, here is your answer. Well at minus 20 degrees, it hits you hard when your sunscreen and toothpaste are both frozen. God forbid, if you feel like relieving yourself in the middle of the night. For ages mountaineers have recognized the abject difficulty of doing this noble deed through six inches of clothing with a half inch shrunken you-know-what. And don’t be surprised if a snow leopard feels like joining you right then. Trekkers are said to have rushed back into the tent on merely sighting paws in the snow. The next day on the frozen sheet of river, it develops – I mean the river develops – a sadistic knack of making scary sounds even when all is well, while staying mum when it plans to pull the rug under you. We all skid, don’t we, but in sub zero temperatures, skidding all day is like never-ending joke at your expense. For Godsake why must you crash your butt through splintered ice all day and be breathless for more. And then when all is not frozen, it isn’t good news still, because now it means a river crossing through water colder than you have ever known. Jumping on rocks coated with verglas is not designed to work in the first place. And so if you bang your knee, here is a new realization – that pain is accentuated in this weather and healing diminished greatly. But sometimes the gorge is narrow and the river has melted. So now rappelling and roping up is the only way to get across. But it is now that you will realize why this trail has quite a reputation in the adventure circuit.
Every now and then, a new scenery lies in wait – the grand sight of a frozen waterfall, tumbles of blue ice, the mirrored sheath of the frozen river, the furious icy torrent in a deep gorge. The drama of spectacular campsites is certain to print itself in your mind indelibly, and the friends you made on the trail will occupy that permanent place in your life. And more than ever before, you will doff your hat to the grit of mountain people, who seem to take nothing to take nothing from their environment, always giving instead. This time they will shock you with their energy, strength and above all, their truly superior temperament. Funny how the only way man can relocate his inner self, is only when he goes deep into the inner folds of the Himalayas.
By the way, there is one big reason to take this trek. Soon, in four or five years, a road will run alongside. And that will be the end of the fabled Chadar trek.
So pack your camera and choose your company and take this adventure of a lifetime.
I, for one, am going. So see you there.
P.S. We will run this trip with trained mountaineers as guides and a very experienced team of support staff.