The Chadar Trek in Zanskar Valley of Ladakh region is beyond any doubt one of the most difficult and challenging treks in India. The name Chadar, locally meaning a blanket or sheet, is perfectly suited for river Zanskar which freezes over for 7 to 8 months every year beginning November and lasting until the start of June. The deadly winter months of January and February render the river entirely frozen, thus closely resembling a stark white blanket of ice.
Since a large section of River Zanskar flows through a deep gorge, it gets limited sunlight in the winter and hence freezes. All the mountain passes are also closed due to heavy snowfall. Surrounded by the towering Himalayan and Zanskar mountains on all sides, the Zanskar Valley thus remains isolated from the rest of the country for the whole of winter and trekking on the frozen river is the only way for villagers to get emergency supplies from Leh or to go for education and work outside the village.
The Chadar Trek is ideally taken between January and February when the ice sheet is most stable. Mean temperature during the daytime stays around minus 15 degrees Celsius but may plummet to anywhere between minus 25 to 35 degrees Celsius in the night. Trekkers are advised to wear multiple layers of clothing, woollen caps, gloves and sturdy boots to combat such extreme conditions. The Chadar trek progresses through a long narrow valley up to a maximum height of 11,123 feet, with breathtaking views of ice-clad peaks and hanging icicles all around. Trekkers are advised to come mentally prepared and physically fit enough to face a little adversity as they may have to wade through mind-numbingly cold water, tread carefully on ice of uncertain thickness, climb icy rocks or walk on narrow margins of slippery ice. The consistently sub-zero temperatures and biting cold winds make the experience no easier.
Embark on Chadar, the trek of your life
You can book a flight from New Delhi to Leh, where you can stay on for a night to acclimatize to the harsh climatic conditions. From there on, you are taken by road to Chilling village from where the Chadar Trek begins. A total distance of about 105 km between Chilling and Padum villages is covered on foot in 7-8 days with the assistance of an able guide and local porters and support staff to carry the luggage and cook food for the group. Given the hostile conditions of the trek and the need to fly in food and other supplies by air, the cost of the trek is higher than any other mountain excursion you might have been on. Days are spent trekking on the Chadar while nights are passed inside cave camps, sharing stories around blazing bonfires and dozing off in warm sleeping bags. Gazing at the star-studded night sky, lying on a sheet of ice amidst lofty mountains, you might get an entirely new perspective on life and your place in the never-ending universe.
On your way from Gyalpo to Tibb Cave on the Chadar trek route you will come across numerous waterfalls at varying altitudes. Local folklore mentions how centuries ago, during a prolonged dry spell, villagers visited Tibet to pray for water. They were given a box only to be opened upon reaching the village. However as human nature goes, they opened it on the way and two fish jumped out of the box, turning into two waterfalls at that very spot. One of those two remains frozen in the winters today while the other surprisingly retains its gurgling waters. Further on from Tibb Cave to Naerak you will witness a giant frozen waterfall, many feet tall and almost equally wide, with the bright sunlight creating glinting rainbows on its icy surface. All along the way you will discover trails of pug marks in the snow, belonging to snow leopards, ibex and foxes. You may or may not be able to spot one, but rest assured you’re always being watched by them.
The Warmth and Indomitable spirit of the Zanskaris
You will learn a lot about the people of Zanskar during your Chadar Trekking experience. Their resourcefulness and perseverance come across in the fearsome way in which they brave such hostile living conditions to make a respectable living, while the warmth of their spirit shows in their perpetual smiles and ever-helpful nature. The support staff on your trek will help you adjust to walking on the ice while also cook nutritious Ladakhi food and keep your camp sites warm and ready to be slept in on arrival. It would be sensible to follow closely in your guide’s footsteps while trekking, as being a local, he would instinctively know where to find firm footing on the impossible terrain.
In a few years from now, the centuries-old frozen river trekking practice is expected to become a thing of the past as a road is being constructed to enable easier access to the interior villages of Zanskar valley in winters. It is hence imperative that you go on the Chadar Trek today to live the unique, magical experience before it is made obsolete. A knowledgeable local guide is a must for a smooth trekking experience. It is also advisable to book your air tickets some months in advance to get good deals on the airfare. Procure all your medical necessities, clothing and trekking equipment before leaving Leh for the trek, as very few shops can be found open in Ladakh during the winter months.