PLANNING”……What a big percentage of our day gets invested in planning for the future………with little thought given to what an unpredictable, dynamic world we live in….Nothing can make you experience this dynamism of life UP CLOSE the way nature can……and that’s the key experience you take back after having walked the Mighty Chadar Trek……..
The enormity of mountains make you feel so tiny and humbled…..and the sheer power of nature to make all your plans go for a toss can leave you feeling nothing short of baffled and bewildered.
Chadar trek – “Life in a capsule”…….. well…so is the nature of this trek, it makes you experience life full circle…………taking you through all the possible ups and downs of life in 7 days flat!
So what is this Chadar trek?
scenic view captured during the Chadar trek
Trekker ready for Chadar trek
During winters the temperature in Ladakh drops as low as -35°C….a lot of villages get cut off as the roads get blocked due to snow, Zanskar valley being one of them. Zanskar village is connected with Leh by the wild rumbling river Zanskar which freezes during winters with its top layer transforming into a blanket of ice….and thats how it came to be called “Chadar”. The locals have been using this route….that is walking 70+ kms across the risky Chadar to Leh for centuries for trade and transportation during the winters….but in recent years this route has gained popularity among adventure enthusiasts as one of the wildest extreme treks in the world and perhaps the only one where you walk on a frozen river. The entire trek takes you through steep canyons as you walk your way on the frozen river, opening up vistas like never seen before , overwhelming you with the beauty, enormity and power of nature around you.
This trek certainly needs you to be physically fit to withstand the extreme conditions….but more importantly this is a trek which is extremely demanding mentally. Mental strength, tenacity, grit and readiness to face all odds without giving up………you just can’t think of walking the Mighty Chadar with a deficiency in any of these.
When I left Baroda had never imagined what a life changing experience lay ahead of me…………Chadar trek turned out to be a transformational journey like no other for me…………….an experience that took my breath away…..both metaphorically and literally….
And the journey begins to Chadar
We landed in Leh on a cold Feb morning. As the flight landed ….the flight attendant announced the outside temperature….-10°C…..Had never experienced sub zero temperatures till date…and thus was quite excited as well as anxious to know how it would feel. As advised both I and my husband Rohit were already dressed in 4 layers to ensure the sudden change in temperature didn’t come as a shock. And it did help…..the layers ensured that we were quite comfortable as we stepped out of the aircraft ….
We went straight to the hotel as we had kept 2 days aside for acclimatization prior to the trek to ensure our bodies got sufficient time to adjust to the low oxygen levels…..so spent two days not doing much except a visit to the market to buy gumboots, warmees, socks etc.
Finally THE DAY arrived……and we loaded our bags and ourselves into a Xylo which was already loaded with 4 porters and our trek guide Chamba along with all their supplies, and our journey to Chilling ….the start point of the trek…..65 kms from Leh began.
We had expected to have a group with us, but as our tour operator couldn’t get additional people …..it was finally just the 2 of us with our guide and porters.
On the way to Chilling we stopped at the Patharsahib Gurudwara…..Its actually in the middle of nowhere….But every time I visit this place it somehow infuses an unexplainable sense of peace.
DAY 1 Tilat Do Camp 10390 ft.
Finally we reached Chilling….takes around 4 hours to reach. Due to a landslide we had to stop much before the usual start point of the trek….. and finally our long awaited Chadar trek began….
Trekking through mesmerizing ravines to reach Chadar with the turquoise blue waters of the river at times rumbling by your side as you trek on the frozen sections of the river and at times flowing gently with ice sheets floating atop……….the next 6 days our eyes were to witness 3 major colours……..WHITE….BLUE….BROWN. In fact heavy snowfall ensured we saw very little brown as the mountains were also completely dressed in snow……
Frozen lakes to our chadar trek
Snow Glaciers on our trek to chadar
Valley covered with snow on Chadar trek
We must have walked around 6 kms to finally reach the first camp site Tilat Do…. the walk was quite a comfortable one, thanks to the powdery layer of snow that carpeted the Chadar which made it less slippery.
The campsite was beautiful by the gentle flowing river , surrounded by steep mountains. This is one place where you have a small tent which is referred to as “Restaurant” by locals. ….this is a permanent tent pitched by a couple of guys from Zanskar for 1.5 months when the Chadar trek happens……they serve tea, maggi and eggs.
By this time I had developed severe loss of appetite and couldn’t even finish half a bowl of maggi. Although loss of appetite is one of the symptoms of *Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) everyone around was having a loss of appetite and even during my visit to Leh four years back I never had a great appetite and thus I didn’t take the symptom very seriously.
By evening it got much colder and our team of porters and guide cooked up a nice meal of khichadi as requested by us. Sitting in their tent where the stove would burn was very comforting as that was the warmest that we could be on the trek! We had a team of 5 outstanding men to take care of us…..our guide Chamba and our 4 porters Nima, Dorjey, Tashi and Thingles. The amount of effort that they put in through our 6 days on Chadar to ensure we were comfortable and safe is unmeasurable and I could never thank them enough.
After having half a bowl of khichadi (Thanks to loss of appetite) cooked by this outstanding team of ours…..we retired to our tents, where we were carefully zipped up in super warm glacier sleeping bags.
*What is AMS?
Acute mountain sickness/ Altitude sickness happens because there is less oxygen in the air that you breathe at high altitudes. Anyone travelling to an altitude above 2500m can experience AMS but it is difficult to predict who will be affected…..an Olympic athlete could get it while a senior citizen may not. The symptoms include headache, light headedness, dizziness,drowsiness, listlessness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, extreme fatigue and in severe cases disorientation, hallucinations, cough, breathlessness could occur which could be life threatening. It is better to prevent AMS than to treat it and prevention measures include giving your body sufficient time to acclimatize at higher altitude with minimum physical exertion during acclimatization period ; and consider taking the drug Diamox which helps in the acclimatization process (I would strongly suggest this be taken to further reduce the possibility of putting yourself at risk of AMS). There are minor side effects of Diamox such as frequent urination, tingling in hands and feet, which should not discourage you from taking it. I didn’t take it after receiving mixed advices, on retrospect I strongly feel I should have.
The Golden Rules of Altitude Sickness are
– If you experience the symptoms of altitude sickness, you have it until proven otherwise.
– Do not ascend further with the symptoms
– If you are getting worse descend immediately
DAY 2 – to Shingra Koma ( 10 kms) – 10550ft
Chadar trek is enough to drain your energy
Team of Chadar trekkers
Woke up to a surf excel white morning! It had snowed heavily through the night ensuring every single mountain, tent, rock around us wore a white shroud! So now the colours we could see were blue waters…..white snow….grey skies.
The first step outside the tent just takes you aback as you witness the overnight transformation of the campsite….the cold ensured all our movements were slow and we finally completed our morning chores to get ready for the trek. By 9.30 we embarked towards the next camp site Shingra Koma.
Within 15 minutes of trekking our guide realized the the Chadar ahead was unsafe and thus needed us to climb a cliff…….and then I saw him walking towards a 90 degree upright cliff…..and I told myself “ No…..he certainly isn’t expecting us to climb this one” and there I heard him strike his axe to create a foothold and I realized………THIS WAS the cliff we were supposed to climb…..Seriously it was a moment to tap yourself and say “All is Well”…..and then began the guided climb….came to a junction where I couldn’t see any further foothold…..that’s when Chamba…who was already standing atop said…. “Dono haath patthar par se utha ke mere haath me de do…..mein aapko upar utha lunga”…………..I couldn’t believe my ears……….for a minute I didn’t budge……..but then realized that the only way to move forward was to trust Chamba….and I did as he said………and there he swooped me up the cliff in a jiffy!! From that point of time Chamba was given a new name – Bruce Lee !! The cliff was steep and getting down the cliff was even more challenging………….in fact it was impossible to do this task without the support of Chamba and our porters who would put their lives at risk to safeguard us. The climb was scary but once we descended the whole experience seemed very exciting as well!! For me Chamba has been like a brother who left no stone unturned to keep me safe and comfortable…..from helping me climb difficult cliffs to focusing first on warming my frozen legs after wading through knee deep waters before tending to his own………..he did every possible thing a brother could do for his sister!
After the super adventurous cliff climb it was time to start moving again…………..
As you walk on the ice sheets you experience a variety of sounds…………The cracking sound of ice under your feet………….the rumbling sound of the river………..the sound of ice sheets cracking …………..the sound of small broken ice sheets rubbing and scratching under the ice sheet you are walking on….. and exchange of “Julleys” the universal greeting in Ladakh, as you cross other trekkers and porters . These are the only sounds you listen to over the days spent on Chadar as you would not see any other form of life here………..no insects, no animals, no trees, no fish.You witness mind boggling rock formations , hanging icicles………..and thick chadar sheets with finger like icicles hanging from them which almost look sculpted. The harsh climate the mountains here witness …..leave the rocks brittle and thus are more susceptible to land slides.
Had walked for quite a few hours now and were now an hour away from our campsite…..but by this time had developed extreme fatigue and had started feeling weirdly super drowsy………thought that the 10 km walk must have exhausted me……….didn’t realize that my AMS symptoms were gradually building up. Reached the camp site……again a beautiful one by the river side……………and decided to rest for some time in the tent.
Had started feeling listless and drowsy and thus though of pulling up my spirits by listening to some music….which did help up to some extent…………again had an early meal…couldnt eat much though….and went to sleep early.
DAY 3 – TIBB CAVES – 15 Kms – 10760 ft
One of my favourite shots from Chadar Trek
Rocky cliffs you can only see on Chadar trek
The next day morning woke up still feeling a bit tired…………….that’s when Rohit decided that he would carry my backpack as well as his own! And so he did for the the rest of the trek!
The walk to the Tibb Camp is different than the earlier days as it takes you through narrow, steep, ravines. During the walk there are huge sections where the entire river was frozen……this was the first time during our trek when the day was clear and we had to pull out our sun glasses which are super essential (Had once dropped mine which climbing a cliff………….thankfully a porter got it back for me). You also witness a few frozen waterfalls as well as a huge one which mysteriously never freezes…this waterfall flows on moss covered rocks….the only place where you get to see the colour green during the trek.
The walk was pretty straight but my level of exhaustion seemed to be way too higher than what I should have been feeling…………drowsiness and light headedness became my constant companions …………and it almost felt at times that I might just fall asleep while walking. I did share all the symptoms with Rohit as now I could sense that these weren’t normal….By this time we were closer to TIBB than our previous camp…..and thus all he could do was encourage me , ensure I drank water(As that provides oxygen), took rest and remained alert through the walk.
Finally we reached our campsite……which was much colder than the previous ones …-30-35° at night….before the sun set we got an opportunity to bask in the sun for a few minutes. By this time I was super exhausted, listless, light headed, nauseated, drowsy, dizzy……….almost all the symptoms of AMS had surfaced full blown….and thats when we took a call that we would not go to the last camp site Nerak ( which we later got to know that otherwise also it got inaccessible due to break in Chadar). We decided to start descending immediately the next day morning as that’s the only remedy for AMS. The only glitch here was I still had to exert myself to walk 15 kms to descend …..but that was the only option we had on hand.
Our night at TIBB turned out to be the most difficult one as my symptoms peaked…..Along with all the other symptoms I developed a cough and I now vomited…..This was the point of time I realized I had got myself into something serious….something that could be life threatening….
This was the point of time I could see a sense of fear in Rohit’s eyes as well as in the eyes of our Trek leader. Rohit rushed to get the oxygen cylinder from our Trek leader and I was administered oxygen.
Suddenly a whole gamut of thoughts began to swirl in my mind…….
Will I be able to make it back to Leh? ( Which I knew would take me another 3 days)
Am I dying?
And there I had Rohit sitting next to me doing all that he could to handle this situation in the best possible way………….trying to get a doctor from other campsites, getting me to drink more water, trying to keep me warm and comfortable, talking to me to ensure that I dont fall asleep (which could be dangerous) although I was super drowsy, encouraging me with positive thoughts, putting on extra socks on my feet, trying to make me feel comfortable in all possible ways and although extremely worried not showing a single sign of panic on his face…………..(It’s the immeasurable physical, mental and emotional support that he continuously gave me that helped me pull through)
And that’s when I told myself….. “I have to shut off all negative thoughts in my mind…….I can’t breathe my last on Chadar and I won’t……………I have a great life partner to spend the rest of my life with and a great family waiting back home for me……………I will go back and tell them this story…..I AM going back”…….
While searching for doctors in other camps, a couple which came up to help coincidentally turned out to be from Baroda….. They weren’t doctors, but were trek organizers (Nikita and her Husband from Ozaki Adventures) and advised me to stay awake and not sleep for a couple of hours + start descending the next day morning. They even encouraged me by saying my face looked fine and I seemed to be alert and should not get scared. Talking to them itself was very encouraging. Later during the trek they even lent their oxygen cylinder to us, which many others refused to give…………. I have no words to express my gratitude to them for helping a stranger during trying times.
That night I made a few resolutions –
- I will remain calm in all situations
- I will not think of dying………..instead will continuously think of what I would do once I reach back.
- I will not let any emotional thoughts engulf my mind.
That night although I was super drowsy…..just didn’t feel like going to sleep………….as although I could manage to shut off all negative thoughts for 3 days one thought would creep in every night….. “Will I wake up tomorrow morning?” Had read cases of severe AMS wherein people didn’t wake up the next day morning….and this was one thought which bothered me for 2 consecutive nights…..but sleep I had to and so I did…..In the middle of the night i woke up and could hear a very weird crackling sound in my chest every time I breathed…..and that really scared me and made me restless ….I had read about edema in lungs ….but that was an advanced stage and no way I wanted to progress into that stage. Out of fear I started feeling breathless and thus started trying to unzip my sleeping bag which I somehow couldn’t manage to making me feel further uneasy…Again the swirl of negative thoughts came back……but then I acted on my first resolution…..remaining calm….and I started talking to myself… “I am going back home for sure….I am descending tomorrow….and thats gonna make me better, I am not giving up….God is testing me…..and failing in tests is not in my DNA so I WILL NOT FAIL THIS TEST!
After repeating this thought in my mind a few times I finally went back to sleep.
Rohit would wake me up atleast 5 to 6 times during the night ….and for the first time in life felt good to be woken up in the middle of the night….gave me confidence….yes I am still around : – )
Day 4 – Back to Shingra Koma – The battle begins
Frozen lakes on the way to chadar
Next day morning the battle began …..for me as well as Rohit!
After inhaling some more oxygen we started our walk back to Shingra Koma…..
Had to stop after every 5 steps that I took as I would become breathless…………would take 10 deep breaths after every 5-10 steps and continue. Rohit would make me sip water after every 15 minutes to maintain my oxygen level. The walk seemed humongous and extremely tedious now……drowsiness, dizziness, listlessness and lightheadedness were still my companions…..and exhaustion level was high…..
Rohit ensured he continuously conversed with me to maintain some amount of alertness while I walked as that was very crucial while walking on Chadar. He would come up with stupid conversational games but they ensured my mind remained engaged and alert.
This was the time I felt good that I carried two hiking poles as they boosted my confidence while walking. Around lunch time took some more oxygen and after a long tedious walk finally reached the Shingra Koma Camp. Felt more confident now as we had descended a little and that helps in lowering the symptoms of AMS. But then while we rested in the evening in our tent my AMS companions stuck with me and for the first time experienced a sense of disorientation…..while sitting in a drowsy state in the tent had a weird feeling wherein felt as if I was overlooking the conversation between Rohit & myself…………and I still can’t recollect what conversation it was. With my AMS companions still not leaving me realized the battle was still not over…..but with only one more campsite to walk down before we got our vehicle to Leh had gathered more courage now. The cough continued and so did the wheezing sounds…..but somehow they didn’t scare me any longer….. I had made up my mind ……. I am making it back!
Learnt a major lesson……..when you feel you are failing….thinking about failing doesn’t make things any better……………but thinking about how you would feel once you overcome this challenge generates courage, determination & focus on combating the challenge that life puts in front of you. This was THE golden rule that gave me strength to pull through the toughest times.
Day 5 – Shingra Koma to Tilat Do
Our group heading to chadar
Early morning Rohit woke me up and told me that he was walking ahead to get an extra oxygen cylinder from another group and I should walk down with the trek leader later. Although Rohit’s presence with me during the walk built a lot of courage in me, I knew that getting the oxygen cylinder was as important. Besides at that point of time he hadn’t told me that our oxygen cylinder had got finished.
This was the time Rohit stretched himself really hard and almost ran down the Chadar with our porter Dorjey and covered a distance of 1.5 hours in an hour to catch up with a group which had an oxygen cylinder, but unfortunately they had already moved ahead…..that’s when Rohit asked Dorjey to run ahead and get the cylinder and he himself ran all the way back to our camp as he knew that his presence with me during the walk would matter. The sense of relief and confidence I felt when I saw him back…….its just indescribable…. It was our 10th Wedding anniversary that day………and seeing him back was the best gift I could have received.
And then began our ultimate battle day…….although the nausea companion had dropped off…..rest of the companions still stuck along with me as we began our 10 km walk…..on the way we would stop all trekkers to request them for an oxygen cylinder but couldn’t get one…..
One trekker, although he did not have a cylinder to share thought of testing my oxygen level with his oximeter…….which unfortunately showed an all time low reading of 54 (A level that I later got to know on returning was dangerously low. A level my family doctor feels is a surprise I survived and should be thankful that I pulled through…but as per his judgement being a crisis situation the brain must have pulled more oxygen to the vital organs to survive and thus lesser would be reaching hands and feet and thus the reading 54..) Fortunately I had no idea about what happens at what levels of oxygen while walking and my listlessness ensured that I didn’t latch onto this piece of information…. and so it didnt scare me as much.
My goal now was to make it to the first camp and get back to Leh…..but the level of exhaustion levels had peaked by this time…..One of the porters thus made me sit on his “Sikki” sledge and pulled me for almost an hour..Keeping myself awake on the Sikki was getting difficult…but I had to as I feared I could fall off the Sikki and roll over . The porter pulled me till we reached the same cliff that we had climbed when we came…..
He had to stop there……and I knew I had to climb it….took 10 super deep breaths and started climbing…… with Chamba holding my hand and Tashi behind me to check on me if I lost my balance…..had to ask Chamba to halt every time I got super breathless and finally with great difficulty we crossed the cliff and got down, unfortunately to witness the chadar break in front of our eyes. After a lot of discussion and contemplation between porters and guides it was concluded that it was dangerous to walk further and it was decided to reclimb the cliff, walk back 2 kms, cross over and go on the other side of the river walk almost 2kms ahead and then finally cross a fast flowing river whose level was quickly rising.
While all these discussions in the background I realized a mammoth task lay ahead of me……the sun was about to set…….I had to motivate myself to complete this last leg of the journey….the campsite was just 15 minutes away….but now would take almost an hour …..the sun was about to set………..it was getting dark…..everyone looked a bit panicky ……….getting across the river seemed to be very crucial…..It felt like a DO or DIE situation to me and that’s when I experienced what an adrenaline rush means…although it was the fag end of the day I somehow gathered the strength to climb back the mountain walk back 2 kms…..cross over and walk through a foot deep of snow which was extremely exhausting as every step that you take is an effort when you walk through deep snow…..to finally reach the flowing river which was now knee deep…..Had only one instruction from our guide…..” Kuch bhi ho jaaye……paani mein girna nahi hai”…..
Stepping into the icy cold river wasn’t as bad as I had imagined because the cold water just makes your legs go numb……but when I walked out of it and went and sat on a rock Chamba came rushing to me and removed my gum boots ……and there I could see my legs hard like a rock and blue below the knee……Chamba quickly rubbed my legs, wiped them, made me wear a fresh pair of socks, helped me wear my gum boots and said “ Ab aap chalne lago” as that was the only way to restart the blood circulation….. Overall the river crossing experience was much more bearable that what I had imagined it to be…..and after I crossed it I could see lit up tents at a distance ……and those specks of light in the darkness filled me with a sense of relief and confidence……..the worst was over!! and as I and Rohit started walking towards the camp we suddenly saw the bright face of Dorjey….. “Madamji cylinder mil gaya aur camp bas 10 minute door hai” ……
Finally we reached the campsite……our porters in the effort to make us cross the river safely first, themselves couldn’t make it that night as it got too dark and risky and thus they spent that night in a cave.
Although extremely exhausted …..I realized I had managed to get get rid of majority of my AMS companions having descended…..and that felt extremely encouraging….as that made me feel I had now re-entered the safe zone! But still to be on the safer side having had super exertion during the day….I inhaled oxygen from the new oxygen cylinder and that night after a long time went to sleep at peace.
By next day morning almost all of my AMS companions had bid adieu……but the entire experience had culminated into severe muscular aches ……but I was still SUPER happy….coz I felt like I had finally conquered the worst…..I had survived! Before we started climbing up the mountain to get a vehicle back to Leh….I paused for a moment and looked back at the enormous mountains…..the rumbling river, and the never ending snow white carpet of ice……and in my heart thanked the Mighty Chadar for giving me a new lease of life….instilling renewed inner strength within me.
My walk on Chadar has truly been a cathartic experience…………..At a personal level one realization which really made its way to my heart……………don’t keep waiting for the right time to make people you value know how much you value them…appreciate and forgive more often…more impromptu….. life is too unpredictable to plan such things!
Although i faced testing times on this trek, not once did I repent that i came and would encourage all Chadar aspirants to live their dream and use the experience that I have shared to be better prepared!
For all Chadar trek aspirants I would just share a few golden rules based on my experience –
- Ensure you are at your physical best when you go for the trek and don’t neglect even minor symptoms……I feel somewhere I missed out on minor symptoms….and a little more time spent in acclimatization would have helped immensely. I personally would suggest Diamox to be safer and surer.
- Always have some extra days on hand when you plan a Chadar trek…. giving you some buffer time if you need to spend more time in acclimatization.
- Drink plenty of water as you walk…..I would suggest….a few sips every 15 minutes.
- Chadar trek is not for you if you are are just doing it for the sake of boasting about it. You need to be super careful and disciplined enough to follow the instructions of your guide. DON’T EVER ATTEMPT TO BE A HERO OUT HERE! Heroics can put you in difficulty!
- This is a trek for those who along with being physically fit are mentally ready to face challenges…………..coz no trekker who walks on Chadar returns without facing tough challenges…..although each person would face his own unique set of challenges.
- Prepare yourself physically in strength, flexibility and stamina……you dont want to have a muscle pull when you stretch yourself while climbing a cliff.
- When you walk focus on your step…..always halt to admire and capture the beauty around you on your lens……just like you shouldn’t talk on the phone when you drive….avoid clicking pics when you walk….to avoid slips and falls which at times could really hurt badly.
- Be well clothed and carry sufficient warm socks…..being warm is extremely important to be able to enjoy this trek. Plan & Pack your medicine really well! Don’t forget to check with your organizer about the oxygen cylinder. Test it before departing and also check about the medical kit being carried by your guide and their emergency preparedness.
- Plan extremely well when you pack your bags….being able to find that one thing when you really need it should be easy!
- And finally if you want to enjoy the Chadar trek which truly is a once in a lifetime experience….you need to learn to enjoy the challenges that come with it as well! Eventually its the challenges that keep us driven…..and overcoming them makes life meaningful!
It’s been more than a week since I have returned from the trek…..and when I look back upon the 6 days spent on this trek ……………I realize I have lived a lifetime in a capsule. Like the Dynamic Chadar….life is also a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountain tops and moments in deep valleys of despair. But it is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light…..and light you will reach for sure!
Closing with lines from a poem learnt in school I can genuinely relate to now….
“When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Success is failure turned inside out –
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are –
It may be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit”.
About Author – Himani Chandorkar is the Co founder of Acumen 360, she is an entreprenuer in the field of learning & development through experiential methods. She view travel as an opportunity to return home richer with learning from experiences you can follow her through her blogs mytraveldoodles.