The adventure beckoned two years ago when I saw a Nat Geo documentary on the Zanskar Valley. Finally, in 2015, I booked myself for the January 2016 Trek on the frozen river. The Zanskar is a north-flowing tributary of the Indus. In winter, due to particular prevailing conditions, its surface freezes, trapping the raging river under a sheet of ice (chadar) that the locals use as a road to the Leh Valley. These days, takers for this splendid experience have made January and February a Chadar Festival.
The 14-day itinerary took us from Leh to Lingshed village and back to Leh. I had prepped for six months by walking/jogging 6 kilometres everyday to get myself physically fit for the expedition. I still remember the moment before landing in Leh when the pilot announced the temperature outside was -8 degrees! My husband and I looked at each other and shared the thought, “Here it starts!”
After a day spent acclimatizing in Leh we set off by bus for the river It was a good five-hour journey that descended into the Zanskar Valley. The Zanskar meets the Indus at a place called Nimmu. This is the lowest point (2800 metres) in the Zanskar Valley We would walk up the river to reach the highest point of our trek at Nerak (3400 metres), after which we would walk away from the river towards Lingshed.
Tilat Sumdo was our first campsite. Having made a steep, 45-degree descent into the valley we took our first steps on the frozen Zanskar – walking like penguins on the slippery sheet of ice. It was a beautiful night with a gorgeous sight of Milky Way.
The second campsite Shingra Koma was a 10km-long trek. It was a very tricky walk because the chadar was not fully formed at all places. We had to take detours on the rocky walls. Some of us slipped in the water and had to change socks and inners immediately, as anything wet would freeze in seconds.
It was a 17km-walk from Shingra Koma to Tibb on the thirdday. In some places we had to crawl beneath the narrow cliff overhanging right at the edge of the river, which was where the chadar was thick enough to take our weight.
This was one of the most beautiful days of our trek. We could experience the chadar better and learn more about it – the beautiful sounds it makes as it forms and the hollow sounds it makes under our feet.
The chadar had not formed for about 30 metres before our 4 th campsite at Nerak. We had no option other than climbing a mountain to reach there. It was a tough climb, but worth it. After three days of camping out we slept in stone houses gathered around a bukhari for heat. Sleeping under a solid shelter felt like a blessing.
The next morning we were informed that no one could cross the Narrow Pass (a gorge between Nerak and Lingshed village) as the chadar had not formed at all. The river here is deep and the mountain walls rise vertically on both sides.
We were the first group of the season to attempt the pass, and though we walked up to it, we could not go any farther. There were villagers camped at the other end, waiting patiently for the ice to solidify enough to make the crossing. So we spent another night at Nerak and visited with the locals who told us stories about the journeys they had made over the years.
Walking back to Leh over the river we camped at the same places we had going out. On the last day, in a memorable celebration to mark the end of our journey, we took a voluntary dip in the river. Just to give you an idea of the prevailing madness quotient – the ambient temperature was -18 degrees!
This trek tested my limits. We walked 10–18km a day to reach our campsites, ate everything served without leaving even a morsel on our plates, slept in tents with night temperatures that dropped as low as -32 degrees, but we survived and enjoyed ourselves We sang songs around the bonfire, played games, told ghost stories, star gazed and spotted constellations.
There were 15 people in my group. When we started I knew only my husband. Today, the entire group is like family. Everyone should test their limits at least once.
Next up for me: Sky-diving!