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Ice Walk - The Chadar expedition
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'Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the
There are few if any adventure treks in the Himalaya to match the Chadar winter expedition for sheer, awe inspiring beauty, and none to match it in terms of day to day challenge and excitement.
The frozen Zanskar river, part of the Indus watershed, has been used by the people of Zanskar, Tibetans who settled in the Zanskar valley over 1000 years ago, to go back and forth to the outside world when the passes are locked into frozen winter silence, for centuries.
Originally they carried butter, one of many commodities these villagers traded with the outside world. It had to be traded in winter, as it was the only time it could travel from the cool summer cellars of their houses to Leh without spoiling. Today, they go back and forth still trading, but also taking children to school, or making visits to the sacred sites around Leh.
This is not only a full scale winter expedition, but a trek into the past, where we, in our high technology gear, will trek side by side with locals wearing woolen Gonchas and sounding the ice with their stout poplar staffs to drive away the demons that lurk there.
Along the frozen and semi-frozen river surface, this changes from hour to hour. It climbs high at times above broken ice, and at times you have no choice, you have to get wet feet. But we avoid this if possible! At times it seems impossible and you will not believe what the human body can do, or how thin a ledge of ice will support you. You will watch the porters do the impossible. And then you follow them. This trek takes the main Chadar route, then, once in Zanskar, has a number of extra days built in to visit either remoter valleys or sacred sites and palaces of the once Kingdom of Zangla.
Gear and the cold
It does get very cold on the Chadar, but does not seem to be cold. Why? Because it is hard work, with very few moments to relax; you really do have to keep moving. Also, the complete absence of any wind to chill you, and the excellent gear you are wearing keeps you well insulated. Day temperatures average minus 13ºC and at night it drops to minus 30ºC. The only time you really feel it is packing up in the morning.
Discussing gear is definitely part of the preparation, and your gear needs to be good. See the special Chadar gear list on the side bar.
Your guides and crew
Lobsang, from a Tibetan Family but living in India, speaks every Tibetan dialect under the sun, and has trekked and adventured with Joel the length of the Himalaya. He is the mainstay of the India trekking operations, and has led and co-led the Chadar six times. He is an excellent cook with incredible skills on the ice, apart from his outstanding strength. It is a measure of the difficulty of the Chadar that he admitted to being 'tired' after our 2005 Chadar expeditions, and turned down the chance of leading a Chadar trek with another outfit.
Stanzin is a Zanskari from Zangla village, and has done many Chadars' since he first walked the ice as a ten year old, and has both worked as a porter (as he was with us in 2002) and a guide many times on this route. He is a tireless, hard worker with an intelligent appreciation of the ice and a vast store of local knowledge. As a local, he is also the man to give us a real assessment of conditions, not one based on hearsay.
We will also have a team of up to 18 porters, who we kit out in good, warm gear. They will be constant companions on the ice, and their say so on the route choices is a vital part of our expedition.
'Take a picture of me doing this and show it to my wife
so she understands what I do for our kids...for Gods sake, I am over 50!'
Above is a slide show to music made by Joel...
Note that the trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on trail and weather conditions.
Many people arrive in Delhi a day earlier to explore the city or recover after a long flight. We can make hotel and airport pick-up arrangement for you IF we know your flight details.
Day 1 - Arrive Delhi
Leh trip start?
Day 2 - Fly to Leh 3500m
We leave at 4am to join our morning flight to Leh, which in winter is rarely delayed. After an hour long spectacular flight over the Himalayas, we land in the past; Tashi Namgyal's 15th century capital, Leh. The cold air as we drive to our hotel will catch at your throat, and you will definitely feel the altitude. We stay at the comfortable Shaynam hotel near the main bazaar, which has heated rooms. After a late breakfast, Joel will take you on a slow stroll around Leh, a little piece of central Asian history, with its palace dominating the old bazaar and a backdrop of snowy peaks.
Day 3 - Leh 3500m
We have two days to explore the bazaars and alleyways of historic Leh, and the striking Indus valley with its snowy backdrop that surrounds it, visiting some of the most ancient forts and gompas of the Tibetan Buddhist world. A little bit of old Tibet. Joel has been a regular visitor since 1988, and there is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town; the fort and palace, colorful gompas, the mosque, back alleys with steaming Muslim bread and tiny antique shops tucked away, colorful fruit and vegetable bazaars, polo fields ... and of course, the regular 11 am ice hockey match!
Day 4 - Drive to Chilling and trek to Tilad Do camp 3100m
Mornings in Leh in any season are special, with the harsh high Himalayan light softened by the dust in the air. In winter, the call to prayer from the mosque wakes you gently. Breakfast in the Shaynam is a last touch of civilization. By eight we will be on the move, driving through the suburbs of Leh, then along the Indus valley. The road climbs slowly past Spitok Monastery, and bus loads of Ladakhi kids heading for where the Indus has been diverted into shallow pools for skating. We reach about 3700m where we normally stop to stretch our legs and take in the view behind. Leh nestles at the foot of the Ladakh range, its location dictated by the high route to China behind. From here you can really see how geography dictates history.
We drive on, descending to the Indus again to its confluence with the Zanskar. A dirt road from here takes us to Chilling, as far as the jeep can go. Here we have a simple lunch, then it is on the ice. It takes an hour or so to get into a comfortable rhythm, and we have found that using crampons tends to be more of a hindrance, as they are not suitable for all ice conditions. As the gear list says, good trekking poles are essential. Again, as on the gear list, you must have boots with good, new soles that 'stick'. Luckily there are rarely any ice puzzles on this first day, except at the camp, where you ascend a frozen stream. The camp is on a sandy plateau to one side of the Zanskar, where on this first day our tent will have been erected for us. We will introduce you to camp routines and our warm and cozy dining tent, followed by dinner, soup and a good, varied vegetarian meal. Evenings in the dining tent, which is big enough to stretch your legs but small enough to be easily warmed, are very comfortable. We also all sleep in the dining tent, for ease of packing and setting up.
Day 5 - Trek to Gyalpo camp 3170m
Waking, a shock? We hope not too much! The morning cold is eased by the heater firing up in our communal tent, and soon hot washing water. Breakfast call is 7.30 - breakfast is as much hot coffee or tea as you can drink, eggs to order (fresh while they last, then powdered) Lobsang's fresh baked bread, jam and honey. Departure time is normally around nine, and the days soon assume a familiar pattern. Lobsang or Stanzin go ahead with the trekkers, followed by our porter team. It is essential always to stay with our guides. This is the only trek in the world where the trail, literally, vanishes beneath your feet.
The first few days are generally problem free, but we can, and will, encounter times when we have to wait while we scout the best route. We prefer to stay on the river, and you will see Zanskaris take real risks to avoid rock climbing. For this reason you must have plenty of warm layers to throw on, and of course, spare socks. The ice conditions are too varied (and beautiful) to list, but there are one or two things to bear in mind. You will find yourself rapidly relaxing as you walk, enjoying the views; watching for wildlife. Look out particularly for snow leopard prints, Ibex on the gorge walls, and the crazy 'Dipper' birds that dive from ice into the river, turning over pebbles looking for edibles. You will develop a sense of the safe and unsafe ice, and learn to catch yourself if you slip. Be sure to use your poles if you want to sound the ice. Your feet are unclean, and although the gods who inhabit the ice will allow you to walk, to stamp with your foot is not acceptable to them (thus of course you never use the ice as a toilet).
We lunch on pilaf, or Zanskari Kiu (dumpling stew) bread, cheese, jam, biscuits. Some days we can only have hot tea and an uncooked lunch. The ice conditions change quickly and what takes an hour at noon can take three hours by 3pm. We do not rush; but we do not dawdle! If you hear Zanskaris calling down the valley, particularly at the corners, don't worry; they are screaming to scare away the demons who lurk in the ice.
Today we will pass through what the porters call 'Chadar Gate'. A little surprise for the trekkers.
By 3-4pm we should be in camp on a plateau above the river. Today we start putting up our own tents. While Joel and Stanzin help you with this, Lobsang gets the dining tent up, the porters gather firewood, and soon the tea is ready.
Day 6 - Trek to Dib Cave 3225m
This is a stunning day as the river starts to curve and you can see the uphill slope of the ice as we ascend the river into Zanskar. We pass incredible waterfalls on our left, normally frozen into aquamarine ice cliffs. The waterfalls were said to have come from a river given to local people who visited Tibet centuries ago to plead for water for their barren land. They were given a box which they were told they must open only on their return home. The curious Zanskaris were nearly home when one of them opened it; out jumped a tiny fish, and the river sprung from the ground high above here. Also today we will probably have to climb briefly above the river - on the sharp bends the speed of the current breaks up the ice.
Lunch is on a rocky beach by the river, and camp is near one of the many caves that are blackened by centuries of use by the fires of locals. Our porters use these caves to cook and sleep in, and many of them are slowly being turned into small huts by Zanskaris recruited by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) to shelter the road workers as they come through here. This is a popular campsite and you will notice one of our teams' first jobs is to dig a toilet pit and clean up the rubbish left by groups. If there is no snow here the sand that blows around can contaminate your food. We have stringent hygiene rules for our kitchen, abundant hot water, and anti-bacterial hand wash always available. Use it!
Day 7 - Trek to Neraks camp 3390m
Another spectacular day. Crags seem to leap up from the frozen river surface, and ibex can usually be seen defying gravity far above. After lunch we pass the 'incense tree', so called because the locals use its branches to burn in their morning rituals, and the prayer flag draped tree marks the entrance to Zanskar proper. The porters will normally take a few twigs from the tree, then tear a small piece of prayer flag to wrap it in, and present it to you. Welcome to Zanskar!
An hour later we turn a corner, and there, high above the river, is the bridge that links Zanskar with Ladakh, and Neraks village with Lingshed Monastery - in summer. Then the valley gorge opens up, and we see the small huts that mark some of the summer grazing of the Neraks villagers. The village is far above. A trail is normally beaten through the snow to these huts, where we camp. And rum is possible.
Day 8 - Trek to Dib Gongma 3400m
We leave early today as this stretch of river is, well, 'Interesting'. Steep walls and narrow stretches make for some challenging conditions, to say the least! By days end, though, we will be camped at Oma Chu, the 'Milk river' that joins up with our summer Zanskar trek route high above. The spires of rock above us have to be seen to be believed. The ice around this camp is usually mushy to say the least - we think the Oma has some warming effect, and here too, after sunny days, the snow melt from the plains around Padum makes itself felt. And cold? Well, in January 2005 we dubbed it 'cold comfort camp', for the extreme temperatures.
Everybody that treks with me knows I love my gear, but I have to admit I rarely look after it. This morning at Dib the
porters had a fire going, and we stood around it warming our toes and
thawing our boots as we sipped Peets coffee. An English couple shared our
warmth, and chatted with us. I was aware the woman was making vague
gestures towards my feet, in an oh so British way. 'Did you know your. Um.
Feet were on fire' I took another swig of oh so hot coffee and looked
down. Yes, my great Sierra designs down boots were gently smoldering away.
I assessed my chances of getting a place back by the fire with our porters
all around, looked her straight in the eye, and said, 'Yes'.
Day 9 - Trek to Hanumil 3500m
Another amazing day on the ice, and a long one, but we have a warm Zanskari kitchen to look forward to tonight. The Zanskar climbs and curves out of the gorge today, onto the start of the plains around Padum. Early in the morning here, what the early Arctic explorers call 'frost smoke' rises gently. Soon on our right we can see the summer route climbing away to the Parfi La, and high on the left, the faint line that will be a road one day. The last hour or so is a true ice puzzle for us, as we need to cross the river at a wide and flat place. Hard after a long day; and then the going in the snow (if there is snow) off the river is also tough. Once home, though, we stay with villagers that have made us welcome, summer, winter, fall and spring, for many years. We will have cozy stove warmed rooms to sleep in, and a late morning, tomorrow to Pidmo is an easy day!
Day 10 - Trek to Pidmo
This is an easy day if the snow is good, but if fresh and deep it can take up to four hours to reach Pidmo, one of the original centers of the Kingdom of Zangla, sitting on its plateau high above the Zanskar. Although the village itself is safe, the sounds of avalanches can disturb a nights rest here.
Day 11 & 12 - Trek to and rest in Zangla
Not a hard day if there is a trail, but in fresh snow, it may be. We descend and cross the Zanskar leaving a food dump for the return journey, then slowly climb and traverse the wide plateau - that Gibraltar-like rock pinnacle in the distance is the fort above Zangla. Soon the main Himalayan barrier appears on the horizon, and you can make out Pishu over on the right. Then Zangla proper comes into view, sprawling below avalanche strewn slopes. Stanzin's house is in the upper village, and we have two wonderful nights here to curl up by the stove and relax.
Zangla has hordes of children, they seem to be everywhere, running, skiing, sledging on shovels. We also will try and visit the 15th century fort with its ancient prayer rooms, where the Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma de Koros spent the winter of 1823 studying Tibetan. In 2005 on our second Chadar we had a plan to sleep in his old rooms high in the fort. Lobsang said he would cook for us, but not stay the night. Ghosts! Sadly the danger of avalanche on the route up stopped us, so we were unable to. Maybe this time! We will also visit the thriving village nunnery for the morning ceremony.
Day 13 - Trek to Hanumil
We look forward to our last night indoors, as tomorrow we are back on the ice. Our last glimpse, too, (for now) of the Himalaya, dropping behind us.
Day 14-19 - Trek to Chilling and drive to Leh
The same way back? Well, technically. In fact the Chadar changes by the minute, and the colors and perspectives all change, and yes, it is quicker downhill. We camp in different places, and hope to visit another ancient monastery, if conditions allow. We do know that the Chadar will be as challenging on the return trip. We do know we have plenty of time for those problems, and we do know that Angchuk and his jeeps will be waiting for us when we climb stiffly off the ice, the Chadar, one of the great adventures done!
Day 20 - spare day
For all those imponderables.
Day 21 - Fly to Delhi
Goodbye to this tiny kingdom in the sky as we board our early morning flight to the comparative warmth of Delhi and the morning rush hour. We take you to the airport for your flight home. We will arrange a taxi to the airport, and you can store your bags in the hotel until you leave for the airport. Farewell to India.
Walk on (frozen) water with us!