Continuing our series on How Indiahikes Brought Out Himalayan Treks That Transformed Indian Trekking, we’re back with one of the most extraordinary treks that shaped trekking in our country — the Chadar Frozen River trek.
Today we want to share with you the story of how Indiahikes brought out the Chadar Frozen River Trek.
Chadar dramatically changed the course of trekking in our country. It brought about terrific innovations that made trekking safer and better—practices we follow even today.
It also made the unimaginable possible. What was considered as rare as an Arctic expedition became an accessible trek for trekkers like you and me.
Little do people know of the crucial role Indiahikes had to play in this. Our founder, Arjun Majumdar, pens down from his personal experience, the story of how the trek came about and what followed after.
Read the full story here.
How the Chadar Trek came about
It must have been more than 15-16 years ago, in my jaunts at street stalls, I picked up a second-hand National Geographic from the footpaths of Delhi.
Inside, in a photo story, I was stunned to see monks from the interiors of Zanskar, making their way to Leh in the dead of winter — for food, provisions and market. They were walking, for 7-8 days, over a river of frozen ice, staying in caves for shelter, with very little clothing or winter wear.
The story mentioned temperatures that dropped to minus 30 °C on this hazardous expedition. National Geographic being National Geographic, the pictures accompanying the article were stunning. Even at that time I thought this was the closest you could come to the limit of human endurance.
A year or two later a trekking companion of mine and I caught up at dinner. He was very excited.
He said he had just returned from doing something extraordinary. He had been to Ladakh in winter, and had attempted this trek on the frozen river. He had done this with a foreign group. They could do it one way, but it started to snow bitterly. They had to be evacuated by helicopter.
He talked about the remarkable expedition, the landscape and the freezing temperatures. Yet, there he was in front of me, a survivor of this ordeal. This was like those mountain expedition stories that you hear — of exceptional circumstances, valour and courage.
As years passed and my knowledge and interest in trekking grew, I began to hear more about the arduous trek that people of Zanskar took in winter to get to Leh. I also saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel.
That’s when I first began to hear this as a trek that some groups of people did, usually foreigners. That they would trace the route of these travellers to their home in Padum, the capital of Zanskar, over the frozen Zanskar river. The trek was called the Chadar Frozen River trek. It was a 15 day expedition.
The thought of this extraordinary adventure nagged me since then.
The new route to Stok Kangri
The early years of Indiahikes were very exciting. We were exploring some of the greatest treks in our country. Many of them were quite unknown. But some were more known.
One of the more known treks was the Stok Kangri summit in Ladakh. It was the highest trekkable summit in India and rose slightly above 20,000 feet. Trekkers from India and abroad (mostly abroad) flocked to the summit to experience the high of climbing above 20,000 feet.
In the summer of 2011, we attempted the Stok Kangri summit from a different route. We were not happy with the quick ascents that 90% of the teams took to the summit of Stok Kangri. Not many seemed to have thought of this. But that’s how we were — we were not happy with how the route impacted the trekking experience.
We changed the route and started from a totally new zone near the Hemis monastery. The route was longer, but we were able to acclimatise better, resulting in greater success of our trekkers making it to the summit. I have to admit the route was infinitely better in terms of scenery as well.
Why am I narrating Stok Kangri in this background of the Chadar explorations?
As you will see, this has a lot of bearing on the Chadar trek as well.
Our Stok Kangri trek of 2011 was a resounding success. Every member of our exploration team made it to the summit. But the trek left a very strong mark on Sandhya* and me.
*Sandhya UC is the co-founder of Indiahikes.
For the first time, we realised that we could change the route of a well known trek — in a location that was remote, inaccessible, at high altitudes and trails not very well defined.
We also realised that we could work in a remote location that was almost like a foreign country. Working in Ladakh was not the same as working in Himachal, Uttarakhand or Sikkim. It felt and was very different from the rest of the country — the people, landscape and logistics.
We also built up a fine relationship with Thinley Dorjey, our Ladakhi partner, who seemed like the ideal person to grow along with us. He was adventurous, helpful, knowledgeable, responsible and very resourceful.
Planning of the Chadar exploration
After we got down to Leh from Stok Kangri, Dorjey took us on a drive to the confluence of the Zanskar river with the Indus. From our vantage point high above the confluence, Dorjey pointed out a raging river. He said in winter this is the famous Zanskar river that freezes and people walk on it.
He talked about how foreigners come to Leh in winter just to do the trek. It took them 15-20 days to do the trek. He had heard of very few Indians who did the trek. Very few could spend 15 days in temperatures that went down to -30 °C or -40 °C .
He said there were stages on the trek where the frozen river would break, and you had to wade through sections of icy water, sometimes knee and waist deep. He said the trek was not for ordinary folks. Foreigners could somehow manage.
That’s what got us first thinking about the Chadar frozen river trek. Could we even think of exploring it? Could we come up with a new way to do the Chadar trek? We were at the forefront of bringing out great treks in our country. Could the impossible Chadar be one of them?
We sat down and quizzed Dorjey in detail about the route. He told us about the few villages on the way where we could take shelter. But they were slightly off the river on higher grounds. Most of the time we would be on the frozen river — we either had to take shelter in the caves along the river or pitch our tents if we found gaps in the banks.
The trek looked formidable. We knew from experience that our trekkers were not ready for such an adventure in such inhospitable terrain — that too over 15 days. Even the diehard would balk.
That’s when we reimagined the Chadar trek, a decision that changed Chadar trekking forever.
For this I have to give you a backdrop of the original route. The trek started at Chilling, near the mouth of the Zanskar river. From Chilling you dropped down to the frozen river, trekked your way over the precarious frozen river, which, like a moving glacier, never stayed the same for too long. You did this for almost 7 days until you got to Padum.
If you survived the ordeal, then after a day’s rest, you returned the same way down the frozen river, now totally changed, until you got back to Chilling. To top it off, a temperature of -15 °C on this trek was considered a warm day.
We started to question this. What if we didn’t go all the way to Padum? Would we be missing out on the essence of the trek? What if we went up only for 3 days and returned for the next 3. Would that be just a sightseeing tour of the Chadar or would it give a complete picture.
We pored over the map. Dorjey pointed out the village of Nerak. He said the village was remote and beautiful. It was slightly off the river but it would make an excellent end point. We could stay overnight at Nerak and then get back on the same route. This looked exciting.
I asked Dorjay the only question that mattered to us. Was this shortened trek going to rob us off the essence of the Chadar experience? Dorjay was quiet for a moment. In his head, I could see him counting off the trek days one by one. Finally, after a long pause, he told us in his imitable Tibetian style.
“No, it would be a complete trek on its own. Yes, there were one or two sections that were worth visiting later on, especially a gully leading off the Chadar to another village, but no, the trek up to Nerak was a complete experience on its own.”
We reimagined the Chadar trek from Chilling to Nerak, a village suggested by Dorjey, our trusted guide in Ladakh. Tourists would earlier go all the way to Padum, which made the trek 15 days long. We cut it short to just 6 days.
That was the only reassurance that we wanted! A shiver ran down our spines. We were going to commit ourselves to another great adventure of our lives — an adventure that tested human endurance. But it would also be an adventure, if we pulled it off, that would open up Indian trekking to a whole new possibility.
That winter, six months after the Stok Kangri expedition, we marked out our exploration dates for the Chadar Frozen River trek. We planned it for the Republic day week of January 2012.
Back at our Indiahikes base, we informed our trekkers of this exploration. We selected a team of 12 trekkers for the exploration. This would be the team that, perhaps, would define the future of trekking.
Preparing for Chadar
As our trek got closer we sat down to prepare for the trek. But how could anyone prepare for an experience that they had only imagined? We could only simulate the settings in our minds.
We had never walked on a frozen river before. We had never been in temperatures less than -10 °C . Now we had to be prepared for -25 °C .
We could tackle rough terrain on a mountain slope. But how would we manage the slippery frozen river, that too over 6 days? We were already filled with dreadful stories about how people slipped all the time on the trek.
How would we tackle wading through the icy cold river in such extreme temperatures?
We gave up thinking after a while.
An important innovation on the Chadar trek
Meanwhile, in 2011, while our Chadar thoughts were on, at Indiahikes we were exploring one great trek after another. One of them was the Kashmir Great Lakes, the story of which I’ll talk about next week. But I think it was one of our best years of trek explorations.
These explorations were also bringing out a terrific surge in trekkers at Indiahikes. But it came with a flip side. Safety of these trekkers became an issue. Icy slopes were a concern. Trekkers slipping on snow patches were becoming more common.
How could we keep our trekkers safe on snowy sections was a constant question.
We had tried out mountaineering crampons on the Stok Kangri trek. They were most ill suited for treks — they were cumbersome, heavy and elaborate. We researched our mountaineering institutes. None of them had a good answer. They were still talking about mountaineering crampons. No one could suggest anything that could keep trekkers safe on snow patches.
As we looked beyond mountaineering, we researched the lives of people who lived in cold countries. We wanted to see what people in Canada, USA and Norway did in winter. How did they manage the icy conditions that prevailed almost 7 months a year?
That’s how we stumbled on microspikes — an equipment people in cold countries used to help shovel snow. They were even using it to go for a walk on icy streets. As we investigated further we noticed that there were many who jogged using them in winter. Was this the wonder equipment that could solve the problem of slippages on our Himalayan treks?
We ordered two pairs of microspikes from an Italian manufacturer. It reached us well in time. We wanted to test it in the harshest possible situation — we would take it with us on the Chadar Frozen River trek. But we were filled with trepidation. What if it failed?
To allay our fears, we took the microspikes (they were called ice traction crampons then) with us on a dry run on the Kedarkantha winter trek. We brought it out at Juda Ka Talab, where the pond had totally frozen over, much like the frozen surface of Zanskar.
We gingerly walked with the spikes over the pond with our hearts in our mouths. But to our surprise it held! We could walk normally without an inch of slippage. This was very heartening. It gave us hope. We now had to try out the equipment on a bigger testing ground. Chadar would be the real test.
The first time we tested our newly imported microspikes was on the Kedarkantha trek. Here, Arjun is all smiles after testing the effectiveness of the microspikes on the frozen Juda Ka Talab. Picture from the Indiahikes archives
Getting to Ladakh in winter
Finally, on the republic day week of January 2012, we were on the plane to Leh. The captain announced it was -7 °C when we landed in Leh. Sandhya and I looked at each other with nervousness. Did we really want to do this?
The moment we stepped out, somehow everything changed. We layered up quickly and it didn’t feel as cold as we thought.
But disaster struck. Sandhya’s entire backpack was left behind at Delhi by the airline. It would take many days for it to reach Leh again. The airline did not make any promise.
How could we do the Chadar trek with no clothes? A trek that went down to -25 °C ? Our expedition was looking doomed.
But we quickly rustled up gears that we had within ourselves. Not many know that on that Chadar trek, Sandhya did the entire trek on borrowed clothes, most of which were men’s!
Chadar for the first time
I think more than the cold, Chadar took us by surprise with its stunning beauty! We were in a gorge, like the Grand Canyon. It would take a long time for the sun’s rays to travel down to the bottom of the gorge, but when it did, it lit up the canyons like a rainbow.
We had never seen such a kaleidoscope of colours. The walls of the canyons were cut through by the Zanskar in shapes unimaginable! The canyon walls were sheets of rocks, fused together over millions of years but contorted by the passage of time.
The contortions added to the colour, because each layer was a different shade. When the sun shone on them, they threw up a riot of colours that reflected even more off the snow.
But it was the Chadar itself that boggled our imagination. It was not just a frozen river. It had a life on its own. A life of colour, shapes and sounds. I had never heard ice sing, but on that trek we did, a musical tone that changed pitch and tone as we walked over it.
We had never seen bubbles of air frozen in ice in different shapes and sizes, like little mushrooms frozen in time. We saw them on the Chadar. We had never seen inky blue waters of a river set against a white powdery snow of the landscape.
We had never imagined walking on a mile long sheet of ice as clear as glass and as polished as one. At other times we were walking on sandy snow crust over the frozen river.
At times the sheet of ice was as wide as a football field, at others it was just a narrow opening just wide enough for a few to stand.
We saw giant frozen waterfalls as if a magician had stopped a river midway. Even the water droplets lay suspended in air. We saw ice floes floating past us continuously with a gentle swishing sound. And on the river we saw how water could sculpt beautiful figures on ice that defied geometry or belief.
At every moment we wondered how did a raging river flow beneath this formation of ice? How could ice form over such a fast flowing river? We discovered much to our surprise that the river sometimes formed overnight.
The evening before where we would find water knee deep, the next morning the entire section would be frozen over, strong enough for us to walk over it.
The cold, yes, it was bitterly cold. Yet, we quite got used to the -20 °C every evening and night. We had our layers of clothes — we wore all of them.
Closer to Nerak the night turned awfully cold, a draft of wind blew through our tents. We could not sleep at all. Our thermometers recorded -25 °C — it was our coldest night ever. Yet, next morning we were up and about getting on with our trek.
On that trek we discovered the power of two sleeping bags. We discovered the best way to manage the intense cold of the night was not to get into a heavy duty sleeping bag but to simply layer ourselves in multiple sleeping bags.
We still use this technique on our winter treks.
How microspikes became part of Indian trekking
And about the microspikes. They worked like a charm! On our entire 6 days of the trek we never slipped once. We walked on the hardest ice and put the spikes through almost 8 hours of torture everyday. They did not fail us for a moment. We knew then we were looking at the future of trekking.
That next summer, we teamed up with a wonderful company in the US, Kahtoola — who were very much like us, creating snow equipment out of passion. We introduced their microspikes to Indian trekking on our high altitude treks.
Today microspikes* are used by every organisation on their treks. Not many know the source of how it came about in Indian trekking. It was on the Chadar trek where it was first tested.
*Microspikes is the brand name of the Kahtoola company. Similar equipment is called by different names by different companies. In India microspikes have become generic. But it is good to know the origin.
What Chadar did to Indian Trekking
The Chadar trek was a resounding success. On our return, the whole trekking fraternity woke up to the possibility of doing the Chadar trek.
For the first time, even someone who was new to trekking visualized themselves walking on the frozen river. What was only in the imagination of hard core foreign mountaineers, and strange Buddhist monks on National Geographic became a possibility of regular trekkers.
Chadar opened the gateway of winter trekking that was only the subject of fairy tale imagination. It was almost akin to someone from Mumbai going for a polar expedition in the arctic.
This 1 minute and 43 second video of ours broke the myth and fear surrounding Chadar. For the first time, Indian trekkers were seeing a video from the inside of the trek and not something fantastic from National Geographic or Discovery. It made the trek real and possible. This video did more for the trek than anything else could.
The next year, it opened the floodgate of trekkers on the Chadar trek. Trekkers from far and wide stepped on the Chadar to experience its many splendours. The social media became flooded with Chadar stories. It fueled the interest of Chadar even more.
Sadly, Indiahikes stepped out of the Chadar trek and Ladakh after an acrimonious dispute with the local tour operator association. The story is heartbreaking. You will find the story here.
However, the legacy of Chadar will always stay with Indiahikes. When we explored the trek in January 2012, even while walking on the Chadar, we knew what it would do to Indian trekking. Chadar was too much of a magnificence. It just needed to be opened up. Indiahikes did that.
Along with a new trek came the use of double sleeping bags and the microspikes. Both of which are now synonymous with trekking in India.
But more than anything else, we were once again able to define a route in inhospitable, difficult and remote terrain. Today, hardly anyone does the 15 day adventure to Padum. Most are not even aware of it. For almost every trekker to Chadar, the trek starts at Chilling, goes up to Nerak and returns back to Chilling. It is a 6 day trek on the frozen river. And that’s the legacy Indiahikes has left behind.