C.Continuation of our series on How Indiahikes created Himalayan treks that changed Indian trekkingWe are back with one of the most extraordinary treks that have shaped trekking in our country. the Chadar Frozen River hike.
Today we want to tell you the story of how Indiahikes launched the Chadar Frozen River Trek.
Chadar has changed the course of trekking in our country dramatically. It produced great innovations that made trekking safer and better – practices that we continue to follow to this day.
It also made the unimaginable possible. What was considered to be as rare as an Arctic expedition has become an accessible hike for hikers like you and me.
People know little about the crucial role that Indiahikes had to play in this. Our founder, Arjun Majumdar, writes from his personal experience, the story of how the hike came about and what followed.
Read the whole story here.
How the Chadar Trek came about
It must have been more than 15-16 years ago when I picked up a used National Geographic from the sidewalks of Delhi during my trips to street stalls.
In a photo story I was stunned to see monks from inside Zanskar who came to Leh in the middle of winter – for food, provisions and a market. They walked across a river of frozen ice for 7-8 days and stayed in caves as a shelter with very little clothing or winter clothing.
History mentioned temperatures that dropped to minus 30 ° C on this dangerous expedition. Since National Geographic is National Geographic, the images that accompanied the article were breathtaking. Even back then I thought this was the best thing that could push the limit of human endurance.
A year or two later, a trekking companion and I caught up with dinner. He was very excited.
He said he had just returned from something extraordinary. He had been to Ladakh in the winter and tried this hike on the frozen river. He had done this with a foreign group. You could do it in a way, but it started snowing bitterly. They had to be evacuated by helicopter.
He spoke about the remarkable expedition, the landscape and the freezing temperatures. But there he was before me, a survivor of this ordeal. It was like the mountain expedition stories you hear – of extraordinary circumstances, bravery and courage.
As years passed and my knowledge and interest in trekking increased, I heard more about the strenuous trek that people in Zanskar did in winter to get to Leh. I also saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel.
It was then that I first heard this as a hike that some groups of people, usually foreigners, went on. That they would follow the route of these travelers to their home in Padum, the capital of Zanskar, across the frozen Zanskar River. The hike was called the Chadar Frozen River Trek. It was a 15 day expedition.
The thought of this extraordinary adventure has haunted me ever since.
The new route to Stok Kangri
The early years of Indiahikes were very exciting. We have explored some of the largest hikes in our country. Many of them were fairly unknown. But some were better known.
One of the better known hikes was the Stok Kangri summit in Ladakh. It was the highest trekking peak in India and rose slightly over 20,000 feet. Hikers from India and abroad (mainly from abroad) flocked to the summit to experience the high of climbing over 20,000 feet.
In summer 2011 we tried to reach the Stok Kangri summit from another route. We were not happy with the rapid increases that 90% of the teams took to the Stok Kangri summit. Not many seemed to have thought of it. But that's how we were – we weren't happy with how the route affected the trekking experience.
We changed the route and started in a completely new zone near the Hemis monastery. The route was longer, but we were able to acclimatize better, which made our hikers more successful on the summit. I have to admit that the route was also infinitely better in terms of the landscape.
We took a completely new route to Stok Kangri – it helped us to acclimatize better and the landscape was much better too! Image from the Indiahikes archive
Against this backdrop of Chadar explorations, why am I telling Stok Kangri?
As you will see, this also has a big impact on the Chadar hike.
Our Stok Kangri Trek from 2011 was a complete success. Every member of our exploration team made it to the summit. But the hike shaped Sandhya * and me very much.
* Sandhya UC is that Co-founder of Indiahikes.
For the first time we realized that we could change the route of a well-known hike – in a remote, inaccessible place at high altitudes and on not very well-defined paths.
We also realized that we could work in a remote place that was almost like a foreign country. Working in Ladakh was not the same as working in Himachal, Uttarakhand or Sikkim. It felt different from the rest of the country – the people, the landscape and the logistics.
We also had a good relationship with Thinley Dorjey, our Ladakhi partner, who seemed like the ideal person to grow with us. He was adventurous, helpful, knowledgeable, responsible and very resourceful.
Chadar exploration planning
After we came to Leh from Stok Kangri, Dorjey took us on a trip to the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus. From our vantage point high above the confluence, Dorjey pointed to a raging river. He said in winter it was the famous Zanskar River, which freezes and runs on people.
He talked about how foreigners come to Leh in winter to do the hike. It took them 15-20 days to do the hike. He had heard of very few Indians doing the hike. Very few were able to spend 15 days at temperatures that dropped to -30 ° C or -40 ° C.
He said there were stages on the hike that the frozen river would break and you had to wade through sections of icy water, sometimes knee and waist deep. He said the hike was not for ordinary people. Foreigners could somehow make it.
That first made us think about the Chadar Frozen River Trek. Could we even think of exploring it? Could we find a new way to do the Chadar Trek? We were at the forefront of doing great walks in our country. Could the impossible Chadar be one of them?
We sat down and asked Dorjey in detail about the route. He told us about the few villages on the way where we could seek shelter. But they were a bit off the river on higher lots. Most of the time we were on the frozen river – we either had to find shelter in the caves along the river or pitch our tents when we found gaps on the banks.
The hike looked impressive. We knew from experience that our trekkers were not ready for such an adventure in such inhospitable terrain – even over 15 days. Even the die-hard would shrink.
At that point, we reimagined Chadar trekking, a decision that changed Chadar trekking forever.
To do this, I have to give you a background of the original route. The hike started in Chilling near the mouth of the Zanskar River. From Chilling you fell down to the frozen river and hiked over the precarious frozen river, which like a moving glacier has never stayed the same for too long. You did this for almost 7 days until you arrived in Padum.
If you survived the ordeal, after a day's rest you returned the same way down the frozen river, which is now completely changed until you have returned to chilling. To top it off, a temperature of -15 ° C was considered a warm day on this hike.
We started to question this. What if we didn't go all the way to Padum? Would we miss the essence of the hike? What if we only went up 3 days and returned for the next 3 days? Would it be just a sightseeing tour of the Chadar or would there be a complete picture?
We flipped through the map. Dorjey pointed to the village of Nerak. He said the village was remote and beautiful. It was a bit off the river, but it would be an excellent end point. We could spend the night in Nerak and then return on the same route. It looked exciting.
I asked Dorjay the only question that was important to us. Would this shortened hike rob us of the essence of the Chadar experience? Dorjay was silent for a moment. In his head I could see him counting down the trekking days one after the other. After a long pause, he finally told us in his imitable Tibetan style.
"No, it would be a complete hike in itself. Yes, there were a section or two that were worth visiting later, especially a gutter that led from Chadar to another village, but no, the ascent to Nerak was a complete experience in itself. "
We reimagined the Chadar hike from Chilling to Nerak, a village suggested by Dorjey, our trusted guide in Ladakh. Tourists would earlier drive all the way to Padum, which made the hike 15 days. We shortened it to just 6 days.
That was the only confirmation we wanted! A shiver ran down our spines. We wanted to go on another great adventure of our life – an adventure that tested human endurance. But it would also be an adventure if we managed to open up Indian trekking for a whole new opportunity.
This winter, six months after the Stok Kangri expedition, we have set our exploration dates for the Chadar Frozen River hike. We planned it for the week of Republic Day in January 2012.
Back in our Indiahikes base, we informed our trekkers about this exploration. We selected a team of 12 trekkers to explore. This would be the team that might determine the future of trekking.
Preparation for Chadar
As our hike came closer, we sat down to prepare for the hike. But how could someone prepare for an experience they had only imagined? We could only simulate the settings in our thoughts.
We had never walked on a frozen river. We had never had temperatures below -10 ° C. Now we had to adjust to -25 ° C.
We could handle rough terrain on a mountain slope. But how would we manage the slippery, frozen river over 6 days? We were already full of terrible stories about how people slipped on the hike all the time.
How would we go about wading through the freezing river at such extreme temperatures?
After a while we gave up thinking.
An important innovation on the Chadar trek
In the meantime, in 2011, as our Chadar thoughts continued, we explored one great hike after another at Indiahikes. One of them was the Great Lakes of Kashmir, the story of which I will talk about next week. But I think it was one of our best years of trekking exploration.
These explorations also led to a huge increase in trekkers in Indiahikes. But it came with a downside. The safety of these hikers became a problem. Icy slopes were a problem. Hikers who slid on snow were becoming more common.
How we could protect our hikers on snow-covered sections was a constant question.
We tried crampons on the Stok Kangri Trek. They were the worst for hiking – they were cumbersome, difficult, and artful. We have researched our mountaineering institutes. None of them had a good answer. They were still talking about crampons. Nobody could suggest something that could keep walker safe on snow.
When we looked beyond mountaineering, we examined the lives of people who lived in cold countries. We wanted to see what people in Canada, the United States and Norway did in winter. How did you deal with the icy conditions that prevailed for almost seven months a year?
That's how we came across microspikes – a piece of equipment that has helped people shovel snow in cold countries. They even used it to walk on icy roads. As we continued to investigate, we found that there were many who jogged with them in winter. Was this the miracle equipment that could solve the slip problem on our Himalayan hikes?
We ordered two pairs of microspikes from an Italian manufacturer. It reached us in time. We wanted to test it in the toughest situation – we'd take it on the Chadar Frozen River Trek. But we were scared. What if it failed?
To dispel our fears, we took the microspikes (then called ice crampons) on a dry run on the Kedarkantha winter hike. We released it in Judah Ka Talab, where the pond was completely frozen over, much like the frozen surface of Zanskar.
We carefully walked across the pond with our spikes, our hearts in our mouths. But to our surprise, it lasted! We could run normally without an inch of slip. It was very encouraging. It gave us hope. We now had to try the equipment on a larger test site. Chadar would be the real test.
The first time we tested our newly imported microspikes was on the Kedarkantha trek. Here Arjun smiles after testing the effectiveness of the microspikes on the frozen Juda Ka Talab. Image from the Indiahikes archive
In winter to Ladakh
Finally, in the week of Republic Day in January 2012, we were on the plane to Leh. The captain announced that it was -7 ° C when we landed in Leh. Sandhya and I looked at each other nervously. Did we really want to do that?
The moment we got out, everything changed somehow. We layered quickly and it didn't feel as cold as we thought.
But the disaster struck. Sandhya's entire backpack was left behind by the airline in Delhi. It would take many days to reach Leh again. The airline made no promise.
How could we do the Chadar hike without clothes? A hike that dropped to -25 ° C? Our expedition looked doomed to fail.
But we quickly rustled up the gears we had inside. Not many know that on this Chadar hike, Sandhya did the entire hike with borrowed clothes, most of whom were men!
Chadar for the first time
I think more than the cold, Chadar surprised us with his breathtaking beauty! We were in a canyon like the Grand Canyon. It would take a long time for the sun's rays to reach the bottom of the gorge, but when it did, it illuminated the gorges like a rainbow.
We had never seen such a kaleidoscope of colors. The walls of the canyons were cut by the Zanskar in unimaginable shapes! The walls of the canyon were boulders that had fused together for millions of years, but which had become distorted over time.
The contortions added to the color because each layer was a different shade. When the sun shone on them, they threw a riot of color that was reflected even more in the snow.
But it was the Chadar himself who confused our imaginations. It wasn't just a frozen river. It had a life of its own. A life full of colors, shapes and sounds. I had never heard ice singing before, but on this hike we made a musical note that changed pitch and tone as we walked over it.
We saw the clear blue water of the Zanskar river as we walked on the white powder snow. It was unimaginable! Image from the Indiahikes archive
We had never seen air bubbles frozen in different shapes and sizes in ice, like little mushrooms frozen in time. We saw her on the Chadar. We had never seen a blue water from a river lying in front of a white powder snow of the landscape.
We never imagined walking on a kilometer-long ice sheet as clear as glass and as polished as one. At other times we walked across the frozen river on sandy snow crust.
Sometimes the ice sheet was as wide as a soccer field, sometimes it was just a narrow opening just wide enough for some to stand on.
We saw huge frozen waterfalls as if a wizard had stopped a river halfway. Even the drops of water were in the air. We saw ice floes floating past us with a gentle rustle. And on the river we saw how water can form beautiful figures on ice that defy geometry or belief.
At every moment we wondered how a raging river flowed under this ice formation. How could ice form over such a fast flowing river? To our surprise, we found that the river sometimes formed overnight.
The evening before, when we found knee-deep water, the entire section was frozen the next morning, strong enough to walk over.
The cold, yes, it was bitterly cold. Nevertheless, we got used to the -20 ° C every evening and night. We had our layers of clothes – we all wore them.
The night got terribly cold closer to Nerak, a gust of wind blew through our tents. We couldn't sleep at all. Our thermometers measured -25 ° C – it was our coldest night ever. But the next morning we got up and started on our way.
On this hike we discovered the power of two sleeping bags. We found that the best way to cope with the intense cold of the night was not to get into a high-performance sleeping bag, but to just lie in multiple sleeping bags.
We still use this technique on our winter hikes.
How microspikes became part of Indian trekking
And about the microspikes. They worked like magic! During our entire 6 days we never slipped. We walked on the hardest ice and subjected the spines to torture for almost 8 hours every day. You didn't let us down for a moment. We knew then that we were looking at the future of trekking.
The next summer we teamed up with a wonderful company in the United States. Kahtoola – who were very similar to us and passionately made snow gear. We introduced their microspikes to Indian trekking on our high-altitude hikes.
Nowadays, microspikes * are used by every organization on their hikes. Not many know the source of how Indian trekking came about. It was on the Chadar hike where it was first tested.
* *Microspikes is the brand name of Kahtoola Companies. Similar devices are called different names by different companies. Microspikes have become generic in India. But it is good to know the origin.
The first microspikes to be tested on the Chadar Frozen Trek. We went with them for 7 days and never took them off. We never slipped. Image from the Indiahikes archive
What Chadar did with Indian Trekking
The Chadar hike was a complete success. Upon our return, the entire Trekking Brotherhood awoke to the opportunity to do the Chadar Trek.
For the first time, even someone new to trekking imagined walking on the frozen river. What was only in the imagination of foreign mountaineers with a hard core and strange Buddhist monks on National Geographic became an opportunity for regular hikers.
Chadar opened the door to winter trekking, which was only the subject of fairytale fantasy. It was almost like someone from Mumbai was going on a polar expedition in the Arctic.
This 1 minute and 43 seconds Video of us have broken the myth and fear of Chadar. For the first time, Indian trekkers saw a video from inside the trek and nothing fantastic from National Geographic or Discovery. It made the hike real and possible. This video did more for the hike than anything else.
The next year it opened the lock gate of the hikers on the Chadar Trek. Hikers from near and far entered the Chadar to experience its many splendor. Social media were flooded with Chadar stories. It aroused Chadar's interest even more.
Unfortunately, Indiahikes quit the Chadar Trek and Ladakh after a violent dispute with the local tour operator association. The story is heartbreaking. You can find the story here.
However, Chadar's legacy will always remain with Indiahikes. When we explored the hike in January 2012, while walking the Chadar, we knew what it would have to do with Indian trekking. Chadar was too great. It just had to be opened. Indiahikes did that.
Along with a new hike came the use of double sleeping bags and micro spikes. Both are synonymous with trekking in India today.
Above all, however, we were 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 begins at chilling, goes to Nerak and returns to chilling. It's a 6 day hike on the frozen river. And that's the legacy that Indiahikes left behind.