The Great Ice-capade: Chadar Trek in Ladakh India
Ladakh’s sweetheart, Chadar Trek has earned the affection of all who travel her frozen banks. This beautiful, one-of-a-kind journey takes you along the frozen Zanskar River, where the ice itself is your trail!
The nearest connectivity point is the city of Leh, which must be flown into during the winter months, as road transport becomes inhibited by snow during that season. From Leh, the drive is 70km by hired taxi to beautiful Shingra, which acts as the trailhead of Chadar Trek and your entry point onto the Zanskar. With your rations being transported by sled, hidden caves are waiting to be explored and a magnificent frozen waterfall perched at the innermost point of the valley, it’s no wonder this trek intrigues so many.
Along with this unique beauty however, comes unique challenges, ones that each trekker should be aware of before they make their way to the frozen banks of the Zanskar. These include special seasonal preparations, necessary packing checklists and physical stamina, to name a few.
The first and foremost thing to keep in mind when planning for Chadar Trek is that you choose the correct season. It is fairly general knowledge to most within the trekking community that the river can only be traversed in the winter, however its actual trekkable window is even more limited than that. The river is only completely frozen for a very small period of time from mid-January to mid-February. Just one month. It’s imperative to keep this in mind when planning for Chadar trek, since arriving too early or too late could result in a disappointing experience and/or a dangerous one. Nobody wants to fly to Leh just to realize their trek still has a liquid trail, and certainly no one wants the highly uncomfortable and extremely unsafe experience of falling into a frigid river through ice that is not fully-frozen.
Speaking of frozen, this trek is freezing- literally. Actually, it’s a lot colder than that. Temperatures often hit as low as -25 celsius during the nights, and the days are not much warmer. Wisely-chosen layers will be your best friend and defense against these conditions. Thermal tights and thermal long-sleeve undershirts are a must, along with a woolen cap, several pairs of woolen socks, a warm long-sleeve shirt, at least one fleece, warm, preferably real down heavy jacket, a dependable waterproof outer layer/windbreaker and fleece-lined, waterproof gloves. Of course, strong, high-ankle, waterproof (I repeat, waterproof) trekking shoes are a must. Be sure, if you’ve recently purchased your boots, to get a fair bit of walking done in them before you set out on Chadar or any major trek- otherwise, you will be dealing with some pretty serious blisters. No thank you.
What people often forget is that cold does not mean it can’t be sunny, so take care to bring along sun goggles, sun cream and a shade-giving hat as well. Your skin and eyes will thank you. If you are particularly prone to being cold in the nights, here are a few helpful things to keep in mind. One, of course, is to bring a proper sleeping bag along. Since the temperatures do hit -25 degrees celsius, selecting a sleeping bag with at least the same comfort rating of -25 is required. If you are still worried about feeling chilly, invest in a fleece liner to place inside your sleeping bag as well. An extra, durable water bottle to fill at nights with hot water for keeping inside your sleeping bag can be a huge comfort as well, and activatable hot-packs can be used for the same purpose. Just ensure you are responsibly packing your trash back out with you.
Along with proper packing and season selection, you should also take a moment to assess your personal physical fitness level prior to embarking on this trek. While the inclines are generally less severe than other Himalayan treks, given you are following the riverbed the entire time, the trek provides other unique challenges that you must be physically ready to handle. The altitude, while not extremely high, still sits in a range where lung capacity and cardio abilities are key factors in your success. The maximum altitude is 11,150ft. This means the air will be thinner, AMS symptoms are possible and normal activities will leave you more out of breath. You will also be trekking large stretches of the river each day, with the entire trek spanning 68km over six days. That’s a lot of walking (on ice, remember?) for an extended amount of time. It’s rated as a difficult trek, and takes stamina and perseverance.
To prepare for this, an exercise regimen beforehand for at least two months is necessary. In addition to having at least one other moderate-plus rated Himalayan trek already under your belt, the following exercises should be the level you are at before joining Chadar Trek. Start by jogging continuously for 15 minutes, until you can gradually increase to running 5km in 30 minutes. Also ensure that you can walk 10km continuously with only three or four breaks. Climb stairs to simulate an incline- set a goal of climbing 120 steps in one, evenly-paced push. For core and arm strength (important for making your backpack feel better), maintain a 90-second plank and be able to do ten proper push-ups in one go.
One final, often overlooked preparation that people need to make is a less visible, less tangible one, but impacts you every bit as much as the factors above. Make sure your headspace is where it needs to be before you head out. Sure, you can travel to the mountains to find some reprieve from life’s hectic side, but also set expectations and mental goals for yourself. A trek is not a comfortable experience. Albeit incredibly beautiful and rewarding, the journey will not be easy and you will be tested.
You will spend an entire week with strangers who may be very different from you, encounter weather conditions that test your grit, slip and fall on the ice, be put to the test physically with long, challenging days, sleep on ice, pee in a dirt hole and experience a whole collection of other things that will place you outside of your comfort zone. Perform a little introspection prior to your trip, allowing yourself to understand that you are willingly, excitedly walking into a limit-pushing week. Tell yourself that these upcoming challenges you will face will be met with enthusiasm, that you will do your best and that you will actively work to instill a positive attitude within yourself. With a strong mind, no situation can escape a joyful outcome.
Plus, how could you resist feeling on top of the world, with views like Chadar’s?
So there you have it, my friends. Be ready for whatever that icy trail may hold for you with this shortlist of preparatory items. Now go and have a blast.
About The Author: Cambria Sawyer
From the United States, Cambria is a Texas girl obsessed with hiking. She spends 50% of her time in cowgirl boots and the other 50% in trekking boots. She is currently living in New Delhi, India heading the content team for Bikat Adventures, a Himalayan adventure tourism company.