Welcome, my dear friends! This is what the Chadar Trek is all about. If you want to dive into the action, go to Day 3.
We chose to start on the 19th of January, after a lot of research on the best possible dates. Two months of preparation built a lot of hype around this trek.
The first thing you notice about Leh is the cold. People were frantically blowing warm air into their fists as we moved out of the plane. Even inside the airport, its freezing. Outside, there is a royal aura around the city. The land is frozen in time, and the mountains shield it from mortal concerns.
The first day was spent socializing. I was surprised to see my trek group, and not pleasantly. Many of them looked like penguins in their winter jackets: Thin flappy arms with a fat belly. I hate it when people don’t match the fitness requirements for a trek.
If you are one of those people who get offended when someone is fat shamed, here is a message: You are an idiot. Because it depends on the situation. Normally, I don’t care about a person’s health choices. But in places like these, you will be slowing the entire team down. That means late meals and shorter sleep times. I could kill for less.
On reaching the hotel, we discovered that the heater didn’t work. So we slept in -15˚C that night. Talk about fast acclimatization. With TTH(Trek the Himalayas) as our organizer, this was guaranteed to be a fun trip. More on that later.
Today was spent reaching base camp. The Zanskar river is simply mesmerizing. And the sky… you can see the stars dazzling the nearby mountains. Everything is dark yet bright, and so very beautiful.
We were joined today by seven other trekkers. Their trek guide couldn’t be found, and they didn’t have a backup plan. One of the girls in the group bragged about how she came to Chadar with no warm clothes.
“My friend was searching my bag at the airport. She just found spaghetti dresses and sarees.” She giggled.
Well, ha-ha. Bloody parasite.
I woke up in the middle of the night, positively shaking. I had dropped water inside my sleeping bag earlier, which had turned to ice. The whole trip was at stake then, because it looked like I had a fever. My friend Suhas is very helpful, and he switched places so I could have dry sleeping bags. I argued for ceremony, and then thanked him profusely.
The sun had barely climbed the sky when we finally started our trek. In about 10 minutes, I could tell that this would be a tough one.
The ice here is tremendously slippy, even with a trekking pole. Walking on it is exhausting and error prone. Although cute to look at, landing on ice is like kissing marble.
And now for the main event: relieving oneself. All we need is a nice, secluded spot.
Unfortunately, such delights are available in Chadar. There is a straight path formed by the river, and every time I thought I was alone, I would see a female trekker at a distance.
By lunchtime I decided that I really needed to go, and climbed the surrounding mountains, but no spot felt private enough.
It took me 15 minutes to get down. The stones were so precarious, I caused small landslides with every step. After the descent, I vowed to myself:
“I am pissing in front of everyone.”
The second day was the most fun. The river had frozen into a majestic path. We were explorers then, traveling after dawn, to unknown lands and with only friends for company.
However, meals were a big issue. The food we got was superficial and mainly loaded with carbohydrates. For all the walking that we did, I felt we deserved better than cauliflower and maggi. Yes, at -30 ˚C, it’s hard to find anything edible. But the least TTH could have done was carry meat.
I nearly died on this day.
In every batch, you will meet people talking about the ‘essence’ of a trek. One such specimen here had 20 years of trekking experience. He insisted that :
“You must walk at the center of the group. And sometimes at the front. And sometimes at the rear. That’s the only way to really enjoy life…”
To these people I say: Take your laptop charger and shove it up your ass. Yes, that end which goes into the plug point.
I believe that to enjoy a trek you need to follow your heart. For that, you can set a goal which resonates with you.
I wanted to complete the trek the fastest! Yeeee-hahahaha.
Fresh air greeted us in the morning. Our destination was a remote village called Nearak. It would have a satellite phone. That meant we would be calling home. All geared up, we were off!
By noon though, we realized that getting to Nearak would be difficult, if not impossible. Five of us dared to dream, and we shot off immediately after lunch. The pace was tremendous now, and the ice uncertain. Thin bridges of thick ice kept us from meeting the merpeople of Chadar.
After about 7 kilometers, we were exhausted. That’s when all of us decided to abandon the plan to Nearak. We would settle for the campsite about an hour from the village.
That is, everyone except a guy named Romil. We saw Romil move ahead and out of sight. About half an hour later, we saw him lying on the ice, right in the middle of the frozen river. What a weird place for a rest spot.
Until we realised: he wasn’t resting. Romil had walked into a shallow ice patch, which had caved into the river. He was now trying to distribute his weight across the ice, with the river cutting him off from its banks. The river was eating into his icy life-line one millimeter at a time. He had about 10 minutes left before the whole section collapsed.
We rushed to the spot, and asked him to throw his rucksack towards us. We should have immediately left with the additional supplies, because Romil’s brain seemed frozen harder than the nearby ice.
Romil was removing his clothing excruciatingly slowly. This was in the hopes of making himself lighter, and also to have a set of dry clothes immediately after making the jump.
Except he hadn’t told the river about his plans, which was getting louder as the ice cover thinned. My patience was over by now:
“To hell with the gloves. Just make the jump!”
“There’s nothing to worry about. If the ice starts to crack, I will lie down to distribute my weight.”
“And how will you jump after lying down?”
That question baffled him, and he seemed to understand his plight just then. Throwing caution to the winds, he jumped like a maniac. I caught his hand mid-flight, and he crashed on to the frozen river bank, safe.
Needless to say, he was shaken. His clothes were wet, especially the pants which had gone into the water. I didn’t want to wait any longer, so Suhas, Shikhar and I moved on to the campsite, which was now in sight. Romil joined us about 10 minutes later.
At this point, we realised that this wasn’t our campsite. The tents were of a different organiser’s, and our site was about 15 minutes away from here.
Did I mention that the ice was breaking? Well, the river had eaten into the ice a little too much, and the path ahead of us was a bunch of floating ice blocks.
“I am not going on that!” I declared.
“Let’s talk to the porters. Maybe they know a way.” Suhas mused.
We waited for 5 minutes, and two other trekkers came from the other side. They emphasised that the ice was now too dangerous, and there would be risky jumps involved to get to the safe zone. I immediately decided this was stupid, and there was no way I was skipping stones at -30 ˚C.
The other way was to ascend and then descend a mountain, thereby skipping the broken section of the river. That would take about 30 minutes of trekking and 30 minutes of hiking. A mammoth task, given our state.
I am very adept at convincing others. Here is how I showed my skills:
“Are you people retarded? I am not going on the ice to die. I say we climb this mountain, right now!”
When my friends tried to put across their point, I cut them mid-way to rant. I can’t really blame myself though. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated, it felt like someone was playing a movie in front of me. My character was being right and stupid at the same time. I knew with every fibre of my being that the river was too dangerous, and yet I couldn’t gather the patience to calmly put my point across.
My friends, as I could see clearly, were equally irritable at that point. They were hoping that a porter would know some special technique to teleport us across the river. Shikhar had had enough of my ranting by now, and dismissed me by saying: “Go then.”
That struck badly. I felt no fear at this point, so I decided to climb the mountain by myself, with about 30 minutes of clear daylight left. Romil and Suhas tried to warn me, but I was adamant. I asked the other campsite porters for the route, and then I was off.
Climbing a mountain is simple. Really, all you need to do is maintain balance and have stamina. At the peak, I savoured the sight offered. The nearby taller mountains were magnificent, protecting me from the doubts that creep up to a lone trekker. Here is a video of me bragging up there:
See how peaceful and serene things are up there? That’s the great bit about Chadar.
But now comes the hard part. The mountain descent was sheer, and absolutely no mistakes would be allowed here. Speaking to myself continuously, I crawled my way down the rock-face. I felt much better and was smiling as I reached the solid river bank again.
Hmmm…something was odd here. I knew that we were supposed to reach this huge frozen waterfall, but no one had told me about a fork. Two paths were present at the falls. Even more odd, was that no one was here yet. Where were the others?
They must be waiting a little distance away. I was lucky to not have ventured far back searching for them. Much later, I would get to know that the ice here was very unstable, and that going back would have meant me hitting a shallow pocket. Unlike Romil, my 10 minute counter wouldn’t be enough for help to come here.
I took the path to the right of the waterfall. That one was thicker. All filled with nervous energy, I ran over the ice, praying that it would hold. After 10 minutes, the ice had flattened, but there was no human in sight.
Strange clicking noises where coming from the ice now. I moved on to the mountain edge, and ran along that. “The mountain is your friend, Sen” I remember telling myself.
My new friend was treacherous to run on. I had to make split second decisions on which rock to step on: it’s height, surface and stability were all in doubt till my feet hit it. After a fumble, I decided that a broken ankle here would be too risky. I moved on to the very edge of the river now, flat enough for running and close enough to the mountain to minimise the risks in case it broke.
There were no footprints, no piece of cloth to mark anything. Every color was simple in the fading light, of which there was atmost 10 minutes remaining. The mountains seemed to close in now.
“In the darkness, the mountain is not your friend, Sen.” the voice told me.
“Neither is the river.” Another one said.
It was here that I realized the seriousness of the situation. I was with no tent, no means of communication. In a place which hit -30 ˚C in the night. Away from my group, who would be too unsure to call for rescue until it was too late.
I didn’t feel cold anymore, but I was shaking. I remembered my parents continuously. I felt terribly guilty, and so sorry for them. They had spent their blood and sweat to see me grow. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy and safe.
And I had to spit on everything I had, just to get a few kicks. I deserved to die, there was no denying this. Of course, I don’t believe this now, but at that low point I was certain that I did deserve this. There was no fear of death, at least not yet.
Just a tremendous amount of guilt. I, an atheist, began asking God for strength. To show me a path. Both figuratively and literally. And I asked my parents to forgive me.
I ran and halted, ran and halted. Maybe I should make a video, in case the worst came to happen. I wanted to tell my parents how stupid and head-strong I had been this entire trip. How sorry and guilty I felt right now. Later, Sen, when there is no light and no hope. Now we run.
I decided that I would make one last attempt, when the sun was completely down, to get back to the campsite that we saw on the way. That would mean safety and survival. But climbing and descending the mountain now would be tremendously risky. Even though my chances would be slim, that was the best practical option. Otherwise, -30˚ C in the night would be a death sentence.
At this point I was feeling no weight in my legs. No cold in my breath. A man near his death feels terrible at the prospect of not talking to his loved ones one last time. No one matters, except the ones you truly love. Your crush? Nope. Best friends? No. Just my mother and father, who had loved me unconditionally all their lives, and tried to dissuade me from coming here.
And here, in the distance, I saw a blue triangle. Nothing in nature is ever a perfect shape. This was man-made. And this was my ticket out of here. A tent!
However, it was very far off, the people around it were tiny dots barely visible in the faint light. I shouted 3 times, hard. Laryngitis is an odd disease to have in a trek, and my voice gave out. No more shouting for help now, Sen.
I sprinted on the river bank now, the camp getting closer every second. I didn’t care about the ice growling beneath me anymore. Unfortunately, the camp was on the opposite side of the river. About 60 meters uphill from the river bank. I needed to cross, but from where?
My throat had healed enough for me to shout some more. I called out to the people in camp, and they heard me. I told them I am lost. They asked me to go back one kilometer: there was a crossing there.
There was no way I was going back that distance, so I asked if they had a crossing someplace closer. Then they asked me to take another crossing 300 meters ahead. One of the porters came down and moved towards it to pick me up. We start moving in parallel to each other, separated by the icy river.
I was jogging in delight at first, then running at full speed. Today wasn’t going to be my last day. That was a prized thought.
Wise men have said that just when you think you are out of danger, you are at your most vulnerable. My 10 kilo backpack felt like air as I flew down the river, finally meeting the porter at the crossing point.
He was scared, and his eyes were looking at me differently. I knew then, that something big had happened. These guys had seen and heard a lot around these mountains.
“I shouted so many times!” He exclaimed. “I whistled and shouted at you many times! You didn’t hear me!”
“What’s the matter?”
“The place you came from, it has no Chadar.”
I looked back at where I had been running. There was no ice there, just the river flowing with its colossal strength. What the hell…
It seems like my jubilation and head caps had blocked off all sound. I hadn’t heard the porter shouting out to me, hadn’t heard the ice breaking beneath my feet, hadn’t even heard it being swallowed by the river. The pace of my maniacal run had been just enough to step on ice during the entire run. I still feel goosebumps thinking about this.
In hindsight, not being able to hear anything was a gift. Had I stopped, I would probably have gone into the river. That would be a terrible anticlimax.
We moved to the campsite then, me slipping often because the ice here was wet, and because falling down didn’t seem scary anymore. The porter said that he was from the same group as “Tashi”, our trek guide. What great luck!
Reaching camp, I saw that none of my trek mates had reached this spot, yet. I was asked to relax. Unlike any camp so far, this place had concrete buildings. The door opened to a pitch black corridor, and I immediately took a step back, frightened. Anyone could get murdered in there…
“I think I will wait for my friends.” I murmured while looking for escape paths and tightening my grip on the stick. One of the porters moved towards me but stopped after looking at my face.
“Sure, you can relax outside if you want.”
Waiting there, I felt my paranoia finally cooling off. There were many camps nearby, and 3 more trekkers who had organized their trip themselves. Also, I felt concerned for my friends now, who were probably crossing the mountain right then, in the pitch dark.
Nature just didn’t care. The mountains weren’t guardians, they were just stupid rocks. The river was just water, no giver of life or some bullshit like that. I decided that this would be my last difficult trek. I had come here to unwind, not battle for my life.
A large bunch of lights pronounced the existence of my group in the area. They were headed towards camp, like fireflies.
It took them another hour to get there, scared and hungry. They had climbed the mountain in the light of the moon and torches. I could see the fear in their eyes, all of them had an experience they could tell their grandkids about.
We all wanted to talk to our families that day. But it was impossible. We had great food and heaters that night. There were stories exchanged and a deep sense of brotherhood amongst the three of us that day. We slept happily then, warm and comfortable after a long time.
Day 4 and 5:
In the morning, there were snow showers. Everything was beautiful and fresh. The day felt auspicious as we walked the way back, towards home.
As you can expect with Chadar, it got tremendously difficult. The river had no ice remaining, and the mountain was too rugged to move on. Being at the head of the group, I was lucky enough to get a thin line of ice to walk on, most of the times.
The others had to tread on water a lot more often, and that is both cold and exhausting. After about 3 hours of struggle, we stopped for lunch.
As usual, the unfit trekkers delayed the entire batch. They come in small groups, the less fit they are, the more late they come. At this rate, lunch would be delayed by two hours today. The slowest group of old, fat and generally silly people got to our spot after an hour and a half. This is what they had to say to us:
“Let’s skip lunch to save time. We have protein bars to fuel us the way back.”
Although it was a good suggestion, it made my blood boil. Hunger was getting to my head now. And yet again I used my deft convincing skills to win the day:
“I want to experience this trek, not just survive it.”
“But you are experiencing it!” the fattest among them giggled.
“Please sir, do tell me how you prepared for this trek?” I asked.
“Er-well, I used to go on walks for-“
“Save your breath, that was a rhetorical question.”
The fat buffalo seemed offended, but he had the sense to keep his mouth shut then. He knew that a fight would result in him becoming part of a makeshift raft.
My trek mates voted to skip lunch that day. Munching on chocolate, my friends and I knew we should move fast. The path to camp was now very easy: snow provided friction, and the ice had not melted further down. Our moods were much better after reaching camp.
The next day was easy and comparatively uneventful. The snow was a blessing. No more sliding along the ice. We could walk like normal people!
Did I tell you about the guy who advised everyone on how to enjoy the trek? The 20 year experience guy. That’s Milind. Well he was happily clicking pictures and moving at a brisk pace, when all of a sudden he fell.
Shikhar and I have fallen about 20 times combined in the trek, and this was nothing new. But when Milind got up, his arm was detached from his elbow.
It was a grotesque sight. I covered my mouth quickly, while our trek guide ran to help him. Milind was wincing that his elbow had dislocated, and our guide tried to put it back in place. Unsuccessful, they had to wait for the two doctors in the team to join us.
The doctors did a splendid job, gauging the angle and fitting the elbow back in place. Milind was so ecstatic, that he waved his arm around to show it was fixed. And the elbow came off again.
I nearly puked, and the doctors were furious. Not at me, him. They couldn’t fix the arm this time, and wrapped it around Milind thightly. It would be diagnosed and treated at Leh hospital now, which was two days from here. Milind decided that he would make the walk today itself, thus saving one day’s worth of time.
The night was horribly managed. All the sleeping bags we had were wet. I decided to sleep without one. After some discomfort I managed to sleep, until I was woken by a tremendous sound. Avalanche!
I got up and told Shikhar and Suhas, who didn’t feel like getting up at all. After waiting for 20 seconds, we realized that the avalanche was no threat to us, as the sound had died down.
The final day of the trek!
The avalanche had occurred in the mountain in front of us. No one was hurt, but we could see a lot of soil meeting the river where it ended. We also got news that there had been a landslide on the road to Leh. Which meant we would need to walk an additional 10 kilometers today to the new pickup point.
I had many blisters on my feet at this point. The gum boots we used would rub my skin raw, and two layers of socks were not enough to stop them. This made me fall behind significantly from the head of my group.
The river had broken up in many places again. Two days of snowfall had covered everything white, and the temperature was a reasonable -6˚ C. Climbing the hills was tiring work, but I got to the Day 1 camp in just 4 hours.
At this point, again, I saw that none of my trek mates had reached camp yet. Due to the additional distance to cover, I had expected most of the group to be here at this time. Bloody laggards.
I waited for about an hour there, talking to the other groups and getting to know the situation. There was an army camp nearby, and they told me about the landslide and the distance to it. I thanked them for their service (It was republic day!) and headed towards the main road.
I couldn’t be 100% sure that my group hadn’t already left. Maybe I was too far from them to make out. Maybe most of the people had already reached and continued on. Certainly an hour and a half was too long a gap on a day like this. 20 kilometers had to be covered, buddy!
Another 20 minutes passed, and I saw another TTH group heading towards me. It was the batch of 21st Jan. I decided to join this group, it was TTH after all. After walking with them for about an hour, I found their guide. I told him I belonged to Tashi’s group, and whether he knew where they were.
“Maybe he is behind us.”
“Oh. Is he perchance looking for me?”
“He might be.”
“Do you have any way to send a message across? Please tell him I am joining you guys to get to the pick up point.”
“There isn’t any way to contact him. You can come with us though.”
I wasn’t going to let this group go away. In case my trek mates had gone forward, I would be delaying and possibly missing the TTH vehicle. If I got there before them, well how did it matter? I would wait for them and head to Leh with them.
You see, plans are always better made when you have a sensible organizer. Maybe in some parallel universe, that would be TTH. Some decent food, dry sleeping bags, adequate tents and satellite phones. These are indecent luxuries according to Trek the Himalayas.
Exhausted and worried, I started jogging towards the pickup point. The other trekkers had been here for just 3 days, and were better rested. I couldn’t match their leader’s pace for long.
Wheezing and staggering now, I took frequent breaks for water and dry fruits. My legs wouldn’t accept commands easily anymore, not the least because of the blisters. After about 4 hours of a struggle, I saw vehicles.
I ran to them. No one was waiting here, no driver or trekker. Why does no one ever wait in this goddamn place? On asking a local, I got to know the landslide was a kilometer ahead, and the vehicles beyond it were the ones we had to get to. The ones here were going nowhere.
The landslide was a big jumble of slippery rocks and treacherous ice. There were two ways to cover it, the simpler and riskier way, or the tougher and safer one. The tougher one was more towards the mountain than the river, making a fall less likely to be fatal.
I naturally chose the safer route. Did you think I would go for risks now?
Crossing that, salvation! There were vehicles. With drivers! I asked them whether they worked for TTH, and all of them responded with a ‘no’. They told me there was an army base camp a kilometer ahead, and TTH was supposed to come there.
What the retards forgot to mention was that they were in fact hired by TTH. But they had no idea who they were working for, and TTH in their usual grace had informed us about nothing. Maybe telling us the name of our transport company would be useful information, TTH. Something to keep in mind.
There was an army base camp set up ahead. It looked beautiful. Man made stuff: bridges, vehicles and huts. Civilisation! I got there very fast.
My group was still nowhere to be seen. That meant I had been ahead of them the whole time. No problem…they would get here soon enough. The batch I had just come with was all here, eager to leave.
After 20 minutes, a vehicle from TTH came to the base camp. I really wanted to get onto the vehicle, and I had a talk with the other TTH guide.
“Can I please squeeze into this bus? I know that is an inconvenience, but standing would also be fine.”
“Everyone wants to get on. Where do I find the space?”
“What about the other buses? Surely they have space for one extra? I would be happy to get out of here.” I smiled.
“Everyone wants to get out of here.”
That pissed me off, but I politely smiled and moved away. These idiots were going to allot space, I had to keep calm till I was back home.
(Oh yes TTH, if you are reading this, this blog is just a taster. There will be a separate post dedicated to fucking with you. Trust me, it will be worth the wait.)
Another 20 minutes passed, and I was suddenly called by some TTH trek lead there. These guys are supposed to monitor the trek status and manage situations. That is on paper. In reality, some of them are coming to Chadar for the first time, some of them have no gloves or proper equipment, and some of them – like the one you will see – are plain retarded.
“Which batch are you from?!”
“The 19th Jan batch.”
“What are you doing here?!”
“I came along with this batch because I couldn’t find my team. Waiting for a bus to take me back.”
“Who told you to wait here? Do you know what you have done?! Your batchmates are looking for you all over the place! Now you can’t leave on their bus, and you have to stay with us tonight in the army base camp.”
“Oh God! I didn’t see any bus leaving though. Can you please contact them and tell them I am here?”
“No, we can’t! Take off your headcap and go back towards the landslide. Stop every bus which passes you. Make them recognise you in case it’s your batch. Go, immediately!”
“You goddamn bastard!” I screamed. Before he could react, I pummeled his face. The others tried to stop me while I continued to hammer this piece of shit. His screams and my yells rang out over the mountains. I picked up a rock to deliver the final blow-
“Hey! Are you even listening?”
I came back to reality.
“Yes of course. Please stop all buses which come here too. Please make sure that my batch doesn’t leave me behind. Thanks for you help!”
“Alright, alright. Go! Run!”
Oh I will, you bastard. You should pray I never get to Mumbai, because once I do, I will skin your company alive.
I ran to my batch in 10 minutes. Along the way, I nearly slipped and fell off the bridge at the base camp, but these incidents were so common now that it hardly registered.
Finally back, I saw my good friends Shikar and Suhas waiting for me at the bus. They were facing away, so I was very close to Suhas by the time he turned around.
I haven’t been slapped as hard in my life, ever. My glasses along with their clip ons flew off, luckily towards the mountain. I stood there, the blood pounding my skull. The other’s were restraining Suhas from hitting me again, while I tried to calm down.
It turns out that Suhas and Shikhar had stopped for lunch about 5 hours ago. The entire batch had lunch 15 minutes away from the spot where I was waiting for them. We had then moved at the same time towards the landslide. Maintaining the 10-15 minute gap all along.
On the way, my friends were convinced that I was either ahead of them or lost. When they reached the pickup point, they logically assumed the worst.
Suhas had gone back about 3 kilometers searching for me. His shouts had been in vain, and the local porters had misleading information. They thought they had seen me moving in the opposite direction, towards Chadar. I don’t say it was malicious, just a mistake which turned out badly.
Of course, I instantly knew that Suhas had been through a lot then. We made him sit on the bus after he calmed down, and then in a few minutes, we were going back home!
There are points in your life when you feel obliged to do something insane. Something risky enough to remind yourself that you have something to lose. Most of my treks are spent looking for adventure, the rush of adrenaline and the triumph of doing what my heart wants.
Chadar is different. There are so many ways in which things can go wrong, that being at peace with oneself is very important here. What you want is often worth pursuing, but the brutal nature of this trek makes logical decision making the most important thing.
Thanks for reading!