Do you want to know what it’s like to live your biggest dream and worst nightmare at the same time? Attempting the Chadar Trek will make you feel that way. This trek is named after the Zanskar River, a tributary of the Indus that flows through Jammu and Kashmir, which freezes during winter and develops a layer of ice on its surface. This layer resembles a white chadar (sheet). This path is used by the locals to travel from Leh to Zanskar during winter months.

Chadar is nature in its rawest form. It’s a true test of the resilience of your mind and the strength and limits of your body. Both can turn into your foes. Conquering them is as important as conquering this trek. But once you complete the Chadar Trek, you’ll be a different person. I know I am.

I have been hiking in the Sahyadris regularly since 2009 and it helped me get acquainted with many trekkers and adventure groups. One afternoon at work as I was browsing Facebook (before you judge me, it was my lunch break), I came across a post with a majestic picture of what looked like a frozen waterfall. As you might’ve guessed, the post was about the Chadar Trek. It was simply this gorgeous picture that made me decide that I had to go there. I had to wait for two years before my plans came to fruition.

Tip Before attempting the trek, make sure you’re involved in some kind of fitness activity at least one month prior to the trek. Cycling and hiking worked for me, but going to the gym regularly also helps. If you suffer from any diseases or have any injuries, get your doctor’s permission before you attempt Chadar.

Pankaj Sabnani
A partly frozen stretch of the Chadar Trek
A partly frozen stretch of the Chadar Trek

An important factor that you will have to deal with during the trek is the biting cold. The temperature can drop as low as -35 degrees and the last thing you want is hypothermia. If you think you are not carrying enough warm clothing though, the Leh Market will be your saviour. And trust me, the more layers you have on, the better. I am a pretty resilient man and I wore six layers on top (three warmers, two full-sleeved shirts and a jacket) and four at the bottom (two warmers and two track pants). Besides this, I also wore a monkey cap and a neck warmer. I was also wearing two set of gloves to protect my hands from frostbite. There were times during the course of the trek when even this didn’t feel like it was enough!

Tip The earlier you book, the cheaper your tickets will be. Also, make sure you book refundable tickets because unforeseen circumstances (mainly weather) might force you to reschedule your trek.

Remember that there is no connectivity along the way. There will also be times when your phone, even though fully charged, will switch off because of the bitter cold. In these situations, use your power bank to restart your phone.

Tip Please do not litter the area. It’s very disheartening to see trash in such a pristine environment.

Day 1:

On the day we arrived, my friends and I mostly remained in our hotel room. Our plans to go out in the evening to shop for some equipment were thwarted as there was a strike and all shops were closed. I used my free time to catch up on sleep, which was essential as I had a daunting trek ahead of me. I was trying not to think about the fact that, the next day, I’d be walking on a thin layer of ice on top of a frozen, fast-flowing river.

Ankit Kumar Parsurampuria
There’s always time for a fun shot after walking on ice and trudging through snow
There’s always time for a fun shot after walking on ice and trudging through snow

Day 2:

The previous day’s strike meant that our day began with shopping for equipment. The main gear that everyone required for the trek was gumboots. These boots are absolutely essential during the trek. We headed to the Leh Market to buy gumboots, which are tailor-made for Chadar. These boots are light and have a good grip to prevent the wearer from slipping on the ice.

Tip Remember to buy a trekking pole. It will save you from nasty falls and gruesome injuries countless times during the course of the trek.

The morning shopping spree meant that we began our journey late. Without wasting any more time, we began the 3-hour drive to Chilling Sumdo. It was one of the most breathtaking drives I have ever been on; the picturesque snow-clad mountains and the vivid blue-green waters of the Indus River were straight out of a travel catalogue! We also witnessed the confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers at Nimoo. Once we reached Chilling Sumdo, there it was in all its ghostly glory – the Chadar. For me, it was love at first sight. As excited as I was to begin the trek, walking on the Chadar would have to wait as the campsite was at a slightly elevated location.

Since we reached the campsite late, our leader decided to start the trek the next day and our tents were set up. After dinner, we had a bonfire and a song and dance session. We were trying hard to keep our nerves at bay and not think about what was in store for us the next day.

Day 3:

The day began on a rather sombre note as a member of our team passed out and was unable to start the trek with us. I also learned the hard way that the cold you will encounter here is no laughing matter – my feet were freezing all night and I couldn’t sleep too well because of this even though I had put on three pairs of socks, one of which was woollen! No one had any spare socks, and I could understand why my friends wouldn’t want to part with theirs. I was having a hard time keeping my feet warm in the gumboots too and even exercising didn’t help my situation. I decided that I’d tackle this problem later.

Sankar Sridhar
A porter makes his way along the river
A porter makes his way along the river

We had our first meal of the day in a warm tent and then it was time to start our journey across the Chadar. We stepped on the frozen river for the first time and I felt like I was in a dream. As we starting making our way, we saw myriad versions of the river. At some places, the river was fully covered with ice, while at others, there was no ice at all. When the river was gushing and there was no ice for us to walk on, we had to climb the adjacent mountain to make our way forward. We had to keep walking till we could see good ice formation on the river, get down and walk again. It was gruelling.

After having walked for about five to six hours, we reached Shingra Koma, our campsite and resting place for the rest of the night. It was then that I had the bright idea to sleep wearing my gumboots, and this worked like a charm! If you’re facing difficulty dealing with the freezing temperatures, try this. Your sleeping bag is big enough to accommodate them and your feet will remain toasty through the night.

Day 4:

Another day, another heartbreaking start. One more trekker fell gravely ill and could not continue the journey. One of the porters took him back on a sledge (they use this to normally carry luggage) as he didn’t even have the strength to walk. We later found out that he had to be admitted in the ICU for treatment and recovered after a few days. This only goes to show that you can’t take this trek lightly; it’s one of the toughest adventure challenges that you will ever encounter. This also made me realise that the porters are our saviours and an essential cog in your trekking group. Without them, the Chadar Trek is near impossible. Not only do they carry sick trekkers back to camp, they also carry food for the entire group and your luggage if you cannot carry it yourself.

Because of our team member’s illness, we started our trek almost an hour late that day. The route we followed looked similar to the previous day. The only difference was that we had to cover much more ground this time around.

The trek is mesmerising and you’ll want to keep clicking pictures, but keep your equipment carefully. I learnt that lesson the hard way. While I was trying to click a picture, my phone fell in freezing water. I removed it within seconds and wiped it immediately. Thankfully, it was still working. Just to be safe, I switched it off and kept it inside a sock for a couple of hours.

Trekkers taking a break
Trekkers taking a break

The Chadar might be stunning, but there is a dark side to this beauty, which is what makes it one of the most challenging treks you will ever tackle. A fellow trekker went through something harrowing. At a particular patch, the ice wasn’t very hard, but appeared to be stable enough to walk on. At the Chadar, appearances can be deceptive. After receiving permission from one of the leaders, he began walking. In the blink of an eye, the ice broke and he was in chest-deep water. The leader couldn’t help because, in all probability, he too would’ve fallen into the gushing, icy water. He screamed for the trekker to come out of the water on his own and we were all hoping and praying that he’d be safe. He somehow managed to climb out and immediately rushed to the campsite, which wasn’t too far away, to change out of his wet clothes. Some push-ups also helped him warm up his body. This incident goes to show that this trek is as unpredictable as it is dangerous.

Due to the fact that there were a total of 28 of us and that we started late, we were terribly behind schedule. The path was quite slippery and narrow and that added to our woes. Just before our next campsite, Tibb Cave, came one of the trickiest portions of the trek.

One had to literally crawl on the narrow, curvy path. And some of us crossed this in darkness since we were late; an absolutely terrifying ordeal. The ice might look gorgeous during the day, but it takes on quite a sinister aspect at night.

Tip Remember to carry headlamps.

Day 5:

Many from our group decided to head back to easier terrain. Only 20 of us had the resolve to carry on and complete the trek. Learning from our past mistakes, especially after what we had to go through the day before, we made sure we started on time and moved at a brisk pace. We were an hour away from reaching Nyerak, the culmination of the trek. My excitement was at its peak as Nyerak had a completely frozen waterfall and it was perhaps the main highlight of this gruelling journey. Unfortunately, as a couple of trekkers were walking, a slab of ice broke off. All of them were safe, but there was no way to go further. Our path was completely blocked. The mountain climb was too steep for the porters to carry luggage and our leader decided to go back to Tibb Cave. I was disheartened, but the unpredictability of the terrain is what makes Chadar exciting, so I couldn’t complain.

Day 6 & 7:

I thought our return would be easy since we were following the same path we came through, but I was thoroughly mistaken. Like a chameleon, the Chadar had changed and was broken at many places. This meant that we had to climb the mountain countless times and some climbs were extremely dangerous because of the loose stones and mud. Thankfully, we all made it back safely.

Now that I have successfully completed the trek, I have gained a new perspective on life. During the trek, you will feel as though you’re putting yourself through the worst mistake of your life. But I promise you, once you have trekked through Chadar, all your other problems in life will seem miniscule and you will conquer any challenge thrown your way with ease and élan. You have already conquered one of the biggest challenges of your life; how difficult could anything else possibly be?

Where to Stay

Stay at the Shambha-La (Tel: 01982- 251100, 253500, Cell: 09810035145; Tariff: ₹5,000–8,000), only a kilo-meter outside of Leh town. The Grand Dragon (Tel: 257786, 255866, 255266, Cell: 09906986782; Tariff: ₹12,100–20,350) in Sheynam, is an upmarket option. JK Tourism’s Moon Lane Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 252297, 252094; Tariff: ₹800) near the airport is pleasant and comfortable. Jigmet Guest House & Hotel (Cell: 09622965846; Tariff: ₹1,000–3,500) located on Upper Tukcha Road is a great budget option.

The LEDEG Hostel (Tel: 253221, Cell: 09622951444; Tariff: ₹560) below the Shanti Stupa, offers visitors an eco-friendly experience.

On Old Road, Spic n Span (Tel: 252765, 253007, Cell: 09419178886; Tariff: ₹6,930–12,500) has a traditional timber-and-stone Ladakhi façade. Norbulinga Guest House (Tel: 252941, Cell: 09419286222, 09622984667; Tariff: ₹1,000–1,200) is a good, family-run place.

Where to Eat

Leh’s rooftop restaurants offer Indian, Italian, Kashmiri, Tibetan pancakes, pizzas, sizzlers, beer – you name it! One of Leh’s most atmospheric joints is Lala’s Café, in the Old Town. The Kashmiri food at Budshah Inn, the pizzas at Il Forno, the steak at the Leh View Rooftop Restaurant and the sandwiches at La Terrasse are excellent. For good Tibetan food, try Amdo Café or Tibetan Kitchen. Many German bakeries and cafes offer brownies, apple-pie, lemon tarts, cinnamon rolls and the like. Do not miss the pies and cakes at Pumpernickel or My Secret Recipe.

On Fort Road, try the avocado lassi at Penguin Garden Restaurant and the biryani at Hotel Ibex. Dreamland, near the bazaar, offers superb Kashmiri dishes and Continental food. Summer Harvest excels at Tibetan. On the way to Changspa, Zen Garden gives decent pizzas and Israeli and Thai meals too. Bon Appetit is the only fine-dining option here.

Other good places are the open-air Open Hand, Chopsticks Noodle Bar and the quirky Gravi T Café. Also try the cheese-and-potato momos at the vegetarian Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant.

Fast Facts

When to go Mid-January to end-Feb­ruary is the safest time to trek. Keep monitoring the condition of the ice and weather conditions for your safety

Permits

Inner Line Permits are issued by the Collectors Office in Leh. Don’t forget to take original documents of residence proof and passport-sized photographs. Make 5 copies of the permit and resi­dence proof, which have to be depos­ited at check points you pass through

Getting There

Air Leh’s Kushok Bakula Airport is con­nected to Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu all year round. A pre-paid taxi to the centre of Leh costs ₹700

Rail The nearest railhead Jammu Tawi is 722km away

Road To reach Ladakh, you can take the Srinagar route via the Zoji La Pass (open May to September) on the Great Himalaya, Kargil and Fotu La Pass on the Zanskar Range, or the route out of Manali, travelling over the Pir Panjal, Great Himalaya and Zanskar ranges.This is open from May to October, when Rohtang Pass is free of snow. The drive from Leh to Chilling Sumdo, from where the trek begins, takes about 3 hours