Just imagine…..the raging, surging and roaring river standing still under a 9-inch thick sheet of ice. And imagine the same tumultuous river that permits a dangerous sport such as whitewater kayaking also humbly allows quiet trekking. It’s the classic case of the ‘taming of the shrew’ syndrome! And that is what winters do to River Zanskar. Winters tame Zanskar - by freezing all things water in this area – River, Waterfalls, Streams, Brooks, and Lakes.
‘Frozen water fall’ is what Zanskar is synonymous with and famous for. Walking on the once-gushing-now-frozen river of Zanskar is an ultimate experience for adventure enthusiasts. Prolonged winters with freezing temperatures dipping to -40 degrees Celsius causing heavy incessant snowfall is what transforms Zanskar River surface into a thick sheet of ice during winter. The water below the sheet of ice remains as water and doesn’t freeze, because the sheet of ice is insulating the water from the freezing temperatures of the surface. And since water has lesser density in its solid state when compared to its liquid state, the ice sheet floats. And the ice sheet being less dense than solid is prone to cracks and breaks and is almost always unpredictable.
‘Chadar Trek’ is the traditional name given to the trekking venture on River Zanskar during the winter months of December and January when the flowing river freezes into a thick layer or sheet of ice – which explains the name ‘Chadar’ – meaning ‘the sheet that covers’. In this case, the sheet of ice completely covers the river below.
As with all adventure sports, what makes Frozen River Trekking so alluring is the element of unpredictability and what gives it the adrenalin rush is the element of danger involved in it. The River ice sheet or layer varies in thickness between 7 inches and 15 inches. Whatever be the thickness, it is still prone to cracks which could be caused due to air bubbles trapped within the ice or the mere weight of the person or object on top of it, or both. You just can never tell when the sheet of ice would cave in. And there are serious after effects of slipping through cracked ice and falling into freezing water. Hypothermia – a condition in which the core temperature of the body drops below the normal temperature (about 36 degrees Celsius) when the body falls in freezing water; and Frost-bite – freezing and destruction of bodily tissue when in contact with freezing water are just the tip of the iceberg of hazards that one could experience when one falls through cracked ice into ice cold water below. Also, the mouth of the crack of ice could be even more hazardous as the ice blades are very sharp and could cut through the thickest clothing and can most certainly cut through skin. And yet, it is a multi-billion dollar sport industry by itself which speaks volumes about the humans romancing the ‘danger-element’.
The coldest temperatures may cause a shudder in your bodies in the mornings when the temperatures are often at their lowest. But with the gradual rise of the sun, your bones would gradually warm up for a walk. By 9ish in the mornings, the days are typically sunny with clear blue skies. And the mere sight of the glistening sunlight on the immaculate sheet of ice all around you as you stand tiny between the mighty walls of the Zanskar Gorge will simply take your breath away and all things formerly uncomfortable would be instantly forgotten. The warmth of the sun as it climbs higher, while you slowly tread on freezing ice pose a dance of temperatures around you. The spectacular ice-scape with an occasional sighting of wildlife and natural ice formations like caves is a photographer’s paradise. Zanskar is known for unpredictable and sudden changes in temperatures though the day starts off with sunny clear skies. The winds are known to be chillingly -30 degrees Celsius. Truly a spine-chilling experience!
To complete one full circuit of the Chadar Trekking Trail – it takes 8-9 days and trails into the most isolated areas of Zanskar such as the Lingshed. The trail usually commences at the village of Chiling situated close to the confluence of River Indus and River Zanskar and meanders its way through the Zanskar Gorge. Chiling and Lingshed are the only human settlements that fall on this trail. About 7 hours of easy-paced trekking per day is what you should indulge in while you spend the rest of the day and night soaking up the environment. A certain level of physical fitness is required in order to embark upon this trek so eat right and exercise for atleast a month prior.