How I experienced life at -30 degrees?

09/03/2016 11:51 am ET

I recall hearing first about the Chadar trek couple of years ago when it was shared multiple times on social media tagged as the world’s most remotest region (Zanskar Valley in Ladakh) where locals have to trek for days on sheets of ice used as a route for them to send their children to school and get access to local supplies.

‘Chadar’ refers to a blanket of ice and can only be accessed during the coldest months from January to February. The region remains close off for eight months to a year due to heavy snowfall. The thought of treading through deep icy waters and walking on a thin layer of ice was somehow fascinating and thrilling to me. My first impression of the Zanskar region was one of isolation

Coming from a tropical country and diving deep into the frigid mountains was not the best decision ever, but I came prepared. I rented a mountain jacket from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in New Delhi, but turns out there was only one size available in XXXL. It looked like my Uncle’s jacket and it felt like I was wearing a hard-shell space suit.

One slip and that's it, you're probably Olaf from Frozen but probably not as chirpy
One slip and that's it, you're probably Olaf from Frozen but probably not as chirpy

Day 1 - Leh to Tilat Sumdo

Having made a steep 45 degrees descent into the valley, I felt like a pro after walking on the sheet of ice for 1-2 hours. I did not fall, and did not think this was hard at all.

The porters took their time to set up our first campsite and this was when we were served Chai (Tea). When you’re high up in the mountains, there is nothing that comes close to a simple cup of aromatic tea. Soaking in the last of the sunshine before nature’s sunset arrives, I knew when night came, I would be a frozen popsicle.

Unflattering picture of me not knowing what to do with all these layers of clothing, protective gear and camera equipment. Tr
Unflattering picture of me not knowing what to do with all these layers of clothing, protective gear and camera equipment. Truly a lost child in the Himalayas. 
Life's best pleasure - a steaming cup of chai at the campsite
Life's best pleasure - a steaming cup of chai at the campsite

Day 2 - Tilat Sumdo to Shingra Koma, 9.5km, 6 hours

Ready to take charge of the next day. I woke up at 7.00 am and the rest of us were ready to leave by 9.00 am. Today was supposed to be an arduous trek. Parts of these places do not get any sunlight until mid-day. Our face and ears completely exposed, it was hard to even look up. 

Darkness and desolation. I could get used to this. 
Darkness and desolation. I could get used to this. 

During the next few hours, we walked and walked to what seemed to be like an endless game. There was no inclines and we thought the easiest way to have fun was to slide, fall every 2 times, walk and repeat.

The vast expanse of ice which were mostly flat
The vast expanse of ice which were mostly flat
No more flat walks. When Chadar was not formed, we climbed over rock mountains to get across the other side. 
No more flat walks. When Chadar was not formed, we climbed over rock mountains to get across the other side. 
Vanity sets in... I wanted to take a look at the mess I have created.
Vanity sets in... I wanted to take a look at the mess I have created.

One of the joys of the mountains for me is the way that life is so simple. One’s focus is on living and expressing rather than keeping up or keeping in time.

Day 3 - Trek from Shingra Koma to Tibb, 15km, 7-8 hours

Our journey to Tibb cave was a long adventurous one, we were completely entranced by the beauty of the ice formations. Hanging on to our dear lives while inching closer was hard. I had never felt this nervous and was afraid that I could tear my ligament, or worse still, fall into the cold rapid waters. 

The reflections on Chadar were something else.
The reflections on Chadar were something else.
Falling into a deep blue reverie as the ice colour changes from blue to green every few hours
Falling into a deep blue reverie as the ice colour changes from blue to green every few hours
The edge of heaven. Carefully treading through paths of ice to avoid the frozen death
The edge of heaven. Carefully treading through paths of ice to avoid the frozen death
The local at Tibb Cave shared his moment with us where he was featured in a documentary
The local at Tibb Cave shared his moment with us where he was featured in a documentary

Day 4 - Trek from Tibb to Nerak, 12km, 7 hours

The shadows of our feet and reflection was hardly visible, because we were back in the freezer. This was a day of adventure as we climb through cliffs, and cross gorges within Chadar in order to reach Nerak, which ironically means ‘Hell’ in Hindi. 

The curse of Nerak was upon me. Chadar was not fully formed and it was quite a challenge to get across. The simple bouldering we started with quickly turned into rock climbing. I decided to pass my camera bag to the porter who thought it was a brilliant idea to toss it to another guy, in hopes he would catch it but in minutes my bag slipped through his hands and fell into the cold waters.

My mind was racing, I couldn’t decide if I should transfer my energy onto my limbs to get moving, or simply be furious at what I just saw. With the unpredictability of what comes next, I didn’t know what to expect. But when I encountered the much-awaited frozen waterfall, I thought to myself that this is definitely heaven on earth. 

The landscape changed so quickly. It looked like the frozen gate to the winter roads had opened
The landscape changed so quickly. It looked like the frozen gate to the winter roads had opened
The frozen waterfall at Chadar. 
The frozen waterfall at Chadar. 

Day 5 & 6 - The Return from Nerak

The next two days, we begin our journey back. “Quick, quick, quick, the ice is breaking. It’s snowing. We have to leave now!” exclaimed our trek guide.

Today, we thought that we’ll be retracing our steps and it should be fairly simple, but this is when you can never underestimate what comes next.

So we made our descent to the Chadar and I noticed that my gumboots were eerily grating against the breaking ice. By now, the water was knee deep and had seeped through my gum boots and pants, all in frozen temperatures. I looked up at that moment and also remember the sky to be slightly overcast with dull grey streaks. 

First, it's ankle deep and it gets deeper and deeper and you can only hope the water doesn't reach your waist
First, it's ankle deep and it gets deeper and deeper and you can only hope the water doesn't reach your waist
The cold never bothered us anyway
The cold never bothered us anyway

Day 7 - Return to Chilling

Our journey at Chadar was coming to a bittersweet end.

With the successful completion of my epic voyage, I have never had such a wintry experience before in sub-zero temperatures. Jaw-dropping sights, the humility of the people and the physical and mental challenges that we had to overcome, these are the little lessons that I have taken back which trickle onto my other areas in my daily life.

The conversations on tall high rocks as you overlook the blue waters to inspiring stories you hear when night falls are moments that I value and replay at least 10 times over now, as I type this in the comforts of my own home. 

Stupendously beautiful waters at Chadar, and my moment of reflection
Stupendously beautiful waters at Chadar, and my moment of reflection
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