It is not just a trek. It is an experience; a test of endurance; a journey in search of one’s true self!
Considered to be one the toughest treks in the Himalayan Trail, the Chadar Trek is not for the faint-hearted. So, the Zanskar River freezes over in the months of January & February when the temperature reaches a whopping -20 degree Celsius to -30 degree Celsius, forming a blanket or ‘Chadar’ which creates a perfect trekking trail for adventure junkies.
“Guidebooks were quick to label this trek, as one of the “wildest” in the world. After all, there aren’t too many walks that pass through a dramatic gorge with frozen waterfalls, or where the route is on ice that turns mirror for sky and bouncing sunlight. The ever-present sense of danger of the ice giving way, and the primal thrill of sleeping in caves hewn by gushing water over centuries, does make it an eminently “do before you die” journey.” – Sankar Sridhar
Armed with all the equipment to survive the negative temperature drops, me, my sister, her husband and his brother set out to conquer this quest. With the road to the summit riddled with various hurdles, the trip started with our flight to Leh getting cancelled due to bad weather. Never the ones to be left behind, we managed to take one out the next day, which meant that we only got one day to acclimatize to the high altitudes of the Himalayas. This resulted in me getting violently sick the night before the trek was supposed to start, however, the journey must go on. So we traveled to Chilling, where another monster in the form of a landslide awaited us. Since our car could not go any further, we had to trek for 10 extra kilometers. Having been extremely ill and on an empty stomach, I could hardly walk without feeling dizzy. So we set camp on the Chadar for an early lunch. With a steaming hot mug of tea and a bowl of spicy soupy noodles, I recovered like magic.
The first look of the Chadar nestled comfortably in the colossal Himalayan range is something that will be etched in my mind for a very very very long time.
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. – Ansel Adams”
True! The sight of the frozen river surrounded on all sides with gigantic towering mountains left us all astounded. The view was mesmerizing no matter where we looked. To me, us, standing right there was the only thing soiling the beauty of this untouched landscape. I felt like an intruder, stealing from the mountains, that elusive beauty which cannot be found elsewhere; yet given the choice again, there was no other place I would rather go to. With this paradoxical feeling we embarked on the actual trek . Slipping, sliding, and barely
being able to walk the gait the locals were so easily doing, the sight was not a pretty one. Slowly but steadily, we somewhat managed to maintain a decent speed (Thank God for the trekking pole we had the sense to buy). Come sundown, we reached our campsite (at Shingra-gongma) which was already laid out for us (Yes! By some witch-craft our porters whilst lugging all our tons of luggage had managed to reach a couple of hours before us and had set up the tents!). We were handed piping hot mugs of tea and biscuits, which after hours of walking seemed to us like little bits of heaven.
Sleeping in the tents they had set out for us, on the bank of the frozen river, under the stars, high up in the mountains, completely encompassed by snow was a whole other experience. Calming my excited self, I snuggled up inside the ultra warm sleeping bag and slept, dreaming of the snow and the stars.
“And the mountains continue the haunt beautifully, like they have been for ages. Every single time you visit them, you are no stranger to this beauty. Meeting the mountains is perhaps a way of feeling a sense of endings and also a sense of beginnings. It will be hard to believe that you are you and the mountains are, well, just they. Look at them and marvel at the way they humble you, like you didn’t know anything at all about the world.”
Indeed! Though, the trek itself was not as strenuous as we had been led to believe, the view, on the other hand, was nothing the we could have ever imagined. It was all the same and yet somehow very different. Around every bend was a scene more exquisite and surreal than the one we left behind. Every time I thought that nothing could beat the beauty of what I was looking at, there came another mountain that took my breath away. There is a magical quality about the Himalayas that keeps us wanting more, teasing us every step of the way. It gave me strength, because the more of it I saw, the more of it I wanted to see. As I walked on, mesmerized by the massive vastness that surrounded me, a quote I had read somewhere crossed my mind, “Although, I deeply love oceans, deserts and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty. They keep me continuously wanting to know more, feel more, see more.”
I wanted to keep going further and further beyond everything that I could see. In the mountains, a sense of calmness washes over us letting us know about everything that is miraculous and infinite. The wind whispers to us about the answers that we are seeking. A sense of thrill and awe somehow leads to a sense of peace and quiet as well. It amazed me to see the complexity of the human spirit which can feel two completely opposite emotions together and make it into something life affirming.
Well, moving on, perhaps, I misspoke a little earlier when I said that the trek was not very strenuous. The day we trekked for almost 30 kilometers certainly pushed our limits. We left that morning from Tibb for a journey that we knew would test our mettle and fortitude for we had to reach the final point and hike all the way back that day itself. We trudged through snow and ice to reach the summit of the trek: the gorgeous frozen waterfall at Narek.
The road was difficult and challenging to say the least. The chadar was not formed or broken at a few places and we had to take detours to move forward. These “detours” consisted of climbing over the steep cliffs that formed the Zanskar gorge. The climb through the snow and ice covered rocky walls wasn’t an easy task to accomplish. They were slippery in most places which meant that without a sure foothold they were almost impenetrable. Fortunately for us, our guide was probably God in disguise (or at least that is what it felt like) and he expertly led us through the tricky portions with relative ease.
Reciting the poem “Don’t You Quit”we walked on and on..
“Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man;
Often the struggler has given up
When he might have captured the victor’s cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.”
When we reached the summit, the joy and relief were short lived, for still remaining was the daunting task of the return journey back to our campsite at Tibb. The daylight was fast receding and we had only covered half the way. We clicked a few photographs in triumph of our victory summit and we headed back.
With exhaustion setting over and spirits running low, we trekked back as fast as our tired bodies would permit so that we could reach before sunset. However, when the darkness set, we were still a long way from the campsite. So we put on our torches and set forth in a single file, with our guide in lead, slowly testing the ice beneath our feet. That too was an experience like no other. If the Zanskar valley is beautiful during the day, it is absolutely enchanting in darkness. Without the gaudy daylight, the mountains which were illuminated with the subtle glow of the reflected snow, gave the gorge an otherworldly look altogether. Being completely entranced and bewitched by the elegance of the landscape, Lord Byron words “thus mellowed to that tender light, which heaven to gaudy day denies” rang true to me then. To me, darkness has always held an alluring appeal, that, somehow, it manages to make things lovelier. We walked on, through the shimmering terrain. It was dead silent with not another soul in sight. The solitude and the tranquility were absolute magic.
“I have loved the stars too fondly, to be fearful of the night”.
So, now about a kilometer from our camp, we were met with a joyous sight. Our cook and the helper had walked for over a kilometer to greet us with a mug of steaming hot tea
which was an amazing surprise. We slowly sipped the delicious tea standing on a frozen river, in the riveting darkness, in complete silence, listening to the mountains speak – for
on top of the mountains, everything made sense. This little gesture completely renewed our spirit and with replenished vigor we set forth towards the camp. After reaching back we all huddled inside the warm kitchen tent, exhausted and at the same time overjoyed.
I believe it is Sir Edmund Hillary who said, “It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.”
When I lay down to sleep that night, I could not help but wonder that the day wasn’t about physical strength. No! It was a test of our mental endurance, our perseverance and our moxie. It did not matter how physically strong we were, but what kept us going was our spirit and force of character. We realized that with determination, courage and nerve anything is possible; that we can push ourselves beyond our physical capacity if we only set our minds to it. The human spirit is indeed indomitable when tested against the forces of nature and the real strength lies in our minds and not our bodies; that if we truly believe that we can do, then we most certainly can.
Everyday in the mountains has its own set of challenges. The next day was no different. A snow storm had turned everything white. It did not look that the snowing would stop anytime soon, so we adorned our rain jackets and walked, occasionally bracing ourselves against the harsh wind and snow. Even though the storm had made the trek more difficult, it turned the Zanskar gorge into a white canvas, looking as lovely, enchanting and fresh as a bride on her wedding day!
The storm was not the only thing that the spirits of the mountain had in store for us that day. There is an age-old legend among the Zanskaris that the restless spirits of the mountains try to kill you once, and if you survive, the benevolent spirits watch over you forever. As modern as we may be, but when confronted with the forces of nature, one is compelled to bend against their will. Human ego has no place in the mountains, and certainly not when threading their way over a precipice barely a foot wide, in the gorge, 50 feet above the ground over the freezing river. One such part of the trek which I have renamed as the “Devil’s Snare” was downright terrifying. It was approximately a 500 meter long, extremely slippery, ice strewn path in the gorge over a portion of the chadar which was broken. One misstep would mean a 50 feet tumble into the frozen river. The 50 feet climb itself was so steep and sludgy, that it was virtually impossible to do
without a rope (yet we did, with the help of our guides and porters). Our guide, however, took us one by one up the path and to the other side. I will not lie here nor try and sound brave – I was absolutely petrified. It took each of us about 15 mins to walk that 500 meter strip and I must have prayed to a God that I do not believe in, at every step of the way, to get me across safely. (Yes! It was that frightening).
The spirits of Chadar did watch out for us after all!
“One story seems to have survived even in the face of modern development: the legend of benevolent spirits being driven away by the actions of inconsiderate men. When the Chadar’s spirits depart, the story goes, they’ll take the freeze with them.” – Sankar Sridhar
The next day the sun finally managed to break through the thick clouds and was shining away happily, while the rest of us mere mortals down here, got terribly sun-burnt. It was the last day of the trek and as I was making my way through the last 10 kilometers, I remembered Jahangir’s words, “Agar firdaws da roy-i zamin ast, hamin ast-u, hamin ast-u, hamin ast-u” meaning “If there is a Paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.
I am at a lack of words to describe what I got back from the ethereal experience. As I said in the beginning, it is not just a trek, but a journey to meet your true self; to find out how far you can push yourself to go; to escape the ordinary. Amidst the gigantic mountains, azure river and deep dark valleys, the pull of the serenity overcomes the inertia of reason, and you just have to go. It is easier to abandon oneself in the mountains as details of life re-prioritize. You don’t go to the mountains to flee from something, but you go there to find something. You leave a piece of yourself behind, and yet you are more complete than before you went there. There is a beckoning that calls you back to that frozen sheet of river; between the snow and the stars, you find yourself! It certainly was a walk to remember…
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. – Edward Abbey”
I hope, in life, like on the trek, I find the courage to follow my fluttering heart and listen to it when it tells me the crooked, winding, lonesome journey was worth it…
As the magical journey ended, a reference to J.K. Rowling’s quote from Harry Potter would be fitting: “And together they walked back, through the gateway to the muggle world”