An adventurer at heart, Nagpur-based Ken Agrawal attempted the famous Chadar Trek across the frozen Zanskar River at 11,500 feet in temperatures below -20°C. He shares his first-hand account along with tips, tricks, and all that you should know before you too sign up for this bucket-list winter experience in Ladakh. By Ismat Tahseen
An adage goes, “We wander for distraction, but travel for fulfilment”. Ken Agrawal does exactly that each time he steps out of his home in Nagpur to take on some adventures in the cold. But these aren’t your usual cold-season breaks, for the 30-year-old has grappled with ice, thrill, and a bunch of challenges on frozen river walks up north. Imagine nothing but miles of pristine snow, zero connectivity, and trekking on a deep dark frozen surface. Gruelling? Yes! But Ken won’t swap that for anything! He shares a throwback on his fave holiday.
It was a Facebook post describing a frozen river walk that first grabbed Ken Agrawal’s attention. As a travel lover, he found out more about it. He says, “The Chadar Trek is a winter trail over the frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh. It is traditionally the only means of travel in the area during harsh winter months. I had come across pictures of the frozen river on a Facebook group a couple of years ago. Those pictures had left me totally flabbergasted and I put it on my bucket list. The landscape of Ladakh in general is picturesque. While I had been there in summer, the pictures of Ladakh in winter looked like a different planet altogether! It was so unreal that I had to, had to go see it. Living in a city where the temperature in summer can go up to +50°C, the idea of going to a place where it’s around -20°C felt absurd at first. It took me a while to gather the courage and the clothing required to visit Ladakh in such temperatures, but I am so glad I did. Ladakh in winter is by far the most jaw-dropping place I have ever seen in life.” Getting there was the beginning of the adventure. He adds, “I flew into Leh, and from there I spent a week in and around the city getting acclimatised, checking out ice stupas and trying the local fare.” A bus ride finally took him to the Zanskar River, from where his solo trek commenced.
Postcard-pretty gets a new meaning here. The river runs through the Zanskar Gorge surrounded by peaks as high as 15,000 feet or more. Agrawal explains, “You trek across a dramatic gorge with frozen waterfalls on the frozen trail of Zanskar spanned out like a chadar (thick sheet of ice). Words can hardly ever describe such a feeling. You’re in between literally nowhere, there is no cell phone reception, no charging point, and no modern-day distractions. You just feel happier when you’re surrounded by nature and all things raw. For once you’re truly living in the moment. It’s just you with your thoughts and the sound of the wind and the river flowing at some places. You have to pinch yourself every couple of hours to make sure you’re not dreaming and something as crazy beautiful as this place exists,” he shares. The daily trekking window depends on the weather, even a few degree’s rise makes a dramatic difference as the ice can break. “You want the sun, but not too much of it,” he laughs. His nights there were spent in a portable tent and a sleeping bag fit for -25°C. He recalls, “The wind is howling and it becomes tough to come outside, but if you have your gear on, it’s beautiful to look up at the sky, absolutely glittering with stars. For dinner, you carry up a stove and something to eat, nothing fancy, just a porridge, fruits, protein bars, Maggi or some cooked rice.” A word of advice? “Dismantle camera batteries and put them in socks and electronic devices into the sleeping bag or else they can get wet due to the moisture,” he cautions.
Walking On Ice
Agrawal remembers being hit by a slew of mixed feelings once he set foot on the river. “It is incredible! I was just gobsmacked. One can’t possibly describe what it feels like to see a river frozen for miles and miles. You have to go experience it for yourself,” he says. “I had body surfed on the Indus and Zanskar Rivers when they were in their flowing form in summer. It seemed unrealistic and mind-boggling to see and step foot over those same rivers just a couple of months later. At first, I was scared, thinking the ice is going to break, but the rivers are frozen to a point where you could even drive a car over it. The same goes for the frozen Pangong Lake. It’s approximately 134 kms long and about 4 kms wide. It’s difficult to process such a sight even while you’re looking at it. I had never imagined a landscape like this, to see it in pictures and to experience the reality, literally takes your breath away.”
In sub-zero temperatures, keeping one’s blood circulation steady without any source of warmth is challenging, but that is what is key. Agrawal shares what one can do in such a situation: “While on the trek, your body is already heating due to all the walking. The cold starts to get to you once you’re still. So, step one is investing in proper winter clothing. Over the years, I’ve sourced winter gear that can keep me warm up to -20°C/-25°C and you must layer yourself up while on such a trek. Step two is when you’re cold, just keep moving your body. You can choose to do some exercise or dance, whatever you like. Step three is to have hot liquids and stay hydrated at all times. Of course, if you get sunny days then the warmth is an added blessing.” It seems like an undisturbed, beautiful surrounding but the going is far from tranquil for anyone trying this trek, he adds. “I have always struggled with cold feet. A couple of minutes after walking, my feet would start to freeze. At times like this, your sleeping bag is your best friend. You also get some packaged hand and foot warmers available online and in Leh.”
Word Of Advice
For the Chadar Trek specifically, extreme physical fitness is not a requirement. As the trek is organized on a flat frozen river, it’s like an evening walk with added difficulties, Agrawal quips. “The real challenge is keeping yourself warm in the harsh environment. If you’re warm, you will love the trek. If you’re cold, you will hate every minute of it. Investing in good winter gear is something one must do. I’ve shared a detailed packing list at the bottom.”
“The best part about a trek is it makes you feel humbled,” Agrawal feels. “You come to realise how tiny you and your problems are. The beautiful view after the hard climb to the summit is just the icing on top of the cake. If I had to select a few, besides the Chadar Trek in Zanskar, then my most fond memories are from the treks below:
- Western Ghats – All the post-monsoon hikes I did from Mumbai to the Western Ghats. These were my first experience with the mountains. The treks are easy and offer stunning views of lush green mountains and beautiful lakes. Altitudes ranging from 1500 ft. to 5400 ft.
- Uttarakhand – My most fond memories are from my mountaineering school. We camped at 12,300 ft. for 3 weeks at the base camp of an 18,600 ft. mountain in snow and ice. I had witnessed my first snowfall, built my first six-foot tall snowman and my goodness, it didn’t stop snowing in April for 10-12 straight days! It was very challenging and it fundamentally changed me as a person. Altitude ranging from 9,000 ft. to 15,500 ft.
- Ladakh – Markha Valley solo trek, where I covered 60 km in 4 days and crossed over my first 5000m mountain that’s 17,345 ft. Doing it solo with absolutely no one around is one of my personal highest achievements. I had to navigate the entire route and one wrong turn and an ankle twist could end up being dangerous. It was scary and thrilling, and I loved every minute of it. Altitude ranging from 11,500 ft. to 17,345 ft.
Things to remember
What to carry along on such a trek? Agrawal recommends:
- While purchasing any gear, keep in mind that the gear should be durable, light-weight, and should pack as small as possible (Every kilo you add to your bag matters on a trek).
- Wearing clothes in layers is the key for any winter trek, you should be able to easily add/remove layers based on the temperature during the trek.
Face, head and neck
- UV protected covered sunglasses
- Warm beanie (in addition to the hoodies from the windcheater and down jacket)
- Fleece neck warmer
Hand and feet
- Breathable trekking shoes with ankle support
- Woollen/Merino wool socks (thin silk sock, then a heavier wool sock over it)
- Separate pair of socks for sleeping
- Warm winter globes + waterproof globes + thin inner globes (if the globes have touch sensitivity to operate your mobile/camera then nothing like it)
- Fleece thermal top long-sleeves
- Long-sleeves Merino wool trekking top
- Fleece jacket
- A windproof jacket or a good windcheater top that can block strong winds
- Down jacket (if your down jacket is not waterproof then carry a poncho in case there is snowfall)
- Fleece thermal pant
- Trekking trousers
- Windproof pant or windcheater pant
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