Chadar Trek – Layer of White in Zanskar valley
Lets start with a bit of history on Chadar trek without getting too deep into it. Chadar trek is an old trade trek used by Zanskaris to travel from Zanskar regions to other part of Ladakh in winter. Perhaps its the only way to connect to the world, and that’s when the part of Zanskar river freezes and makes a surface to walk on. At an altitude of around 11K feet and winter temperature of around -25 degree Celsius, this trek offers a sense of challenge to many of the trekkers and photographers.
During so many of my winter trips to Ladakh, I see hundreds of excited souls, busy in preparing for Chadar trek, in hotels, Leh market, Except me just roaming around with 10 Kg of camera and lenses. May I am just too lazy for all that mess or and I have gone into a comfort zone.
But winter in Ladakh is not a comfort zone itself, so where is the gap. May be I never cared about marrying trekking and photography seriously. And then I searched all pics and videos on Chadar trek to kill the curiosity, which only ended up in much more stronger curiosity.
The only way to calm down that urge and curiosity, was to do it myself. Considering I am not a trekking guy, to the extent that I never did serious trekking ever in my life, except some day walks, this was a serious challenge for a first timer.
Side Note : After doing the last Chadar trek, I think I am addicted to this one, so you can expect more pics and videos coming up in 2017 😀
For me there were three major categories of preparation for the trip:
- Preparing myself – getting into the required fitness level.
- Preparing for myself – all the gears, cloths etc, the most easy one, as I had all I needed except few things
- Myself – Photography, planning cameras, batteries, shooting plan etc, the critical one for me.
Fitness was my most weakest point in the whole chain, since I started thinking about Chadar trek and few other treks. It was more so important for me as I was planning to carry heavy photography gears on my back, and I did carried almost 13-14 kg on back for the trek.
My schedule for the exercise was pretty simple,
- 3.5 km in 30 minutes (walk, run, sprint), 4 days in a week,
- Stretching exercise for back, shoulder and neck.
- Yoga, this was new for me, I regularly did Kapal Bharti, Anulom Vilom and Surya Namaskar for last 60 days before the trek.
The other thing I did daily was an hour walk (in evening as it gets dark, to avoid the embarrassment 😀 ) on my roof lawn with 14 Kg of backpack on my back. I know by now my neighbors have started considering me crazy, but it helped me in the trek.
Gears was the most easiest problem I had to solve. Considering that I had been to Ladakh in winter for multiple times, I had to buy only very few things, very specific to the trek. I will try to post the full list of things in another post, but you can see few scrolls down of what all I carried
Photography preparation was another tough task, what to pack and what to leave. Eventually I carried my widest best lens and my best tele lens with two bodies. And then many other photography stuff you can see in the video. Practically if given the task of carrying just one body and lens, I would go with any of my bodies and my widest lens.
Leh –> Chilling –> Tilak Sumdo –> Shigra Koma –> Chumo –> Tibb –> Nyerak Pullu –> Lingshed –> Pishu –> Zangla –> Padum
There are many version of the trek, the shorter version is upto Nyerak and back which takes around 7-8 days. The full chadar trek all the way to Padum and back takes around 22-24 days.
Note : I haven’t done the full trek yet, did it till Chumo only as the river was not frozen enough for us to walk over it.
Photography on Chadar
In Chadar trek and I guess most of the other serious treks, the one thing that gets compromised the most, is the camera and gears and which is fair. If you are on a trek, you do not want to drag yourself with heavy backpack and then getting yourself hurt, clicking no good pics. So rather people carry simplest gears to just click memories.
The problem for me is, I am not a trekker. I don’t do treks because I want to tick a trek in my list. Photography is the top most priority for me in a drive trip or treks and that is the major reason I explore places.
With that clear in my mind, it was obvious that I was carrying more than the recommended gears, and I did a lot of practice for the same.
Because I was carrying almost 7 Kgs of photography gears, bag and case itself for 2 kg, water for 1 Kg, other misc stuff of 2-3 Kg, I offloaded some of my extra cloths, tripod, bigger medicine pouch, and some other things to the porter in a separate bag (on paid basis).
In terms of photography opportunities, its just plenty at every 20 meters. I carried one one of my camera out all the time with my 14-24 lens, and one camera with 70-200 mm lens in the bag. Its only when I had to climb mountains where Chadar is not frozen, I packed all the cameras inside my bag to focus more on the safe crossing of the mountain.
Night photography was super fun, with temperature not dipping down much during night. Though it was not the best time to shoot Milk-way but I could still shoot the tail of it. Stars were visible in plenty anyways.
Do’s and Don’t
- Do carry best of your warm cloths, but ensure you are comfortable in it.
- Acclimatize for a day or so at Leh, before heading out for the trek.
- Carry the best of your photography gears, every day on chadar trek is a different and unique day.
- Exercise and Yoga, at-least couple of months before the trek.
- Just enjoy and expose yourself to cold a bit.
- Over exert on first few days in Ladakh. As they say, “Don’t try to be a Gama in the land of Lama”
- Stop eating even if you start loosing appetite.
- Venture out on your own, without following the guide, Chadar can be lethal if you do not hear to your guide.
- Consume alcohol or smoke for first few days (avoid completely if possible)
- Destroy the beauty of nature or pollute the place. Bring back your garbage where you can dispose it properly.
5 Best things
- The views are just amazing of-course.
- It challenges your mental fitness more than the physical fitness.
- You make some great friends, under the toughest weather conditions.
- Its a heaven for photographers.
- Best hospitality by Ladakhis
5 Bad things
- Global warming is impacting the Chadar, its not freezing properly.
- Trek is becoming too common, specifically few fancy short version of the trek.
- Many people visiting for the trek have no respect for the place and they litter everywhere.
- If you are going for photography, joining a big 2o people group will be a bad experience.
- Trek operators are not prepared for rescue and medical emergencies.
Myths and Realities
Myth : Zanskar river freezes completely and you can walk over it anywhere
Reality : no way, during the most of the trek only the edges of the river freezes, in the center its always gushing water,at places it doesn’t even freeze at all, and at places where Zanskar is narrow, it freezes completely on the top
Myth : Temperature gets down to -40 degree Celsius
Reality : Not anymore, I haven’t seen temperature going down lower than -20 degree Celsius
Myth : Trek is simple, you just have to walk over the frozen river
Reality : Na da, you wade through bone chilling water, you climb through “death guaranteed if slip” mountains, I think only 50% of the trek in simple walk, 50% is just unpredictable.
NOTE : I am not a Chadar Trek expert or any trek expert, these are my views based on my recent trek to Chadar.
Enjoy few Pictures
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