a dICeY trek Posted: Feb 18, 2003 10:26 AM
DO THIS TREK SOON! I am back from my Zanskar "Chaddar" Ice Trek, and what an experience that was! It was an interesting and dificult trek, and had more aspects to it than I ever imagined. The details will be given below. But first, I must encourage you to consider doing this trek for one of the next 2-3 years. This is because that due to the tensions between India and Pakistan, the army is putting a road through that gorge. It is slated to be finished in 3 years, 4 at most, and will effectively destroy this trek as we now know it. So do it in the next 2 years (3 at most) if you are interested.

DELAYS. I was stranded in Delhi for 3 days after my last update. Due to bad weather in Leh, the flights there were cancelled for 3 days. This was after near-perfect weather in November, December, and most of January. The first day, Jet Airways put us up in the 5-star Radisson Hotel here in Delhi as per their policy. The other 2 days, we were left to fend for ourselves. But, I met the other two guys for my trek in the airport waiting for their flight on Indian Airlines, which was also cancelled. We used those days to get food and other items for the trek. I was able to fly finally on the 3rd. But, the other two guys had to wait until the 4th to fly. Indian Airlines has 4 flights a week, unlike Jet Airways which flies all 7 days. And, as Monday isn't a fly day for them, everyone on those cancelled flights had to wait until Tuesday. When they showed up on the next day, the three of us spent that day and the 5th acclimatizing, doing short hikes at altitude, and getting last minute things for the trek.

THE CLIENTS. There were three clients for the Chaddar Trek.
First of all was Eric. Eric is from Montreal, Canada, and came over here specifically for the ice trek, and for Everest (did it in December). He had been quoted $2500 for the ice trek by travel agencies, but I got him almost the same thing for $300 plus tips. Eric was a faster hiker than the other two of us, and had a great time.
Sameer is a guy from Delhi who Eric met in the Everest area. He is a lawyer who is going to England next fall on a Rhodes scholarship. He is travelling all over until then. Sameer and I were about equal hikers. But, being from India, he was not used to the cold and snow. He didn't like the cold nights and having to get up in the morning.
Finally, there is me, Burntfoot. I was perhaps the weakest link, due to the cliffs I will tell about later. I was more cautious, in general, from the other two. But, this paid off, as I didn't slip as much on the ice. By the last two days of the trek, I was consistently in front of the other two instead of behind, and was feeling very good.

Sonam Stobgais, who goes by the nickname "Jimmy" was our guide. He is a guy that David Sonam from my school knows and arranged for me. Jimmy was great, and helped organize the porters, cook, rental equipment, food and other things. He also got me over the most difficult parts of the trail route like the cliffs. He knew the routes, and the safe side of the river to be on, and mostly the ice conditions. I wish all guides were as good as he.
Our cook was Tsewang Nurboo. He was excellent! With a good food budget, he prepared Indian dishes that were great. This was in addition to carrying a load similar to the porters.
We had 9 porters to carry our loads, their loads, the food and kerosene. Originally, we were to have 4 trekkers, but the other two bailed on us. Then, Sameer joined and we were back up to 3. So, with 2 porters each, and 2 in reserve, we only paid for 1 extra porter. All 9 of these guys are friends of Jimmy. And like Jimmy and the cook, live in Padum in Zanskar region. All 11 of these men walked from there out to Leh to trek with us!
Stanzin Dadul was a short guy with a good sense of humor that slipped and fell on the ice several times a day.
Sonam Tashi was a tall porter who carried my backpack. He is also the guy I gave my recorder flute to at the end of the trek. He played Ladakhi songs quite well.
Chultinthar Chinle was a porter I didn't know too well. But, he carried me over stretches of slush in order to keep my boots dry.
Tsering Angdus was a porter who also knew the ice conditions quite well.
Lobzang Unga was a young porter with a hearing aid that broke while on the trek. He was constantly being yelled at for things like jumping on the ice weakening it and causing Sameer to take a spill.
Other porters were Paldan Yatso, Tashi Angchuk, Rigzin Dulek and Sonam Padma.

BUS TRIP TO TRAILHEAD. The bus trip to the trailhead was an adventure in itself. The first half of the trip was on paved road for 30 kilometers. It went high above the Indus River, with good views of the confluence with the Zanskar River. But, it still was above cliffs. Road signs said things like "Life is short; don't make it shorter" and "Road is hilly, don't be silly!" The other 30 kilometers were on a rough dirt road in to the village of Chilling along the Zanskar River. This road was often on cliffs with the bus going over stretches tilting it towards the river below. I spent a lot of time leaning away from the river, as if that would do any good.

THE ROUTE. The Chaddar Trek follows the ice of the frozen Zanskar River. It starts at the village of Chilling, where descendents of the metal workers who built the huge Buddhas at the Basgo and Thiksey gompas now live. From Chilling, it goes up the river on the ice to the village of Lingshed about 4 days upstream. This village is only accessible by river or 3-4 days by trail from the 3 access roads. Beyond Lingshed, it is another 3 days walk to the city of Padum. But, after the first day, it is in an open valley on road, as the end of the gorge is reached. So, most group choose, like us, to head back from Lingshed.

OUR ROUTINE. Our routine is one that bothered me. We got up at around 7:00 or 7:30AM, but didn't start walking until after 9:00. Then, we'd stop for a 2-hour lunch at 11:00 or 11:30. All the while, it would be getting warmer and the ice less safe and fun. I would have rather started at 8:00, taken 1 hour for lunch, and gotten to camp sooner in the afternoon. That would have helped us avoid some of the nastier sections to be described below.

THE ICE ROUTE. Our trek was on the ice of the frozen Zanskar River. There were places that the ice was 3 or 4 feet thick. In places where it froze quickly, it was a deep blue-green color that you could see through to the rocks below or to the river flowing underneath. Other stretches of ice were clear ice, which was better because photos of the rocks through the ice came out a lot better. In both these areas of ice, there were many places where it had cracked and re-frozen. Those cracks went down 3 or 4 feet, and were interesting. Other places had rougher ice due to lack of sunlight or snow or different freezing conditions. On places where the river was too fast, it didn't freeze completely across. The fringe of ice near this open water was where we had to be careful. On early mornings, we could walk on this fringe. By afternoon, if it was warm, much of the ice had water standing on it and we had to take more caution.

THE OBSTACLES. The Chaddar (word for the ice) Trek is interesting in that there are places where you HAVE to go onto the ice because there is no place to go on shore. But, there are also places where you HAVE to leave the river and go onto the cliffs to go around open stretches of water. These were the areas I hated. I don't rock climb, and tend not to like cliffs anyway. Give me a steep slope anytime. Just, not a verticle cliff with river straight below. And, it didn't help my nerves when porters (or Sameer) would toss stones to the ice 100 feet below to test its strength. Most of these detours were just narrow paths above cliffs above the water. But, a few were actually rock climbing (in bulky winter clothes). It was hard to see where to put my feet on the descents, and in the worst 2 places, they tied a rope around me and belayed me. There was one other place one warm day where there was knee-deep water ON the ice. This we had to wade through for about a kilometer. But, as I didn't have tall rubber boots like the other two, Jimmy made me climb a 250 foot cliff. It still didn't go around the entire stretch and I still had to wade half the distance in socks.

WILDLIFE. Wildlife was scarce. But, there were birds. And, there were two places that we saw the wild ibex, which is a type of wild goat. There was a herd of about 20 that were jumping around on the cliffs high above the river that we saw while walking both directions.

CAMPSITES. Our campsites were generally near caves (rock overhangs). In these caves was where they had the fires and cooked the meals. The porters also slept there. The 3 of us clients slept a ways away from the cave in our tents, or else in the open. Our coldest night was minus 20 degrees celcius, which is just below zero farenheit. We were never really cold at night, as we had 3-5 layers on. On the coldest two nights, I wrapped my sleeping bag in reflector blankets and was very warm.

FEBRUARY 6. We met the bus at 9:00 AM, loaded up, and were on our way by 9:30. After the bus trip mentioned above, we got to our trailhead at 12:15. Then we had lunch. That took forever, and it was 1:50 before we finally got out onto the ice. We crossed to the left side, and followed that until the canyon narrowed and the open water widened. At this point, we had a huge boulder in front of us out into the river a short ways. We were all there, and Jimmy told us to wait while he tested the ice. But, he went right (towards the river) of the boulder instead of left (shore side) on ice that didn't look good to my untrained eye. In front of the rest of us, he broke through the ice into chest-deep water. Now, Sameer and Eric claim that this was an accident. Meanwhile, I maintain that this was intentional for several reasons. First of all, he had just said to Sameer 5 minutes earlier that he had never fallen through (but many clients had). Secondly, all the porters were there and sprang to action, first getting him out, and then getting him out of the wet clothes and into dry ones, then beating the goncha (Ladakhi dress) against rocks to get water out of it. Third, it was warm this day, and we were at the campsite with the most wood that night. I say that he went in to make a point and impress upon us that if it happened to him, it could happen to us, so we better be careful and mind him. I think that this is standard practice for him on these treks each year. From this point, we got to the first of the cliffs. It was verticle, and I had to be roped in and helped up, then down. It was a short day, so I wasn't tired that night, except mentally! Dinner was rice, paneer, dal, and mutton. With dinner, I took my malaria pill, which I have to take weekly for 4 weeks after leaving the mosquito zones. It seemed strange to have to do this twice while on an ice trek. My last one will be taken my first day on the Everest trek!

FEBRUARY 7. We got a late start, which drove me crazy. It had snowed last night, and the temperatures were rather warm. But, we walked on fairly good ice for two hours. Then, we stopped at 11:15 for lunch, only two hours after we started walking. Lunch break lasted two hours. After the 3 of us were long fed, the porters FINALLY began cooking their own food. All the while, I was watching that next stretch of river. It was on poor ice right up against a cliff. When we finally got there, it was ankle-deep slush. Not having rubber boots, the cook carried me through that slush! I had been told that the rubber boots were not necessary, as the porters will shuttle their boots back and forth. Big mistake! Right after the slush, we had another cliff to traverse. This was not too bad, though. After the initial uphill, it was a trail above the cliff with an easy descent. Camp was at Sumer, a huge rock overhang similar to those in Capitol Reef National Park. Many camping spots, good fire, and firewood by a huge spring only a kilometer a way. Those springs were impressive, as they flow out of the rock and form icefalls. Jimmy said that only one pair of trekkers had gone in with the purpose of ice climbing so far this year. Those 2 guys needed 15 porters for all the climbing gear, etc.

FEBRUARY 8. This was a long day, for a change. We still got a late 9:00 start, but we went for about 3 hours before stopping for lunch. This route took us through a narrow part of the canyon on deep ice. We were told that groups that raft through the canyon have to portage around this part, as it is so narrow they may puncture the raft. Just beyond the narrows, the porters spread up the slope in search of buried treasure. On the way to Leh from Padum, they had buried several bags of their own food. They found all but two of these. After another 2-hour lunch, we took off again. Weather was clear this day, so it was colder. But, there was still open water. There was one place that meant a 10-foot walk through fast, foot-deep water that the cook carried me over. Just past there, we met a group of French trekkers (13 plus 40 porters). Those French ladies went through that open stretch of water wearing their down jackets and socks. Nothing else; not pants, and not underwear! The vast majority of other trekkers that were not locals that we met were French. We made it around another nasty corner on the ice, that groups going the other way had come over cliff on, not realizing that the ice was still good. Shortly after, we were forced up a cliff on the next curve. Most of it was okay, but the descent was not good. We camped at 5:00 PM, and did not make our intended camp. So, everyone had to sleep out in the open between rocks, and the porters had to go without a fire.

FEBRUARY 9. We made up for lost time today. By noon, we were at Nieraqs, the trail junction near the village of that name. The trail to the right (west) went up to Singge La, which I had hiked over in 2000. To the left, it went into a remote area where trails along rivers require 50 or more fords, and can usually only be done in September. The bridge at this location is a good 50 feet above the river, and has very little support to it, typical of bridges out here. The village, itself, is about 250 meters above the river. Instead of sitting around the lunch spot for 2 hours being bored, I spent an hour and a half going up to that village and meeting some of the locals. I took a photo of one family, got their name, and promised to send them a copy of that picture. By the time I got back to the river in 1 1/2 hours, it was time to eat finally. After lunch, we went into a narrow part of the canyon, with ibex (wild goats) on the cliffs above us. The porters were shouting at them and egging them on. They are as agile as the bighorn sheep in Colorado! An hour beyond Nieraqs, we left the river and went up a side canyon for a half hour to a herders' hut and camped there. The cook served mutton momos that evening, which is my favorite! Momos are like steamed dumplings that you can sometimes get at Chinese restaurants.

FEBRUARY 10. Today was our layover day. And, it was the only day I was physically tired at the end. On this day, we went upvalley to the village of Lingshed via the side canyon, and going over cliffs in one place. Lingshed is a remote village that is accessible by at least 3 days of walking from any of the 3 roads in the area. It is also a favorite charity spot for Europeans, particularily the French. They pour so much money into that place, that I know people in Leh who are concerned that Lingshed will turn into a beggar community, dependent on others. In Lingshed, I hand-delivered photos of three or four people that I had taken in the year 2000 from the village. Most rewarding was the one I delivered to the monks at the monastery. I had had tea with them in 2000. When I pulled out my Sierra cup, they all laughed. This is because Lama Chupay has my other Sierra cup that I had forgotten there that year! In Lingshed, I also visited the solar school there. Using solar power, it is the only school in Ladakh that does not have a winter break, but rather a summer break like America.

FEBRUARY 11. We broke camp and descended to the river. Instead of heading downstream, we turned right and went upriver. We camped an hour and a half upstream, and Eric and I (wanting to see as much canyon as possible) went two hours beyond camp before turning back. We found out later that the porters were mad at us saying that we wasted that day instead of heading back downstream. There were many local Zanskari's on the river this day. They had backpacks that doubled as sleds for the ice. On one side of the pack were sled runners, and on the other side were pack straps.

FEBRUARY 12. We had a short morning, and a long afternoon. In one hour's time, we had returned to the Lingshed tributary, and in another hour, we were at Nieraqs. Being fed up with the long lunches, and being not hungry after walking only 2 hours, I went on ahead. Jimmy wasn't happy, but I said I'd be careful. At 2:30, Eric and Sameer caught up with me. We made it back to that place where we had cliff-climbed on day 3. But, the ice was good today. BUT, the next corner that was good last time was a huge problem. For more than an hour, we waited for Jimmy and the porters. By then, we were looking at a kilometer-long stretch of slush that the French group in front of went through (yes, only socks and jackets). By the time the porters arrived, it was a lost cause, so we camped hoping to take advantage of cold morning temperatures. Porters were very mad at Eric and me, and we should have come down yesterday.

FEBRUARY 13. Worst day of the trek. The ice didn't freeze last night, but actually jammed up and caused the water to rise. As I didn't have rubber boots, Jimmy ordered me up the cliff. They strapped me into a sling and helped me up a 20-foot rock overhang onto a narrow ledge. This, we descended halfway back to the river. Then, we had to cliff climb a short stretch and go up a long scree slope. Next, we descended a rock gully, similar to slots in Utah. Then, we had to exit that going up the cliff-side of that gully. After one more major climb, we finally contoured steep scree and descended to the river. This took an hour and a half, and saved us only 200 yards of river wading. I STILL had to wade for fifteen minutes in socks in knee-deep water ON the ice. But, for me this was better than the cliffs. I should have done this from the start, as in 10 minutes I was through it. We dried off, and I felt great. Eric and Sameer, though, caught colds from the wading. And, Sameer did a flying swan-dive breaking through the ice before I got there. One of the porters had been jumping there, and had weakened the ice. Jimmy chewed him out big time! After that, we had lunch for 2 hours. I started walking after 1 hour. Nothing else to mention, other than that we again stayed at my favorite campsite at Sumar and the big cave.

FEBRUARY 14. Valentines Day, and the only day I slipped and fell on the ice. Sameer said it wasn't fair that I was the only one who hadn't fallen, and said it was because I was cheating by using my 4-point instep crampons on the ice. Precisely my point. But, I said that I could keep up with him with or without those crampons, and took them off. Stupid mouth of mine; a half an hour I fell! I think Sameer was quicker with his camera than I was with my fall. He promised to post that on the internet, along with one of me being carried by the cook. Campsite was at Tilot Sumdo, the same as our first night.

FEBRUARY 15. Our last day. Ice was not as good, and we spent the majority of our day following pony trails. These were high above the river, often right on or above cliffs. Most of them, though, were fairly wide. There were a few places, though, that meant slowly placing each foot carefully, so as to not fall to the river 300 feet below. We got back to Chilling around noon, at the same time as our bus back to Leh arrived. On the way home, we stopped for tea at a tea restaurant. We also stopped at a place where our driver bought some diesel fuel from road workers on the black market. And, we stopped at a Sikh temple run by a Sikh regiment of the Indian army. Back in Leh, I packed for my flight the next day everything I'd need for my Everest Base Camp; my next trek. In the evening, we met with Jimmy and the porters one last time. Eric, Sameer and I gave away gear to them that we wouldn't need anymore. We also gave them tips. For me, the best tips went to those porters (and cook) who helped me over the cliffs and across the open water/slush. The porters left, and we and Jimmy took care of the salaries. In all, I spent $300 plus tips. This is about 25 percent less than the cheapest travel agency quote given me. Doing things independently is the way to go!

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