Chadar trek - how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

hadar trek - how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

For the longest time, I shied away from this trek thinking of the extreme weather conditions. As much as I’d like to call the Himalayas home, I am a plain-dwelling, sunshine-loving mere mortal after all. Extreme cold is not my thing and that’s exactly what the Chadar trek is all about – crazy subzero temperatures day & night! Think temperatures ranging from -1ºC to -20ºC.

Frozen Zanskar River, Chadar Trek, Ladakh

Chadar means a blanket, a blanket of ice that forms over the Zanskar River during winter. Zanskar is a wild river flowing through the gorgeous ravines and inaccessible canyons of Ladakh. In winter, specifically during January and February, the river freezes and calms down. She lets the locals trapped in the remote Zanskar valley walk over her and reach civilization in case of any emergencies.

Of course the fad these days is trekkers like you and me who go there to walk on the frozen river for exclusive bragging rights and a unique experience to last a lifetime! And even though we aren’t prepared to handle the extreme cold, with some preparation, as I find out, we can very well trek and enjoy it as well. So here are my top tips that might help you endure and enjoy Chadar better.

Cold is just a state of mind

The day I landed in Leh, the temperature outside was below zero and it was biting cold. I couldn’t last outside for more than a few minutes before I scrambled back to the heated room. The next day was no better and neither was the third day. Meanwhile, as we started walking and camping, the body was slowly adjusting to the subzero temperatures and by the end of the trek, it wasn’t that cold anymore. Cold is surely a state of mind, keep saying this to yourself. Prepare mentally more than physically for this trek and you are good to go!

hadar trek - how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

Too cold? Fret not, hand & body warmers will be your savior

I am someone whose hands and feet get very cold, even with ample protection. So you cannot imagine my joy when I was given these nifty little things that kept me so warm and safe to say, sane. These warmers are small one-time-use exothermic pouches that release heat using up oxygen and last up to 10 hours or more. They go comfortably into your gloves, socks, or jacket and keep you incredibly warm. They are apparently used all over the weather countries but I had never heard of or seen them until this trek. And from now on, I’m never going anywhere cold without these

 . In India, you can find these in Delhi apparently. I got these from two very helpful fellow American trekkers.

Update - Tracked the whereabouts! Pricey, but yay! :) Adventure 18 store in Delhi sells hand warmers and footwarmers. If anyone has used them, please leave a comment below on how well they work.

Also here's a handy list of all adventure equipment selling stores in India, check with these places as well, they might have stock too - Camping and Trekking Equipment in India

Gumboots rule the day, not your fancy hiking shoes

Gumboots cost 350Rs and they are hands down the best thing you can buy for the Chadar trek. They have good grip, they keep you warm and dry and they work like a charm on the Chadar. Your normal hiking shoes will be comfortably tucked into your backpack while these magic boots do all the hard work. Take my advice, leave your bulky shoes at home and thank me later. If you don’t have hiking shoes, don’t buy them only for Chadar, carry your running shoes and walk in the gumboots. I did the entire trek in these knee-length boots and have no complaints!

hadar trek - how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

Sleeping Bag keeps everything warm. Carry an extra one

It gets very cold and windy by night, two sleeping bags or a liner + sleeping bag is a must. If your trek agency isn’t providing you two bags, carry your own sleeping bag. You need good sleep and you don’t want to be cold in the night. Tuck your water bottle, socks, gloves, and whatever it is that you want to stay warm in the morning inside your sleeping bag. Anything left outside will be frozen and super cold.

When in Rome, act like a Roman i.e. do what the locals do

The locals walk on the Chadar as if it is a piece of cake! They walk fast and take strides like a penguin on the slippery ice. They knock the ice sheet when in doubt and sometimes they just keep their feet through the broken ice. They know what they are doing. At least on the first few days, observe them and shadow them. Do not cross and go on your own until you can gauge the Chadar. After 2-3 days you will be an expert too but until then, watch and learn. Trust me, falling into the icy cold water is no fun. No, I didn’t fall but I can imagine the horror.

If you fall, rise and shine.

This is a fact you have to make peace with. You will slip and fall, yes, there is no escaping. At least on the initial days, you will. There is nothing wrong with falling down, we are not used to walking on glossy shiny frozen sheets of uneven ice. When you fall down, roll over on your knees get up slowly, and resume the walk. If luck is on your side, fresh snow will cover the glossy ice sheets making it easy to walk otherwise be prepared to fall down and get up a lot. Don’t worry, everybody falls, even the locals. It is just a part of the experience!

Keep your electronics close to your heart

Cold drains out charge out of electronics very fast. Extreme cold drains the charge even faster. Keep all the batteries safely tucked in your jacket pockets. If the battery is blinking low, warm it enough and you can use it for some more time. I carried 3 batteries and stored them in gloves and jacket pockets when not in use. Had enough charge to shoot 64GB!

hadar trek - how to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

An extra pair of socks will keep you warm in campsites

The only downside of walking in gumboots is that the sweat collects in your shoes and dampens the socks. Yes, you will sweat while you walk but you won’t feel it until you rest at the campsite. While you are walking, your feet will still feel very warm in gumboots. Keep a spare pair of socks for when you reach the campsite, changing into a fresh pair of warm socks will feel so good I can’t even tell you. It is something you have to experience yourself.

Leh Market has the best stock to deal with the cold

The Tibetan Markets in Leh have the best stuff to protect you from the cold. Ranging from insulated snow-proof pants to warm woolen socks, you can get all the gear you need for Chadar in these markets. In fact, I would suggest you buy woolens in Leh rather than some fancy city shops. Spend an afternoon wandering in the market to pick up a lot of useful and handy stuff. Worked well for me.

You can carry your metal Quechua bottle without the fear of frostbite

When I think of subzero temperatures, I think of frozen water. But at times during the trek, neither the river freezes entirely nor the water in your bottle. And neither does the metal bottle give you frostbite. You are always given hot water and gloves are almost always on, so no frostbite. And with the metal bottle, you can use it to warm your hands and keep it inside your sleeping bag as well for warmth. So don’t hesitate to carry those metal bottles and flasks if you want to.

Pick up the chocolate wrappers, please?

This is not a tip but a request. I collected so many centerfresh and other candy wrappers thrown on the pristine Chadar that it makes me sad. We go to these places and litter like it’s nobody’s business. Please pick up those wrappers and take them with you. I would like to ask people to stop throwing the candy covers but if they are not listening, I hope one of you will pick up the wrappers at least, whatever keeps Chadar clean.