Days of preparation in Delhi, collecting accessories and walking for hours all over the city culminated in the Air India flight to Leh on February 1, arriving at the KushokBakula Airport on a bright and windy day with undulating mountains enveloped in a white blanket of snow. I was received at the airport by an old friend, Wangchuk with instructions not to stir for the first two days! Between admiring the snow views from the hotel window, watching television, reading novels I carried and consuming sumptuous meals and yak butter tea, I managed to acclimatise to the altitude. On the third day I took a walk to the bazaar bought gum boots and ‘glacial socks’, which was near deserted except for the Monastery where the Drogpa sect was organising the Annual Peace Worship. By now I had learnt the art of dressing in several—sometimes over 7 layers and consume over 3 litres of warm water every day apart from taking Diamox tablets to fight the effects of high altitude. On Monday morning I met my trek mates, two of whom became my room as well as tent partners —Aniruddha Das and Sreehari Prasad were from Bangalore and were keen photographers.
Next morning, amidst heavy snowfall, we took a 64 km ride to Chilling, the traditional starting point of Chadar (river ice)Trek. We passed the mighty Indus, the Patthar Sahib Gurudwara and the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar at Nimmu. From here, the bus took a turn and continued along the bank of the Zanskar to reach Chilling—all shut. We drove till Tilat Sumdo, where we saw the sombre, snow-covered Base Camp on the left bank of the Zanskar across the deep gorge. Our first task was to slide down the 150-200 feet embankment to the Chadar at the bottom of the gorge, walk and skate across it and climb the river bank on the other side to reach for hot cups of tea prepared by our cook, Tenzing in the kitchen tent. It snowed right through Day 1 as we were getting used to camp-life at Tilat Sumdo. Dave with his thermometer turned our weatherman; Stanley built us a snowman; Sreehari, Prameya and Supriyo were turning adept at arranging their respective tents meticulously; and, Anirudh, Ashish, Vignesh and other shutterbugs kept clicking away.
Dawn brought its own share of novelties—the struggle to lace one’s shoes, visiting the snow bound terrain for ablutions and downing the tasty breakfast before lumbering up for the day’s trek. The morning air chilled us to the bone as we took the first tentative steps on the Chadar carefully getting a feel of the icy surface—powdery soft with a fresh coating of snow, hard and crunchy, or shiny and slick. It is easy to walk on a fresh coating of snow but an old hard and shiny surface of ice is what is tricky and you need to perform a penguin march without lifting your feet too much off the ground. As I walked on the Chadar, I listened to the sounds it made, and I could soon distinguish the thin and dangerous from the thick and safe.
Shingra Koma is almost 10 km away from Tilat Sumdo, a distance we covered in about 6 hours. Sun remained elusive and snow fell intermittently. The Chadar held fast most of the way and we made good progress. Mid way through the trek around noon, we halted near a sacred cave, Bakula Bawo, where the Abbot of Shey Monastery meditated under a Juniper tree. Here our cook dished out a quick hot meal of instant noodles and tea. Shingra Koma, a large camping ground, right below a huge stone wall, looked as if it is right out of a Hollywood set. Inside our tents we lined our backpacks along the walls so that we could be shielded from the cold, as well as the dripping condensation from the ceiling and beds were carefully laid out with blankets on the ice-mat and a hot water bottle between two sleeping bags.
Tibb was our next camp. The route runs through a narrow gorge where the River can be bridged by just four people holding hands. The narrow gorge hardly gets any sunlight and a thick chadar easily forms here. Unexpectedly we spotted several ibexes in the nooks of high peaks against a frozen backdrop. A gushing waterfall, marked as a revered place by the Ladakhis had myriad prayer flags fluttered before it. Legend goes that, one year Neyrak Village, our ultimate destination, ran dry and a holy man went to Mt. Kailash to pray for water and was rewarded with a pot and two fish, with a condition that he would need to carry it on person on his journey back. But he was so tired that he had to place the pot at this spot and the two fish jumped out creating the massive waterfall. Two more hours of walk brought us to a large, sparsely vegetated camping area at Tibb with comfortable caves where 8 to 9 people could be easily accommodated. Lunch was consumed at leisure, basking in the sun and admiring the scenery.
As we moved closer to Neyrak, 12 km from Tibb, the ambient temperature fell to minus 19oC and snowfall obliterated the clear blue skies with the Sun straining to break through the crevices of the wind swept mountains. Water seldom flowed, the frigid temperatures turning them all into cascades of ice. A kilometre ahead our guide pointed out the foot prints of a snow-leopard mother and cub duo on grey river sand. They would have crossed our camp at Tibb the previous night! An hour or so ahead, embedded within the gorge lay the famous Neyrak waterfall sculpted in ice. It was an astounding sight – with myriad colours accentuated by the rays of the sun playing over the top of the fall. The Neyrak odd wooden ‘pul’ or bridge lies just ahead of the waterfall across which lay our camp. Some of us chose to climb a further hour and half to visit the fairly large village of Neyrak, located 2000 feet above the river.
On the 9th we set out by 8 am. The return path is theoretically a retrace of the route we took in the last 3 days but in reality can feel like a totally new one. As the Chadar had broken down, we climbed up through ankle deep snow to reach the bridge and then climbed down to the river opposite the ‘waterfall’. Noticing that the water level was higher than our gum boots we slithered up and climbed close to 1000 feet where we got stranded. Saurav, ahead of me, just could not fathom a path ahead, when a water bottle clattered down the gravelly waste, breaking the sombre silence with icy cold winds picking up the cadence, howling in return. Just as we began to panic, porters came to sight high above us. They escorted us up the cliff top and back down to the Chadar—wading through icy water. It was then that I realised that my wet trouser bottoms had turned into ice bringing to life, the oft repeated saying in Ladakh, ‘When soaked in water, clothes tend to break, not tear.’
It was late in the evening by the time we arrived at Tibb. Next morning we climbed, skated and skidded past the Bakula Bawo into a riverside camp site just a couple of hours away from Tilat Sumdo. The final morning dawned with the first hour spent in negotiating cliffs and boulders as the Chadar was not trustworthy. But, meeting a group on its way to Neyrak, we were delighted to learn that the Chadar hereafter was intact. We arrived at Tilat caught amidst a raging snowstorm. We ducked into the kitchen tent and warmed ourselves with whoops of joy and millions of group photos of unmasked joy of achievement. A joyous ride to Leh and it was time to say goodbye to the team—thanking them for their love and help without which I could not have realised this dream.