The chaddar, or frozen Zanskar River trek, is by far the most popular winter trekking option in Zanskar. The river gorge - which easily rivals the Grand Canyon in depth - has seen Western trekking traffic since the late 1970s (or possibly earlier if Csoma de Koros ventured on the river), but the route has really gained popularity since 2000. Having had the good fortune to complete this trek on four occasions I can vouch that this trek is not to be underestimated. Trekkers should brace themselves for cold nights huddled in caves, wading in sub-zero temperatures, and exposed traverses on cold rock above open water. You may have guessed from the latter two obstacles that the river is not always frozen!
If you are venturing onto the river then you may want to consider the following suggestions:
- always travel with an experienced Zanskari guide. There really is no substitute for trekking with someone who knows the idiosyncrasies of the river, underground springs and ice formation. The river does not freeze in its entirety; trekkers are required to pick a route according to ice conditions which change hourly. Again, check out www.trekzanskar.org for Zanskari guide contact details.
- never leave anyone to walk alone, people do go through the ice and/or slip into the river.
- wetsuit/neoprene boots for wading, a towel, and a handy rope or throw line may all be useful items of kit.
- be disciplined when it comes to airing kit and drying boot inners. I personally prefer Baffin boots with a removable inner which can be dried each night.
- I find crampons a waste of time, some people prefer the little metal studs which strap on with a heavy duty rubber strap. Boots with a soft rubber sole are usually fine, although not too soft as the sole will suffer if forced to trek over rock and rough ground.
- carry a back-up camera in a warm inside pocket.
- carry suitable survival equipment should something go wrong. Think of the consequences if you are separated from the porter who is carrying your kit...
For a slightly better idea of what is involved see Follmi's pictures in Le Fleuve Gelé and Martin Hartley's pics.
A route description authored by myself can be found in New Holland's Trekking Atlas of the World, which is an updated, expanded and more accurate version of the route description that features in The World's Great Adventure Treks.
You can read more about my most recent journey along the chaddar with Ted Conover in 2005 in the Spring 2009 Virginia Quarterly Review and in Ted's latest book, Routes of Man.
Of course there are other winter trekking options in Zanskar. The possibilities on skis are almost endless, but I won't go into them here because if you are intending to ski in Zanskar, you probably know what you are doing already!