At the peak of winter, Ladakh’s Zanskar River freezes into a chadar, a mostly flat sheet of snow and ice, with a creaking, beguiling beauty that any traveller would find hard to resist. (Read a first-hand account from our April issue here, and our guide to scaling high-altitude treks here.) But with temperatures plummeting to -30°C, you’ll have to be kitted out with the right gear to get the most from the experience. Here’s everything you need to know about what to take, plus some practical tips to get you started.
Mid-January to end-February is safest, when the winter is at its peak and the Chadar is well-formed. Keep monitoring the weather conditions regardless.
This is a more of a mind-over-matter trip.
You are walking on a river. It’s flat. None of that up-and-down of a Himalayan trek, which gets tiring.
You will need to carry a small pack for 5-6 hours every day. If you have cleats or crampons, it is not a task. Moderate fitness is okay for the Chadar.
Build up your cardiovascular endurance with brisk walks. Strengthen your leg muscles at a gym with squats and lunges.
Shed weight. Remember, every kilo lost, is a kilo less to carry.
There are a variety of trustworthy brands, such as The North Face and Mountain Hardwear.
Take two bags. Carry a day pack of 20-35 litres. Put in snacks, water, camera, lip balm, spectacles case, a small towel, extra socks – everything that you will need through the day.
A bag with a chest and waist belt is best, as it will take the stress off of your shoulders.
Your main bag can be a soft sports or duffle bag that will hold your gear. Weight is at a premium on the Chadar, so pack light. Porters will carry your main bag, so you will get access to it only in the evenings.
Carry a double-layered sleeping bag with a comfort rating of at least -20°C. Carry a fleece liner in case you are more susceptible to the cold. We use Siachen bags – what the Army uses on the glacier.
Boots are the most important piece of equipment on this trek – do not compromise on them.
Higher-than-ankle, waterproof, and insulated boots are a must. I cannot underscore enough the importance of insulated footwear. All trekking shoes worth their soles will be waterproof, but imagine using something on the Chadar that is designed for a hike through the Amazon forest! Check the manufacturer’s specs to see if the boots are insulated.
Warning: Read reviews and inform yourself about sizing issues that each shoe has. Some are manufactured smaller than the sizes listed, and vice-versa.
I would recommend carrying a spare pair of inner soles for your shoes. If your shoes are filled with water, you can empty them out and change your socks, but they will only get damp as soon as you wear your shoes again! An inner placed on a wet sole will provide relief.
A pair of open-toe slippers are good for the camp, especially when you need to quickly exit the tent in the middle of the night. I find Crocs useful. They can be worn with socks, are easy to get in and out of, and in snow, one can get around the camp without wetting socks.
Not so infrequently, the river level rises above the ice slab. In such cases, you will have to wade through the water to get to the other side (unless you know how to fly). Sounds scary? Well, its not as bad as it sounds. Water at its coldest is only 0°C! Should wading become necessary, you will need to take off your shoes and socks, and wade through the water in gumboots. If you cannot find gumboots, they are available in Leh for around ₹320.
Woollen socks are terrible to walk in. When wet with sweat, wool loses its insulation characteristics. The best insulated socks meant for “active wear” are made from a blend of 80-90 per cent Merino wool, with synthetic additives. Check the manufacturer’s specs.
Warning: You must have an extra pair of socks and a towel handy at all times on the trek, which is easily accessible in your day-pack. In case your feet get wet, you will need to dry your feet and change your socks without delay!
For the night and at camp, a pair of woollen socks is great to sleep in!
How many pairs of socks you carry is a matter of personal hygiene. I have three pairs of “active wear” socks for the trek. Each evening, as soon as we hit camp, I dry my feet and change into fresh woollen socks. The pair I wore through the day is aired, and then dried in my sleeping bag, ready for use in the morning.
Chemical warmers are fabulous if your extremities tend to get chilled. These are small pads that start generating heat when removed from their packaging and exposed to air, and are slipped into gloves (or shoes). Warmers give four to eight hours of warmth. There are a range of brands available.
When sedentary, at camp, a down jacket is really useful.
When walking, multiple layers of clothes work much better than wearing a single thick outer (such as a down jacket). Layering is the way to dress for the Chadar. Each layer of clothing traps air between itself and the next, adding insulation. Also, this way it is easier to adjust to temperature changes – by simply adding or discarding a layer.
Ensure that you go in for fitted (although not tight) clothes. Loose clothing is thermally inefficient.
Let’s look at the layers, from the innermost outwards.
When sedentary (driving, or at camp), thermal long-sleeved vests, and thermal long johns work well as base or inner layers. However, these are useless when walking. They soak up sweat, get heavy, lose their thermal quality, and actually work against you. On the trek, you need polypropylene-based inners because of its moisture-wicking properties. Sweat is expelled through the fabric, and does not condense on the body. Nike, Reebok and Adidas have polypropylene uppers and lowers as part of their “active wear” range.
Polypropylene-based leggings, for the reasons stated above, is what is advised to walk in.
Mid-layers provide insulation. While anything that is warm will do, a mid- to heavy-weight fleece top is recommended. You may use two inner layers in case you feel extra cold. Fleece has the added advantage of being much lighter than wool, and packs smaller. Also, due to its tighter knit, it is more useful than wool in windy conditions.
This is the final layer between you and the elements and must be capable of keeping out wind, rain and snow.
Wear a fleece skullcap that you can pull over your ears, and a fleece neck gaiter to wrap around your throat and pull over your nose if necessary.
A good waterproof and windproof jacket is needed.
For the legs, ski pants work well, as do synthetic track pants.
As a side note, jeans are a bad choice as an outer leg covering. They are heavy, uncomfortable to walk in, soak water when they get wet, and are hard to dry.
Carry warm tracks to sleep in.
The number of innermost layers you carry is a personal choice, and each participant needs to balance the cost, hygiene, and weight/bulk and make a decision.
For the middle to outer layers, I carry only one piece each!
Metal is a fabulous conductor, so your hands will freeze up really fast. You can wear hand warmers. Wear an inner glove-liner inside the main glove. When you need to shoot, remove the outer glove, so you are not holding the camera bare-handed.
Keep the camera in an inner pocket, so it stays closer to body temperature.
Milan Moudgill is a graphic design consultant, based in New Delhi. For the last decade he has been travelling in the Himalayas, and organising extreme treks, in an attempt to bring the mountains closer to the uninitiated and inexperienced.