About 80 million years ago there was an enormous crash as the Indian continental plate collided with the rest of Asia and created the greatest mountain chains in the world. There, spread across the middle of the crash site and nestled between the labyrinth walls of the Karakoram and Himalaya Mountains, is one of the world’s most inaccessible destinations.
Photography by Erik Monasterio
The highland plateau of Ladakh and Zanskar, dubbed “the roof of the world” is the second coldest and amongst the highest inhabited corners of the globe. In winter, even towns and villages have to endure temperatures as low as –40 C, and the mountain passes that connect Ladakh and Zanskar with the rest of India and Tibet are cut off by meters of unconsolidated snow. In this cold the earth is impenetrable, frozen solid, dead corpses are not buried, but cremated in open pyres or cut into pieces and fed to the vultures. Waterfalls turn to chandeliers of ice and rivers freeze into blue and white serpentine ribbons along the valleys.
Photography by Erik Monasterio
A land of ancient Buddhist temples, fascinating religious festivals and alluring adventures, Ladakh has become an increasingly popular summer destination for climbers, trekkers and other tourists. The long winter months however keep most away. Few travelers venture into the frozen bowels of Ladakh and Zanskar. Even the locals pack-up, lock their dwellings and businesses and head south. What would attract one to visit the region in winter? Imagine sticking your head in the freezing compartment of the fridge…try it! Well it is eight times colder than that.
The fascination for me came in 1992 during a climbing trip to the region. I found out that in winter local’s use the frozen waters of the Zanskar River as a precarious platform to walk the 120 km between Zanskar and Ladakh. The river, usually turbulent and chaotic as it cuts its way across the Zanskar valley and gorges, when frozen provides the only physical means of contact and trade between the regions. This imperfect and temporary highway forms for only six weeks in late January and February of every year. During autumn and winter the only way to reach Ladakh is by plane from Jammu and Delhi, and the only way to enter and leave Zanskar is on foot along the frozen river.
Photography by Erik Monasterio
What a challenge- to follow a millenarian tradition by walking along a veneer of ice to such a remote and mysterious destination. Get the timing wrong or get sick along the way and the path literally melts under your feet!
By the winter of 1998 I could resist the temptation no longer. In New Delhi I visited the India Geographical Institute and amongst the cobwebs, dust and piles of documents found maps of the region. The maps were not topographical but clearly showed that there was a way. The more I discussed my plans with friends the more they became convinced that the best place for me was the lunatic asylum. Nervously I booked my plane fares to Leh the capital of Ladakh, and on the evening before my departure attended a cocktail party at the house of an ex-army man, colonel Singh. This was the 50th anniversary reunion of an ex-British battalion. The company was merry and the whisky was served in large tumblers. The conversation inevitably turned to my expedition and the comments were far from encouraging. Colonel Singh maintained that soldiers conscripted to winter duty in Ladakh often went mad in the cold and isolation. He warned that I would “come back… minus legs!” others added, “you will catch pneumonia, dear fellow”.
Any hint of a hangover was dispelled when the Indian Airways DC 10 landed on the tarmac of Leh at 3500m.a.s.l. and a temperature of –20 C. Over the next two weeks I set about adjusting to the altitude and the conditions. I tested the theory that it was impossible to walk out of Ladakh by attempting to cross a highland pass of 4800m. and attempting the first winter ascent of Stok Kangri (6150m). On both occasions I was turned away by extreme avalanche conditions. High on Stok Kangri the enormity of the landscape and my isolation was reflected in the near infinite expanse of mountains. 100m beneath the summit I retreated convinced that if in the course of my visit to Zanskar the frozen river melted, I would be stuck until the spring.
Photography by Erik Monasterio
At a local monastery I met Lobsang, who for a small fee agreed to my company on his return journey to Padum, the capital of Zanskar. Lobsang, who spoke no English, had regularly made the journey along the ice. Before setting-off I was warned to expect complications. “Very bad, very, very bad…” the monks muttered, as they discussed the conditions of the trail. Apparently the ice formations were incomplete as at –20 C it was not cold enough!! Finally on the 17th of January we were on our way. A 30-Km bus journey took us to the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers. The ice trail, known to the locals as Chaddar (white sheet), snaked and disappeared into the Zanskar gorges. The first 20-km of the journey we walked above the Chaddar along a 4-wheel track which took us to the small settlement of Chilling, where the road stopped and we descended into the ice. Lobsang did not walk on the mirror-like surface, rather slid along as if wearing invisible ice skates. I followed as best I could. It took quite some time and serious gluteal bruising before I adopted the shuffling/glissading ice-travel technique. I was determined to undertake the journey in the local’s centuries old tradition. My pack, heavy with all my equipment and ten days food supply constantly threw me off balance such that I frequently spun out of control.
The Chaddar became a path into a New World. Slowly as my balance on the ice improved, I adopted the mesmerizing shuffling rhythms that took me deeper into the Zanskar river gorges. The ice formations were natural sculptures inspired by the turbulence of the river, the extreme cold and the contours of the valley. Bulletproof green ice lined wide river sections, plates of ice shattered and fractured for hundreds of meters and pressure mounds where like frozen mushroom fields. At times the ice was crystal clear and stones where like encrusted jewels beneath the surface. Snow and wind formed thin bridges of brittle ice that often collapsed under the pressure of weight. Across the valleys the wind whistled a cacophony of tunes and the groaning, creaking and shattering of the ice was startling, at times terrifying. We slept in caves and cooked in open fires of driftwood.
By the second day we were in trouble, in many parts the ice was thin and unstable. Other areas had only thin ribbons of ice near the shore and at times there was no ice across the valley. We resorted to tapping the ice with walking sticks, guessing its stability by the echo it made. A dry sound was good, a deep, resonant sound concerning. Many times we broke through, at times sinking up to the knees. In the end we were forced to make many detours along the valley walls, then we got stuck! We reached a narrow gorge with vertical walls that could not be ascended. The tongue of ice that was our path melted into the swirling river. Lobsang muttered “no gut…no gut” and lit an herbal cigarette (Bidi). After a thoughtful pause he took his shoes off, rolled his trousers up to the knees and waded into the water, sinking deeper and deeper, emerging briefly onto solid trail and then sinking again. It was –30C, but he seemed undeterred as he zigzagged looking for a way. His patience, perseverance and adaptation to what seemed like inhuman conditions were a source of inspiration and motivation at times when I felt my own determination diminished. Eventually to my relief he gave up and camped at a cave, passing the rest of the day drinking salty butter tea and eating our glutinous daily diet of lentils and wheat flour cakes. I was dejected and expected our journey to end there.
The next morning we were woken by an excited caravan of Zanskar and Tibetan travelers. The Tibetans were refugees, just graduated as teachers, who were on their way to their first working post in Zanskar. Their excitement and friendliness was contagious, and soon we were back on the river. In the early morning the ice had formed over the narrow gorge and we ventured on, but not for long before long the trail once again became impassable. We cut steps into the valley walls and for hours ascended until we found a way past the broken ice. By the end of the fourth day we reached the caves of Hanumil and the next day came rested in the small town of Zangla in Zanskar.
I felt the harshness of the winter most in Zanskar where there was little wood and no electricity. Water was like a parasite as it froze wherever it fell and needed to be constantly chipped away. Icicles just seemed to grow and grow from any moisture. My wooden flute cracked and split as the saliva froze while I was playing. To maximise heat efficiency all family members slept together in the kitchen and the livestock were kept in the first floor of the two story mud brick houses. The locals spent little time outdoors, a communal society they gathered by the kitchen fire drinking Chang (wheat beer), butter tea and chanting Buddhist prayers.
On the way back, the conditions of the Chaddar improved such that I could marvel the uniqueness of the frozen path. Well in control of the glissading technique I took time to photograph, and enjoy the scenery. The skies were predominantly cloudless and the clarity of the air at an altitude of 3800m was absorbing. The stability of the path and the confidence in my technique trapped me into a false sense of security, and unwittingly I ventured onto brittle ice and broke through the crust. Falling into the fast flowing Zanskar river was like being struck by a bolt of ice-lightning. The flow pulled me forcibly along and the only way I stopped myself being dragged under was by anchoring my walking stick across the hole in the ice. Stepping back on the trail my clothes were instantly frozen. There was no question of changing, as unless I wore them until they dried they would remain frozen for the rest of the trip.
On the 26th of January, with a group of monks who were on pilgrimage to a monastery’s in Leh I walked out of the Chaddar and back to the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers, for the final bus journey back to Leh.
The Chaddar expedition was a journey and experience for which there are few parallels. The remoteness, isolation and hardship of the region are extraordinary, almost incomprehensible. Without he welcoming and generous spirit of the locals who freely shared their experiences, food, and shelter, the journey would not have been possible. Sadly, the Chaddar may soon be an experience of the past as a road built to between Ladakh and Zanskar is near completion.
Text and photographs by Dr. M.E.Monasterio