Trekking a frozen Indian river

What young Australian wouldn’t love the chance to travel across the world, challenge themselves, engage in new communities and cultures and meet new people?

To me, those three things – explore, service, challenge and friendships is what Scouting is all about, so I decided this was a chance to extend my Scouting experience beyond its Australian borders!

To earn the Balthasar Award I knew I had to come up with something different and propose the craziest and most adventurous challenge that I was willing to do. The Chadar Trek was the result. This trek that I was looking at, labelled the most unique trek in the world is probably also one of the coldest! With temperatures ranging from -15 to -36 Celsius, the Chadar – meaning ‘blanket of ice’ – is literally a ten day trek through a frozen canyon. Trekkers on the Chadar walk across the ice that has solidified on top of the Zanskar River, which is still flowing below. Aside from a mountaineering expedition (which I didn’t feel I had the time or skills for) this was as adventurous as I was going to find in this part of the world and to make it even better there was an international camp earlier in the month that I could link into my trip!

And so, at the beginning of January 2016, I headed to the airport were I met up with 17 other Australian Guides.  Our first stop was Singapore where we stayed at the Singapore Guide headquarters briefly before heading on to India. Arriving in Mumbai we were picked up in a bus which sped through the streets and we got our first glimpses of the colours and smells of India. After a terrifying ride over the mountains we arrived in Pune two hours later and to our home for the next ten days – Sangam World Guide Centre. 

At Sangam we got the best orientation to India you could ever ask for, with the chance to play tourists while meeting and working with locals in the safety and security of a Girl Guide camp, filled with likeminded Guides and Scouts.  Everyone who was volunteering, visiting or working in the centre had the same ideals. Within Guides and Scouts we truly are a family that is just spread across the world, waiting to meet each other!

During the week we ran programs for local children living in slums, went shopping in the markets, bought saris, tried our hands and feet at Indian arts and dancing, ran a teamwork and leadership workshop for teachers and councillors at a local university and even became ‘comfortable’ riding solo around town in rickshaws.

Had I not been looking forward to the next leg of my journey I definitely would not have wanted the camp to end! Luckily there was more in store, so after many hugs and setting a new goal to return someday as a volunteer I jumped into a rickshaw and headed to the airport. It was time to head to northern India and start walking!

The flight into Ladakh over and through the mountains was absolutely stunning, but stepping out of the plane and into the ‘airport’ – a small shed with some blankets across the doors to keep the heat in – was another story. Posters about acclimatisation and High Altitude Illness (HAI) lined the walls of the airport as a warning of what was to come. After meeting up with our trek guide, we were welcomed into our hotel for our acclimatisation day and instructed how to get to the markets and pick up our last minute supplies – which included the gumboots we would be walking in for the next ten days. The hotel was warmed only in the kitchen with a patio heater and our rooms, with no heat were supplied a bucket of water for showering once a day – it was time to crack out the down sleeping bags and beanies!

After a short afternoon of acclimatising and exploring the markets, monasteries and local surrounds we were up early and ready to start the trek the following day. The bus ride out to the Zanskar River was slow, as the mountainous road was covered in many places by the constantly falling rocks, but the excavators formed a path for us and we eventually made it to our starting point. That day, we just had a short walk down to the river where we had our first night camping on the ice and learnt how to walk like a penguin. Our trekking group of 25 (which would soon go down to 17) spent the afternoon playing soccer on the ice – a game that was made even more entertaining by our lack of balance and skill!

From here our trek became routine, we were woken daily by our porters with a mug of steaming Chai tea. This luxury was just enough to pull us out of our warm sleeping bags deep within our ice encrusted tents. We would walk for about five hours in the morning, stopping when the sunlight finally broke into the canyon and we could find a place in the sun to eat lunch without freezing! In the afternoon we continued walking, until we reached a new camping area on the side of the river to stop. Here we would refuel with hot tea and soup and bunk down back inside the warmth of our tents before a big communal dinner with our trekking group. 

The walk was magnificent! There were frozen waterfalls, isolated villages to visit, hairy ice crossings, duck-unders and lots of slipping and sliding along the ice. The area itself is very unique as it is a mountainous landscape in the middle of the desert. This means aside from the frozen river there was no snow, just dry rocky canyon. The downside to this unique landscape was the lack of trees and therefore no firewood, so fires were limited to cooking fires made of kerosene and dried animal dung carried by the porters. The exception was our celebration campfire on the final night of the trek! 

Towards the end of the week as we turned back towards home, the traffic along the Zanskar had taken its toll on the ice. With so many feet walking across the ice there was little left to walk on. Much of our return journey was spent clambering up the canyon walls with our packs, trying to avoid a swim in the icy water. In other sections we had to take our socks off and walked through in our gumboots with the water and ice chunks pouring into the top of our boots. In the final few days in particular, there were a number of places that the layer of chadar we were walking along was very thin, almost bouncing below our feet. In these spots we followed the locals and porters as closely as we could, but majority of the group still broke through the ice and fell into the water at some point along the trek, sometimes all the way down to hip or neck depth. Luckily I managed to escape that torture and ended the trip without a submersion!

Overall words don’t do the adventure justice. The area of Ladakh holds a timelessness, as if the constant cold temperatures of winter have frozen it in time. Living naturally, surrounded and immersed, frozen down to the bone by nature was a wonderful experience. The locals live in the harshest lifestyle you could imagine, but are the friendliest people I have ever met as they warmly welcomed us along the route.   

In total contrast I also loved to chaos of the Indian cities, the colour, noises, vibrancy and richness of the culture was amazing.  

I would like to say a thousand thank yous for this opportunity.  Or as said in Hindi – Dhanyavaad!

The video from my trek can be viewed here

Lauren Hansen
Turramurra Rover Crew