ZANSKAR RIVER, India — “Edwin! Snow leopard tracks!” I yelled.
Edwin was a businessman from The Netherlands on my expedition team and we had previously discussed fox, sheep and black bear tracks that we observed during our 40-mile hike on the Chadar. The word Chadar means sheet, and it refers to the sheet of snow and ice on the Zanskar River, a tributary of the Indus River in northern India.
He came running back to where I had stopped. I was careful to include the word “tracks” in my urgent utterance so as not to raise the excitement unnecessarily high. Amin, one of our guides, followed him and inspected my claim.
“I think those are wolf tracks. Or dog,” he said.
While Amin definitely has some expertise in local wildlife, he was wrong and I was sure of it. I am a certified animal tracker and I used the opportunity to illustrate in the snow how canine and feline tracks differ.
When crossing the area with other groups, I always asked whether they had seen a snow leopard or tracks. No one had. But I had found the tracks right off our trail — the same trail we had come down three days earlier. I was elated.
Trekking the Chadar is only possible during a two-month window in the heart of the Himalayan winter. It is a rugged and dangerous path, not along jagged mountains, but through them on a river turned to ice. For centuries, this ice way has been the only winter trade route that connects the remote villages of the Zanskar region to Leh, the bustling trade center that connects the region to the world at large. The primary exports of this region have historically been textiles, yak butter and salt. But Leh is also the destination for acquiring education, medical treatment and any other goods and services not readily available in a mountain village.
NEW TOURISM INDUSTRY
The newest economic opportunity to enter into the Chadar equation is tourism. Only in recent years have trekking and adventure companies offered tours that range from a couple of days on the ice to multiweek expeditions that include staying in one of the villages. They vary in price from a few hundred dollars on into the thousands. Some include airfare from Delhi (the only way to get to Leh in the winter), as well as a few days to acclimatize and sightsee in Leh, which sits at about 11,500 feet. Some do not. If you want to make the trek, it is worthwhile to give yourself a day or two to adjust to the altitude as the air really is thin and can cause complications.
But this is also a time of year when there are few tourists willing to put out the expense for a trip to brave the cold, which makes for a special time for those who do to visit local monasteries. It can feel rather surreal, gasping for thin, freezing air in the bright Ladakhi sun while listening to Buddhist horns and watching traditional dances.
The flight into Leh leaves early in the morning from Delhi and is one of the highlights of the trip. With some of the highest peaks and largest glacier fields stretching from horizon to horizon, flying over the snow-covered Himalayas at sunrise is worth the ticket price itself. Get a window seat.
As with many historic relics in our modern world, the Chadar trade route is at risk of becoming obsolete. Or, more correctly, the process is underway. The Indian military has a strong presence in this region because of its proximity to Nepal, China and Pakistan. Currently, trekkers travel alongside locals on the traditional trade route while the Indian government cuts roads into the mountain regions above their heads. It is difficult to know what effect these roads will have on the region, but it is hard to imagine locals choosing the risks of the Chadar trek over the faster, easier alternative of road travel to sell goods, find work or go to school.
COLD IS GOOD
From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was cold. But with the proper gear, it is endurable. Just keep in mind: The cold is what makes the ice and the ice is the trail. If it is warm, the ice will thin, increasing the danger of falling in, and the danger of having to hike through near-freezing water. If the water level is over the top of the rubber gum boots trekkers wear, then the best option is to go barefoot and keep socks dry.
Don’t worry though — you aren’t expected to hike with frostbite setting in. The porters will light fires on kerosene stoves to dry feet, and maybe make a cup of tea as well.
One of the ever-present companions in this region is the setting. Snowy mountain peaks dissolve into the clouds. Different seams of minerals create pockets in the soil of earthy blues, purples, greens and grays. There are prayer flags at every man-made structure and their bright blues, reds, greens, yellows and whites provide a sharp contrast to the subdued hues of the alpine terrain.
When passing a village consisting of just two houses, a rock wall fence and prayer flags, I could feel that I had reached a remote corner of the world.