One woman’s story of trekking the Himalayas’ sub-zero landscapes

It’s only after you have stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform. -Roy T. Bennett.  

Naina and I met many years ago at Feng Shui school and instantly bonded over our shared love of shopping, tarot, psychic readings and vegan food. We’ve explored some European cities together, on occasions got very lost, and ate vast amounts of gelatos.  Knowing Naina’s love of India and yearly visits, her Chadar Trek (the notorious Himalayas trek full of jaw-dropping drops and frozen landscapes) is perfect to share, showing how a 7 day trip can really change the way you view the world. 

As a person who loves their hotel comforts when travelling, what inspired you to do the Chadar trek?  

A friend of mine who lived in the north of India just finished the Roopkund trek. Roopkund is a spiritual area in India, famous for having more than five hundred human skeletons preserved at the edge of a lake.  They believe these people were war heroes who had fought in the 12th century, and some of the skeletons showed these people were over 7-8 feet tall.  They found roman type gladiator slippers that were made of metal next to them, and even more interesting, they believed these people died due to a hailstorm with hailstones the size of a cricket balls and because there was no shelter in the open areas of the Himalayas, there was no place for them to go.  This intrigued me to explore a different side of India.  I’d travelled many times while studying and visiting friends and stayed in luxury hotels but hearing about this trek opened my curiosity to venture to places I’d not been to before. 

With the seed planted and my friend eager to show me another side to travelling, I found myself agreeing to a 7 day Chadar trek. Just so you know, Chadar means blanket in Hindi – a blanket of sheer ice! I’d just agreed to walk across a frozen river!  It was after the initial YES I started to feel nervous – Oh my god walking on ice, I don’t even like walking on icy roads in London and I agreed to not only walk on a frozen river, but a frozen river in over minus 26 degrees.  And, sleeping in tents! 

I remember when you casually slipped into a conversation that you had booked your flight to Leh Laddakh and you were doing the trek.  So how do you prepare for a trek like this? 

I did ‘a lot’ of research and found amazing people who had done the trek on Instagram. I asked loads of questions – what to bring and the best clothes to wear, etc.  I know it’s a girly thing, but one person I spoke to told me to have my eyelashes tinted, or have LVL lashes because her mascara froze in the sub-zero temperatures. It was one of things I was so glad I did!  After we booked the trip, the company were great at giving us tips and recommended things to bring so I felt a bit more relaxed and prepared. Companies like the North Face and Snow and Rock were so helpful, and gradually my wardrobe was changing from designer dresses to thermal jackets, hats, socks, tops to layer with (the secret of keeping warm is definitely all in the layering), boots and goodness know what else. The funny thing is, I researched to find the perfect walking boots and spent over £300 on a pair.  The day before the trek started the guide checked all of our footware, he looked at my boots, shook his head and told me go to the local Bazaar where I ended up buying a pair of  boots for £5! And I must say, they were amazing. 

So, talking about boots!  3 weeks before the trek you sprained your ankle! What was that like? 

I know, I can’t believe it.  I missed my footing walking down the stairs at home and landed in a heap on the floor with an ankle that increased in size before my very eyes.  There were 4 or 5 days that I could only stay in bed, elevating and icing it as I couldn’t walk more than a couple of steps. Not a good way to start my training!  Because I couldn’t travel to work, I used the time for research, making ‘many’ online purchases and stretching. Flexibility is something you do need for the trek. In hindsight, if I hadn’t fallen I may not have been as prepared as I was.  

Let’s talk about the trek. What did a ‘typical’ day look like?  

Honestly, there wasn’t a typical day. Each day was exhilarating and different from the day before. The daily routine was the same though – in the morning we’d wake at 6 am with hot steaming tea delivered to our tent (it was bliss!).  There was a special tent for you to wash, brush your teeth and go to the toilet, etc.  As it’s minus 35 degrees outside, all you want to do is dress and add the layers.  There was a separate kitchen tent where we ate and the food was totally amazing. After breakfast we’d leave around 8:30. We had the best porters who would pack up the tents and take our luggage to the next stop.  I had imagined carrying everything myself and causing disasters on ice, but it was so well organised.   

Most days, we’d walk from 8.30 to 3.30.  When it was warmer (and sometimes even at minus 25 degrees) I would walk in just a tee shirt.  The sun was really warm once it bounced off the rocks, which in itself was an amazing sight to look at.  

We had snacks but you didn’t seem to get hungry. You kept full on the sheer amazingness of the surroundings. We’d find our next stop around 3.30 before the sun went down and climb the rocks to set up the tents, well not us, the porters did this for us.  There was one time when we were climbing up the rocks, I couldn’t find a place to put my foot – Panic set in as I really thought I was going to fall. The guides kept saying “don’t look down”.  It was the only scary moment of the whole trip.  I was fine, it just wasn’t my favourite moment, but eating lunch afterwards and looking at the views certainly made up for it and I was ‘almost’ able to laugh about it. 

How slippery was the ice?  Did you fall? 

I was so careful not to fall after a sprained ankle. We were told to follow a specific path, to not lift our feet but glide in a certain motion. For some reason, one day I seemed to do my own thing and stepped too far to the right where the ice was mushy. Before I knew it, my leg disappeared through the ice and into the river below.  I screamed as I had visions of being swept away by the super fast current.  The Zanskar river is pretty wild – it’s this river that carved out the gorge through the Himalayan mountains we were walking on. One of the guys pulled me out so all I got was a bruised ego and a cold and very wet leg! Changing outfits on the ice was an event in itself which added to the fun.  Some of our group fell at least a couple of times a day, so I felt quite proud of myself for only having fallen once, even though it turned out to be a bit of a dramatic event.  

What was the highlight of the trip?  

There were many. We’d walk on the ice with bronze coloured rocks either side of us and when the sun shone they turned into a kaleidoscope of colours that illuminated the ice.  The scenery was incredible and every view was completely different.  In another area, where the ice was starting to melt as it was near the end of the season, water gushed between the rocks and changed colour  like a golden waterfall.  It was one of those moments that take your breath away – it almost didn’t look real. I also loved the night time stillness, the whooshing sounds of the river below us we sat around campfire, the vibrancy of stars, and how the starlight illuminated the rocks. It’s something you have to experience to understand – it was almost spiritual. 

One funny thing was that each day the locals came out of nowhere and literally ran past us on the ice to pick their children up from school whilst we were all doing this slow methodical gliding movement preying we didn’t fall over, I’m sure they were secretly laughing at us, and we all laughed at what they might be thinking.   

For 7 days you were immersed in nature with no wifi and with a group of people who I’m sure are now lifelong friends.  How has this experienced changed the way you will travel in the future? 

Being with nature in such an intimate way has definitely changed the way I travel.  Having no wifi was freeing and almost cleansing.  It makes you enjoy every moment more because you are fully present with everything that is going on around you.  Switching off is needed for all of us.  Don’t get me wrong, I still like a bit of luxury, but veering away from the tourist hot spots and spending more time in nature is now a priority for my holidays. 

From this trip, I made the most amazing lifelong friends.  We’ve formed a really special bond that is almost sacred.  When we finished the trek, we hired a car and drove up to the ‘highest’ (and I think coldest) road in the world and took a group photo as a reminder that we made it and we made it together! 

Connect with Naina @sintonanaina on Instagram