Walking on broken glass

No, this has nothing to do with Annie Lenox. I am talking about Chadar. Chadar ? Yeah, Chadar…

Chadar, in Hindi or Urdu language, means “blanket”. And I am referring to the blanket of ice that covers the roaring Zanskar river, for few weeks every year. During the harsh winter season, as the temperature dips to -20 or -30 degrees Celsius, the raging Zanskar river is tamed (I wouldn’t dare say tamed, maybe subdued is a better adjective) and a layer of ice starts to form on the banks of the river, in some places couple of feet thick and in others, couple of inches. In some places, the entire width of the river is covered by this blanket of ice, even as the river continues to flow below. This layer of ice can be walked upon in places where its formed well or waded through, where its knee deep.

With Zanskar being cutoff by several feet of snow on all the high passes, that otherwise offer an entry and exit, the only option for Zanskaris to be in contact with the outside world, is by walking on this sheet of ice. They walk for several days from villages like Padum or Lingshed to reach Leh, sleeping in caves along the way, and cooking simple meals on the meagre firewood that would be available. Little children would be fetched from their schools in Leh and taken back to Zanskar, while making the treacherous walk on the Chadar.

Tap Tap Tap...

The first time I had heard of Chadar was probably a decade or more ago, when I stumbled upon one of only two copies of the book “Where heaven and mountains meet. Zanskar and the Himalayas” by Olivier Follmi, in the Singapore National Library. Chadar had firmly stamped its presence, in the depths of my consciousness. When an opportunity presented itself this year (2016) to experience it first hand, I jumped at it. And what an experience it has been. I have played back the memories of the 8 days that I spent on the Chadar, an infinite times in the last few days.

So, what’s the Chadar like ? I believe that its an intimate experience that is unique for every one, unique every time you set foot on it. Firstly, its the sheer unpredictability. Ice is formed now, it can break the next moment. Where there is no ice now, overnight the temperature could dip a few notches, and a perfect layer of ice fit to walk upon, would be formed. Secondly, its about emptying one’s mind and living every moment in its totality. When I was walking on the Chadar, I was so immersed in that experience, that all my senseless thoughts would often recede. And finally, the people with whom I went on the Chadar, and the support group of Zanskaris have left an indelible impression in my mind. The attention, care and support in such difficult conditions, has touched me in a way that I have never been touched before.

This year, temperatures didn’t dip too much (and yeah, I still felt numbing cold) and so the Chadar wasn’t so well formed in places. This posed several challenges, as we had to switch from our insulated boots to gumboots, to wade in water. At times, when the water level would rise, and icy cold water would rush into our gumboots, there was a kind of pain/sensation that I had never experienced before (I was like “@#^$^&#$&!#$%@. What just hit me ?”). In places where there was no possibility to wade, we had to take off our crampons and scramble on the side of the cliffs, precariously holding on for dear life. Sleeping in a communal tent, packing/unpacking, sharing of goodies and life stories, freshly cooked meals by the kitchen team, even in such basic conditions – the memories are countless. I had the experience of sleeping in a cave, while the others slept in a goat pen in Nerak.

The local Zanskaris, who double up as porters (I hate to use that word, so I will use “Support Crew” instead) on the Chadar, are its lifeline. They carry loads of 50-60kgs on their makeshift sledges, which they drag behind them using ropes, where the Chadar is well formed. And in places where the Chadar is not well formed, they load these sledges as backpacks and scramble over the walls of the gorge…They climb high cliffs, as if its a walk in the park, to collect firewood and carry on their backs and on sledges. Real Herculean characters !!!

Coolest crew in the world. On Ice.

I didn’t indulge much in photography, as the emphasis was more on survival. With just one camera body and lens, and keeping myself safe by walking only on the well formed Chadar, I doubt if I ever stretched my vision. Photography would invariably slow me down, and it would be a constant catch-up with the rest of the group who would have forged ahead. I also realised that Chadar is not just about photography, but an overall experience of all the senses.

One has to be either stupid (which I am) or brave, to go on the Chadar. But one has to be really insane to go on it more than once. And I think I am ready for that insanity. I can’t wait for next year.

PS : I went on this adventure, with a group organised by Milan Moudgill. Milan has been going on the Chadar almost every year, leading small groups and introducing them to the wonders of the Chadar. Words are not enough to describe Milan. He is one of the most caring and responsible guys that I have ever come across. His attention to detail, even as he prepared us individually before we embarked on this adventure, and the amount of information he shared, and the care and support that he provided to each of us while on the Chadar…Even though all of us had our grumpy moments from time to time, Milan’s perpetual cheer always lifted all of us up. I am indebted to him for life, and blessed that I had the good fortune to cross paths with him in life.

PPS : Three of the members from the group – Harsha, Nino and Richa – are working on a nobel initiative that Harsha started in 2010 in Leh, called “New Lives, New Beginnings…” It involves sponsoring education and care, for underprivileged Zanskari kids, in a good school in Leh. I will write a separate note on the amazing work that is being done. Please drop me a note if you are interested in knowing more, and I will connect you with Harsha.

Memories of Chadar

I have often wondered, that in this fast paced digital age and in the era of instant gratification, we are losing out on the fine art of seeing. I am often guilty of “shoot first, and review later” syndrome that seems to have plagued most photographers in the digital world. And when I am back home, when faced with the daunting task of selecting keepers from the hundreds or thousands of images that I would have made, I sigh with resignation. Emotions play an overriding role over aesthetics.

This time around, I forced myself to select 36 exposures from the entire lot of images that I made. Its not entirely similar to a situation where one would have had only one roll of film for the entire trek. I wonder how I would have reacted to that situation. Would I have returned with mediocre images that I would have made as “reserve”, in the bag OR would I have come back with none, as I might have been afraid that I would have encountered a grand moment, and not have the film to make an exposure (and thus miss out on the grand moments, because I would forever be waiting for a grander moment). Or I might have captured whatever opportunities I would have been provided to make 36 exposures, and then spent the rest of the trek in contentment ? I don’t know how my mind would have reacted. Either which way, I suppose I would have been forced to see, rather than look.

For once, I enjoyed the ruthless experience of trashing or downgrading the images that, in my opinion, didn’t qualify to be in these 36 exposures. A bit of detachment is good in life.

Anyways, the Chadar gallery is up…



I survived The Chadar !!!

Battered and bruised. Physically and mentally. Yeah, I survived the Chadar. It has been an experience beyond words. Too intense. At some point in time, it will all “sink” in, no pun intended. But right now, I can only sit back and wonder at the miracle.

I will write a longer post about the Chadar, later on…

I was looking through my images to pick one image that epitomized the Chadar for me. One definitive image that would stay with me forever, come what may. And I found this one. To me, Chadar is not just the walk on the frozen Zanskar river, and dealing with the challenges. To me, Chadar is about the beautiful and simple Zanskari people who take care of all of us who go on the Chadar. Those Herculean characters who put their lives at stake, to make sure that we outsiders are well taken care of.


Dorje @ Dib

This image (click to enlarge) of Dorje on the Chadar, carrying a load of firewood that he had gone to collect from several kilometres away, by climbing some mountain (yeah, firewood is that scarce), and dragging an entire tree trunk behind him on a sledge, is very special.

The previous night, I was battling a stomach infection, fever, vomiting and exhaustion. It was decided that I would stay back in a cave (the black hole you see in the image, was my abode for the previous night), and Dorje and a 16 year old kid, Stanzin, would look after me. Even with so limited resources, Dorje took it upon himself to feed me, talked to me and kept the cave warm, by lighting a fire till late into the night. This next day, after making lunch for me, he had set off in search of firewood. Stanzin, the 16 year old kid, took me to the other side of the river where there was a bit of sunshine. As I was soaking in the sun, I saw Dorje walking back to the cave on the Chadar, with all the firewood he had collected.

This image, summarizes, my experience of The Chadar.

Chadar. You have done your magic on me…

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 14 : Machermo – Gokyo

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 13 : Dole – Machermo

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 12 : Phortse – Dole

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 11 : Upper Pangboche – Phortse

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 10 : Lobuche – Upper Pangboche

23 Dec : Wednesday : Louche – Dhugla – Pheriche – Upper Pangboche

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 9 : Gorakshep – EBC – Lobuche

22 Dec : Tuesday : Gorakshep – EBC – Lobuche

EBC Gokyo Trek : Day 8 : Lobuche – Gorakshep

So, this was gonna be the big day, that would bring me so close to Everest.

Lonely Planet says that the trek from Lobuche to Gorakshep is about 2 hours. I should have added in a buffer of another 2 hours, because at that altitude I would definitely have been slower, and I would also have needed time for photography.

I left the lodge around 830AM, much later than the rest of the folks. It was a gentle gradient all the way, until it was time to go over the Khumbu glacier. I stopped at several places to make images and kept asking Bibek “when would I be able to see Kala Patthar ?”, as that would mean that I wasn’t too far from Gorakshep. Bibek replied that we would see Kala Patthar just before reaching Gorakshep.

Lila kept telling me that he wasn’t feeling well and that his chest felt heavy and he was having difficulty breathing. I told him that he needn’t climb Kala Patthar, and that he could rest at the lodge at Gorakshep.

Anyways, we finally reached Gorakshep around 1130AM or so. We decided to stay at the very first lodge that we encountered – Himalaya lodge. There was a statue of Shivaji, that kinda tilted in its favour. Some of the folks who had stayed in Peak XV lodge too were staying in this lodge.

Promptly ordered Dal Bhat for me and fried noodles for Lila and Bibek. It was decided that Lila would descend to Lobuche or Thukla, and Bibek and I would stay at Gorakshep for one night, and climb Kala Patthar that afternoon and visit Everest Base Camp the following morning, and then descend to Lobuche.

After lunch, I said my goodbyes to Lila, and got ready for the ascent to Kala Patthar. Packed my camera bag, two tripods, two headlamps, took my down jacket and some food. Made sure that Bibek was adequately covered for the drop in temperature, as the plan was to stay till sunset and photograph last light on Everest. The weather Gods would have the final say, but at least I wanted to do my part.

Bibek and I left the lodge by 130PM. I had set myself a stop time of 4PM, which I could extend by 15 minutes, by when I would stop wherever I would have reached and get ready to photograph. If all went well, I would make a time-lapse of the shadows receding from the glacier and last light hitting on Everest.

Some other people from the lodge had left at 2PM, and they soon caught up with us. I was making very slow progress. In hindsight, I should have left Lobuche much earlier, and left Gorakshep much earlier for the Kala Patthar climb. The air was so thin, and every step up was a torture. The climb was not so steep, but still it was very tough for me.

We looked back and saw clouds approaching at break neck speed from the valley. They had already reached Lobuche. I cursed. Why were the weather Gods so pissed with me ? I prayed and asked the clouds to stay where they were.

And then, something magical happened. The moon rose from behind Everest. It was spectacular. I stopped in my tracks and made several images, and then continued.

Time was going by fast, and I wasn’t making any progress. The people ahead of me had also slowed down, clearly everyone was struggling.

By 415PM, I was still around 50-80m from the summit of Kala Patthar. It would easily take me another 30 minutes for the final push. I decided that it wasn’t important for me to make it to the summit, rather I wanted to use the time to make some memorable images of Everest.

Bibek took a detour to the right and found a flat spot from where I could shoot sunset. It was in the same line of sight as the view from the summit. I somehow dragged myself there, and collapsed to the ground.

I wore my down jacket first. Then setup one tripod and mounted the 6D with the 17-40mm lens to shoot a time-lapse. Once that was done, I setup the other tripod and the 7D with the 24-105mm lens on it. I kept another 7D with the 70-200mm on standby. Took couple of photos of Bibek and I with my iPhone, and just when I was making a video, it died. The temperature was dipping drastically. I could feel my fingers going numb. The Icebreaker base layer gloves were of no use at that temperature. Thicker gloves didn’t give me the dexterity to operate my gear. I alternated between shooting and stuffing my hands in the pockets of the down jacket to keep the fingers from freezing.

By the time the sun set around 515PM, Bibek and I were the only ones left on Kala Patthar. I continued to make images till 530-540PM and then packed up. The light was magical. I could have continued there for another 2-3 hours and made some star trail images, if I had some company. I would have certainly needed chemical warmers too, as by now my fingers and toes were already getting numb. It was probably -20 degrees and the mercury was dipping fast.

Bibek and I donned our headlamps, and we started the descent. I told Bibek to go a bit slow and followed in hot pursuit. We made it back to the lodge in less than an hour. I promptly ordered a pot of ginger tea and some french fries, even as a tomato cheese pizza would come later. I knew Bibek would have been famished by then. We gorged on the fries and the plate was cleaned up within 5 minutes.

Dinner came and I finished the pizza as well. Bibek would eat his Dal Bhat with the rest of the guides and porters. We talked for a bit, and then I went out to make some images of the landscape under moonlight.

By 8pm or so, I was done. I was exhausted and we still had a long day the next day.

There was an American couple with whom we had been crossing paths, all the way from Kathmandu airport. The husband was clearly suffering from AMS. I think the pace at which they came up to Gorakshep and then climbed Kala Patthar, must have got to him. He was vomiting and getting delirious. Another reminder for me to take AMS very seriously. Nothing could be done until the next morning, when the sun would be up, and the lodge would make contact with a rescue helicopter. I prayed for him, and went to bed.