For eight long winter months, mounds of snow block the single road that connects the remote Zanskar valley in Ladakh to the rest of the world. But by early November, as daytime temperatures plummet to below –15 degrees Celsius, the Zanskar river starts freezing. And by late November, a thick layer of ice—as thick as 10ft in places—forms on the river.
Click here to view a slideshow on how the frozen Zanskar river or the Chadar becomes the main highway to Leh.
For the next three months, the Chadar, as the frozen Zanskar river is known, becomes the main highway to Leh. The 145km journey on the river from Padum, the district capital of Zanskar, to Chilling on the main Srinagar-Leh highway takes anywhere between three and 10 days.
Traders carrying goatskins and barley, children going back to school in Leh after their holidays and people travelling to meet relatives waddle up and down the river, spending freezing nights in caves along the way. Over the last few years they’ve been joined on this treacherous journey by adventure travellers who fly to Ladakh just to walk the Chadar.
The year photographer Sankar Sridhar went, in 2007, it was warmer than usual. The river hadn’t frozen completely and a little more than halfway through the journey, a large patch of ice had thawed, making walking on it impossible. The only way forward was to ascend the steep wall of the gorge.
After having “duck-walked” on ice for three days, Sridhar wasn’t used to solid ground any more. Suddenly, 60ft above the river, his wobbly knees gave way. He tumbled all the way down, bouncing off the rock face, on to the river. The ice along the river’s edge cracked with the impact, pitching him into the icy water. “Luckily,” says Sridhar, “the padding on my camera bag kept me afloat.”
According to him, local legend has it that the restless spirits of the river will try to kill you once. “However, if you survive that,” he says, “walking the Chadar will certainly be the most stunning journey you’ll ever make.”
Sankar Sridhar won the Mountain Adventure prize at the Banff Mountain Photography Competition 2009 for a Chadar photograph. He is the author of Ladakh: Trance Himalaya.