Friday, January 27, 2012

2012 Chadar Expedition

This year's Chadar was excellent; our timing right for having most of the river to ourselves.  On the day we stepped off the ice, more than 100 people were present in first camp, staged to journey the gorge.  Below, you'll find ramblings and images that illustrate the trip.

 We flew into Leh under partly cloudy skies, the snow clearing after two days of obscuring clouds and occasional snow.  We were lucky to only be delayed a day in Delhi.

Joining us on the trip were members (left to right):  Sasha S., Lauren Siba, and Carolyn Graham

Journals of the expedition

11/1/2012 , 2044 - Tilad Sumdo, Ladakh, India (camp 1).  We've arrived on the Chadar, after taking our time this morning getting out of town; picking up last minute supplies.  The Chadar is in good shape, I've been out this afternoon with the binoculars and spotting scope; we spotted a flock of Ladakh Urial sheep on the way here as we descended to the Indus - Zanskar river confluence.  The flock was approximately thirty individuals, appearing healthy and grazing on winter grass.  We spooked them with our scent, being upwind and pulling over to watch them, excellent to view up close with the new high powered spotting scope.  Descending to the river, we spotted a Lammergeier gliding along the canyon walls, and lots of animal tracks on the river ice; their using the corridor as we do, as the easiest method of travel through wild country in the heart of winter.  Angchuk parked the jeep with camp in sight, the road now extending to Tilad Sumdo.  We descended through loose scree to the river, and walked on good ice to camp. The river is solid, and this trip up the Chadar will be a pleasant one.  Locals travelled the entire 50 km extent in two days recently, and weather and good overnight temperatures will maintain.  One local spotted an ibex on the river near camp,  drinking water from an open lead before ascending the slope above to safety.

  12/1/2012 , 2034 - Shenra, Ladakh, India 
Today we trekked from 0930 to 1543, stopping  for two ten minute breaks and an hour for lunch.  Several of the beaches along the well-frozen river held snow leopard tracks and blue sheep as well.  Many more excellent clear ice displays were along the route this year, including one with pebbles and stones suspended in the ice. Watching the river flow under neath the ice as you tread upon it is quite the experience.  Lobsang Otzer and the crew are strong.  All of the team are  Zanskari, hailing from the villages of Pidmo , Kumik, Zangla, and Rangdum.

  13/1/2012 , 2036 -  Dib Yongma, Ladakh, India

Today ended a challenging day, with Lauren going through the ice just before reaching camp, a tricky section that Lobsang walked through first and then me;soaking my left foot and then stepping back to Sasha's waiting hand; giving us caution as to the right way through the situation.  Lobsang returned, leaving his pack on the other side of the open lead that we needed to pass in order to complete the day.  He took Lauren's hand, and began the crossing.  I watched, throwbag in hand, as she plunged in thigh deep, and then pulled forward by Lobsang, she recovered and stumbled through broken ice; her lower body soaking wet.  I encouraged them to keep going, while Carolyn crossed over unscathed, Sasha and I began to deliberate on a better route, looking high above the river to no avail; with Carolyn reporting the descent route to be treacherous, her on the other side with a clear view.

          We made it across with no trouble , and walked into camp to find Lauren in her tent warming up with dry clothes.  Meanwhile, Stanzin had spotted a herd of Asiatic Ibex, as I hurriedly gathered wood for a fire to dry Lauren's clothes and then bringing out the spotting scope to view the group of local ovid.  What a beautiful site, to see a healthy wild group of animals in their element; and so relaxed.  They lazed in the sun, and moved occasionally to forage on grass and sniff the air for danger and the odour of each other.  A dominant male, with a full curl and distinct white and brown-gray markings, walked around his herd and sniffed each, watching and gazing the hills round.  I was awestruck to see them, and extremely happy to get to share the experience with the crew and staff.  As they looked through the scope, they would look to me in retrospect and say, "it's like they are here", pointing at the ground.  An excellent opportunity, and how lucky we are to be experiencing this canyon with no one else around.  More to come tomorrow, as it's time to slow our pace and watch the canyon cliffs a little more, because the wildlife is here. Tomorrow could be the day to spot the fabled and elusive snow leopard, this gorge its lair.

Ibex rest 1 kilometer from camp, this image was taken through a spotting scope.  A new addition to all Gyu Ba trips, it will allow members to view wildlife up close.  Obtaining sharp images with the setup is an art, and I look forward to learning it.

Look closely, the ibex are bedded down in the middle of the scree slope in the far distance.  I made the close-up image above from this vantage point.

15/1/2012, 2023 -  Nyeraks , Ladakh, India

We arrived in Nyeraks around 1630 yesterday, after a lucky day of getting the ice just right for the tricky gorge section before the "shukpa" tree of Nyeraks, a landmark for us of accomplishment.  We are now well into the gorge, our only real option of escape being over snow bound 5000 meter passes to our east and west.  It snowed overnight, and it continues to fall as I write.  I don't expect it to be a significant amount of accumulation, but it could be enough to cause avalanching on our route.
            We spotted our first dippers yesterday, a pint sized bird that's wicked enough to dive into the frozen river, which is only liquid because it's flowing.  We watched a couple as they dove, hunted, and resurfaced, shaking the icy slurry from their feather bound limbs before it froze.  It was difficult to discern whether they were successful in obtaining the tiny macro invertebrates they sought on the bottom.  As they flitted on to a new hunting site, we continued on up the ice shelf towards what I expected to be a difficult afternoon.  Luck would have it that we had enough ice to forego the rock climbing of past years.   Fortunate.
            We'll see what today brings.  We move on up the gorge as the snow continues to accumulate.

Sunday - 15 January, 2012, 2051 - Army Base Camp, Zanskar River, India

We made it through the gorge!  The snow piling to about 15 cms, and we are warm inside an army issue Siachen Glacier hut, wood heated and after a nice meal, ready for bed.  I expected more difficulty today, but were able to surpass all the preconceived difficulties with relative ease, staying on the river ice and not needing to scramble on the rocks.  Tomorrow we'll trudge through the snow to Pidmo, the home of our companions and a sure welcome.  We look forward to resupplying our food stores, and also our cooking gas, as supplies are low. After making an effort to get a less than reliable forecast, we'll forego it and go with what the skies tell us.  I expect more snow tomorrow, so we'll see what the morning brings.   No wildlife sightings today in the thick snowfall, although the yellow billed choughs soared high above the gorge, pausing to rest occasionally on the walls, while the dippers flitted about next to the river, our movement spooking them further up and down and amongst us.  Glad to be here, and in good company.

Local Zanskari men who maintain the army camp, and keep the place warm with a wood fired stove.

           The mountain views as we walked into Pidmo.

17/01/2012 , 0905 -  Pidmo, Zanskar, India 

We arrived here yesterday evening, a break in the snow giving us an opportunity to view the Zanskar valley in full winter light; a sight unseen.  The day was long, trudging the snow on the tarmac above the river, slowly reaching our destination here in ancient Pidmo; the only clues revealing its modernity being the rudimentary power lines and occasional blue plastic tarps over animal fodder.  Pieces of modernity amongst houses constructed in an efficient and time-honored tradition. We spotted a healthy population of white-winged  red starts (Phoenicus erythrogaster), playing and feeding along the Zanskar.  I paused for awhile to photograph them as they quickly moved here and there, from dry stream bed to trickling spring; from bush to sandy cliff.  They moved and sang, local residents who'd come to know their territory well.

Above and below images show the curious children of Zanskar, particularly; Pidmo village.

            Today, we awoke  to dense cloud enveloping the village, and snow continues to spit through a dense veil of white.  We will rest this morning, our bodies tired from the weeks walk to get here.  The sun is now breaking through the clouds, and it looks like it's going to be a clear day.  We'll move on to Zangla today, a few hours walk away and the center of an ancient kingdom.  Last year, we visited with the king, and he took us to see the old palace ground, perched high upon a hilltop above the village.

17/01/2012 , 1713 - Zangla, Ladakh, India
Resting here in Zangla, amongst a scrabble game and sips of hot water; a cold is going through the group.  I'm fighting it now, and Sasha is as well.  Lauren has lived with it for more than a week;the virus moving to her lungs and causing a cough that keeps us awake at night.
      The sun shone brightly, and reflected off of fresh snow, the kids here out playing in it and descending the gentle hills on homemade sleds letting out shouts and cheers. Stanzin and Jigmet cook dinner in the next room, hot food surely to come soon.  Lobsang has left for Kumik, the home of his wife and a warm visit; he'll join us again in the morning for a tour of the valley and a resupply of food in Padum. 
            Sasha and Lauren spent the afternoon playing with Tsering's young boys on the roof, while Carolyn had a walk to a nearby gorge. We sat for awhile and chatted this evening with Gyatso, a local guide whom we asked local politics an his thoughts on the valley.  Tomorrow we'll travel to Sani Gonpa and resupply food in Padum.

A bridge to the village of Pishu, crossing the Zanskar river in the heart of the Trans-Himalaya.

The view of the Great Himalaya Range from the Zanskar valley, enroute to Padum from Zangla.

Sani Gonpa, Zanskar, Ladakh.  Site of the oldest stupa in Ladakh.

19/01/2012, 1956 - Army Camp near Oma Chu, Ladakh, India
We arrived here via jeep in late afternoon, snowy skies predicting calm and precipitous weather to come overnight.  Currently, the skies are clear and I expect the temperature to drop further near morning than the current temperature of -20 C / -1 F.  The crew is happy, chatting, and having thukpa for dinner, as the members havew gone to bed after a meal of noodles and birthday cake for Sasha.  The past day and a half have been pleasant; visiting with locals in their homes, and getting to know the families of our river companions.  In the morning, we'll embark back down the Chadar, towards Leh and hot bucket showers. 
To be mentioned, we spotted a healthy flock of Bharal / Blue Sheep / Napo two days ago in the Zanskar valley.  It was a group of nine individuals, and they were digging in fresh snow to obtain the grass underneath.   They appeared relaxed, and moved as if not concerned.  They were half a kilometer above us, and about three kilometers distant.  
            Gyaltso mentioned that just two and a half months before, the locals in Zangla had caught a snow leopard in a pit trap with a horse carcass in it.  They had watched it flail about and struggle for two days before it finally escaped, the locals believing that it had learned its lesson not to come back. The locals say the snow leopard kills a lot some years.  Lobsang says two years ago they killed a snow leopard with stones.  Tsering says a snow leopard lives in Namtse Sumdo, and is quite adept at killing; taking 22 horses in one year.   
            The snow leopard (shan) is elusive, yet these men live out their lives in its home, and they see it relatively often. Tsering was up in Namtse Sumdo looking for his yaks.

20/01/2012, 2024 - Nyeraks, Ladakh, India

We made quick work of today.  Rising at 0700, we made on the river by 0830, and enjoyed a fine morning weaving and schlepping around ice heaves and balancing across conjoined translucent ice sheets .  It seems the group is beginning to feel and and get a balance for the river.  With three more solid days, we'll enjoy them.  Lobsang spotted an male ibex on the river, it solo and searching for a drink.  Spooking it, climbing expertly it avoided us and moving up and around to munch on snow and observe our downstream progress.  Why it was alone I'm not sure, as this time of year the flock stays together, taking safety in numbers and warmth in the most dire times and moments of a deep and cold winter.  It appeared healthy though, and surely enough will locate a group to run with again by spring melt. 

26/01/2012, 2024 - Leh, Ladakh, India

We've made it back to Leh, retracing our steps down the Zanskar gorge, averting the tricky sections at Oma and below Dib Yongma.  The team is well.  Half of the group returned up the Chadar with a new group, while others came back to Leh to recover and prepare for another trip in a week.  Lobsang and I plan to meet a new member on the 5th, and we'll go for a winter 6000 meter peak climb.  Stay tuned!  Ladakh in winter is magnificient if you're prepared.

Chadar Expedition Staff

 Lobsang Otzer of Pidmo, Zanskar coordinated the Zanskar Gorge team shown below.  Most of the men were from his village, and were his family and friends.  He did an excellent job and showed good potential to becoming a sound and proficient sirdar.  We enjoyed his happy company and sense of humor; always smiling and staying calm even in thin ice conditions.

Stanzin Chosphel - Pidmo - Kitchen Helper / Ice Porter

Sonam - Pidmo - Ice Porter

Tashi Namgyal (A.K.A. Amdo)  - Pidmo - Ice Porter

Tiles - Pidmo - Ice Porter

Tashi - Kumik - Ice Porter

Tashi - Pidmo - Porter

Tiles - Rangdum - Ice Porter

Jigmet - Pidmo - Cook / Ice Porter

Tsering - Zangla - Kitchen Helper, Porter

see Carolyn Graham's Flickr photo set of the trek.