Conserving Chadar

Bhushan H. Sethi

The main philosophy and approach is via continued education / sensitization of actors in the landscape. All actors should be updated on required best practices.

This narrative is a subset of a formal submission made to the Leh District Administration in September 2019, towards improving the Chadar experience and its sustainability.

Chadar—the frozen river—for centuries, people of the Zanskar valley as far as Padum and beyond have used it to walk to Leh markets as there is no road access in winter that connects the valley with the outside world. Over the last two decades, it has developed into a trek that commercial tour operators promote and is truly a unique experience.

Given the effects of global warming, the strength and thickness of ice of the Chadar varies each year. Besides climate change another set of factors that greatly affect the Chadar landscape are human pressures and side effects of trekking, namely footprint density, human waste decomposition and dissemination, garbage dumping and removal etc. This affects the flora, fauna, sustainability of Chadar and the greater Zanskar valley landscape.

For the majority, the Chadar trek starts off at Bakola and ends at the Nerak waterfall. Few continue to stay at Nerak village, Lingshed or head all the way to Padum. However, less than 50% of enrolled trekkers are able to complete the full Chadar experience.

During my 2019 walk to Nerak, there were a few places where the ice was badly eroded. At places, over a foot deep water pools had formed due to excessive footfall and heavy sledging used for carrying supplies. In areas of weak ice walking first crushes it to small glass cubes. Thereafter footfall and sledging over the already crushed ice and the warmth of the day turn it into a water pool. This churn makes the volume of water large enough to maintain its relative warmth. So much so that it doesn’t completely solidify when overnight temperatures plummet to under 20 and then the footfalls continue the next day.

This is because the number of people is much in excess of the ice’s carrying capacity. Eventually, these pools totally breakdown. Trekkers then have to climb and walk over rocks for 100+m creating a severe safety hazard.

Also one notices a significant percentage of trekkers do not have any outdoors experience : no Himalayan exposure, no experience of being exposed to low, let alone sub-zero temperatures, no orientation on what it meant to be on a trek, expedition or how to conduct oneself with regards to safety or environmental challenges.

The Chadar to Nerak waterfall walk is about 30 km with three overnight camps en-route. The absence of tree cover is obvious. The surrounding mountains have sparse to non-existent wood even at higher elevations.

Trekkers crossing water channel/pools created due to excess human footfall

Trekkers crossing water channel/pools

Therefore severe restrictions on campfires and laws prohibiting tree-felling are essential.

As one alights from the vehicle where the road ends at Bakola, the density of people makes it seem like this must be the largest congregation at this elevation. Trekkers, porters, support staff and people for related activities. Teams move to the river ice below immediately and carry on with repacking, trek readiness, food, thus dumping a lot of waste.

This prep on Chadar ice takes up to two hours for each team. These activities could as well be carried out at the road level above, away from the ice and river. Groups can come down eventually to practice ice balancing for a few minutes before starting the actual trek.

On this trail there is lack of wild animal activity except jackal tracks. They come scavenging at night for food, garbage, plastics and human waste. Deer tracks start appearing only near Nerak waterfall as human footfall drop significantly. For the 5% continuing to Lingshed and Padum, after Omah snow leopard tracks are seen, some even frozen in the old ice surface below the fresh surface.

High altitude desert

High altitude desert


It is important to ensure there is no open defecation. Canids are known to look for feces with certain enzyme content to derive nutrition. It is easy to get infected if human waste or garbage is around, even a little subterranean waste covered by sand / mud can be easily dug out. Bathroom tents should be far away from water.

As one nears Omah after Nerak numerous deer tracks appear and multiple paths crisscross the ice indicating that this is wild terrain. After the Lingshed junction off the Zanskar snow leopard tracks also increase. I could measure up to three fresh snow leopard tracks crisscrossing human tracks. There was an adult snow leopard track with a younger one in tow indicating breeding females. On my walk thereafter to Lingshed, I came across a pair of juvenile Ibex running down the mountain slopes. On our return just a few villages after Padum a pack of three Himalayan wolves crossed.

Towards Sustainability

The district administration is aware what a Bollywood movie did to suddenly boost Pangong Tso tourism. It was an ecological disaster. To prevent Chadar from going the same way these issues must be discussed and suggestions implemented. The main philosophy and approach is via continued education / sensitization of actors in the landscape. All actors should be updated on required best practices. Leave no Trace needs to be strictly followed, by tourists and by agencies, mandating strict enforcements.

Nerak on Chadar

Human and snow leopard tracks after Nerak on Chadar

Ladakh is uniquely positioned for promoting sustainable tourism development as compared to the rest of India as tourist movement is administered using Inner Line Permits. Globally, natural preservation areas also grant a fixed number of daily permits to control land use and avoid above mentioned problems. This combined with sensitization of local communities and operator associations can be leveraged to develop sustainable and clean tourism infrastructure.

Government agencies and commercial operators involved in overseeing/regulating safety of people and environment in any area must consider organizational leadership training. Relevant training courses from an organization like ‘Leave No Trace Centre for Outdoor Ethics, U.S.A.’ ( or the ‘National Outdoor Leadership School in India and U.S.A.’ (NOLS) will go a long way to evolve Ladakh’s outdoor experience for all.

Leave No Trace Centre’s Seven Principles are environment friendly practices for various kinds of ecosystems and have robust training programmes for people and organizations that function in the outdoors. Trekking in Ladakh would benefit by following the frozen ecosystem processes.

Bhushan Sethi sets out to study the climate change and human impact on the immensely popular Chadar trail in Ladakh. He has made several useful recommendations to the administration and summarized his thoughts for THJ.

About the Author

Bhushan H. Sethi wears many hats—he is a global technology consultant, Goodwill Ambassador to Project Tiger and adviser to several conservation networks and NGOs for conservation sensitization, actions and sustainable best practices. His passions include travelling, mountain expeditions, wildlife photography, adventure sports, sailing and antiquities. Although he left India for the US 25 years ago, at heart he is and always will be a Mumbaikar.

⇑ Top