I was freezing to the bone. Not metaphorically. My core temperature had dropped and every muscle of my body was shivering uncontrollably. I was inside a tent which was not doing much to block out the sub-zero wind that was blowing through the gaps. The freeze that was seeping from underneath my sleeping bag, ground up, was creeping into my bones and spreading through the capillaries.
As I lay there in the Egyptian mummy position, arms crossed over my chest, it felt like my blood was freezing over. I was camping on the banks of the frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh. My very first trek. I was told that I was a badass. In the dark nights, struggling to keep my body from quivering like a leaf, I did not feel like one.
The Chadar Trek is a winter trek on the frozen Zanskar river. The Zanskar, which is a tributary of the Indus, runs through a deep gorge, with almost vertical cliffs on either side. The best time to do the trek is in the month of January when the temperature dips to -30/-35 degree celsius.
Ironically, the starting point of the trek is from a place called Chilling. At the start of the trek, you feel that it is an adjective to describe the atmosphere of the camp. Upon your return to the same place, post trek, Chilling becomes a verb. Everyone is kicking off their winter gear and some bravehearts are diving into the freezing waters. As I watched the snow gradually drifting over the valley like a white opaque mist, I realised that the trek had changed me. I had left a part of me behind among the copper-coloured cliffs.
We could not complete our trek. That year, the ‘chadar’ or ‘blanket’ of ice over the Zanskar river was not well formed. The trek was tricky from the start but we decided to go ahead anyway. We could only reach till the first campsite at Shingra Koma. We did a day trek till a semi-frozen waterfall. But beyond that, the glacial waters of the mighty Zanskar rushed openly without any semblance of an icy blanket. Without doubt, we were disappointed and vowed to return some day. Even though the trek was incomplete, I felt an intense sense of inner peace pervading every fibre of my being.
Finding inner peace
Time itself freezes on the Chadar. Every moment of the trek, my only focus was on placing one foot before the other. The ice was thin and crunchy in places and thick and slippery in others. As I navigated through all these unknown terrains, my mind attained a state of hyper awareness. I was re-learning to walk again, feeling my foot on the ice, and breathing. I had to remember to keep moving till that new form of slipping sliding walk became natural. In this completely focussed state, I found peace. Peace came when I was not short-changed by Time.
The vagaries of life melted away just as easily as the ice was melting away on the gushing river. The only sound was the sound of my feet on the ice. I felt reverence in the presence of the towering mountains. I felt a fine thread tugging at my navel, connecting me to these ancient rocks. I felt a strong sense of familiarity in the glistening pebbles beneath the clear ice. With every sharp cold air I inhaled, I felt it was my very first.
There was no internal dialogue, no voice telling me to do this and not do that. I found that the ever-elusive peace that I had been running after was waiting patiently for me to look within. Even with all the other trekkers in the team, I was alone with Me for company. Hand in hand with that feeling of oneness with myself, came a strong sense of my insignificance in the cosmos.
A part of me wants to return to that physical discomfort because when my body was “comfortably numb”, my mind was able to detach itself. This is perhaps akin to the elusive runner’s high that all athletes seek.
My quest for inner peace continues. I will keep returning to that quietude in the crevasses of my mind; where the mountains echoed the silence of my soul.