A solo descent down the Tsarap Chu and Zanskar Rivers by Steve Brooks
What a brutal journey I am finally dropped off next to a bridge some 4,300m above sea level. I had left Manali the day before and crossed the Rohtang Pass, not before stopping and waiting for a light truck to be rolled back the right way. The back part of it was somewhere over the side of the mountain. Then as we head towards Jispa, locals tried to rob the bus but luckily the bus boy fought back to prevent them gaining entry. In the meantime the bus driver did what he knew best (and had been doing since we left Manali) and that was to put the pedal to the metal! So as I pack the final contents of my kayak I wave to every truck, jeep and bus that drives by and blows its horn. I am finally ready. Over 300Km of white water lays ahead of me and a few box canyons. Will there be people around? Just how remote is the Tsarap Chu and Zanskar Rivers? These questions and others were going to be answered, I put in!
It was only three hours to my first camp, the weather was not great and I knew the box canyons were relatively close. The night went smoothly, except for the kerosene (I had decided to take kerosene for the trip but I was now thinking this was a mistake).
The morning brought snow, sleet, rain and more sleet. It took a lot of hot tea to get some warmth into me. I was seriously thinking why I had decided to take kerosene instead of petrol! Though one thing was for sure, as I was putting on I was glad to have a set of Pogies. Just minutes downstream I got to the first box canyon, with plenty of boils it was just a taste of things to come. I lunched at Satok, a good landmark for the next box canyon. This time it was a portage around the first two-thirds of the rapid, some rocks had formed a nasty class VI sieve. I could not put my kayak on my shoulder as it was heavily laden down with all my food and expedition kit. No matter how well I had acclimatized I was breathing hard dragging my boat at a height of over 4,000m.
The next three box canyons kept me on my toes until I reached the Lingti Chu confluence and the village of Yarshun. I decide to push on feeling great and wanting to get my first night in the canyon. The night did not disappoint as the darkness closed in the canyon walls made an amazing foreground and the crisp clear night air made the stars even more intense!
I set off early this morning as I was wanting to get to Phugtal Monastery, a truly amazing place. I left my kayak and kit at the river and carried my camera up some 400 vertical metres to get to the entrance. At first I met no-one, I had seen a few monks on the roof as I walked up so I kept heading on in. Finally I met up with a German guy who was studying the Ladakhi culture and language. He showed me upstairs to meet the monks. I got a tour of the monastery, including the prayer room, social areas and the kitchen. The setting too was dramatic, hanging off the cliffs, windblown and whitewashed, prayer flags draped, hanging or flying in the wind, the monastery is certainly something special. The only way to reach this place if you are not a kayaker is some three long days of trekking from the village of Padum (my halfway point), the journey to Leh is at least a week long!
From Phugtal it was just 30 minutes to the confluence of the Kargiak Chu. The river picked up and I was running some classic Himalayan class IV. Camp tonight was close to a local farmer, the wind was brutal and I could not help get sand absolutely everywhere, dinner was going to be late tonight.
My final day on the Tsarap Chu, could I had heard also be my hardest, though it turned out to be the best white water day! I just had to negotiate Reru Falls. For me it was a portage, though I would consider it within a group but I was having enough trouble from the Indian Foreman, or what I would call a supervisor!
He was running down screaming for me to take cover, I grabbed my camera, paddle and ran for it with the foreman chasing. We just both made it into a sheltered cove as a massive explosion went off and rocks came flying down from everywhere. The foreman looked at me and said, “You were very lucky!” I just hoped my kayak was still in one piece! They were blowing into the canyon walls to make way for a road that would go from Padum to Darcha (in-fact a road is planned to go from Leh through the Zanskar Gorge via Padum and finally onto Darcha).
With the excitement of dynamite behind me as well as Reru Falls I now had some three hours of class IV read and run. It was great to be in these big pushy rapids, it kept me smiling all the way down to Padum. I had now reached my halfway point and place to finally get rid of the kerosene and buy some petrol.
I did want to spend the night in Padum but it would have meant trying to drag my kayak up to the rim and then wait for however long it took for a taxi to come by. I left the boat and kit again secured to a rock by the river and headed into downtown Padum. The first priority was the fuel the next some to eat. I had been living off rice and dhaal since the put in and now it was time for the taste buds to get a treat! I was not disappointed, fried Momos and a Coca-Cola!
I camped just below Padum close to the confluence of the Stod River, once the Stod and Tsarap Chu come together the Zanskar is formed! That night I received a few visitors but for me I was mesmerized by the lights of the village of Karsha. After three nights of complete darkness the lights of Karsha was something unusual. As I kept staring towards civilization I realized how my I had enjoyed the Tsarap Chu and will the Zanskar be just as good?
I arrived at the start of the Zanskar Canyon with the weather worsening, by the time I reached camp thunder had started and the noise the rebounds was making was immense. The little clear blue stream that I was using for water turned into a red brick coloured mud torrent, the noise of all the rocks tumbling into the Zanskar just added to the atmosphere.
The next day saw me running some huge waves, negotiating tricky currents and get-ting occasionally tailed in the box canyons. I got to an oasis in the canyon, water was spurting out of the canyon wall bringing a piece of green to the dusty arid environment. As I came close to the village of Chilling, the weather turned on my again, thunder, heavy rain and lightning. I had exited the canyon just over an hour ago and I had made camp noticing the water was getting darker. An hour after stopping one of the side streams must have broke as the river was getting higher, darker and the wood started to mount up in the eddy down from my camp. Firewood would not be a problem tonight!
This carried on for most of the night meaning the final river day was fast and bouncy all the way down to Splash Rafting Camp close to the Zanskar and Indus confluence. I was offered a lift back to Leh which meant of a hot shower, clean clothes and a beer watching the day finish over the grand Leh Palace.
A 300Km white-water solo journey through an amazing canyon and one of the remotest places on the planet, next…Well that was going to be Peru!
Steve has clocked up a fair few kilometres of whitewater so far in his career. In fact he has paddled in over 16 countries, on five continents including first descents along the way!
In the summer you will find Steve at his home near Landeck, Austria where he has been running a successful kayak school and guiding service for the past couple of years. When the Autumn sets in, the weather getting colder and rivers drying up, Steve heads with his kayak to sunnier climes, always looking for that piece of river heaven. He seems to have found it in South America and the Indian Himalayas!
Srinagar now has an international airport and direct weekly flights are operating from Dubai. All major airlines operate regular daily flights to here from New Delhi and other major cities in India. Srinagar Airport is 14 kms from the city
Indian Airlines and Jet Airways operate regular flights to Leh from Delhi and shuttle services to Srinagar and Jammu (thrice weekly to each city) and to Chandigarh (twice weekly). Leh airport is 6kms away from the city centre.
Jammu airport is 8kms from the city centre. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Kingfishers operate scheduled services between Jammu and Delhi and Jammu and Srinagar/Leh.
The Lidder river in Pahalgam has stretches where its gentle gradients are well suited for beginners. Sonamarg is another favourite place for rafting in Kashmir as the river Sindh roars through the area and makes sport challenging for the players. The grade scale at Sonamarg touches up to Grade 4.
Paddling in Ladakh is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. It provides the best opportunity to enjoy and experience the natural beauty of the spectacular landscape with deep gorges, towering snow-capped peaks, hilltop monasteries, hillside villages, and glimpses of the unique wildlife. Ladakh offers a range of rafting options on the Indus and its major tributaries. The best stretch for professionally guided runs in white water is on the Indus between Spituk and Nimu or Saspol, which rates 4 to 5 in the international river grading scale of 1 to 6. Upstream of Spituk, the Indus has the easiest stretch up to Karu, which is ideal for basic training or ‘scenic floating’.
The most difficult but exciting rafting option is available on the Zanskar River, along its spectacular course through a gorge in the Zanskar Mountains, between Padum and Nimu. This is suitable only for well-organized white water expeditions, prepared for a week of rafting and camping in absolute wilderness. Participants are required to be trained rafters themselves while the arrangements should be assigned to a dependable professional agency. Adequate arrangement for rescue back-up is an essential prerequisite for embarking upon this white-water expedition and Indus River (Ladkah) and Suru River (Kargil). These rivers range from Grade 3 to 5.
The weather in Kashmir is like that of Europe, as it can rain any time in any season. Kashmir offers a variation in climatic conditions from region to region. Ladakh and Srinagar are the coolest, whereas Jammu has a tropical climate. Autumn with dry, yellow and reddish leaves has a charm of its own and in winter, can be covered by a blanket of snow.