By Robert McPherson
I had lived in Nepal for 12 years, was 51 years old and had never even contemplated sitting in a kayak when my son opened my eyes and mind one afternoon in May 2009 when he asked me why we were sitting in a raft on the Bhote Koshi river when the safety kayakers who were accompanying us down the river were having all the fun. A couple of years later, after a lot of father-son-kayak-related bonding and more than a few adventures on the rivers of Nepal, I found myself paddling the Karnali River with my friend Simon and a group of fellow adventurers that included Steve Brooks, a professional kayaker based in Austria. After having run a number of the more accessible classics in Nepal, Simon and I were looking for something edgy and epic to run that was within my limits—I am comfortable in most types of Class IV water and can run some IV-plus or V-minus although adventures often ensue. Steve suggested we consider joining him on an eight-day self-supported kayaking expedition of the Tsarap Chu and Zanskar Rivers in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in far-northern India. He started to describe it and it didn’t take us long to say “we’re all in.”
The combined run of the Tsarap Chu and Zanskar rivers (the Tsarap is a tributary of the Zanskar) is well-known as a “world classic” kayak trip and has been described elsewhere; Mark Rainsley’s trip description at http://www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk/reports/asia/zanskar-grand-canyon-of-asia is the most comprehensive report that I have found. I won’t attempt to paraphrase something that better authors than I have already described. Instead, I will write about our trip from two perspectives that may have been somewhat unique to our effort: (1) we ran the rivers quite late in the season (September 9-16) which is somewhat later than the norm; and, (2) I am probably less experienced than the average kayaker who paddles these two rivers and thus can comment on what it’s like for an intermediate kayaker to run the Tsarap and the Zanskar.
The Tsarap and Zanskar Rivers are located in the region of Ladakh in the northernmost part of India. Ladakh is high-altitude mountainous desert country that feels like an extension of Tibet—both geographically and culturally. Getting to Ladakh involves flying into Delhi and then preferably flying from Delhi to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, although masochists can also travel from Delhi to Leh by bus. Leh is a small town located at an altitude of 11,500 feet and is a pleasant place to sort out equipment, hang out and acclimatize. The Indus River, from which India takes its name, runs right through Leh and there are opportunities to do some warm-up kayaking on the Indus close to Leh before starting the big trip. It’s a good 8-9 hour drive from Leh to the put-in on the Tsarap near to the village of Sarchu. The take-out at the end of the trip is where the Zanskar joins the Indus at the village of Nimu, about one hour’s drive from Leh.
[alert type=”blue”]Note: The maps of the Ladakh and Zanskar regions that are presented in this report are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike 2.5 License. These maps have been downloaded from http://www.abram.ch/ccmaps.php and credit for their use is attributed to CClicensed Ladakh Zangskar Map: Abram Pointet.[/alert]
The trip itself consists of about 90 miles on the Tsarap and another 90 on the Zanskar. Our put-in was at 14,080 feet and the take-out was at 10,320, with an average gradient of about 26 feet per mile on the Tsarap and 16 feet per mile on the Zanskar. The Tsarap starts off as a relatively low-volume braided stream but is solidly mid-volume and quite pushy by the time it joins with the Zanskar. The Zanskar goes from big to bigger volume and dwarfs the Indus when it joins it at Nimu. The water is freezing cold throughout the trip and full dry suits with thermal undergarments are advised. There are long sections of relatively flat water on each river and of course the gradient increases in other sections. Most of the trip is spent in gorges of varying depths and widths with all the consequences that gorges bring to a kayak trip. The scenery is spectacular and reminiscent of Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks in the USA—indeed, the Zanskar Gorge is known as “the Grand Canyon of Asia”. The river-running season in Ladakh is short (June to September) as passes that must be crossed to get to put-ins are closed due to snowfall at other times of year and/or rivers are frozen or too low/cold to run comfortably. Many groups run the Tsarap/Zanskar in August at high water; we chose to run it in September hoping to encounter lower water and easier conditions. We did encounter somewhat lower water but there are questions about whether it was easier or harder than at high water (see the description below). There is at least one mandatory portage and several other optional ones. Runnable rapids on both rivers range from Class III to V, depending on water levels, but sections of the Tsarap can be intimidating while the rapids on the Zanskar tend to be somewhat more friendly and straightforward. What the Zanskar has that is not so friendly are what awaits you at the bottom of many of the rapids there—swirls, boils, whirlpools, a real cornucopia of squirrely water. These contribute to making the eddies and boils more difficult than the rapids themselves in many places, and more dangerous as well; a safety kayaker drowned in the boils in one particularly whirly spot on the Zanskar in the summer of 2011.
The duration of the Tsarap/Zanskar run can range from four to eight days, depending on water levels and other factors. The trip is totally committing; although there are villages and people here and there, there are times when you see no people nor any sign of current human habitation for two or more days. Satellite phones cannot be brought into India and thus, once on the river, you are out of touch—for much of the trip you will have to walk for days, crossing high-altitude passes as you go, to make contact with civilization if you need to get off the river for whatever reason. The Tsarap is not suitable for rafting so self-support kayaking is the only option. The Zanskar can be and is commercially rafted although the logistics are challenging.
These are remote, exceptional rivers that do not attract crowds—they are too hard to get to, too hard to run, and have too limited a season. People I spoke with in Leh said that the Tsarap is typically run by anywhere between two and ten groups per year, with an average group size of about four kayakers. The Zanskar is more accessible but still represents a major commitment and probably doesn’t get much more than 50-60 kayakers going down it each year. You run these rivers in a kayak and you join a pretty elite club.
Prior to heading out to Sarchu and the start of our expedition we discussed how we would approach the river. We were a small, tight team of just three kayakers. Steve had soloed the Tsarap and Zanskar in high water in August 2008 and was our leader; he would decide who could and could not run any sections where questions of runnability might arise. Our goal was for all three of us to successfully complete the expedition without swims or mishaps and we agreed that we would follow a conservative approach and not take undue risks.
Days 1, 2 and 3: The upper Tsarap (from Sarchu to Phuktal Monastery)
The first day and a half on the Tsarap Chu River includes seven box canyons.
Our first day on the river consisted of an all-day drive from Leh to our put-in just below Sarchu followed by one hour of kayaking Class II water. The air was thin, the water freezing and this whole idea of a self-support expedition and kayaking with loaded boats was very new for me. We camped at just under 14,000 feet and doing anything other than sitting down was a chore. The water was permeated with micro-fine glacial silt and had to be filtered before using it to drink or cook; the water contained so much silt that the filter had to be scrubbed clean after filtering only two or three liters!
We knew that the main features on Days 2 and 3 would be the seven box canyons that are located on the upper Tsarap. During his high-water run in 2008, Steve had found the main challenge of the box canyons to be boils and whirlpools and he expected the canyons to be easier to run in lower water conditions. What we found was the reverse; while the boils and swirly water may have been slightly reduced compared to high water conditions, the lower water had allowed rocks to emerge and we were confronted with technical rapids in several canyons where Steve had experienced relatively flat water in 2008. He felt that overall these canyons were as or more difficult to run in lower water conditions as compared to higher water.
I learned to kayak on the rivers of Nepal and am most comfortable kayaking in big water. The box canyons of the Tsarap Chu require a type of technical kayaking that I was not very familiar with and I found them intimidating and often difficult. The current and boils often swept the kayaker straight into the sides of the canyons and I had trouble staying off the walls. I flipped up against walls three times in the second box canyon and although I was able to roll up and continue without consequence, thereafter the canyons began to take on a bit of a sinister character for me. This was unfortunate because the canyons themselves were jaw-droppingly beautiful and the kayaking was, truth be told, excellent.
We ran Canyons 1 through 4 on Day 2 of our trip, with a portage each on Canyons 2 and 3. We then ran the remaining 3 canyons on the morning of Day 3; the fifth canyon had a big, intimidating rapid at its entrance that actually had a relatively easy Class III line through it, while the sixth canyon was notably trickier with a couple of tight slot drops framed by undercut rocks. The seventh and final canyon was, like the first canyon, gorgeous and relatively straightforward. Running the canyons was an unforgettable experience, but I was very, very happy to say goodbye to them and move on towards the bigger, more “straightforward” rapids that awaited us downstream.
Following our completion of the box canyons, we spent the remainder of the third day running relatively flat water (albeit with a helpful current) for a few hours down to the Phuktal Monastery. We camped below the monastery on the opposite bank.
Days 4 and 5: The lower Tsarap (from Phuktal Monastery to Padum)
The biggest white water on our trip was in the final 30 miles of the Tsarap Chu before it merged with the Stod to form the Zanskar River.
We planned to spend Day 4 and part of Day 5 running the bottom 30 miles of the Tsarap Chu. We expected that this would be the most difficult section of our entire expedition as it is where we would encounter the most challenging whitewater—especially the last 10-15 miles just before reaching Padum. The box canyons that were now behind us had proven to be more difficult for me than I had anticipated and I was leery of what lay ahead of us. The Tsarap had gradually grown in volume, spread out, and increased in gradient, all the while changing character significantly as compared to the upper section we had just completed. We were expecting plenty of Class IV water, a couple of rapids in the IV+ category, one big Class V/V-minus, and a probable portage around Reru Falls. Prior to our departure from Leh we had learned that a highly experienced British kayaker had tragically died in this lower section of the Tsarap less than one week before our departure to the put-in; this brought home the serious nature of our endeavor and made clear the potential consequences of a mishap.
We started off from Phuktal on the morning of Day 4 and quickly encountered a couple of Class IV rapids and some edgy water that gave me some problems. Steve noted that the rapids would only get tougher as we descended and suggested that if I couldn’t follow the lines he’d help me to find a mule to put my kayak on and I could walk down to Padum (!!!). Fortunately I regained my mojo, the river eased off a bit, and we paddled quickly down to Reru Falls by lunchtime.
We paddled right to the entrance of Reru thinking that it might be runnable in low water and we could thus avoid an arduous portage. These hopes were dashed once we scouted the falls which featured several major drops with serious hydraulics at the base of each one. Portaging at river-level looked to be nearly impossible. We thus faced the mother of all portages with the road a good 80 meters above the river. Getting up to the road required a scramble over steep scree that was difficult to traverse without a load—never mind while dragging 90-pound boats up it. The thin air at 12,000 feet didn’t help!
The portage around Reru required two solid hours and it took us another hour paddling below Reru—all in big, bouncy, continuous Class III+/IV- water that was the most fun we’d had yet—to find a suitable campsite. It had been a long and difficult day with a bit of everything.
The Tsarap Chu and Zanskar Rivers freeze over in the winter and become pedestrian highways for several months. A number of caves / overhangs on the riverbanks have been used over the years by winter travelers seeking shelter at night. Many of these caves are not all that nice but we found one that was quite pleasant and spent an enjoyable night sheltered there.
Day 5 dawned sunny and bright. We knew that the big Class V-minus rapid was just below our camp and it didn’t take long to get there. It was a long rapid—over a half mile in length—and full of features, the biggest of which was right at the entrance. The way the water was flowing, it was impossible to run the entrance and not go into one of two mega-holes immediately, with another huge hole just below them that probably could not be avoided. Although blasting through the holes with our fully-loaded boats seemed theoretically possible and the initial drop thus appeared to be technically “runnable”, we decided to play it safe, portage the entrance and start immediately below it.
The rapid was one hundred percent rock-and-roll. We stayed left, out of the main action, for the first bit and then got our money’s worth once we moved out into the middle. The rapid was littered with holes left and right and was not one to swim. We learned later that this was the rapid where the kayaker had drowned the previous week.
The next two hours went by like a flash as one rapid followed another with little to no breaks in between. This was big-water kayaking at its best—absolutely non-stop action. We scouted a couple of the rapids for my benefit but it was essentially read-and-run Class IV—just top-class whitewater in eye-boggling surroundings.
And then we saw houses on a ridge above the river, and the gradient started to level off, and we knew that Padum was just below us. We had navigated the Tsarap Chu successfully, and I was swept with a huge feeling of relief. It was a melancholy moment to leave behind such a great river, but it was also a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Of course, the Zanskar awaited us below…
Days 6, 7 and 8: The Zanskar
The Zanskar Gorge, also known as “The Grand Canyon of Asia”, must surely be one of the most beautiful river settings in the world.
Steve and Simon walked into Padum for a resupply run prior to moving on to the confluence of the Tsarap and the Stod Rivers which marks the beginning of the Zanskar. They came back with fried momos and the greasiest spring rolls any of us had ever eaten. While we discussed that morning’s run on the Tsarap, Steve reflected on the difference between running the lower Tsarap in higher versus lower water. He didn’t feel like the river was notably more difficult at either water level, just that the challenges were different—higher water was technically less challenging but had more “must make” lines and bigger holes to avoid, while lower water resulted in more technically challenging rapids.
Momos and spring rolls consumed, we got back in our boats and found ourselves in a wide, flat valley with snow-capped peaks on all sides—a real change from four straight days kayaking in the Tsarap gorges. Thirty minutes of paddling brought us to the confluence of the Tsarap and Stod Rivers and the beginning of the Zanskar. The river is wide and flat here and there are many miles to paddle before the river “gorges up” and the whitewater starts. We paddled another 90 minutes through Class I and II water before stopping near Onya to camp for the night.
The Indians are hard at work building a road alongside the Zanskar River for its entire length to connect Nimu to Padum. There may be good logistical reasons for doing so but a world heritage site is being badly defaced as a result. We paddled for about an hour alongside the road on the morning of Day 6 and then the walls of the gorge gradually began to build, constricting the river and creating the first rapids of note since we left the Tsarap Chu. After an hour in the gorge we arrived at a new rapid that had been created by rockfall from the roadwork. In addition to mutilating the pristine beauty of the gorge, the road-building efforts have had unforeseen consequences for the rapids on the river. Carving roads into the side of sheer rock face will result in large amounts of rockfall being discharged into the river unless great care is taken to avoid this—and it was clear that such care is not being taken. Thus, inadvertent rockfall has created a new rapid that is the first rapid on the Zanskar that cannot be rafted. It is depressing to contemplate the possible consequences for the navigability of the Zanskar—to say nothing of its pristine character—as the roadwork continues to move deeper into the gorge.
In any event, the newly created rapid may be a near-term plus for experienced kayakers; it was by far the most difficult rapid on the river and created a great deal of excitement for our team. Simon and Steve had memorable runs on it (check out the video link above) while I walked around it.
And now the fun really started. We spent the next four hours in stunning surroundings running big bouncy rapids one after another. There were big holes to avoid and you had to stay alert but this was basically classic “Class III-plus down the middle” kayaking. Steve was surprised at how good the kayaking was and thought the rapids on the Zanskar were more defined, more fun and more challenging in low water as compared to higher water levels.
Of course, the downside to this beautiful river gorge is that once in, the only way out is at the other end. It would have been possible to walk up and out of the canyon in some places but it wouldn’t have been easy. There were long stretches where the walls were sheer and there was no apparent way out other than to continue downstream.
The boils, whirlpools, swirls and eddy lines on the Zanskar presented us with real problems and were often found either at the bottom of rapids or where the river has been constricted. There are three places on the Zanskar where the river narrows noticeably—we encountered two of them on Day 6 (one is pictured above) while the renowned “Slot” awaited us on Day 7 on our final day in the gorge.
We continued down the river on the afternoon of Day 6 towards a camp site that Steve wanted to stay at where a side stream joined the Zanskar. You could tell that we had been on the river for a while by noting the general level of excitement among us at the thought of having access to clear stream water as opposed to the muddy silted water of the Zanskar. The things that can get your mood up and give you something to look forward to when you’re far away from civilization for days on end!
Our campsite at the end of Day 6 was in the heart of the gorge and put the exclamation point on what had been an excellent day. Steve produced yet another rice and dal masterpiece for dinner and we discussed what tomorrow would bring—The Slot, The Waterfall, and our exit from the gorge, following which we’d camp a couple of hours upstream from our take-out site at Nimu, where we planned to arrive on the morning of Day 8.
Neither The Slot nor The Waterfall disappointed. Steve recalled The Slot—where the entire river is forced through walls that are no more than 10 meters apart—as being more difficult in higher water, with the most difficult boils on the river. We encountered a difficult entrance with some maneuvering required but it was no more than Class III-plus. Less than an hour later we arrived at The Waterfall where a torrent of water emerges directly from a cliff face and cascades down to the river. The site has a sacred feel to it and left me feeling humbled by my opportunity to paddle through one of the world’s most magnificent river settings.
We continued onward and were soon out of the gorge and arrived at our last camp just below Chilling. We debated continuing on to Nimu and our put-out and trying to make our way into Leh by some means but decided to stop and camp as our jeep was scheduled to arrive at Nimu to pick us up at noon the following day. It turned out to be an excellent decision; the two hours of paddling from Chilling down to Nimu on the morning of Day 8 was full of excellent whitewater that really deserved its own “day in the sun” and it would have been a shame to have run it while tired on the last afternoon in a race to the put-out. The rapid that is rather unimaginatively named “Chilling-2” had four monster waves at its entrance that were each a good 10-12 feet high; going through and over them was as much fun as anything I did on the trip.
And then the last rapid ended, the water smoothed out, and it was dog-water paddling for 15 minutes until we reached Nimu, where the Zanskar joined the Indus. The expedition had been successfully completed, and what was once a dream had become an accomplishment—one to be savored.
The combined run of the Tsarap Chu and Zanskar Rivers represents a fantastic opportunity for both seasoned expedition kayakers as well as paddlers with somewhat less imposing resumes to experience the best that the Himalayas have to offer. It’s not a run that is going to be around in its present state forever—roadwork continues to move stubbornly forward along both the Zanskar and the Tsarap, and there is even talk of damming the Zanskar at some point in the future to generate hydropower. While the logistics of getting to India and then on up to Ladakh are considerable, this expedition can be a key part of a one or two-month plan to run some of the great rivers of the Himalayas. The Tsarap/Zanskar is one of the few river trips in the region that can be undertaken in August / September, as many rivers are unrunnable during the monsoon and only become accessible in October once the monsoon has ended.
While the price of a plane ticket to India is not cheap, costs once you are there are very reasonable. Internal plane fares are cheap if you shop around. There are no official barriers to kayaking the Tsarap and the Zanskar; a regular Indian tourist visa is all you need to get into the country and then on up to Ladakh and onto the rivers.
Our team was led by Steven Brooks, a professional kayaker who owns and runs the Kayak School Arlberg in Austria along with his wife Ute. Steve can be contacted through www.gokayaking.at or his blog at www.comingdowngently.blogspot.com.
CKS generously allowed me to purchase several key items at a substantial discount to use on the expedition. The 5.10 Water Tennies were by far the best option that I have ever found for footwear on the river. They are incredibly comfortable in the boat, protect dry suit booties well, stick to wet rock like Velcro, provide fantastic support during portages, drain and dry quickly, and soon became an indispensable part of my kit. The SnapDragon Hyper Hands (pogies) worked great although they began to chafe on certain spots on my hands after six or seven days—but that is probably to be expected, and my hands are frankly not very tough. I wore the NRS Mystery Hat (full cut) under my helmet and it was warmer than I needed—no ice cream headaches for this boy when I tipped. The NRS Paddle Bag was just a fantastic way to transport paddles around the world and has already paid for itself in convenience and protection. I have reviewed the Werner Sho-gun paddle separately on the CKS blog and it was everything and more that I expected from an elite big-water paddle. Finally, I purchased the Aquabound Shred 4-piece paddle from CKS as a back-up but it was fortunately not needed (although it sure helped to hold the tarp up!).
I am grateful to CKS and everybody else who helped make this trip possible. I hope that this report inspires somebody else to give it a run!
November 1, 2012
[alert type=”blue”]All photos taken by Robert McPherson[/alert]