It was a decision that required a lot of courage and planning. I couldn’t have woken up one day and packed my bags and decided to leave, as I often do. I had to go over a list of things I needed over and over again and every time I went through it, it seemed not enough. Winters in Spiti Valley is no joke, after all. A place where summer nights can be painfully cold with dry, cold winds blowing hard and stinging your face like a slap, winters is a different game altogether. And for someone who’s cold bearing threshold is incredibly low (read: me), it was weeks of planning and running errands that finally made me feel ready for the plunge I was about to take. But little did I know, I had signed myself up for some of the most incredibly challenging things to do: survive 10 days where the temperature falls to -30 degree Celsius!
My ten days in Spiti Valley during the last week of December with Trekatribe were no less than an adventure. Here’s all that I learned, and my guide to how you can do it better.
How to Reach Spiti Valley in Winters
First things first. In simple words, there are two routes through which you can enter Spiti. One via Manali through Rohtang Pass, and the other via Shimla through Kinnaur. Since Rohtang Pass remains buried in snow during winters, the only option to enter Spiti Valley in winters is through Shimla. The Shimla route remains open the entire year, except for unforeseen road blockages due to snow- which gets cleared out in a couple of days.
Things to know about winters in Spiti Valley
Running water is a luxury you will miss
This is not much of a surprise considering I have already mentioned the -30 degrees bit. But for those who need a little more perspective on things, water pipes freeze during winters here. That means about 6 months of no running water to bathe, flush or even wash your hands or your face.
Errr… wait, what? No flushing? So how do you do the big job there? We’ll find out.
Everything Freezes. Everything
In continuation to the last point, frozen water is not the only thing that you need to worry about while in Spiti Valley. While I was sitting in the kitchen, observing the cook do his business one day in Kaza, I saw him pick up an onion and dunk it into a pot of hot water. Curious, I questioned him about this and he told me that onions have so much water in them that the entire vegetable freezes and it’s difficult to cut into it or eat it in that form! On top of that, the walls of the kitchen were lined with a considerably thick layer of ice… from the steam that comes from all the cooking. Which ultimately means a light shower in the kitchen when the sun decides to bestow us with its presence and the ice finally melts off.
But that’s not it, if you put a wet towel to dry, chances are you’ll find it in a weird twisted position because a wet towel in Spiti Valley freezes faster than it dries! You can expect other mildly wet things around you to freeze to- including your pack of wet wipes and even your hair after a head bath. The moment you step out with those wet hair of yours, it’ll bunch up together and the remaining water on it will… you guessed it- freeze. So unless you have a blow dryer lying around in a place where electricity is intermittent, do not wash your hair!
Frozen water pipes equal dry compost toilets
Have you even heard of a concept like dry compost toilets? I hadn’t either until I saw one of them, and it is not a sight to behold. Compost toilets are essentially large holes dug into the earth, covered with a tin/ cardboard sheet in which you aim and shoot. Toilet jets are replaced with toilet paper and baby wipes and if it’s too cold, soap is replaced with hand sanitizer.
Temperatures range from freezing to freezing throughout the day
The days are usually -15 to -20 degrees. This coupled with cloudy skies and strong winds, well gear up for a day of doing nothing but sitting in your blanket all day long! The nights are usually -25 to -35 degree Celcius and you most definitely need a heater to survive. And I don’t mean your regular electric heaters because they will feel like orange light bulbs in your room and nothing more. The real heaters are the traditional tandoors find in Spitian homes that keep you nice and toasty… and alive.
My experience in a concrete room (as opposed to traditional mud houses that are 3 to 5 degrees warmer) with an electric rod heater was… let’s say horrifying. Throughout the 4 nights I spent in Kaza, my entire focus was on keeping my body warm and quite frankly, I couldn’t enjoy myself even in the company of a bunch of really good friends. But well, that’s just me and my poor threshold for the cold.
Markets are mostly shut
Once the season ends and winters take over everyone’s lives, money doesn’t matter anymore. Apart from a mere 2 to 3 shops selling the bare necessities, Kaza will feel like an abandoned post-apocalyptic town. With shutters on every single shop you lay eyes on, it was quite eery to walk around lanes that were so full of life the last time I saw them. So forget about shopping for souvenirs and dining at fancy cafes and focus on surviving.
Clothes for winter Spiti: Layer up!
Regardless of how many big poofy jackets you buy, you cannot survive such harsh temperatures in just a jacket or two. Begin with a well-insulated base layer and top it off with another one if required. Follow that up with a warm fleece, then a nice comfy sweater and then that poofy jacket we talked about. Similarly for the bottoms, start with a base layer (or two if needed) followed by a pair of warm pants.
Your shoes must be waterproof and preferably insulated with a good grip to walk over the ice. Trust me, the waterproof bit is important because fellow travellers came in water-resistant shoes and ended up soaking them wet and having to buy another pair from Kaza market.
- Base layer (top): Columbia Omni-Heat 3D Knit Crew Top Baselayer Top
- Base layer (bottom): Columbia Omni-Heat 3D Knit Baselayer Bottom
- Top jacket: Columbia Bugaboo II Fleece Interchange Insulated Jacket
- Shoes: Quecha Women’s Snow Hiking Shoes SH520 X-Warm Mid
- Ski pants: Quechua Warm Hiking Trousers SH500 X-Warm Stretch
Weather Gods control public transport
When in Spiti, forget about fixed itineraries and pre-made plans. Snowstorms and blizzards often equal blocked roads which then equal cancelled buses. Depending upon the amount of snow, it can take from several hours to several days for our beloved BRO to clear up said roads. So don’t count on catching that flight back on time because, well, this is Spiti.
Now getting on the most important bit of the trip, the planning. Regardless of how spontaneous you are and how unplanned your travels are, you need a checklist. Because you can never be too prepared for winters in the good ol’ Spiti Valley.
Surviving winters in Spiti Valley: A checklist
- SUNGLASSES to prevent snow blindness- a condition where the eye gets severely damages due to looking at the sun-reflecting snow directly.
- SUNSCREEN to prevent sunburns. I recommend Plum Goodness.
- FACE MASK/ BALACLAVA to protect yourself from those knee-knocking winds.
- THERMOS FLASK because water will freeze in your plastic bottles.
- LIP BALM to prevent burnt, chapped lips caused by the winds and the sun.
- WOOLLEN GLOVES to prevent frostbite.
- EXTRA PAIR OF WOOLLEN SOCKS in case your pair gets wet by the snow.
- DRY SHAMPOO for those who can’t bear the dirt and oiliness of unwashed hair.
- WOOLLEN CAP
- TOILET PAPER AND BABY WIPES to care for that tush.
- HAND SANITIZER because sometimes it can get too cold to wash your hands.
- MOUTH WASH because sometimes it can get too cold to brush your teeth.
- FACE WIPES because sometimes it can get too cold to wash your face.
- DIAMOX TABLETS altitude mountain sickness because (AMS) is real.
Pssst… women. Here’s a tip for you. Carry enough fresh underwear to change every day, and consider carrying intimate wipes or foam wash to ensure hygiene down there since taking a shower will be… well, difficult to say the least.
Here’s another tip: If you’re worried about finding accommodation, food and transport in the deserted col desert of Spiti Valley during winters, you can rely on the frequent group tours organized by Trekatribe. I have been working with them for over a year now and I trust them wholeheartedly to plan a cherishable trip come rain or shine!
For more stories and pictures from my adventures in Spiti Valley and elsewhere, follow me on Instagram.