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Into thin air: When an American tourist lost himself to the mountains

In late August, American tourist Justin Shetler went on a trek in Himachal’s Parvati Valley. He never returned. His family pieces together the day they lost him to the mountains.

Written by Krishn Kaushik |
Updated: November 20, 2016 12:21:20 pm
In High places: Khirganga, from where Shetler began his trek to Mantalai. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) In High places: Khirganga, from where Shetler began his trek to Mantalai. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

If I’m not back by then, don’t look for me.” That was 35-year-old American traveller Justin Alexander Shetler’s last blogpost. He did not return, but his friends from different parts of the world came looking for him, retracing his steps up the steep slopes of the Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh, trying to find clues in the silences he left behind. But as the winter mist envelops the mountains and a shroud of ice and snow covers the path Shetler last took, his friends call off their search but make a final journey in memory of their friend.

For foreign tourists looking for a high in India, Kullu is both a destination and a starting point. Some continue north along the Beas to Manali, a town popular among motorcyclists riding to Ladakh, rafters, trekkers and holidaying families. Yet others cross the Beas on one of the two bridges at Kullu town, and follow the road that goes through smaller towns like Kasol, where young trekkers and those looking for hashish, weed and psychedelic drugs, bask in the lazy mountain air before moving on to Manikaran, a holy site for Hindus and Sikhs.

The hills on either side of the river are dotted with nondescript villages like Tosh, Nakhtan Kalga and Malana. In between lie the deep and treacherous gorges of the Parvati Valley. These towns and villages serve almost like base camps, the starting points of trekking routes that snake through thick, green jungles and bare, brown mountaintops, offering stunning views of the snow-peaked Himalayas.

Several tourists go missing in Himachal Pradesh every year. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) Several tourists go missing in Himachal Pradesh every year. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

It was to these mountains that Shetler arrived in July. An expert tracker and a trained survivalist, he quit his job in a tech startup in 2013 and decided to do what he loved best: travel. “I’m 32, and last week I retired.” That was the first entry on his blog. He went on to write about his travel itch, how after being successful, flying first-class, staying at the best hotels and eating at Michelin-starred restaurants, he felt “trapped into the life that made him strive for more expensive things”. “I am in the process of selling everything I own, save a Royal Enfield motorcycle, my computer, phone, a change of clothes, a passport, toiletries, and credit card which all fit into a backpack smaller than a school bag. I plan on travelling the world indefinitely. This is the life I’ve been dreaming about since I spent a summer in Nepal in 2006, and honestly, to truly be free, has been my dream since I was a young teenager.”

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This was Shetler’s first visit to India and he had made many plans. With his love for the outdoors, Himachal was a natural choice. It was on one of his trips to Khirganga, a popular trekking destination, that Shetler met Satyanaran Rawat, a sadhu of Nepali origin.

He described his meeting thus: “One morning I was walking by the smokey stone hut of a Naga Baba (a type of sadhu, yogi, or ascetic Hindu holy man) on my way to the springs. He had been watching me come down the mountain and when I came near, he waved me inside. Over the next two weeks we became friends. I think.”

On August 19, Shetler wrote that Rawat had invited him on a pilgrimage high in the Himalayas to meditate and he had agreed. His friends later found his motorcycle parked in Barshaini village. This is from where, in all likelihood, he wrote his last blogpost.

Shelter was an experienced and expert trekker. Shelter was an experienced and expert trekker.

Khirganga is a flat, green expanse, known for a temple and a hot spring that is considered holy. Trekkers camp here usually for a day or two before climbing up further ahead. Under a harsh sun, a dozen or so makeshift cafes sell overpriced Maggi and cold drinks.

On August 28, Shetler, Rawat and Anil Singh, a porter, began their trek up the path from Khirganga to Mantalai lake that lies at an altitude of 4,100 metres. As always, Shetler carried his stuff, which included a small bag and a long flute that doubled as a staff, and the porter carried Rawat’s belongings. As they walked for five days along the rocky, barren and narrow path before reaching the clear waters of Mantalai on September 3, they met other Indian travellers.

Together they posed for pictures, which the police later found. In one of them, Shetler, a tall, fit man with high cheekbones, a stubble and close-cropped hair, is wearing a dull-brown shawl over a blue bubble jacket. He has his arm across another trekker’s shoulder. These are his last known photographs.

Singh says Shetler wanted to stay back in Mantalai for a few days but Rawat wanted to head back. The two had a disagreement but Shetler gave in reluctantly and the three began their journey back. The next day, they stopped at Thakur Kuan, where Singh says Shetler and Rawat smoked hashish, which grows wild in the valley all around, and the latter asked Singh to continue to the next stop at Tunda Burj and keep their food ready. A few hours later, Rawat reached alone.

When Singh asked Rawat about Shetler’s whereabouts, he said he didn’t know and perhaps he had returned to Mantalai. Singh says Rawat’s response left him suspicious but he kept quiet and the two returned to Khirganga the next day. None of them informed the police that Shetler had gone missing.

The last trek: The landscape at Khirganga. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) The last trek: The landscape at Khirganga. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

“How does somebody just vanish?” asks Shetler’s mother Suzanne Reeb. “Especially somebody who’s a survivalist, an expert tracker. It doesn’t make any sense. Justin was equipped not just to survive the wilderness, he was trained to live there,” she says.

Reeb, who is in her mid-sixties and works with Alzheimer’s patients at a healthcare facility in Portland, Oregon, says her son’s love for the outdoors started early. He didn’t go to college and was 16 when he joined the Wilderness Awareness School in Washington state. He was later hired by the US Marine Corps to teach a course in tracking. Given all his skills, Reeb and Shetler’s friends are finding it hard to believe he couldn’t survive the trek.

After he left the US to travel the globe, Shetler would call his mother regularly. He would tell her about the new places he visited, the friends he made and she would fill him in with the goings-on at home. So, when she didn’t hear from him even once in September, she grew worried. Around that time, some of his friends reached out to her. They hadn’t heard from him either.

In late September, his friends decided to act. They organised an online campaign to raise funds for Reeb to travel to India and she was joined by Jonathan Skeels, one of Shetler’s friends, who flew in with her from London in early October. Skeels, a London-based corporate financial advisor, had met Shetler last year while travelling in Big Sur, California.

In Himachal, they met up with Christopher Lee, a French fashion model who was travelling in the region and had met Shetler after connecting with him over social media. “I heard that as a young man Justin once went to spend some time in one of the forests in America, carrying just a knife. Some days later, he emerged with a jacket made of deerskin and looked visibly healthier than when he had left,” says Skeels. Lee filed a missing complaint at the Kullu police station when Reeb and Skeels arrived in Himachal.

Suzanne Reeb with her son’s motorcycle. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) Suzanne Reeb with her son’s motorcycle. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

While investigating, the police came across online posts by other trekkers who had met Shetler on the trek to Mantalai and learnt about Rawat and Singh and launched a search for them in Barshaini and neighbouring villages. A few days later, Singh heard that the cops were looking for him and presented himself before the police post in Manikaran, a small town about 20 kilometres from Barshaini. He told the police what had happened on the trek and was inducted to assist the team searching for Shetler.

While the police launched their operation, Shetler’s friends continued their parallel investigation. Skeels retraced Shetler’s steps a few times, trekking up to the path where the porter said he had last seen Shetler. He hired a helicopter for an aerial survey that cost over Rs 1 lakh for less than two hours, hired drone operators from Delhi, got the Himachal Pradesh chief minister’s helicopter twice to take a team of policemen, and raised volunteers to look for his friend. He even sent a video of the terrain back to America for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to analyse. He remained in constant touch with the American embassy and Indian authorities.

Brijeshwar Kunwar, a resident of Bangalore trekking in the region, volunteered to help Skeels on one such search. It was Kunwar who spotted a bag’s rain cover and a wooden staff lying on the banks below Thakur Kuan, the spot where Singh, the porter, had gone ahead leaving Shetler and Rawat behind. They went down to where the staff lay. Skeels recognised it immediately. It was Shetler’s flute.

The Parvati river is as fierce as it is pristine. Many have been carried away in its swift current and police say even remains of buses that have fallen into the river are rarely ever recovered. Finding a human body, they say, is even tougher.

The sheer drop at Thakur Kuan, where Shetler is believed to have gone missing. (Source: Praveen Khanna) The sheer drop at Thakur Kuan, where Shetler is believed to have gone missing. (Source: Praveen Khanna)

But if Shetler, an experienced and expert trekker, had indeed been lost to the Parvati, was it because he took a wrong step or was it because he was with the wrong people? Skeels says the path above where Shetler’s belongings were found, is a narrow one. It would take only a slight nudge, he says, to throw someone down. There were three people on the trek that day. One of them is missing, the porter had become part of the search team and Rawat was by then in police custody.

On October 21, a week after he was arrested, Rawat was found dead in the police lock-up. Police claim he committed suicide by hanging himself with his loincloth on the lock-up gate in the five minutes that head constable Raj Kumar had stepped out. When Kumar found him, he was still alive but died on way to hospital. Kumar has since been suspended and a judicial inquiry is on.

There is only one lock-up in the police post in Manikaran. It is a small, square room with a gate that’s not too high. That Rawat managed to tie his loincloth on the top bar, through the locked gate and hang himself in just five minutes, is a theory that isn’t finding many takers. Rawat didn’t leave behind any note, no one in his family came to take his body and it was left to the policemen to cremate him.

With Rawat gone, the case has hit a dead end. On October 24, the police arrested Singh. The tall, lanky 28-year-old from Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand says he had earlier been a porter with the security forces in Kargil and the trek in Kullu was his first in the region. The police, however, couldn’t find any evidence against him and he was let off last week.

The porter who accompanied Shelter. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) The porter who accompanied Shelter. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

As Shetler’s disappearance continues to baffle the police, it has become one more case in the list of missing tourists in Himachal Pradesh. Since 1991, 20 foreign tourists have gone missing in Kullu district, three of them in the last year alone. Local policemen say that five or six Indian tourists also go missing every year.

Padam Chand, superintendent of police, Kullu, says tracking foreign trekkers is difficult because many of them don’t register themselves with the local authorities when they arrive in the state. According to the data available with the Kullu police, the district received 8,287 foreign tourists this year. The actual number could be much higher. The police, says Chand, is not equipped to handle cases of disappearance.

The trek from Barshaini to Khirganga goes over 12 kilometres of a rocky path covered by a canopy of tall pine and poplar trees. Trekkers walk to the sound of the mighty Parvati river that gives the valley its name. A temple and a natural hot spring stand at Khirganga. Alcohol and meat aren’t allowed here as this is considered a holy site but hashish and weed are easily available, shared and smoked openly with fellow travellers.

On November 3, the last search party left Khirganga. It included two of Shetler’s friends. Lee, the model, and Tom McElroy, a professional tracker and survivalist. He had met Shetler at the Wilderness Awareness School in 1999, where he was his teacher and had made the trip to India to search for him. A week later, Skeels left Manali for Ladakh on Shetler’s Enfield. It was a journey Shetler had always wanted to do. This was Skeels’s homage to his friend. Lee and McElroy followed in a truck.

As the chill deepens in Himachal, Shetler’s dejected mother too has decided to return home, as funds for the search run out. As she speaks about her only child, she constantly shifts between the present and the past tense, her sentences oscillating between ‘Justin is’ and ‘Justin was’. At least, her son died doing what he loved best, she consoles herself. “I lost him, I suppose, the day I sent him to the wilderness school,” says Reeb.

She is returning home empty-handed, happy in the knowledge that she was in the mountains where her son had found the freedom he desired. On one of the search trips that she had gone on, Reeb sat alone and meditated. “Before he left for India, Justin had got an outline of an eagle tattooed on his chest. When I opened my eyes after meditating, I spotted an eagle flying above,” says Reeb.

She saw it as a sign. “I sat by myself for two hours and I felt completely safe and happy. I was so happy to be on that trail, because I knew, no matter what, that he had been here, he had walked here.”

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