A spate of missing trekkers — mostly from Europe and the United States — in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh has become a matter of acute embarrassment for the External Affairs Ministry.
Highly placed MEA sources said the ministry receives, every year, a number of complaints of such missing trekkers. As many as 20 have gone officially gone missing during 2010-16, raising doubts on Himachal Pradesh as an ideal venue for trekking and the state government’s ability to handle such crisis. There are many cases which — routinely — go unreported.
External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has already sought a report on such cases from Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, the latest being that of Justin Alexander Shetler, an American trekker, who went missing in Parvati Valley in Kullu this September. "I will ask for a report from Chief Minister Himachal Pradesh regarding Justin Alexander Shetler," Ms Swaraj tweeted.
The sources said the MEA was concerned whether these cases of missing trekkers were purely because of accidents or rough weather or whether these were cases of murders involving impostors posing as Godmen. Spiritual men and women meditating in the Himalayas are an instant attraction for all foreigners. Newspaper reports in Kullu and Shimla, the state capital, often carry images of Western trekkers posing with these fake Godmen.
“Mom, I am fine. You take care,” Shetler last messaged his mother in September 2016. Shelter, 35, an avid adventurer, social worker and travel writer who undertook tours in India, Nepal and Bangkok, was in the company of a sadhu when he last messaged his mother. He even posted his photograph on Instagram.
A worried C Susanne Reeb, Shetler’s mother, eventually flew down to India, met with officials of the US embassy in Delhi and drove all the way to the twin cities of Kullu and Manali. She met up with the Himachal Pradesh chief minister Veerbhadra Singh and sought his help to locate her missing son. Singh, who spent an hour with the distressed woman, even tweeted: “Have met the relatives of Justin Alexander Shetler, a US national and trekker who had gone missing from Parvati Valley since last one month.”
In Delhi, Alexander McLaren, deputy spokesman for the US embassy, confirmed Reeb’s meeting with the embassy officials. “The US Embassy in New Delhi’s highest priority is the safety of our citizens overseas. For privacy reasons we cannot comment on specific cases, we do however work closely with Indian authorities to assist Americans in distress,” said McLaren.
“I got worried when I did not hear from him, he always calls me every week, informing me of his travel plans,” said Reeb.
Reeb said she even did a reconnaissance in a private chopper for a little over an hour over the Parvati valley’s Mantalai lake and Khir Ganga tracks where Shetler was seen last in September. She was assisted by Shelter’s London-based friend, Jonathan Skeels but unfortunately, they did not find any traces of Shetler. “What worries me is that I found many trekkers but not my son. I spent hours interacting with people who knew my son but no one could offer me any leads.”
In the FIR she lodged with the Kullu police, Reeb said she was told her son was last seen with a sadhu of the Naga sect, synonymous with their naked attire and high-altitude mediation. Her son, she said, was keen to practice meditation and was guided by the sadhu.
Ashok Singh, a cop in Kullu said Shetler’s porters — strangely — were followers of the sadhu. The porters, who were grilled for two days by the cops, said Shelter had told them that he would return after his meditation classes in Manitalai Lake and pick up his luggage and motorcycle from the base camp in Parvati Valley. Shetler was last seen on 3 September 3 by porters in Parvati Valley.
What is intriguing is that the sadhu returned to the base camp and told the porters that Shetler left him uninformed. The cops have detained the sadhu, and one of the porters, identified as Anil, a resident of Nepal. "The sadhu did not say why he left Shetler behind and returned to the base camp," said Singh.
In her FIR, Reeb said she suspects that the baba and his men may have kidnapped Justin and soon demand a heavy ransom.
Worried Shetler could be missing forever, distress messages are flooding his Facebook page and other social media platforms. “I didn't really know you but I watched your adventures and was very inspired by it all. My heart goes out to you and I wanted you and your family to know that you are someone who has left magic behind on this planet. Wherever you happen to be at the moment. I'm sending my love out to you in hopes that it will reach you somehow,” wrote his friend Melissa McGarth.
SP (Kullu) Padam Chand the case of missing trekkers was a matter of concern. “This is becoming a routine affair and we are routinely issuing warnings to foreign travellers not to undertake trekking with unknown people. The search for Shelter is very much on.”
Chand said he was not aware of any sinister move behind such mysterious disappearance of the trekkers. “We continue our search till the time we can but cannot continue such search forever.”
He said eight trekkers, students of a Punjab college, who had gone missing this March in the higher reaches of Kullu, were traced and rescued by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) troopers, nearly 70 hours from Chanderkheni Pass at an altitude of 12,000 feet.
But the authorities have no information on missing Polish national Bruno Muschalik who had lost his way with his porter in August, 2015. The previous year, two French trekkers, Valentin Marcel Gorges, 20, and Francois Xavier Camille 21, went missing in the Dhauladhar ranges and the authorities suspended their search operations early this year.
The cops had resumed the search following a request from the French embassy in Delhi Police had started looking for the bodies after some local trekkers found bags, books, camera, binoculars, handsets and earphones of the French trekkers near Moon peak, the highest trekking point in the Dhauladhar range.
“In some cases, we trace stranded trekkers, but when they go missing without their luggage, it becomes a concern,” said Chand.
Locals say the case of missing trekkers is slowly becoming an insurmountable problem for those in the trekking business. “We can always claim these as accidents, and bodies buried under the glacier. But when the bodies go missing after the glacier melts, it raises some serious questions which no one can answer,” said Bimal Negi, a local trekking agent.
The Himachal Pradesh government, meanwhile, continues to grapple with the curious case of missing trekkers (including Shelter), a definite stain on the state's tourism business.