Nov 15, 2018 I Brent Swancer

Mysterious Deaths and Vanishings at India’s Valley of Shadows

All over the world there are locations that seem to be best described as hungry. They are for whatever reasons possessed of the very disturbing tendency to make people disappear, to devour and absorb them, to digest them to the point where no trace or scrap of evidence is ever found. One such sinister place is a swath of remote mountains and valleys in the Himalayas, which is just as beautiful as it is deadly, and for years has been a destination to which people go to vanish off the face of the earth.

Sprawled out among the majestic Western Himalayas in the northern part of India is a vast and frigid windswept land called Himachal Pradesh, literally "snow-laden province." It fits its name perfectly, as this is a remote domain of breathtaking vistas filled with endless snow, towering mountains, pristine alpine forests, wind battered peaks, deep remote valleys, and crevices, chasms, and gorges that plummet into dizzying abyssal depths, all stretched out in a rugged wilderness that rolls out as far as the eye can see and which is mostly inhospitable and hidden away from human eyes, save the native goat herders that wander about this forbidding land of ice and snow. It is at once a place of unimaginable beauty, but is also a treacherous one of harsh terrain and impassable mountains, perpetually braced by lethal cold and well deserving of its other historical name, Kulanthapitha, meaning "the end of the habitable world.” It is also a land steeped in legend and mystery, called the “Valley of the Gods” by locals, roamed by spirits and mages, and where the Hindu god Shiva was once said to have meditated for 1,100 years, and this curious mixture of natural splendor, legend, and adventure has imbued it with an almost magical aura that has served as a beacon for adventurers from all over the world.

shimla daranghati peak istock
Himachal Pradesh

Some of the people who find their way here are in search of some sort of personal Shangri-La, others looking for the quite literal one. Some venture here from the far flung corners of the world looking for adventure and excitement, climbing the mountains or hiking the isolated valleys. Others still come here for the world famous marijuana of the region, or to escape their life to bury themselves in a place of magic and natural magnificence. Then there are those who come for all of the above. Whatever the reasons for why these people from all of these far flung places journey to this awe-inspiring mountain wilderness, the region has developed a reputation as a place from which some never return, and Himachal Pradesh has become a place well known for its mysterious deaths and vanishings, to the point that its Parvati Valley has earned the other ominous nicknames “The Valley of Shadows” or “The Valley of Death.”

Although dozens of foreign visitors have vanished into thin air or turned up mysteriously dead in these mountains over the years, there have recently been a few particularly high profile cases. In August of 1996 a 21-year-old student at Bristol university named Ian Mogford vanished in the region without a trace after visiting a temple, leaving behind no evidence, oddly not even his name on the register of the guest house he was staying in. In that same year there was the strange disappearance of 32-year-old Italian Alessandra Verdi, who had been renting a house in the area. She one day suddenly disappeared, leaving only blood stains on her sheets and defying all efforts to find her until he body turned up on the banks of the Beas river with no evidence of what had actually happened to her.

High profile disappearances happened in quick succession after that, with Canadian student Ardavan Taherzadeh disappearing in 1997, Maarten de Bruijn, the 21-year-old son of a prominent Dutch banker vanishing without a trace in 1999, and the famous headline-making case of a Russian economist, Alexei Ivanov, who dropped off the face of the earth in 2000 shortly after starting a planned three-week trek in the region. Oddly, no trace of Ivanov or any of his belongings have been found except for a single oxygen bottle after an intensive search was launched for the missing man. Although other unidentified bodies were found, Ivanov was never located.

The year 2000 was also incidentally the same year that two German hikers were shot as they slept in their tent while camping in the region. One of the hikers, 26-year-old Jorge Weihrauch died, but his companion, 28-year-old Adrian Mayer-Tasch, somehow managed to escape and survive, crawling away through the rough-hewn barren landscape after being shot 4 times with a shotgun. Not long after this shocking case 32-year-old British national Martin Young, his wife, and 14-year-old son were attacked and ruthlessly beaten by unidentified assailants while sleeping in their tent, resulting in the tragic death of his wife and son. In both of these cases the killers could not be identified or found, and there are no suspects or good clues.

There have been some very widely known cases from even more recently as well. In 2013, an American outdoorsman and adventurer, 35-year-old Justin Shetler, suddenly quit his job at a tech firm and embarked on a series of adventures around the world, each more daring than the last and the man describing himself on social media as “a nomad, adventurer, and ninja of sorts.” Shetler finally ended up at Himachal Pradesh, where he continued his wild ways, buying a motorcycle and living in caves. In August of 2016, he posted what would be his final post on his popular adventure blog “Adventures of Justin,” saying:

A Sadhu has invited me on a pilgrimage. We are going to a harsh, high altitude area to live in a cave, meditate, and practice yoga. I leave tomorrow and should be back to the Internet world by mid to late September. The trail is notorious and it’s landslide season. I should return mid-September or so. If I’m not back by then, don’t look for me.

Justin Shetler

The post was in his typical lighthearted fashion, even ending with an emoji wink, and for those who followed his intrepid adventures it was business as usual for the thrill-seeking daredevil. Yet this would be the last anyone would ever hear from him, and he was last seen on September 3 by a group of trekkers, on his way down from a place called Mantalai lake apparently looking harried and exhausted, moving off down a trail alone and off the face of the earth. After a search was organized by Shetler’s family a suspect was brought in in the form of local “baba,” or holy man, Satyanarayan Rawat, but he would commit suicide in his cell before he could be questioned, taking any secrets he had to his grave. A police investigation was criticized for sweeping it all under the carpet, with the official conclusion being that Shetler had simply fallen into a ravine and died, but his body has never been found.

In around the same time frame there was also the mysterious disappearance of a Polish visitor named Bruno Muschalik, who had been staying in a guesthouse in the region in August of 2015. Muschalik had been planning on taking a trek and camping excursion to the Parvati Valley. He packed up all of his gear, got on a bus, and was never seen again. He joins the others in a long line of missing foreign nationals in the Himachal Pradesh region, and there have been over 20 such cases in just the past 10 years, most of which remain completely unsolved and with no trace of what has happened to them left behind. Additionally, there are numerous unsolved deaths, with many of the bodies unidentified and many of them found far from any trails, sometimes even missing their clothes or shoes. Why does this area seem to swallow these people?

The most obvious answer seems to be the wicked terrain itself. This is a sparsely inhabited, harsh landscape filled with dangers and death in myriad forms. Behind the breathtaking beauty lies a beast, with steep drops, avalanches, loose footing, a lack of clearly defined trails, and ferocious weather all conspiring against the unwary or unprepared. Even professional trekkers can find this land formidable and daunting, and one local policeman has said:

Professional and trustworthy opinion is necessary before challenging the mountains. They are vast and puzzling. All the mountain trails split into many small trails and confuse even professional trekkers. Victims either go astray or slip to deep gorges.

It is easy to imagine that foreigners, drawn here by the allure and with stars in their eyes drunk off of the natural beauty of it all, should trek out into these wilds and maybe get a bit in over their heads. This is compounded by the habit of many foreign tourists partaking of the potent hashish the locality is renowned for, meaning some of those missing may have not even been in their right minds at the time. Considering the sheer vastness of the terrain and the numerous gorges, crevices, and deep snows, someone could easily fall and die here without ever being found. Is that what has happened to these missing people? Or is it something more sinister still?

In addition to natural dangers, and every bit as frightening, are those posed by human beings. One only has to look at the cases of the mysterious unsolved deaths I have mentioned here to see that there are nefarious elements roaming unchecked through the region. Indeed, although Himachal Pradesh is often touted as having one of the lowest crime rates in Asia, the area has actually become quite well-known as being a lawless place where bandits, drug dealers, fake holy men looking to swindle and even murder foreign tourists for their valuables, and even various mafias can operate with relative impunity, kept safe by the remoteness of it all and rarely if ever caught due to undermanned, thinly spread, and quite often corrupt law enforcement. Add this to the general reticence of locals to talk about anything suspicious they may have seen, the general indifference of police towards what happens to foreign nationals, and the tendency for people to just anonymously pass through, and it seems that it would be very easy to make someone disappear and then just sort of melt away without ever getting caught.

There is also the possibility that for anyone to come all of this way to such a forbidding and remote place they might have some personal issues that are unresolved. Perhaps some of these people committed suicide out among those frosty peaks, taking their own life in a land full of majestic splendor. Or maybe some of those who have come here have done so because they don’t want to be found. There are a lot of foreigners who take up residence in cabins or even caves here, hidden away from the world, and others who want to escape their lives, outcasts of society that have come to Himachal Pradesh for the purpose of dropping off the grid. If this is the case, then maybe some of these individuals have vanished on purpose, and the reason they have not been found is by design. One local said of this:

There are people here who don't want to be found. Have you thought of it that way? It's a lifestyle that people want to keep all to themselves. They don't want police or parents sniffing around. Missing doesn't always mean dead.

The phenomenon likely comprises a little of all of the above, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating or mysterious for the family members of the lost or the few law enforcement personnel that wade through the thick files of the missing genuinely trying to piece it all together. In the end we are left with a sweeping vista of an untamed, mystical realm that seems to be in a sense hungry and ready to devour those who would be foolhardy enough to try and penetrate its inner sanctum. Whether any of these mysteries we have looked at here will ever be solved or not, the disappearances and deaths will no doubt continue, and Himachal Pradesh will likely always remain just as wild, enigmatic, full of both wonder and sinister secrets as it has always been, a beautiful ravenous beast beyond mere mortals.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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