Author: Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Brandeis University, United States. Her work focuses on religion, language, and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams.
Every anthropologist has that one great fieldwork story. The one that wraps months (if not years) of experiences into a perfect anecdote specially crafted for sharing at dinners and cocktail parties. Mine involves a freak snowstorm, a grumpy ill-tempered horse, and being declared missing in the Himalayas.
This is one of those stories that always seems better in the re-telling. The reason for this is that, through the majority of it, I was completely fine and carrying on my day-to-day work as usual. Meanwhile, the world outside of my little remote bubble was in chaos.
It all began in or around March 10th of 2017. I was in Jomsom, one of Mustang, Nepal’s principal villages – the starting point of the Shaligram (sacred fossil ammonite) pilgrimage. I had been there for nearly a year and often traveled between Jomsom and Kagbeni, the village where I was living, some two to three hours walk north up along the Kali Gandaki riverbed.
Kagbeni was the hub where Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims came to search for Himalayan Shaligram stones. I preferred to travel on horseback whenever possible (especially given the dangers of going by Jeep and bus in the mountains), and for some months I had been loaned a horse named Luga. Luga was no one’s friend, but he definitely knew where he was going. We’d attained civility in the weeks beforehand. Mostly because I usually carried apples with me.
That morning, the weather was clear but cold and Luga and I set out for the two-and-a-half-hour ride towards Kagbeni along a high-altitude road that is notorious for losing inexperienced travelers. Many roads in Mustang were built by cutting them directly into the side of the mountain, leaving an uneven rocky surface, often not much wider than about six to eight feet with a sheer rock face extending upward on one side and an equally sheer drop-off descending off the other. In bad weather, these roads have a tendency to wash out and are often fatal.
A turn for the worse…
Luga and I had only been on the road for about forty minutes when I knew something was about to go terribly wrong. The once bright blue sky had suddenly gone grey and cloudy, and Mustang’s high altitude winds had come in early. Within minutes, snow began to fall and visibility was nearly gone.
Shortly after that, we were in white-out conditions and it was now impossible to tell where the edge of the road was. For the first time, I was also experiencing snow blindness – a condition where the sunlight reflecting off the snow causes temporary vision impairment.
I knew I was in trouble. What I didn’t know, however, were two things that will become important later.
The first is that I was not the only foreigner to be caught out in the unexpected blizzard. I would later learn that three other visitors, from Australia, the UK, and Romania respectively, were also out in the mountains when this particular storm hit and all three would be found dead afterwards. One died of exposure to the cold; the second from getting lost in the storm and losing his footing on the road; and the third from a rock fall when the wind dislodged a boulder along the riverbank.
The second important piece of information is that the storm also managed to destroy the one cell tower, in the village of Ghemi, that served all of Mustang’s phone and internet needs. Without the tower, there would be no communications in or out of Mustang for weeks.
A horse saved my life
I already felt that I would have to do something drastic if I was going to make it out alive. Stopping and staying put was out of the question. Luga and I were standing on an exposed rock face, the river some five hundred feet below us, and there was no protection from the storm. But walking was equally dangerous. Without being able to see clearly or orient myself, I was in danger of stepping directly off the cliff edge or getting lost down a wrong turn. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I trusted my horse.
I got down off the saddle, hooked my arm into Luga’s bridle, and told him (with as much Lower Mustangi Tibetan as I knew) to “go home.” Unflappable as always and not at all interested in hanging out in the snow, Luga did exactly that and set off at an easy walk through the paths and hoof-holds I’m sure he knew by heart. A very worrisome and tense four hours later, we arrived back in Kagbeni a little worse for wear, and completely frozen, but alive.
Getting in touch
Honestly, I didn’t think much of it until around two weeks later. With the cell tower down, I hadn’t been able to access my email or get through to anyone on my cellphone. But this was not a terribly unusual situation for Mustang and everyone, including me, had simply continued on with our lives as usual; figuring that they’d get the tower repaired soon enough and we’d be back in business.
In short, not having access to modern communications didn’t strike me, at the time, as much of a problem. Maybe I was drawing on the romance of the ‘lone anthropologist’ in a remote region of the world, cut off from the trappings of familiar society. Or, maybe I was just used to the routine technological failures of high altitude living. Either way, back home, my family was starting to actually think I was dead.
Neither the Fulbright Commission overseeing my work nor the US Embassy in Kathmandu could contact me and, in the interim, the three other visitors to Mustang had all been declared missing and then subsequently found dead. This was one of those situations where, due to the fact that I was believed to be hurt or lost, a series of emergency procedures would go into effect. I would also later find out that several staff members at Fulbright had already been quietly talking about what kind of memorial they would be holding when the inevitable news arrived. At nearly 15 days with no contact, plans were being made to send people looking for me.
I learned of all this when I ran into a Nepali surveyor at a teahouse one evening, who kindly allowed me to check my messages using her government cell phone. Imagine seeing a slew of emails filling up your inbox, all of which are various conversations with administrative and academic officials and your family about declaring you missing and wondering whether or not you’re even alive anymore. Of course, I called the Embassy and my home immediately. I was fine. Luga was fine. Everything, thankfully, on my end was fine.
The social death when technology fails
In the months that followed I would often think back to this incident as a funny kind of moment where modern expectations for contact and communication in the field would run afoul of actual technological capabilities. In a way, I was reminded of Leon Festinger’s famous work, When Prophecy Fails, where failed apocalyptic predictions don’t result in the abandonment of belief among new religious movements because “systems of failure” have already been built into the religion. But rather than a commentary on the social psychology of charismatic cults, I took this as an opportunity to think about how technology has continued to blur the lines between “at home” and “out in the field,” and how those distinctions are never quite so obvious as when technology fails.
In a way, for much of my family back home, I had ceased to exist when my social media and email presence had stopped. For the Fulbright office, I was gone when my uploaded reports were no longer arriving. For the US Embassy, a communications breakdown didn’t indicate a mere dead battery. For those two weeks, I was as close to socially dead, though hardly physically, as I have ever been.
My more religiously inclined research participants in the Himalayas would ultimately find this all very amusing. It is not uncommon for Westerners to visit the Himalayas seeking a disconnection from the industrial and digital world; to forgo all modern technology in an effort to “get back to Nature” and live, for a time, “in the old ways” (whatever that means). With their yoga mats and dreadlocks, young trekkers in search of Enlightenment are a familiar sight in Mustang. Mustangis, however, often describe them as seekers of death.
In one part, this is meant euphemistically to indicate that, without a guide or experience with the challenges of Himalayan living, a few of them die each year – usually from weather exposure or injury incurred too far from a road or village to seek help.
But I now wonder if it is also meant metaphorically, in that the shedding of social ties and obligations that many spiritual trekkers seek mirrors, to Nepalis, the shedding of familial connections and responsibilities that often precede death for the sick and elderly. In short, that ‘seeking death’ in this case has more to do with an intentional discarding of one’s outward personhood rather than the potential for physical demise at 5000 meters.
In any case, my personhood and social ties were quickly restored, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. I was back on the fieldwork radar thanks to Gmail, and everyone, as you can imagine, was glad to hear my voice; crackly and indistinct though it was over the patchy network.
But I will never forget that, for two weeks in the spring of 2017, I was officially presumed dead in the Nepalese Himalayas and had, for a time, ceased to be in the familiar, communal, sense. And the only reason I actually wasn’t dead had everything to do with a little quick thinking, a tremendous amount of luck, and a very ornery horse. Thanks, Luga.
[Image of Luga the horse, by Holly Waters]
[Image of snow storm Zac Durant on Upsplash]