Two men said goodbye with a godlike river thundering in their ears. Andrey Gapon, a 47-year-old Russian man, had spent three months on a self-made spiritual retreat in the Parvati Valley, deep in the Indian Himalayas. Walking alongside was an American man, 35-year-old Justin Alexander, a seasoned traveler and experienced outdoorsman who’d impressed Gapon with his wilderness survival skills, having just spent weeks living in a mountain cave. Now Alexander was embarking on a three-day trek to a holy site called Mantalai Lake, where he would camp under the stars with few supplies.
Gapon offered to go with him, but Alexander said it was a journey he wanted to do with a sadhu, a Hindu holy man who renounces possessions in a search for enlightenment. “I didn’t want to persuade him not to go,” recalls Gapon, but he was concerned. Just weeks before, Gapon had also trekked to Mantalai, a cluster of pools murky with glacial flour at the source of the Parvati River. The lake lies in a broad basin relentlessly tormented by winds and subfreezing temperatures. At around 13,500 feet, the icy moraine produces no trees for either shelter or firewood. Alexander didn’t have a stove or cooking fuel, so Gapon pressed something into his hand, a fitting parting gift to someone who valued both practicality and minimalism: a red windproof butane lighter.