After a grueling search of all possible routes between the mountainous villages of Khira Ghanga and Bunbuny in northern India, rescuers have shifted focus in their mission to find Amichai Shtainmetz, the 24-year-old American-Israeli backpacker who disappeared more than two weeks ago.

Operating under the assumption that the hiker could have made it to his original destination and gotten lost on a return trip through the village of Khalga, teams of professional trackers and volunteers now numbering close to 100 people – including Shtainmetz’s father and sister – are inching their way across strenuous terrain previously surveyed by air. Thus far, no signs of the man have been found, giving rescuers a modicum of hope.

According to Rabbi Levi Pekar, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical student who with Rabbi Yehuda Kirsch has recruited more than seven out of 10 volunteers, Shtainmetz’s surviving off of the land while trying to find his way back to civilization is a distinct possibility. Although the Chabad House in Manali, several hours away by jeep, has been sending food to volunteers, searchers have opted not to carry provisions with them into the jungle.

“While I was on the search, we couldn’t take it with us when we were searching,” explained Pekar, who is in the region as part of the summer rabbinical visitation program operated by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. “During the days, when we were hiking 12 hours at a time, we ate wild strawberries and other fruits. I’ve eaten tons of mangoes.

“We saw from this,” he continued by telephone from Manali, “that Amichai, even though he’s been missing for two weeks, could still be alive.”

Search teams are moving slowly in the mountainous terrain around the northern Indian villages of Khalga, Khira Ghanga and Bunbuny.
Search teams are moving slowly in the mountainous terrain around the northern Indian villages of Khalga, Khira Ghanga and Bunbuny.

No Signs

The triangle bounded by Khira Ghanga, from where Shtainmetz set out on July 22, Bunbuny and Khalga comprises a contrast in geography, from a 3,200 meter high plateau to a valley cut by an at-times torrential river. In addition, the area – which sits close to the disputed Kashmir region claimed by both India and neighboring Pakistan, and an area of western China frequented by guerillas – is known as a source for illegally-grown substances.

In the past few years, two Israelis have died hiking in the area, but search teams – who have combed the terrain in lines with just 20 feet between members – have found nothing indicating that any harm has befallen Shtainmetz.

“There isn’t a spot [between Khira Ghanga and Bunbuny] that we didn’t look at, and there simply wasn’t a single branch broken, a single spot where one could detect signs of a struggle,” said Pekar.

At times, the search, backed up by helicopters and dogs, has been so meticulous that crews moved less than half a kilometer in the space of five hours. Rescuers stretched nets over the local river, but did not recover anything.

Volunteers continue to show up to help.

Speaking last week, Kirsch said: “The incredible unity and genuine concern for Amichai’s safety among the many volunteers and Israeli rescuers has made a deep impression on the locals. They are just amazed that so many care so much.”