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The Lost Tech Bro
From successful entrepreneur to living for a month in caves — what happened to Justin Alexander Shetler?
My day job is in technology. I’ve coded since childhood and turned that into an adulthood of building apps. The industry is an exciting and well-paying one, though it is rife with cultural problems. Many regard a major source of these problems as the “tech bro” mentality — cisgender, heterosexual white men who are intelligent and passionate but lacking personal experience with issues like systemic oppression. This leads them to have what manifests, at best, as well-intentioned naïveté, at worst as outright denialism of phenomena that are outside the bounds of their reality.
In 2016, a successful tech entrepreneur, Justin Alexander Shetler, disappeared in the wilderness of India, never to be seen again. While this case has some similarities to the previously discussed Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon, there is a stark difference in the mentality and plans of their respective victims. Instead of having more ambition than preparation — Lisanne and Kris hiked past their planned destination with minimal supplies — was Justin instead a victim of having no bounds to his ambition? What is abundantly clear is he sought to push himself to extreme limits in a quest for spiritual enlightenment.
This is most profoundly evident of all in the last video on his “Adventures of Justin” YouTube channel, which features clips of the month he spent living in a cave in India’s Parvati Valley immediately prior to the adventure that seemingly — no remains were ever found — took his life. While living in the cave, he explored the area and met a naga sadhu, a Hindu holy man who spends much of the year living up in the mountains without worldly pleasures or possessions with one giant exception: hashish. Many of them smoke copious amounts of hashish, and the end of Justin’s video features Satya Narayan Rawat, the sadhu, smoking hashish from a chillum.
In his final social media posts, Justin speaks of a planned trek with the sadhu to Mantalai Lake high in the Himalayas. Other hikers ran into the two of them, along with a porter, and even took pictures. Accounts of what exactly happened did not match, and they arrested the sadhu on suspicion of murder for questioning — though not formally charging him. A few days later, he would be found dead in his cell.
In 2017, I took a job running the technology department for a startup, CrowdMed, founded by a man named Jared Heyman. A well-meaning, intelligent, but profoundly short-sighted and privileged man, Heyman left his previous company to travel around on a motorcycle and “find himself” — the exact pattern that led Shetler to India, down to purchasing a motorcycle. Heyman never went to India but went to destinations perhaps even more dangerous, like the Amazon.
Though Heyman returned unscathed to entrepreneurial life, his ambition always outpaced his understanding of the world outside his bubble. In my opinion, by far the biggest reason CrowdMed failed was a lack of understanding of what regular people are capable of paying. To him, everything would somehow work out in the end to the point of often treating meaningful risk as nothing to worry about. Heyman never had an infallibility complex, but he had an invulnerability complex. In Jared’s words, “I treat people the way I like to be treated,” a benign and common statement — until you realize this means he projects his own privileged tech bro naiveté onto others. Could Justin have seen the world in a similar way?
The sadhu was allowed to wear his traditional garments in the cell and used the drawstring to hang himself. Some consider this an unspoken admission of guilt, especially since he was not yet formally charged, but it is possible he instead felt guilty — perhaps he left Justin on the trail and realized he was probably now dead. Justin’s motorcycle was found undisturbed in the place he left it for the trek.
Those who knew the sadhu said he occasionally engaged in petty theft, some expressing that he was not a “real” sadhu — that many of those who claim to be sadhu are just men who like living alone in the mountains smoking hashish. Justin reported in his final blog post that he sadhu had cut off his penis, an unusually violent act of devotion. But the leap to the conclusion of murder is rather large.
They found most of Justin’s remaining belongings along the banks of the Pavarti River, but the man himself was nowhere to be found, dead or alive — to this day. Some theorists following this case suggest he was pushed in, but we have no reason to assume that. The river is turbulent, and could easily wash him away while stopping for water. Another possibility is that Justin simply never wanted to be found and went to live up in the remote Himalayan wilderness, something foreigners are occasionally discovered doing. After all, his final blog post says, “I should return mid September or so. If I’m not back by then, don’t look for me 😉”
Personally, though, I think Justin was merely a man who was constantly pushing himself to the limit, succeeding, and kept thinking he could push himself even further. Delirious and dehydrated, he reaches down to bring water to his mouth, perhaps even to splash it on his sun-scorched face, but, weak from pushing himself too far, falls in and dies of drowning and/or blunt force trauma from the rapids.
Whatever happened, Justin did not deserve to die. While Kris and Lisanne are a story of how people need to prepare themselves if they are going to push the limit, Justin is a story of how no matter how much you manage to push the limit, there are hard limits. Justin sought enlightenment and instead likely found himself lost in a haze of hashish and hunger.