On a journey to Kullu Valley in northern India, David Nixon witnessed death of a fellow traveller. As an honorary research fellow at University of Exeter, Nixon published an article, seeking to explore the theological meaning behind this unanticipated tragedy.
It began on a trek towards the Pir Panajal region, an extremely remote mountainous area. On day four of the trip, Nixon noticed that his friend Simon had trouble climbing to Rohtang Pass at 4700 meters and had to ride a pony while the guide carried his backpack. Rohtang Pass, translated as “pile of corpses” in Tibetan, is known for its bad weather conditions that caused several fatalities in the past. It links the Kullu Valley with the Spiti Valleys of Himachal Pradesh, both of which are surrounded by glacier-covered mountains.
The glacier-covered roads made it even more difficult for the team to proceed. On the descent, Nixon fell on ice and wounded his temple. The group split in two – a faster group and a slower group – since Simon and Nixon and some others had a hard time catching up.
The next day, Nixon saw that Simon could hardly move forward, even with the guide desperately pushing him, and he knew that wasn’t a good sign. After rejoining the faster group and having dinner, he watched Simon being carried back to the camp by other teammates. A retired policeman tried to save Simon through CPR, even though it was clear that Simon was already dead.
Afterwards, Nixon delivered a prayer for Simon, and the group set up a cairn with some Buddhist prayer flags. They carried Simon’s body in a sleeping bag on the back of a pony until it was taken over by a senior team from the Indian travel agency in Delhi and repatriated to London. According to the coroner, Simon had died from cardiorespiratory arrest and pulmonary edema as a consequence of altitude sickness, which could have been prevented if he went back when he initially felt sick.
For Nixon, this experience had a profoundly spiritual meaning. He noted that the context of mountains and countryside could be related to Biblical imagery. Specifically, the valley in which Simon’s bier quietly disappeared as it was carried along and the mountain embedded in cold and dark rocks reminded him of the scene of the glorious and magnificent evocation of death by the Psalmist. Psalm 23 says that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they protect and comfort me”.
Nixon believes that Simon’s identity had been eternally fixed on the mountains in Kullu Valley. Similarly, the identity of the whole traveling group had also been altered.
Upon reflection, Nixon found there was little to comfort him and others who were marked by Simon’s death. He believes that the wilderness of the mountains is associated with the later wilderness of exile. “If, as Brueggemann maintains, the ‘Jesus movement’ was the next step on the way from exile to land, then Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness are also part of this dynamic”, he wrote. “Without seeking the discomfort and the dislocation, I recognize that a reconceptualization of God, a new turn in spirituality, is a gift to be welcomed,” he said.
Nixon pointed out that exploring theological meaning behind stories is what human beings do to give sense and order to surrounding world, and “impose meaning on the remorseless flow of events in which they are swirling.” As Nixon showed, high mountain landscapes can evoke these meanings with great power.