Why This Mom Retraced Her Missing Son’s Steps Through Peru

Jesse Galganov was supposed to return home to Montreal after an epic eight-month backpacking adventure last week. Instead, his mother returned from a trip to Peru after retracing the steps of her missing 23-year-old son on a four-day, three-night, 50-kilometre trek.

Galganov went missing while hiking the famed Santa Cruz trail in the Andes in the fall. The last to see him, his mother said, were a group of Czech tourists on the trail who he asked about getting water on the afternoon of October 1.

“We spent the summer basically together planning out the route that he was going to take and shopping for all of the stuff for his trip,” Galganov’s mother, Alisa Clamen, told VICE. They booked and planned his travel, down to specific campgrounds he would stay at.

Alisa Clamen (left) and her son Jesse

Since he’s gone missing, search costs for Jesse have neared $1.5 million, Clamen said. Part of that has been funded by a GoFundMe, “Help Us Find Jesse,” which has raised over $200,000 to date.

Clamen’s son had just graduated in May 2017 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he studied mathematics and completed pre-med requirements. He’d been accepted to med school at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, which he was to attend upon his return. A paper Galganov is credited as an author on was published in a scientific journal after he left on his trip. He set his ultimate goal, Clamen said, to work with Doctors Without Borders. She describes him as having a “huge heart” and “core empathy” to him, as well as a great group of friends.

“He just loved learning about other cultures and seeing new places, and he knew that he had a long, long path ahead of him in medical school,” Clamen said of her son’s decision to go on his trip. “He wanted to take this year to explore, immerse himself in cultures, and see part of the world.”

Galganov had spent a semester his junior year in Prague and seven weeks backpacking through Western Europe. Though he was to make most of his journey through South America and Southeast Asia alone, Galganov planned to meet up with friends on his travels. His mom said the purpose of the trip, in part, was self-discovery.

Galganov packed, unpacked, and repacked his backpack to perfection before his flight out of Montreal on September 24. The plan was, following his travels in South America, that he would fly to Asia in December, eventually ending his trip in Bangkok on May 15. Some of the items he brought were hiking shoes, a one-person tent, a mattress, a small stove, utensils, clothing, a headlamp, medication, his Kindle, and a journal. In total, his backpack weighed 24 lbs.

Jesse just before he left for his trip to Peru, wearing his backpack

Days after Galganov landed in Lima, though, he disappeared. The last text he sent to anyone was to his mom, who he communicated frequently with, on September 28 “Love you… Probably will be out of touch until Monday afternoon/eve. Going on a four-day trek,” part of it read.

Clamen just completed that very trek Galganov referred to in his last message, on the Santa Cruz trail in Cordillera Blanca range in the Andes. She described the hike as “incredibly challenging,” noting that it was steep, at a high altitude, and not well-marked nor well-patrolled.

Clamen, who works as a lawyer, had never been into hiking and said she hadn’t even camped since she was 17 years old.

“It was powerful. I could picture him walking ahead of me,” Clamen said. “I needed to see what he saw. I needed to not have these names just be words on a map—I needed to understand what it looked like and where he was.”

Though Clamen just trekked through challenging terrain on the same trail her son was last seen on, the months since Galganov went missing have presented her with a unique and difficult set of other challenges.

Part of those challenges have been dealing with Peruvian authorities, which she says lack in professionalism and experience. “It’s a different culture—it’s not Canada,” Clamen said, referencing a difference in standards.

Clamen ended up hiring an elite Israeli team, Magnus International Search & Rescue, to assist in finding her son. During their investigation, they’ve used drones to sweep the area where Galganov went missing and have conducted interviews, as well as aided in pointing local authorities in the right direction. Recently, Magnus had bodies of water in the area swept.

None of the items Galganov brought on his trip have been found so far.

Clamen stands in front of a lagoon on the Santa Cruz trail with her friend

Clamen believes her son may not have been adjusted to the altitude when he went missing. She said he took an overnight bus from Lima on September 27, arriving in Huaraz, Peru, the following day. “He got off the bus, he spent a day gathering supplies, he spent the night at a hostel,” Clamen said. Then, she said, he left early in the morning, noting that he wouldn’t have slept much with that timeline.

“The theories are that he was not in good shape and either something natural happened, or someone came upon him and assisted the process,” she explained. “I suppose it’s possible he fell into a body of water or someone dumped him into water, and then of course someone could have buried him somewhere.”

Investigators are looking into a theory about “muleteers,” or people who drive mules in the area, having a role in moving Galganov, if they found his body.

Clamen said her son’s story is “a parental nightmare of the absolute worst kind.”

“Jesse’s tale is a cautionary one—people have to counsel their children to be safe and be conscious, and realize that this could happen to anybody,” she said.

She refuses to give up on finding her son. Her most recent trip to Peru to follow in his steps, though, brought her “a little bit of peace.” It was her third trip to the country since her son went missing.

The search for Galganov is ongoing.

“Jesse, he’s my son, my best friend, my confidant, my ski buddy, my everything. So, I can’t give up,” Clamen said. “Even once I find him… I have to honour him. I can’t just give up on life, because that’s something he would never, ever want me to do.”

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