Into the woods
On vanishing in the age of surveillance
At about 6:30 p.m. on Sat., June 24, Ian O’Brien texted his partner, Beth Henshaw, letting her know he had summited Dibé Nitsaa – or Hesperus Mountain – in the La Plata Mountains of southwestern Colorado. He then began the several-mile trek down to his and Beth’s and some friends’ camp at Lucy Halls Park on Echo Basin Road, east of Mancos. It was just a few days past the summer solstice, and the sun was still high in the sky, darkness several hours away.
But those hours passed, and O’Brien didn’t arrive back at camp. The shadows cast by the gangly aspen trees grew impossibly long, and the warmth of the summer day faded. First the violet sky of dusk, then a planet or two sparkling through the blue, then the dark and the sudden chill of a midsummer’s mountain eve. Still no O’Brien.
Henshaw and friends began searching soon after nightfall, worried that O’Brien, an experienced runner and hiker who had summited Hesperus Mountain several times, may have had an epileptic seizure and become disoriented and separated from his phone and GPS device.
At 12:30 a.m., after finding no clues, they notified the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, setting off an extensive search effort that included several ground and airborne teams, drones and even an Air Force Blackhawk helicopter. Dozens of volunteers joined the search and rescue teams combing the forests, scree fields, streams and slopes of the La Platas.
Early on, hikers reported seeing someone matching O’Brien’s description in La Plata Canyon, east of Hesperus Mountain, shifting some search efforts away from the western slopes of the mountains. The report turned out to be a false alarm, and the search was redirected accordingly.
On June 28, the Montezuma County sheriff suspended the official search, saying his team – and their leads – were exhausted. O’Brien’s friends, family and an army of volunteers refused to give up. Finally, on July 11, they shut their operation down, too.
Hundreds of hours were spent scouring the area using all the technology available. And yet the only clue they found was a set of a footprints in Owen Basin below the peak, discovered the morning after O’Brien went missing. That’s it. No cell phone or even a signal, no pieces of clothing, no scent, absolutely nothing to suggest that O’Brien hadn’t simply vanished into the night after summiting.
I followed the search closely from afar.
I didn’t know O’Brien, but I had glimpsed his and Henshaw’s adventures across the Four Corners on social media. I liked them, because they lived in a van, but certainly did not live the #vanlife. Their home on wheels was just a basic Ford, not a $120,000 customized Sprinter; they eschewed the prototypical glamour shots greeting the sunrise from the back of the rig. Instagram can deceive, of course, but their posts made them seem kind and gentle and genuinely in love with the landscape and the open air.
So I guess that was part of what sparked my interest: I wanted him to be found, alive and well.
The La Platas are my home mountain range, forming the divide between the Animas River Valley where I grew up, and the canyons and mesas to which I’ve always been drawn. From Durango, it’s an easy drive and a somewhat arduous but straightforward bike ride into the heart of the range. From my dad’s house in Cortez, we’d watch day’s last light illuminate Hesperus Mountain as if from within, or gaze enviously as the mid-summer thunderheads piled up over the toothy range, offering relief from the relentless heat, while we looked up at cloudless, merciless skies.
One summer, when I was in my early 20s living in Durango, I made it a habit to go up into the La Platas on my days off. After work on Monday – I took my days off during the week, when fewer people were in the backcountry – I’d go to the supermarket and get some bread, cheese and tomatoes, and pick up a cheap bottle of red wine at Wagon Wheel Liquors. Then I’d drive into the mountains. It was easy to find a place to camp back then. My favorite was a big, tilted meadow on the south slope of Madden Peak. I’d sit on the ground there and eat my meal and drink the wine and watch the shadows reach across the San Juan Basin.
After the last light dissipated, I’d crawl into my sleeping bag and gaze at the stars until the cool night brought sleep. At first light, with a star or two still glimmering overhead, I’d brew some coffee, throw a couple peanut butter and honey tortillas and a jug of water in my pack, and truck straight up the slope to Parrot Peak in time to catch the sun rising over the opposite ridge. Then I’d make my way northward along the ridgeline: Madden, Star, Gibbs, never once seeing another human being. There were moments of fear, of loneliness, even regret. But there was also the deep blue sky and the way the land unfurled below; the dark figure of Ute Mountain etched against the sky; the McElmo Dome rising up from the Montezuma Valley; the distant Dove Creek beanfields; the clouds building in the afternoon and the electricity in the air and the rocks.
I made these treks on my own. No one knew where I was going. There were no cell phones, no Instagram, no Strava, no GPS. Had I fallen or been eaten by a mountain lion or froze to death or died of heat stroke or gotten lost or simply gone missing, it would be a while before the searchers came looking. And when they did, they surely would have chided me for my foolhardiness, my lack of preparation, my quest for solitude. I’m a lot older now and wiser and more prudent. And yet I still go hiking and running on my own in places where I’m unlikely to see other people. It is reckless and irresponsible. It is also an act of faith.
When I was in college in Santa Fe many years ago, I signed up for the search and rescue team. When the calls came in, I was always eager to escape my studies and head into the woods, which led to me being on the hasty team, the advance group that went out soon after the call came in, usually after night had fallen. We’d drive out to where the subject was last seen and start walking through the woods in the dark, half expecting to find a gravely wounded person or lifeless body. We never did. In fact, during my time on the team, we never actually found anyone. The subjects simply walked out of the woods, sometimes long after they went missing: An elderly hunter strolled up to frantic searchers and offered them candy; a couple of teenagers called their mom from a payphone in the midst of an extensive search; a developmentally disabled youngster who’d wandered away from his house in a remote village enigmatically wandered into an Allsups gas station miles away and days later.
After someone has been missing in the wild for a few days, this is the outcome one desperately begins to hope for, because the more likely alternative is far grimmer.
O’Brien’s case is tragic, but also baffling. How is it possible to simply vanish in this age of technology and connectivity, when the panopticon of dash-, doorbell-, web-, phone-, and satellite-cams diligently watch our every move? Even more difficult to grasp is that O’Brien is the third runner to be swallowed up by the San Juan Mountains over the past year.
The first was Daniel Lamthach, a 22-year-old Utah ultrarunner who in 2022 set out for a hike on July 16 or 17 from Molas Pass south of Silverton – it’s uncertain, because he didn’t tell anyone when or where he was going or for how long. But he had told people he wanted to climb the Trinity Peaks in the rugged Grenadier range, an area I suspect an earlier explorer was thinking about when he said the San Juans were “awful in their sublimity.” Hikers found Lamthach’s cell phone July 18 on the Elk Creek Trail, east of the Animas River. Other than that, an extensive search turned up nothing. Lamthach remains missing.
On Oct. 1, 2022, 29-year-old David Lunde drove from Durango, up La Plata Canyon and to the base of the Madden Peak trail, which is more old, rocky mining road than trail that switchbacks up the ridge. He embarked at about 7 a.m. to run and hike a portion of the “La Plata Enchilada,” a sort of high-traverse, masochistic circumnavigation of the range. He didn’t show up for work that night and was reported missing the next day, triggering an intense and rather urgent search, given that pouring rain had turned to snow, and nighttime temperatures were potentially life-threatening. No trace was ever found.
From afar, the O’Brien and Lunde cases are especially baffling because of the place they went missing. On a map, the La Platas look relatively insignificant, a kind of pelvis-shaped appendage to the greater and far more rugged San Juan range. The highest peaks are low-13ers, and most are easy climbs, even walk-ups; there is no designated wilderness; and you can’t go very far in the range without crossing a road, be it well-maintained gravel or a narrow old mining path. The range is increasingly popular, and finding a camp site or even a bit of solitude on a summer weekend can be nearly impossible. It seems like the kind of place that would be difficult to disappear in, even if you were trying.
That has inspired some folks to suspect foul play, or an abduction – or even intervention by space aliens. How else could a human body go unfound or undetected in such a place? He must have been taken away from it, or so the theory goes.
But maps and first impressions can be deceiving. Get down on the ground in the La Platas, and you’ll find they are quite rugged, an overgrown mess. Last summer, a couple buddies and I set out for a quick hike, starting up the Madden Creek road then veering off onto the unbeaten path as we made a beeline for the ridge. When the clouds and thunder moved in, we decided to head down via a different route (because retracing your steps is boring). We were rapidly cliffed out, forcing us to climb back up and over Madden Peak, even as the lightning approached, before dropping back down into a horrid bushwhack that involved layer upon layer of downed timber. It was as if a giant kid had dumped his Lincoln Log set into a bramble patch.
The three of us were probably never farther than 50 yards apart, yet I couldn’t see my friends. The only indication that they had not been yanked under a log by a big, hungry bear was the incessant string of expletives echoing throughout the woods (most of them uttered by me). I was constantly aware of the possibility that I might fall from one log, be impaled by the branch jutting out from another, and perish long before the other two even knew something was wrong. By that time, I might be lost forever.
So even the La Platas – crisscrossed by roads and trails, cluttered with cabins, littered with the detritus of past and present mining, often crowded – are still wild, rife with places to hide or disappear in, teeming with both wonder and danger, simmering with life and with death. That someone might venture into these mountains and vanish, eluding even the most high-tech search efforts, is heartbreaking and strange and mysterious. But it’s also entirely conceivable, a realization that is both scary and, in a strange sort of way, reassuring.
Land Desk is a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, author of “River of Lost Souls,” “Behind the Slickrock Curtain” and “Sagebrush Empire.” Subscribe at: landdesk.org