The mysterious disappearance of Pacific Crest Trail hiker David O’Sullivan
This is the last thing anyone knows for absolute certain about David O’Sullivan:
On the morning of April 7, 2017, the 25-year-old from Ireland checked out of a motel in the snowy mountain town of Idyllwild.
Sixteen days earlier, he’d set out hiking from the Mexican border. Nature and his own inexperience had made the 180 miles he’d covered, through deserts and up and down mountains, challenging.
In one of the last messages he would ever send, he told a friend that he was getting things sorted out, but it had been hard so far. “I knew it would be, but …” he wrote, cursing for emphasis.
“I love it.”
This was supposed to have been just the beginning of a 2,650-mile journey, following the Pacific Crest Trail through the iconic mountains of the American West all the way to the Canadian border.
Instead — as far as anyone knows — Idyllwild was the end.
He never met up with a friend in Santa Barbara, as he’d planned.
His bank activity stopped.
His parents never heard from him again.
But they had expected him to be out of touch for weeks at a time. That, combined with some incorrect information they received when they first started to worry, and the difficulties of being on another continent, resulted in it taking three months for O’Sullivan to be reported missing to local authorities.
By the time the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department got the case, their search efforts would not have been a rescue mission. Either he was missing on purpose, or they were looking for his remains.
Investigators spent a few months looking into both possibilities, including checking into a few reported sightings and conducting one official search, then closed the case when they concluded they’d run out of leads.
Four years later, O’Sullivan has never been found.
But a group of volunteers from across the U.S., none of whom ever actually met O’Sullivan, haven’t given up. Motivated by his family’s palpable grief and a desire to bring them closure, they’ve poured countless hours into searching for him.
The pandemic interrupted their efforts in 2020. But in late 2019 and early 2021, the same people looking for O’Sullivan found the remains of two other people who’d gone missing in nearby regions, and their leader has started a nonprofit foundation to help them keep looking.
Though they can’t be certain, they don’t believe O’Sullivan made it out of the San Jacinto Mountains, the range that surrounds Idyllwild. They’ve focused their efforts around Fuller Ridge, a notorious 5-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that was still covered in ice and snow that April, and where numerous other 2017 hikers reported dangerous experiences sliding off the trail.
Maybe O’Sullivan — who had no experience in those conditions — fell and met a quick end, or was hurt but had no way to call for help. Maybe he got off track and hopelessly lost in the steep, forested wilderness. But the searchers are convinced his remains are out there, just waiting for someone to find them and send them home to his parents.
“I still wake in the middle of the night — not every night anymore, like I did in the beginning — just thinking, ‘Where is he?’” said his mother, Carmel O’Sullivan.
Inspired by ‘Wild’
David O’Sullivan was one of almost 4,000 people who got permits from the Pacific Crest Trail Association to hike the entire route in 2017. The association is a nonprofit that helps maintain the trail, provides information and issues long-distance permits, but does not keep track of hikers along the way or take responsibility for their safety.
The number of PCT thru-hikers, as they’re called, has increased steadily since “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed that tells of her life-changing experience, was published in 2012 and then turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014.
O’Sullivan was one of the many people inspired by Strayed’s memoir to attempt the trail.
“I think this was his way to find himself, which a lot of PCT hikers do,” said Cathy Tarr, the woman now leading the volunteer search efforts, who has become close with O’Sullivan’s family over the past four years.
“He wanted to do the PCT after college but before he got into the real world,” Tarr said. “Possibly proving to himself and to others that ‘I can do that.’”
O’Sullivan had grown up in the countryside outside Midleton, a town of about 12,500 people in Cork County in southwest Ireland. He went to University College Cork and graduated in 2014 with a degree in English, then moved back home.
“I am often asked by our searchers ‘what was David like,’” Carmel O’Sullivan wrote in a Facebook post on the second anniversary of his disappearance. “As a child he was full of fun and mischief often making us laugh with his stand-up comedy. He performed on stage at youth theatre and in his school plays. He grew up to be a thoughtful, kind, and loving young man. He cared about a lot of issues including human rights and equality for everyone. …
“David’s other great quality was loyalty. Loyalty to his family, his employer and his great bunch of friends,” she wrote. “He met some of them his first days of school and they remained friends through all of their school years and beyond.”
He wasn’t an athlete, his mom said, but he did have a black belt in karate and enjoyed hiking and bicycling.
Once he’d set his sights on the Pacific Crest Trail, he spent about a year working at a gas station to save up money.
His parents were surprised — and not thrilled — when he told them about his plans in late 2016. By then he’d already done his research and started physically training.
But the mountains in Ireland are nothing like what he’d encounter in the U.S. They only get up into the 3,000-foot range, a fraction of the lofty elevations of the Pacific Crest Trail, and they rarely have much snow. He wouldn’t have been able to practice with equipment such as crampons or microspikes, which go on your shoes to improve traction, or an ice axe, which you can use to stop a fall if you start sliding downhill.
It was unfortunate, then, that when O’Sullivan applied for his PCT permit, he got an early-season start, on March 22, 2017. To minimize the environmental impact of thousands of hikers, each one is assigned a start day, with no more than 50 per day setting out from the southern end of the trail. Mid-April to early May is widely considered the best time to begin, the sweet spot when you have the best chance of hitting mountains that aren’t too snowy and deserts that aren’t too hot.
The “Wild”-inspired popularity of the trail happened to begin at the same time California entered a yearslong drought, so the PCT hikers who had filled the internet with accounts of their trips in recent years had been describing conditions that were very different from what O’Sullivan would encounter in 2017 — the year that drought finally ended.
“There’s been a lot of rainfall lately,” he wrote in an email to his dad a week into his hike. “It broke a drought the area has had for years. All the desert flowers are in bloom. I can often smell their perfume-like aroma as I hike. Most of the place is covered in green and there were streams everywhere for the first few days. It’s a weird time to be in Southern California. It’s not usually like this.”
He knew that the Sierra Nevada had received heavy snowfall, and that he wasn’t equipped for it. He planned a strategy that thru-hikers call flip-flopping: skipping over the Sierra portion of the trail initially, then returning later when enough ice and snow had melted for him to feel safe.
The San Jacinto Mountains can’t compare to the Sierra, but the conditions were dangerous enough. Up to 3 feet of snow still covered parts of the PCT by the time O’Sullivan came through, according to a San Jacinto Mountains trail report written by Jon King, an Idyllwild man who estimates he hikes about 5,000 miles per year in the local mountains and runs a website that describes current conditions.
King’s post from March 30, 2017 recommended using microspikes or crampons for traction and poles or an ice axe for support. By April 11, some snow had melted, but King wrote, “Many PCT trail posts above 8000’ remain hidden under snow drifts, making navigation somewhat difficult.”
At least four other hikers had to be rescued that March and April, according to the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, a volunteer group that often assists the local sheriff’s department. One was a PCT hiker who had fallen down the mountain near Black Mountain Campground, at the northwest end of Fuller Ridge, on March 30. He’d lost all his water and his stove in the fall and “had exhausted himself climbing back to the trail repeatedly,” rescuers wrote. On the way to get him, their own truck got stuck in the snow three miles from the trailhead.
Hardships, high spirits
O’Sullivan’s longest email was sent from Julian, a mountain town in San Diego County, a week after he set out from the trail’s southern terminus near the town of Campo. In the message, which Tarr shared with this news organization with his parents’ permission, he described some of the people he’d met so far and seemed surprised and disappointed there hadn’t been more.
(It’s not unusual for people to hike the PCT alone: About two-thirds of the people who responded to a survey by the Halfway Anywhere blog in recent years started solo. For many hikers, one of the appeals of the adventure is finding a “trail family” along the way.)
O’Sullivan also wrote about how he wasn’t covering the distances he’d hoped to. Someone he shared a campsite with on his third night — who had hiked in two days as far as O’Sullivan had in three — helped him realize his pack was too heavy.
“I got my kilos and pounds mixed up when I was measuring it,” he wrote.
The next day, O’Sullivan met someone who worked at an outfitter in the town of Mount Laguna, who helped him pare down his load and sold him a new tent, sleeping pad and other items that would be lighter than what he’d purchased in Ireland.
“I’ve been flying ever since,” he wrote. “I think I’ve dropped about 12 pounds of equipment since day one and I can really feel it.”
His pace picked up in the hundred miles between Julian and Idyllwild — he managed 20 miles one of those days — but his struggles weren’t over. Another hiker who was on the trail at the same time as O’Sullivan, and who blogged about his trek, described a storm the night of March 31 that unleashed winds so strong they partially collapsed his tent and caused the rain to fall sideways.
That same hiker, Daniel Winsor, actually had lunch with O’Sullivan a few days later in Anza, at the southern base of the San Jacinto Mountains. They’d both stopped at the Paradise Valley Cafe, about a mile off the trail, whose burgers are mouth-wateringly famous among Pacific Crest Trail hikers.
“I sat down and talked to a fellow thru hiker, Dave from Ireland,” Winsor wrote in his blog. “Cracked lips and peeling skin attested to his story of losing his sun hat a few days ago. He had worked at a gas station for a long time to save up for this trip. Some people make some serious, long-term sacrifices to be out here.”
Winsor enviously described seeing O’Sullivan catching a ride from the cafe to the trail, while Winsor had to walk the mile back, and gave him a tragically ironic nickname: Lucky Dave.
O’Sullivan’s incredibly bad sunburn is one thing that stands out in his memory, Winsor said in an interview. Another is how unprepared O’Sullivan seemed.
“I got kind of a general feeling he was kind of getting slapped around by being out on the trail,” Winsor said. “That’s probably why I was trying to push him toward not trying anything he was not prepared for.”
He felt like O’Sullivan had romanticized the PCT as a place to escape to. Despite the rough reality, though, he said O’Sullivan’s spirits were high.
“He didn’t give any hints he wanted to quit, or escape the trail,” Winsor said. “He wasn’t miserable.”
He said hikers were aware there was still a lot of snow in the San Jacinto Mountains. Online, some who’d made it through portrayed Fuller Ridge as “the deadliest, iciest ridge on the planet, but others were saying it was nothing to worry about, you could do it in tennis shoes,” Winsor said.
He got the impression that O’Sullivan was going to try to skip some of the snowy sections up there, but he could have changed his mind depending on what he heard in town.
Final days in Idyllwild
The San Jacinto Mountains tower over Riverside County’s sprawling suburban Inland valleys to the west and the Coachella Valley desert to the east. San Jacinto Peak, the high point, rises 10,834 feet above sea level. The mountains spread over hundreds of square miles of mostly public lands — national forest, national monument, state park, state and federal wilderness — and their granite ridges and valleys are covered by a tangle of trails that lay like yarn strewn across a map.
The network is dominated by the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes a couple of miles east of Idyllwild. Most PCT hikers take a detour into town to resupply and maybe sleep in a real bed.
O’Sullivan arrived April 5 and got a room at the Idyllwild Inn for two nights. In addition to the typical errands, he had a specific mission.
He was traveling with very little technology: no cellphone, no GPS device to navigate, not even a rescue beacon to summon help in an emergency. He did have a Kindle, though he could only use it where he could connect to WiFi — and he hadn’t brought the right travel adapter, so he hadn’t been able to charge it.
He’d ordered a new adapter, but there was some sort of mix-up and it hadn’t made it to Idyllwild. He had to order another one, and complained in his final email to his parents, sent from the Idyllwild library on April 6, that he was going to get a later start back to the trail the next morning because he’d have to wait for the post office to open — a clue that he wasn’t planning on hitchhiking down the mountain, like Winsor thought he might have been considering.
The same day, O’Sullivan messaged his friend in Santa Barbara. The plan was to hike about 470 miles farther to the Ridgecrest area, where the trail transitions from the Mojave Desert to the Sierra Nevada, then catch a bus to Santa Barbara for a weeklong visit. He wrote that he thought he’d be there in about four weeks.
A month later, the friend messaged O’Sullivan again.
“Hey, when should I expect you to arrive here”
The next day, he tried again: