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Search teams led by family continue searching for Ian O’Brien

Ian O'Brien, 28, went for a hike Saturday afternoon north of Echo Basin but failed to return that night. (Courtesy of Montezuma County Sheriff's Office)
O’Brien is not the first hiker to disappear in the area

The search heads into its seventh day following the disappearance of experienced hiker Ian O’Brien, 28, who went missing on June 24 after hiking Hesperus Peak and failing to return to his camp.

According to his sister Molly O’Brien and other family members, O’Brien was an experienced hiker and survivalist who had hiked to Hesperus Peak multiple times in the past.

His last communication was a selfie photo that he sent his girlfriend from the peak.

On Wednesday night, Montezuma County Search and Rescue called off its search, with La Plata County Search and Rescue following suit soon after. Both SAR teams had scoured the area along with O’Brien’s family and friends, with their search turning up no clues to O’Brien’s whereabouts.

“Today is the last day that Montezuma SAR will be officially involved in this,” O’Brien’s sister Molly said on June 29. “They are a volunteer organization and they have gone above and beyond for us but they have hit their capacity to continue this. My dad has gotten to spend time with a lot of them and said they remind him a lot of the small-town folks we love in Roxbury.”

Vicki Shaffer, Montezuma-County Public Information Officer and one of the Montezuma SAR volunteers, said the only thing that could have been a lead were footprints that were consistent with the type of shoes he wore and the size, but that the footprints hadn’t led to anything.

“His are unique because he wears a size 14,” Shaffer said. “So, we did find some tracks that were consistent, but we don't know for sure if they were left on his way up or on his way back down. And you know, there's obviously no way to absolutely 100% guarantee that those are his tracks; there's a lot of people that hike up there.”

According to the website dedicated to updates on the search for O’Brien, both SAR teams and volunteers had searched summits and crevasses, a U.S. Air Force Black Hawk helicopter from Kirtland Air Force base searched from the sky, thermal equipment scanned the area, drones flew over rivers and six K-9’s searched the woods.

Now, the search is being led by a friend of O’Brien’s with the help of his parents, longtime girlfriend Beth Henshaw, a National Park service search management specialist and many other family members and friends.

The search has averaged 30-55 volunteers since Saturday, and his family said anyone who wants to join the search is welcome to show up at Lucy Halls Park on FS Road 566 outside of Mancos, and they will be sent out with a team from there. They recommend volunteers show up between 8 and 9 a.m.

The current search area includes Hesperus Mountain, Owens Basin, West Mancos Trail, Sharkstooth Trailhead, Box Canyon Trail and Transfer Campground with a focus on Hesperus and areas closer to Mancos after it was deemed that he was “likely no longer in La Plata County.”

O’Brien’s family members and friends expressed concern that he had suffered an epileptic seizure which caused him to lose his memory and become disoriented. They said that after a seizure, O’Brien often sleeps for several hours and becomes confused.

If he missed his epilepsy medication while hiking down the mountain, they believe that is a valid reason he didn’t show up to camp when he was supposed to.

If he does not have his backpack and has continued to miss his medication, his family believes he could be in serious danger and might not be able to call out for help.

Because he may be confused, his family urges searchers not to just call out his name, but to yell other phrases such as, “Do you need help?” and “Are you lost?”

To add to the concern, temperatures have been dipping into the upper 30s and low 40s at night.

The story has garnered national attention from outlets such as Fox News, People and USA Today.

Montezuma-County Sheriff Steve Nowlin told USA Today, “We know he was there, we know how he got there, but we don't see anything, we can't find anything,” Nowlin said. “We checked everything we could. Of course, you can't search every square foot, but we came pretty close.”

O’Brien isn’t the first hiker to go missing in this area. In October 2022, 29-year-old trail runner David Lunde went missing after a long run, and he has never been found.

O’Brien, who is 6’5”, was last seen wearing a gray tank top, black shorts, tennis shoes and could also be wearing a long sleeve hiking shirt. His backpack only contained a few snacks and a few days-worth of his epilepsy medication.

Even though Montezuma SAR had to call of their search, Shaffer said that didn’t mean they weren’t going to keep searching.

“We've gone into what we call a limited continuous mode, meaning that we won't be there every day all day, but we will be there when we can and we will continue to search up there… We'll keep going back. We have a hard time quitting, so we continue to do what we can, but we're all volunteers,” Shaffer said. “But I do plan to go back this weekend. We'll continue to do what we can.”

A GoFundMe has been set up, and donations are going toward food and gear for the search and rescue volunteers.

The family said they are determined to find “our goofy, tall, hairy, lovable, talented, big-hearted cousin, son, brother, uncle, friend, teacher and grandson.”