LA PLATA MOUNTAINS – Weeks ago, as Eli Weitzman was packing his bike for a trip from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Fernie, British Columbia, his mind meandered to his friend, Ian O’Brien.
“Ian would do this with half the amount of stuff and no planning,” he thought with admiration.
Weitzman had made it 600 miles, to Whitefish, Montana, when he got the word that O’Brien was missing. The 28-year-old ultra runner disappeared while running near Hesperus Mountain the evening of June 24.
So Weitzman hopped off his “freedom machine” – a term for bicycles he learned from O’Brien in the early days of their friendship – rented a car and drove to Southwest Colorado.
The headquarters for the search sits at Lucy Halls Park, in Echo Basin, a field surrounded by wildflowers at the toe of Hesperus Peak, where O’Brien and his partner, Beth Henshaw, went to camp with their friends, Ashley and Mike Higgs.
Dedicated “easy-up” tent shelters cover a stash of food, a camp kitchen and an incident command center replete with radios, satellite communication devices and colorful maps documenting the 12,000 acres that volunteers have searched.
O’Brien, a rugged and experienced outdoorsman, spent most of the last six years living in Southwest Colorado and moved to Page, Arizona, a month ago.
Although he knows the La Plata Mountains well, he has epilepsy and his friends worry that he likely suffered a seizure while returning to camp, which rendered him disoriented and or incapacitated.
The terrain is a vast, unforgiving and mysterious wilderness. In October 2022, another runner, David Lunde of Durango, disappeared in the same area and was never found.
Ian O’Brien was last seen the evening of June 24 on Hesperus Mountain wearing a gray tank top, black shorts, tennis shoes and possibly had a long-sleeve hiking shirt. He is 6’4“, 187 pounds with blue eyes and blonde hair.
Anyone who sees O’Brien should call 911.
Information about joining the search and donations can be found at bit.ly/findianobrien
Montezuma County Search and Rescue suspended the official search for O’Brien on June 28, but the volunteer effort only swelled since then.
About 25 people gathered on Thursday, day 12 of the search, each trying to balance their own emotions.
“Everybody is grieving and motivated, hopeful and hopeless,” Henshaw said.
A potent aura of love, sorrow, hope and realistic knowing hung thick over the camp as volunteers gathered for the morning briefing.
“Our top priority is safety,” O’Brien’s college friend, Travis Soares, said, sounding weathered but remarkably clearheaded after 10 days of searching through waist-high brush.
“After fun,” Mike Higgs, an incident commander, chimed in.
The group chuckled in harmony.
Ethan Atkins, another friend from Prescott College, delivered directives on what to do if O’Brien was found alive that day, and what to do if he was found dead. After nearly two weeks of searching, it was a somber, but familiar set of directions.
“You guys have heard it so many times, you’re so good at it now!” Incident Commander Ashely Higgs joked.
Each team signed out, equipped with radios and InReaches (satellite devices that can send an S.O.S. signal to authorities in the event that O’Brien was found alive) and hiked toward a grove of Aspens, where they would trip and trudge in a line through the forest understory, searching for their friend.
Weitzman and Henshaw stayed in camp that morning. They were tired, Henshaw from searching and Weitzman from his 18-hour drive he made the day before to get there.
The two were roommates in 2020 when O’Brien and Henshaw met. With a cheeky, boyish smile, Weitzman revealed how he set up the couple by repeatedly inviting O’Brien over for dinner, but departing before he arrived, leaving O’Brien and Henshaw alone.
The old friends united in a deep belly laugh.
“I couldn't imagine being anywhere else right now,” Weitzman said. “And this is exactly how I thought things would be here. We know that there's something really important going on, but we can still bathe in community and in hope and a little bit of humor.”
O’Brien is someone who friends describe as “happiest outdoors.”
“The average person hasn't lived that many places and created community that many places,” Henshaw said. “Ian doesn't want to live anywhere. Two or three years is good in one place. That's long enough to develop a deep community.”
O’Brien’s community stretches across the nation and even internationally; thousands of people have contributed to the effort.
When he went missing, Henshaw spread the word on social media immediately, knowing that an army of loyal friends, most of whom share O’Brien’s exuberance for the wilderness, would leave their jobs and come looking.
“These people are different,” she said. “We live in our cars. We're home right now. … We're able to say, ‘F--- this job, we don't need it. We'll get another job in a few weeks. I'm out. I'm taking all my s--- and I'll be there in 12 hours and I can stay for 12 days.”
By the 12th day of searching, the number of volunteers had shrunk from a high of 78, over the Fourth of July weekend, down to about 25. Some of those who had shown up on day 1 had begun to reintegrate jobs and other commitments back into their lives. But a new phalanx of volunteers, mostly O’Brien’s friends from Prescott College, had also arrived.
O’Brien’s sisters and parents have activated a network in their hometown of Roxbury, New York, and people are spreading the word, reviewing drone footage for clues, and praying for O’Brien across the country (although, Henshaw said, dirt roads were the only thing O’Brien considered to “church”).
“We're using everything: spirituality, intuition, logic,” Henshaw said. “Everything comes back to logic. But when spirituality and intuition lines up with logic, we hit it hard.”
The list of businesses and organizations in Mancos, Cortez and Durango that have contributed food and resources to the search grows longer each day. More than 1,100 people have collectively raised close to $100,000 on GoFundMe, which has been used to purchase InReaches and radios and hire search helicopters.
“The world is a lot smaller when stuff like that starts happening,” said O’Brien’s sister, Molly O’Brien.
Residents of Southwest Colorado with no connection to O’Brien have delivered food and water, shown up with dirt bikes and ATVs, and stopped by to clean up camp when search teams are out.
“We would be out searching and we’d come back and there would be another easy-up and we wouldn’t even know who set it up,” Henshaw said.
Silvina Moore and her husband Jeremy live in Mancos and saw the missing person flier a few days into the search. They called the number to learn more, and were frustrated by the lack of information.
So Silvina Moore, who builds websites as a part of her job, built a website through which information is now funneled. She and her husband have no connection to O’Brien, other than a few degrees of separation through friends.
As Silvina Moore sits in camp working on the website (thanks to someone who decided, unprompted, to donate a Starlink setup to outfit the incident command center with internet), Jeremy Moore combs the woods with search crews.
“Their love for him is pretty infectious,” Jeremy Moore said. “It’s weird, you feel pretty connected to him.”
A tender range of emotions abound at the search headquarters. Volunteers have fun, donning wigs and carrying rubber chickens – an outdoor essential for O’Brien – but take time to comfort one another.
Food, water, personal hygiene items – these things just appear in Henshaw’s hand now thanks to the robust community.
“I wake up, get out of my van and walk down, and by the time I get here, there's a cup of coffee in my hand every day,” Henshaw said. “Someone's like, ‘Hey, here’s a hair brush.’ Everyone's thinking for me.”
On Thursday, she seemed to forget she was holding her breakfast plate almost as soon as it had been handed to her. Henshaw was hungry but too busy discussing a new theory on O’Brien’s whereabouts to tend to the slab of quiche, the cinnamon roll and pile perky red strawberries on her plate.
On Wednesday, three runners had departed camp at 2:30 p.m. and followed O’Brien’s route to the top of Hesperus Mountain, where they arrived at the same time he had. They then headed west, off the peak, toward tracks found during the first night of searching that matched O’Brien’s size 14 running shoes.
Soares, one of the three runners who retraced O’Brien’s likely path, has spent days running in the backcountry and knows O’Brien’s pace and instincts.
“He told Beth that he would be out for seven hours, so I got to his last tracks and from there, basically did a loop out over this way, which was about seven hours,” Soares said, wading through heavy brush.
The new theory elevated the spirits of the searchers, many of whom are caught in the exhausting position of needing to tend to their bodies, by resting, and needing to tend to their hope, by searching.
“You have to reassess every single day and question what he’s doing, where he’s at,” Soares said. “Is he getting water? Is he eating food? But Ian is one of the strongest humans I know.”
The volunteers share a common sense of grief, but nobody is confident yet that the feeling is warranted. Even Soares slips between speaking of O’Brien in the past tense and present tense.
“If Ian is alive, that’s great,” Atkins said. “And if he passed over, this is where it would be. And he would be psyched.”
Hesperus Mountain – the last place O’Brien was known to be for certain, looms in the backdrop of camp. Henshaw said it brings her comfort.
“I moved my van up there so that when I sleep, the first and last thing I see is Hesperus, every day,” she said.
A previous version of this story misspelled Silvina Moore’s name. The story has been updated.