11 Days After A Hiker Disappeared In The Grand Canyon, Rangers Made A Startling Discovery

Image: Facebook/Grand Canyon National Park

It’s December 2019, and Martin Edward O’Connor has apparently vanished off the face of the Earth. The Texan had been staying on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim when he failed to return to his accommodation, and naturally that prompted concerns that the tourist had somehow gotten himself in danger. Then, 11 days after O’Connor was last sighted, rangers were called to one of the most dangerous routes in the area. And when the searchers eventually arrive at the scene, they make a shocking discovery.

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O’Connor had traveled from the city of La Porte to Arizona, where he had intended to explore the Grand Canyon National Park. And the visitor had found a place to rest his head, having checked into the Yavapai Lodge on December 17. The lodge is the largest guesthouse in the park, and it sits in woods not far from the famous river gorge.

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But while O’Connor seemingly stayed at the Yavapai Lodge for five nights without incident, he didn’t return to his accommodation on December 22. And the tourist would therefore go on to be reported as missing, as the Grand Canyon National Park Service revealed on Facebook on December 30, 2019.

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An update regarding O’Connor’s disappearance was posted to the Emergency Services & Law Enforcement – Grand Canyon NPS Facebook page on that date. The message read, “The National Park Service (NPS) is conducting a missing person search at Grand Canyon National Park. Martin Edward O’Connor, 58, of La Porte, Texas, was last seen on December 22, 2019, at Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.”

Image: National Park Service via Daily Mail

Giving more details on the missing man, the post continued, “O’Connor is believed to be traveling alone and stayed at Yavapai Lodge from December 17 to 22. O’Connor is described as a white male, 5 foot and 10 inches in height [and] 145 pounds with blue eyes, and [he] is bald. He is thought to be wearing Carhartt-style work clothing and a blue plaid shirt.”

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Then the NPS sought the public’s assistance. The message continued, “Grand Canyon rangers are asking anyone who may have seen or talked to Martin O’Connor to please contact the NPS Investigative Services Branch (ISB) Tip Line… A missing person investigation is ongoing, [and] no further information is available at this time.”

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There was also a poster accompanying the National Park Service’s Facebook appeal, and this included a picture of O’Connor alongside an outline of his physical description. The notice reiterated, “O’Connor is physically fit and possibly wearing Carhartt-style work clothing. He is believed to be traveling by himself.”

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Unfortunately, though, it’s not unusual for people to go missing while exploring America’s treasured green spaces. In fact, since the National Park Service was established in 1916, more than 1,000 individuals have vanished – and never been seen again – after having visited protected areas of conservation. There’s even a webpage devoted to cold case disappearances on the National Park Service’s website.

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Jonghyon Won is just one of the missing people to be featured on the site. The Los Angeles resident was 45 when he vanished in September 2017 following a trip to Grand Canyon National Park. And while Won’s car was ultimately located at Moran Point, to date no trace of the man himself has been found.

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According to the National Park Service, Won didn’t have any intention of exploring a certain part of the Grand Canyon area, although his vehicle had been spotted close to the New Hance Trailhead. But although his whereabouts have remained a mystery for more than two years, his case is still open.

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Floyd E. Roberts III is also said to have disappeared from Grand Canyon National Park in June 2016. At the time he went missing, the 52-year-old was apparently sporting jeans, a red shirt and colorful Nike footwear. He had also reportedly been carrying a blue bag on his back and had been wearing orange and white sunglasses.

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Roberts had been visiting the Grand Canyon with friends, too, and he and the rest of his group had been preparing to embark upon a nine-day trek through the park. Roberts ultimately broke off from the others, though, and was sighted for the final time in the vicinity of a place called Kelly Tanks. And while a search was subsequently launched for the hiker, he has never been found.

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Another unsolved case from the Grand Canyon National Park involves Morgan Heimer, who went missing aged 22 in June 2015. Last spotted in the vicinity of the Colorado River, Heimer had been dressed in a blue shirt, multihued shorts and Chaco sandals; he had also been sporting a life jacket. And, again, the young man’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although he is still being looked for today.

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The Investigative Services Branch (ISB) is the agency tasked with finding answers when someone vanishes in one of America’s national parks. And while such cases often remain unsolved, they’re never closed – even if investigators have few clues to work with. In August 2019 ISB spokesperson Kathy Kupper told Arizona newspaper The Daily Courier, “It’s always there on the table.”

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That being said, ISB agents are spread pretty thinly. In fact, it’s been reported that just 30 of them are responsible for the 419 national parks located across the U.S. And as a consequence, many unsolved investigations will ultimately grow cold if no new tips come to light. Still, as Kupper has explained, “Sometimes a tip will come in, someone will hear something and [a case] will go active again.”

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Yes, even after years have passed, the ISB does sometimes receive new clues to the plights of long-missing persons. And it seems that modern technology is assisting in some developments, too. Kupper told The Daily Courier, “We’re very active on social media, and people will post things for us… Our tip line is also very effective.”

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But it stands to reason that some people do go missing in national parks, as there are many risks that go hand in hand with exploring the wilderness. Harsh environmental conditions could prove problematic, for example. Slipping from a great height is also a real danger, as is the potential of falling victim to an attack by a bear or cougar. And as rescue efforts got underway for O’Connor in December 2019, it wasn’t known if he would be found alive.

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One of the biggest fears for O’Connor was that he had succumbed to the freezing weather the area had been experiencing. While efforts were being made to locate the hiker, the mercury slipped to below zero, putting O’Connor at risk of deadly hypothermia if he was still outside.

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Yet there are benefits to visiting the Grand Canyon at such a typically cold time of the year. Icy storms may dump snow on the breathtaking landscape, and the scenery arguably becomes even more magnificent when glistening in the winter sun. The national park is less busy during these periods, too, meaning walkers should be more able to find peace and solitude.

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But, of course, there are downsides to hiking around the Grand Canyon in the winter – with the frosty conditions being chief among these drawbacks. There is also often less daylight, and visibility can shift in an instant, spoiling views of the enormous gorge and potentially hampering hikers’ sense of direction.

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Indeed, weather at the Grand Canyon National Park can vary greatly and without warning during wintertime. As a result, then, there’s a section on the park’s website advising visitors on how to stay safe during the colder months. The guide recommends wearing layered clothing on any hikes, for instance, so that you can help keep warm and dry.

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The site also requests that hikers wear traction aids over their footwear to give them a better grip on potentially icy paths and trails. Drivers are similarly advised to take extra care when traveling through the park. And, apparently, some routes into the area may even be closed off for a time if dangerous conditions develop.

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Perhaps, then, O’Connor had found himself in trouble during a spate of bad weather. In any case, it seems that the search for the Texan got off to a slow start. In response to the lack of news on the Facebook page, one commenter asked, “Would you please update if [O’Connor] was found safe or not?”

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The NPS revealed, however, that it had no updates to report. Its response read, “Martin O’Connor has not been located, and the investigation is still ongoing. We will keep this site updated when he is located.” And so the anxious wait for any developments on O’Connor’s case continued.

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In fact, a major breakthrough in the search didn’t occur until January 2, 2020 – 11 long days after O’Connor had last been sighted. At the time, search efforts had been focused on the New Hance Trail, which is one of the most challenging and isolated hiking routes on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

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The New Hance Trail isn’t intentionally maintained, and so it offers hikers a more rugged experience. Indeed, the six and a half-mile trek is not at all for the faint of heart, with the scramble down often requiring intrepid adventurers to use their hands and feet.

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And it’s the first mile of the descent that’s apparently the most perilous. Here, hikers must contend with a sharp, arduous path as well as a number of large steps – some plunging to drops as far as four feet. On this stretch of the route, great care should naturally be taken in order to avoid injury or falling.

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Fortunately, the New Hance Trail eventually evens out somewhat – although there are some more steep spots dotted along the way. And there’s something else that travelers should bear in mind when attempting the route: the lack of drinkable water from the trailhead to the river. You see, while streams can be found in the area at the beginning of the year, their water may contain more arsenic than is advisable to consume safely.

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Bearing all this in mind, then, a document posted to the NPS website has a warning for visitors that reads, “The New Hance Trail lies within a primitive use area and is thus recommended only for highly experienced canyon hikers. It is not maintained and may be the most difficult established trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.”

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So, O’Connor may have met a grim fate if it turned out that he’d wandered along New Hance Trail. And it was there that rescuers decided to focus their efforts following a tip-off on January 1, 2020. It was this information, moreover, that ultimately led them to the tourist.

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But what sort of state had O’Connor been found in? Well, even though he had faced 11 long nights in the wilderness at sub-zero temperatures, the hiker was astonishingly still alive. Rangers located the missing man on the New Hance Trail the day after some people had spotted him on the challenging route. He was subsequently retrieved from the area by helicopter.

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And the happy news that O’Connor had been located was of course shared on the Emergency Services & Law Enforcement – Grand Canyon NPS Facebook page. An update posted in January 2020 read, “National Park Service rangers located Martin Edward O’Connor and evacuated him from the inner canyon via helicopter at approximately 10:00 a.m. today.”

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Image: Facebook/Emergency Services & Law Enforcement – Grand Canyon NPS

The post continued, “Hikers reported seeing O’Connor along the New Hance Trail to park rangers yesterday afternoon, which is where the rangers located him this morning. Fifty-eight-year-old O’Connor from La Porte, Texas, disappeared on December 22, 2019, and was last seen at the Yavapai Lodge. O’Connor is undergoing a medical evaluation, and no additional information is available at this time.”

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Authorities later confirmed that O’Connor was stable following his 11-day ordeal. Yet there was no information on whether or not the hiker had sustained any injuries while he had been missing. Officers failed to explain, too, how O’Connor had traveled the 18 miles from Yavapai Lodge to the New Hance Trail.

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But even though the information given on O’Connor’s condition was pretty vague, the news that he’d been found alive was celebrated online. In fact, the post announcing the hiker’s rescue attracted hundreds of likes and many shares as well as a number of comments.

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Understandably, many of the messages posted below the update rejoiced in the good news that O’Connor had been successfully located. One commenter wrote, for example, “Great news. I saw the missing post again earlier today and was starting to have worries.” Another well-wisher added, “So glad to hear he was found and seems to be in [an] okay condition.”

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However, given the length of time that O’Connor had been missing, some people were eager to know more about what had happened to him. One Facebook user speculated on the hiker’s ordeal, writing, “Wow – great news. So he may have been in the canyon for days, in the cold… Geez!”

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Another individual seemingly wanted the authorities to expand on the limited information that had been provided about O’Connor’s rescue. They commented, “Great news! Will be interesting to hear the full story. What was he doing in the canyon without a permit?”

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But a social media user looked to put the speculation to rest by providing some general information about the route O’Connor had been found on. They wrote, “Portions of it are covered or obscured by landslides, and it’s particularly steep… It’s easy to imagine a lone hiker becoming injured and immobile.”

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We may never learn how O’Connor managed to survive for 11 days in Grand Canyon National Park. Nor, perhaps, will we find out how the testing experience affected him mentally or physically. What we do know, however, is that the hiker was lucky to have been found alive, especially when so many stories like his end in tragedy – or are never solved at all.

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