A Texas man who went missing in the Grand Canyon for 11 days over the holidays, creating a national outpouring of concern, apparently survived his ordeal because of his own self-determination.
But as public records reveal, the story of what happened to Martin O'Connor is not one of an injured or lost hiker against the elements, but of a man battling his own mind.
O'Connor's family in La Porte, Texas, reported the 58-year-old man missing on December 23. They said he had last been seen the day before in Grand Canyon National Park, where he had rented a room for several days at Yavapai Lodge. Extreme winter weather was blasting northern Arizona that week, with snow flurries and temperatures as low as minus 8 degrees. Park officials launched a missing persons investigation, but didn't have much to go on. They alerted the public to O'Connor's plight on December 30 with a press release that received wide attention in the news media.
Following up on a tip from hikers, rangers found O'Connor on January 2 walking about three miles below the rim on New Hance, an unmaintained rim-to-river trail that's popular with experienced adventurers. Headlines about the successful rescue blared across major news sites.
But the story ended there, with neither O'Connor, his family, nor authorities revealing what actually had happened. Well-wishers expressed relief online that he was found. Many remained curious about the lack of details.
"Great news! Will be interesting to hear the full story - what was he doing in the canyon without a permit, etc," wrote one Facebook user on the "Emergency Services & Law Enforcement - Grand Canyon NPS" page.
The NPS released its missing persons report about the incident to Phoenix New Times in late February following a Freedom of Information Act request, but it had crucial details blacked out due to privacy regulations, according to the agency. A four-page section marked "O'Connor Photo Log," for instance, contained only blacked-out images.
Based on family statements, the report describes O'Connor as "incredibly fit" and used to being "in the elements."
The day before he was found, a group of hikers who had been on New Hance trail reported to rangers that they had seen and talked to at O'Connor about noon. He had "called out to them from a cave approximately three miles down from the trailhead and 50 to '100 feet' above the trail," the NPS report states. He "was not asking for assistance, claimed to have sufficient food and water but just wanted them to 'tell Rangers where he was.'"
In another section of the report, an investigator said O'Connor seems to have been "camping out ... for multiple nights" above the trail.
By park rules, anyone camping below Grand Canyon's rim must first obtain a backcountry permit, and must camp only in designated areas. Asked about that, Grand Canyon spokesperson Lily Daniels said the NPS would not be pursuing any charges against O'Connor. Nor would Daniels reveal any more information about the incident to New Times, admitting that an explanation couldn't be gleaned from the report but that "it would not be accurate to report he's just a rule-breaker. He was a legitimate missing persons case."
A missing persons report obtained from the La Porte, Texas, police department last week fills in the gaps. As it states, O'Connor had been staying with his brother in La Porte temporarily when he left suddenly on December 15, leaving a note saying he was going to "sort things out" and might return at the end of the month. His brother related that O'Connor had recently attempted to return to a monastery in Colorado, but was denied. The sudden departure wasn't a concern at the time, but days later, a package showed up that was postmarked from Coconino County and contained O'Connor's passport, a will, "last wishes," computer passwords, and other personal effects.
The brother checked with family and friends, but no one could reach O'Connor. Relating a similar incident that once happened in Australia, the brother told police that O'Connor "has a connection to nature and that he believes Martin may have gone to one of the national parks near his last known whereabouts to harm himself."
Only O'Connor knows precisely what he did from the day he checked out of Yavapai Lodge on December 22 and when he called to hikers on January 1. If he had thought of harming himself, he seems to have changed his mind.
Reached by phone, O'Connor declined comment about his ordeal.
Tragically, national parks are often seen by suicidal people as a final destination. A 2010 study on suicides in national parks by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the last study of its kind, states that Grand Canyon and Blue Ridge Parkway had the most suicides between 2003 and 2009, with falls being the most common method.
Ten people killed themselves at Grand Canyon National Park from 2015 to 2019, according to recent NPS statistics, while another four cases may have been suicides. An average of 17 people total died at Grand Canyon for each of those years.
"We urge anyone considering suicide to reach out for help," the park service said in a statement provided to New Times for this article. "One organization is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they provide emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, and they can be contacted via phone at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or online at: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.