| 7°C Dublin

mystery disappearance 'We still hope today is the day he will come home, but it's torture' - Cork mother of backpacker missing from US

David O'Sullivan disappeared three years ago during adventure of a lifetime hiking in the US


David O'Sullivan with his parents Carmel and Con from Midleton, Co Cork

David O'Sullivan with his parents Carmel and Con from Midleton, Co Cork

David O'Sullivan with his parents Carmel and Con from Midleton, Co Cork

LAST March 20, US authorities told hikers planning to tackle the 4,250km Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to cancel their trips.  

"Limiting the spread of the coronavirus - and the associated economic fall-out - requires sacrifice from everyone," the Pacific Crest Association said.

For Carmel O'Sullivan, that sacrifice has had heartbreaking consequences as the on- going searches for her missing son were called off.

The same association once told her it "wasn't a babysitting service" after she rang them to say she was worried about David, who had not made contact in days.


David O'Sullivan who went missing in the US while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on April 7, 2017

David O'Sullivan who went missing in the US while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on April 7, 2017

David O'Sullivan who went missing in the US while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on April 7, 2017

Mrs O'Sullivan and her husband Con, from Midleton, Co Cork, last heard from their son on April 7, 2017.

"Every day I wake up and think, 'Please God, let today be the day they find him'," she said.

"It's the not knowing that's torture. You're always hoping and always waiting.

"His friends have moved on, they have girlfriends now or they're getting engaged.

"He's missing family moments and milestones that he should be here to celebrate.

"All his clothes are still here, even his books and his games."

In March 2017, David left Cork for the adventure of a lifetime.

He had just completed a media course as well as a degree in English and philosophy at University College Cork and had saved money from his job in a local garage in Midleton to fund his trip.

He was inspired by a book called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The memoir, by Cheryl Strayed, which was later made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, describes a woman's journey of self-discovery as she hikes the trail.

The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada and takes hikers through vast desert, rough wilderness and the crests of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains.

Hundreds complete the five-month trek every year, but dozens have lost their lives in accidents and many others have disappeared.

"We're not a big hiking family, so I had never even heard of the PCT," Mrs O'Sullivan said.

"I'd heard of the Camino, obviously, but that's a picnic in the park compared to this.

"At the worst, I thought he might fall or pull a calf muscle. I didn't think this was possible.

"I thought he'd give up and go away on a holiday. There's real hardship involved.

"You're talking seven or eight days of walking with no shower or hot food and sure, if you hit snow in the mountains, it's very dangerous".

On April 5, 2017, David arrived in Idyllwild, a town in the San Jacinto mountains, about 160km east of Los Angeles.

He was around two-and-a-half weeks into his hike and stayed in a hotel in the town.

He sent an update to his family via email, and that was the last time Mrs O'Sullivan heard from her son.

After withdrawing some money from a Bank of America ATM, he left on the morning of April 7 for the next stage of his journey through the mountains and has not been seen since.

Pre-Covid, volunteers from the California Irish community scoured the area looking for any signs of David.

Drones captured thousands of images that have been meticulously examined for any clue or sign of hope.

"They've found old shoes, tents, beds and a load of different things, but none of them was his," Mrs O'Sullivan said.

"It's the same as the beaches here, I suppose - people lose things, the wind takes them away and the animals take them away.

"We've even had people who went to psychics on our behalf.

"There's no harm in trying it, but I couldn't do it personally.

"It's strange the things you try. I would give anything to find out what happened."

Several hikers have given statements over the years, saying they might have seen David at some point on the trail.

However, none of these was positively confirmed.

The O'Sullivan family were due to travel to America last May, but the pandemic put a halt to that.

Mrs O'Sullivan used the time to join forces with the mother of another hiker who went missing on the PCT to set up the Fowler-O'Sullivan Foundation.

Sally Fowler's stepson Kris (34) disappeared in October 2016.

Four months into his trek and with fewer than 700km to go, he was last seen around White Pass in Washington.

The two mothers work with volunteers to guide the families of missing loved ones.

For her, her son Niall and husband Con, the wait goes on.

"We will always have hope, oh God we will. We can't give up. He'll never be forgotten by us," Mrs O'Sullivan said.

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

Sunday World

Top Videos