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The Last Hike of David Gimelfarb

Four years ago, a Chicago grad student entered the Costa Rican jungle and simply vanished. What happened?

(page 3 of 6)

Luda and Roma Gimelfarb near their Highland Park home

Luda and Roma Gimelfarb near their Highland Park home.

The day I set out to retrace David Gimelfarb’s footsteps was warm and dry, and Rincón de la Vieja’s canopy of majestic, twisting trees provided relief from the morning sun. But following the same trail that he had supposedly hiked, I had an uneasy feeling. It had started the night I checked into the motel, and it persisted the next morning as I explored the park. I finished the hike in less than two hours and walked back toward the information hut to talk to the park’s rangers.

The first ranger I spoke to was friendly enough—until I pulled out the missing-person flier with David’s picture. Seeing his face, the ranger threw his hands up over his shoulders and bolted. “I don’t know anything,” he said, quickening his pace as I tried to follow.

Inside the hut, a second ranger, who was responsible for registering visitors, didn’t have the luxury of physically ducking my questions. When I mentioned that some private guides had told me there had been robberies in the park, he said there had been “more than a few” but declined to elaborate. Later, Alejandro Masís Cuevillas, the director of the provincial parks authority, confirmed that sections of the park had been closed in 2009 and again in 2012; he said the robberies had all been “nonviolent.”

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David Gimelfarb appeared contemplative, perhaps a little sad, the morning he vanished, according to a motel employee. He ate breakfast alone in the outdoor dining room around 9 a.m., then left to make the five-kilometer drive to Rincón de la Vieja in his rental car.

Something of a mama’s boy, he had called his parents the day before, just like he did every day in Chicago. David told them how he had met a girl at a nearby beach and hoped to rendezvous with her later. When his mother pressed for details—was she a local?—he would only offer that she “seemed very nice.” He told Luda he planned to hike the national park the following morning and complained that Hacienda Guachipelín was too quiet and far from the beaches and the action. He intimated that he might not stay there for the entire six-day trip.

The evening of the hike, Luda grew anxious when she did not hear from her son. At 10 p.m., she called his motel. He did not answer.

The next morning, his mother tried the motel again. When the front desk clerk said that David still wasn’t answering the phone, his mother insisted that someone go inside his room and check on him. “I told them, ‘If you don’t go in, I’m going to call the police, and if anything happens to my son, you are responsible,’ ” she says, still aggrieved by the memory.

Hours passed. That night, José Tomás Batalla, the owner of the motel, called the Gimelfarbs. David, he said, hadn’t slept in his bed the previous night. His suitcase was still in the room, and his rental car had been found in the lot of the national park.

“My heart sank when he said that,” recalls Roma, who went online and booked himself and his wife flights to Costa Rica.

By the time Luda and Roma arrived at the Liberia airport on Thursday, August 13, several Red Cross volunteers were already searching Rincón on foot. So they headed straight to the Hacienda Guachipelín, where the manager, Mateo Fournier Palma, unlocked room 16 and let them in. (They would later learn that Palma had already searched the room with two other witnesses who were never identified.)

The bed had been made, and David’s suitcase was still there. Two books of poetry—by Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca—were on a nightstand next to the bed. Palma opened the room safe. Inside, the concerned parents found their son’s passport, $600 of the $800 his father had given him in cash for the trip, and his cell phone, which contained a few photos of a beach he had visited the day before. “That didn’t make sense to us,” Roma says. “Why bring so many things with you on a hike but not the cell phone? There was no reception in the area, but he always used it to tell time.”

Judging from the items that were missing, they determined that David had likely carried with him his North Face backpack and his wallet, in which would have been his driver’s license, a few credit cards, and about $100. Missing, too, were his journal and an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.

Fearing that David had gotten lost or injured in the park, they headed to Rincón to meet with rangers and Red Cross volunteers, whose numbers would swell into the hundreds that weekend. Luda’s boss at Kraft organized a committee to hire a professional search-and-rescue team, while David’s friends in Chicago started a Facebook group, Help Find David Gimelfarb, which attracted more than 1,000 members in the first days.

After Luda approached the U.S. Embassy in San José and received a noncommittal response—“They said, more or less, that he came here on his own,” she recalls, “so basically we are on our own”—David’s friends in Chicago mobilized and wrote letters to Mark Kirk, who was then an Illinois congressman, and other officials, urging them to pressure the embassy to help find the missing American hiker. (In a written statement, John Whiteley, a State Department spokesman based in Washington, D.C., said that the effort was “thorough and professional” and emphasized that the U.S. government does not have dedicated search-and-rescue personnel stationed at embassies overseas.)

Over the next few days, hundreds of friends and classmates staged demonstrations on the young man’s behalf at Daley Plaza and in front of Chicago news stations. On August 19, the U.S. military dispatched two helicopters with infrared sensors and more than a dozen uniformed soldiers from Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras to scour the park alongside a private helicopter pilot hired by the Gimelfarbs.

The effort lasted three days. Since Rincón de la Vieja opened in 1972, other hikers had gotten lost there, but all had eventually been found. A visitor had even fallen off one of the volcano’s craters and spent two nights clinging to a ledge before being rescued by a helicopter.

The team considered that David had perhaps changed his mind and, instead of taking the three-kilometer trail, attempted the more arduous journey up to the crater. That risky hike, now off-limits because of recent seismic activity, takes eight hours roundtrip. In this region, the sun sets at around 6 p.m. in August, so it would have been inadvisable for the young American to start out on the trail as late as 10 a.m.

The helicopters searched the crater extensively, and Roma himself made the grueling ascent with a park ranger. The wind was so fierce at the summit that they had to tie a rope around each other’s waists to stay on their feet. Meanwhile, Luda visited every hospital and jail in the area but found no clues. She even consulted a series of psychics, one of whom shared a dark vision: “He’s in the volcano. Go and live your life.”

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