Early last April, a 27-year-old biology student named Cody Roman Dial set out into the remote jungle of northern Guatemala. Equipped with a crude map and a compass, he planned to traverse the Petén, a lowland rain forest teeming with snakes, illegal gold miners, and cocaine traffickers. His biggest concern, though, was dehydration — save for jeep-track mud puddles, the area lacks ready sources of freshwater. Cody had spent the previous week preparing for the trip, talking to locals and poring over maps. He had bought a machete and commissioned a local tailor to stitch together a tent of his own design. His plan was to spend about 10 days in the Petén, bushwhacking through the jungle to a sprawling Mayan ruin called El Mirador. But, he emailed his parents shortly before beginning the trip, "I expect I'll spend a couple days out there, eat a snake, get scared, and turn around."
A bright, quiet introvert with a sharp wit and passing resemblance to Harry Potter, Cody had taken a hiatus from his graduate studies in environmental science at Alaska Pacific University to boot around Mexico and Central America. Having grown up exploring Alaska's wilderness, he was an experienced outdoorsman and a competent navigator. He was also the son of adventure royalty. His father, 53-year-old Roman Dial, a National Geographic explorer and a legendary figure in Alaska, had pioneered dozens of first ascents in the state's mountain ranges. Dial was considered the father of packrafting, a mode of river travel using inflatable kayak-like boats, and in the 1980s had helped found a grueling backcountry footrace called the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. The race, which usually covers several hundred miles and prohibits outside support, is called the most difficult wilderness challenge in the world — and, more simply, life-threatening. Nearly every year, several participants require helicopter evacuation. In 2004, 17-year-old Cody, with his father as teammate, became the second youngest person ever to cross the finish line.
After a week of gathering supplies, Cody hiked into the Petén. Though he'd often accompanied his father into tropical rain forests as a child, this was his first real trip alone into truly wild jungle. He picked his way through bullhorn acacia and green spiny palm and, as dusk settled, camped beside a jeep track. In the morning, he encountered a wild pig crashing through the brush; not long after, a cougar loped down the trail. After the jeep track ended, Cody began threading thin jungle trails and soon became lost. For the next two days, he wandered in the wilderness. On the third, he backtracked by following blazes that he'd hacked into tree trunks and, eventually, made his way to a Mayan ruin called Naachtun — where he encountered an archaeologist named Carlos Morales-Aguilar. "I thought he was crazy," Morales-Aguilar says. Navigating by compass, Cody then pushed through to El Mirador. After five days, he limped out of the jungle, filthy, heat-exhausted, elated. Behind him was a trail of gobsmacked Guatemalan park rangers, astonished to see a lone gringo hacking his way through the Petén.
As he had done throughout his journey, Cody soon emailed his father to let him know he was safe. The trip "sounds not only superbadass but kind of foolhardy," Cody wrote. "It wasn't really either of those things, just walking for eight days and asking people where to go." Dial was relieved that Cody was alive. For the past couple of decades, he had raised his son to survive in the wild — navigating the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage, enduring freezing temperatures on backpacking trips through Alaska's 700 square-mile Harding Ice Field, and once hiking 18 miles in 35 hours through the Alaska Range. Just a few weeks earlier, Cody had gotten disoriented coming down a fog-shrouded volcano at night. "Luckily," he wrote his father, "I've followed Roman Dial around the wilderness all my life, so my instincts led me to the right place."
Dial had encouraged his son to undertake his first, grand, solo adventure, but after Cody initially spoke to him about the Petén trek, he had considered telling him not to go. "It just sounded crazy," Dial says. "He was going to walk for 10 days in the wildest place in Central America. But I didn't send an email. I was like, 'Who am I?' The reason he's doing it is because I want him there. So I said, 'Be careful with your machete and watch out for snakes.' "
Through May and June, Cody ticked off an enviable list of adventures: diving with whale sharks in Honduras, riding a dugout canoe into the remote Mosquito Coast. In Nicaragua, he spent two weeks surfing and began researching a trip through the Darién Gap, a notoriously lawless patch of jungle between Panama and Colombia. Costa Rica was next on Cody's itinerary, and, on June 7, he emailed his father to ask about a trip the two had taken there in 2001, when Cody was 14 and Dial was conducting research on the jungle canopy. "You and I went to Guanacaste and Santa Rosa National Parks," Dial replied. "Also Corcovado National Park."
Over the past two decades, much of Costa Rica has been transformed into a placid eco-tourism paradise, but the Osa Peninsula — a genie-slipper-shaped protuberance jutting into the Pacific Ocean — remains wild and remote. Corcovado occupies much of the Osa and contains the only remaining old-growth rain forest in Central America. Its terrain is complex and dynamic: a jungle labyrinth of steep ridges, deep ravines, and gorges that fill with astonishing speed during the rainy season's torrential downpours. Jaguars, crocodiles, and snakes — such as the deadly fer-de-lance — prowl the interior, along with a sizable population of illegal gold miners. Warnings about entering the park alone are abundant. Every year, according to Lonely Planet, insufficiently prepared visitors "become injured, sick, or even dead." Corcovado challenges even the experienced. In 2006, Costa Rica's minister of the environment, an accomplished outdoorsman, spent three days lost in his own park after being attacked by a bovine-like animal called a tapir.
On July 3, Cody crossed the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica. At some point — it remains unclear exactly when — he arrived in Puerto Jiménez, a fishing town on the Osa's east coast. Five days later, he checked into a budget hostel called the Corner. The following morning, he emailed Dial and his mother, Peggy, an outline of his intended route through Corcovado. A few hours later, having settled on a new course, he sent another message: He planned to enter from the park's eastern perimeter near a river called the Rio Rincon. Navigating through the dense jungle, he would pick up another river, the Rio Davíd, then follow that to the Rio Claro, which led to the Osa's photogenic Pacific shore. From there, he merely had to walk to any village along the coast and catch a bus back to Puerto Jiménez.On July 10, Cody set out for Corcovado. He carried a backpack containing food, his tent, and a cooking stove. He also had the machete and a compass, along with an imprecise map of the park he'd printed off the internet. His proposed route would skirt a popular tourist trail in favor of an off-limits path used mainly by illegal gold miners. Several months before, MINAE, the ministry that manages Costa Rica's parks, had begun requiring all tourists entering Corcovado to hire a professional guide, a decree intended to limit environmental damage as well as the number of costly rescues every year. It was a rule that Cody planned to flout. Fiercely independent, emboldened by his trip in the Petén, and having been tutored by his father — one of the U.S.'s most skilled backcountry navigators — he almost certainly believed such assistance was unnecessary.
"I am not sure how long it will take me, but I'm planning on doing four days in the jungle and a day to walk out," Cody wrote in his last email. "I'll be bounded by a trail to the west and the coast everywhere else, so it should be difficult to get lost forever."
On the day Cody entered Corcovado, Dial was on summer break from Alaska Pacific University, where he teaches biology and math, and packrafting with several friends on a river in the Talkeetna Mountains. On July 15, five days after Cody had started his trip, Dial returned to his home in Anchorage and, scrolling through scores of emails, saw Cody's first message from Costa Rica. His son, Dial thought, was still only planning his trip, and so he and Peggy spent the next three days dipnetting for salmon on the Kenai River. Cody's second email, tucked beneath the first, went unnoticed. By the time Roman and Peggy returned from their trip on July 18, Cody had been gone for eight days. He typically checked in every 10 to 12 days, so they were aware, but not yet alarmed, that they hadn't heard from him. Five days later, while driving to Home Depot, according to Dial, Peggy began feeling inexplicably nauseous.
"She said, 'I feel like I'm going to throw up,' " Dial remembers. "We went home, and I finally read that second email underneath and realized, 'Holy shit, he was supposed to be back' " almost 10 days earlier. As with his Petén traverse, Cody would have emailed his parents as soon as he was safely out of Corcovado.
Immediately, on July 22, Dial alerted the American embassy in Costa Rica that his son was missing. Twenty-four hours later, he was on a flight to San José, the capital. The next day, the Costa Rican Red Cross dispatched two search-and-rescue teams: one to an entrance on the park's eastern perimeter and another to Cody's planned exit point at the Rio Claro. Several more teams — aided by park rangers and officers from the national Fuerza Pública police force — began scouring Corcovado over the next few days. The strategy of the searchers, led by veteran Red Cross official Gilbert Dondi, was to begin at the park's perimeter and work their way toward the center. If Cody was still fighting his way out, then, in theory, their paths would intersect.
The search team faced a daunting challenge: Corcovado encompasses an area larger than 120 Central Parks. Its jungle canopy is sufficiently thick to thwart aerial infrared cameras, and since Cody had avoided primary hiking trails, ground teams would have to scour the park's rugged hinterland — a treacherous patchwork of ridges, ravines, and gorges whose topography Dial likened to "taking a piece of paper and wadding it up in your hand." In addition to deadly snakes, a species of wild pig called a white-lipped peccary also inhabits the Osa. Peccaries travel in packs up to 200 strong, and many locals consider them the most dangerous animal in the park. Their presence is said to be preceded by a strong smell of onion.
As the Red Cross' teams continued searching, Dial was conducting his own investigation. A mix of rumor and strange reports about Cody swirled through the Osa. The owner of the Corner, where Cody had checked in on July 7, told authorities that Cody had returned on the 21st, then caught a bus the next morning to Dos Brazos, a small town on the southeastern edge of the park. Residents there reported seeing a gringo backpacker matching Cody's description on July 22. In Puerto Jiménez, there were also dark whispers that a local criminal known as Pata de Loro, or Parrot Foot, was somehow involved in Cody's disappearance. Questioned by police, Parrot Foot, whose real name is José Fallas, claimed Cody had hired him as a guide in mid-July. After hiking into Corcovado from Dos Brazos, Fallas said, he and Cody spent two nights in the jungle and then parted ways in Puerto Jiménez.
Many locals' stories were conflicting — there were reports of Cody in two locations simultaneously — or they appeared to describe someone else entirely. (Parrot Foot, according to several residents in Dos Brazos, was accompanied by a backpacker wearing an earring, which Cody lacked, and smoking marijuana, which, according to friends, Cody avoided.) Based on reports from the hostel owner and other locals, however, the Red Cross developed a new theory: Cody had likely entered and exited the park on at least two occasions. According to Dondi, the search coordinator, he was possibly still hiking another trail — or had left Corcovado altogether. Dial quickly dismissed the idea, as well as the locals' stories. His son would have contacted him if he were out of Corcovado — and he never would have hired a guide.
Then, on July 30, the Red Cross search team in Dos Brazos received what seemed like a credible lead. A gold miner named Jenkins Segura reported encountering someone resembling Dial's son deep inside the park several weeks before. The young man had been eating breakfast by a stream and, Segura said, introduced himself as a biologist from Alaska. He also seemed disoriented. According to the miner, Cody had asked whether they were in the Golfo Dulce forest, a national reserve adjacent to Corcovado.
In some respects, Segura's story was as suspect as the others — he was hazy on the dates and initially also described the backpacker as wearing an earring — but Dial met him the next day in Dos Brazos and found his story believable. "He spoke good English," Dial says. "We quizzed him for a long time." That afternoon, the pair snuck into Corcovado and hiked for several hours up a river called the Rio Tigre, then walked a trail that led to an old gold-mining camp. Nearby was the spot where Segura claimed to have encountered Cody. To Dial, it seemed like an ideal place for his son to rest: a small clearing, surrounded by ridges, with a stream burbling up from the ground. "There's no water on the ridges," Dial says. "It'd make perfect sense that he stopped at the first place where there's water and made breakfast." But according to Segura, he had never seen a gringo in that area before and was sufficiently concerned to have told Cody that Dos Brazos was only two hours away — he simply had to follow another short trail that led to the Rio Tigre and then walk the river back to town.
Not far from the stream, however, Dial discovered a massive landslide that had recently rumbled down the south wall of a canyon. It had obliterated part of the trail Segura had recommended with a bewildering mass of earth, trees, and tangled vines. Along one stretch, a towering tree — wet, slippery, snake infested — had come to rest some 100 feet over a creek. Searching the area, Dial became increasingly convinced that his son had encountered the landslide and attempted to navigate around it. "The forest is really disorienting. If you get off-trail, it's real easy to get lost," he says. In the process, he believed, Cody could have been bitten by a snake, slipped and fallen into a gully, or "gotten injured and couldn't climb up to where the best trails are, then got caught between some waterfalls."
On August 2, the Red Cross dispatched patrols to search the area where Segura reported seeing Cody, as well as a gold-mining tunnel where they suspected he could have gotten trapped. A helicopter soon flew several aerial searches up and down the Rio Tigre. But two days later, the organization's senior staff convened a meeting with Dial at MINAE headquarters in Puerto Jiménez. Dondi showed him a Google Earth display marking where its teams had searched: a Pollock painting of red pins and blue lines overlaying Corcovado's green expanse. Ten teams had spent 12 days combing the park; they were exhausted and had found no trace of Cody or his equipment. Without new evidence, they told Dial, the search was over.
In Anchorage, news of Cody's disappearance spread quickly. Well-wishers inundated social media with hopes of a speedy resolution. Organizers of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, slated to begin on August 3, considered calling off the race but instead donated the $200 entrants' fees — normally pooled for helicopter rescues — into a fund for the family's search effort. Over the years, Dial, a "Lower 48er" in his youth who had fallen hard for Alaska, had staked out a lonely position in the state defending and often lecturing about Chris McCandless, the young, idealistic adventurer whose untimely death is chronicled in Jon Krakauer's bestselling book Into the Wild. Many Alaskans, including himself, Dial liked to argue, had undertaken similarly risky adventures as young men — and survived simply by luck. Perhaps inevitably, Cody's vanishing invited comparison to McCandless' — a notion that Dial, believing his son both more competent and less rash than the "dreamy half-cocked greenhorn" Krakauer described, entirely rejected. "The only thing that's similar," Dial told me, "is that it's a young guy on a quest." A former colleague at APU also wrote an op-ed in the Alaska Dispatch News to dispel any such comparisons.
"There is no debate this time about competence or experience (both of which Cody Roman has in spades) or even about the young man's good judgment," she wrote. "We didn't know Chris McCandless, but a lot of us know Cody Roman (or 'R2,' as we call him) and his family. I don't care why R2 went into the jungle by himself or whether or not it was a good idea and neither does anyone else. We just want him to come home."
Although Dial was raised in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., his connection to Alaska was profound. When he was nine, his parents — entering a turbulent period in their marriage — packed him off to spend the summer with three uncles in Usibelli, a rugged coal-mining town on the edge of Denali National Park. Dial was largely left to fend for himself. He acquired a .22 rifle and a dirt bike on which to roam the backcountry. For company, he had a wolf-dog named Moose. "It was life-changing," he says. "I had all this freedom to do what I wanted. After that, I went back to the suburbs, and it was really boring."
Dial returned to Alaska when he was 14 and undertook a series of "really foolish" solo backpacking trips — including one excursion in which he nearly drowned crossing the Resurrection River, near Seward. As a child, Dial was fascinated by turtles and lizards and dreamed of being a scientist. As a young teenager, he began reading John Muir and became enamored of alpine climbing. In 1977, Dial graduated from high school two years early, partly so he could head west. His parents pushed for the Ivy League, but Dial chose the University of Alaska-Fairbanks — largely because the school's catalog featured one of the state's most majestic peaks on its cover.
After his freshman year, Dial moved to a cabin in the woods without running water and, in the winter, skied to class. One day in 1980, a pretty, plainspoken freshman looked out of her dorm window and saw a wild-haired young man climbing the exterior of the student center. "I thought, 'Oh, he looks interesting. I've got to meet this guy,' " Peggy remembers. She soon introduced herself. "I was never into drinking and partying," she says. "When I met him, we went for a walk, and he immediately starts talking about the plants and the grouse that are mating. I thought, 'This guy's cool.' "
Dial by then had become a formidable alpine mountaineer and soon pulled off a string of audacious routes in Alaska's Hayes Range. About a week before he met Peggy, Dial — braving whiteout conditions and persistent avalanches — completed the first ascent of the vertiginous east face of a 10,000-foot peak in the backcountry. Years later, Dial attempted what renowned mountaineer David Roberts described as his "masterpiece." Along with fellow climber Chuck Comstock, Dial set out to ascend the east face of 11,400-foot McGinnis Peak. After several pitches up a 3,000-foot gully of ice, the pair made the summit in four days. As they started to down-climb, Comstock broke through a cornice and plummeted off one side of a ridge. Dial, belaying him, threw himself over the other side as a human counterweight — dropping some 200 feet before the ropes caught him, saving Comstock from a fatal fall. Though he was at the peak of his climbing career, Dial's already notoriously thin margin of error had become intolerably fine. He soon quit alpine mountaineering. "We rappelled down, and I was like, I'm done and I'm getting married," he says.
After he and Peggy married in 1985, Dial dreamed up a 900-mile, four-season traverse of the entire Brooks Range. He skied one section in the early spring, then returned with his new wife to complete another leg in May, but the couple quickly became tent bound. "The snow went rotten, so we got stuck on a mountain," he says. "I found out later that the name of the creek we were above meant 'place to make love many times [in Nunamiut].' " Nine months later, Peggy gave birth to Cody Roman. Dial still completed the traverse, by packraft and kayak, and set a record.
"My first trip to Alaska was in 1974, and you just heard stories about him," says Jon Krakauer, who later became a frequent climbing partner of Dial's. "He set a new standard for ice climbing. Then he got into the wilderness stuff. In a day, he'd see how fast he could ski the length of the Alaska Range. With this whole packrafting thing, he's changed the way people move in the wilderness. He made people rethink what you could do, how far you could travel."
Years later, Dial would successfully complete an 800-mile bicycle traverse of the entire Alaska Range. To save weight, he slept in a floorless tent and ate with bike tools. In 2006, he pulled off a 620-mile-long march through the Arctic to the remotest point in the U.S. carrying only a single bag of food — mostly just to see if he could. Both trips embodied the Dial ethos: grueling, audacious, pushing as far and as fast with as little equipment as possible. According to friends and competitors, Dial is blessed with an almost otherworldly ability to navigate terrain. His endurance is also legendary, as is his risk tolerance. "He cut it as fine as a person could and emerged unscathed," Krakauer says.
Dial is, by many accounts, also brilliant. After earning a double master's degree at APU, he and Peggy moved to Palo Alto, California, so he could pursue a Ph.D. in biology at Stanford. The couple had their second child, Cody's sister, Jazz, and then resettled in Anchorage in 1992. (Following in the family tradition, Jazz would later become a competitive rock climber and a fearless downhill skier.) Dial and his young son soon embarked on their first grand adventure together: a long ramble across Umnak, a barren and mountainous island in the Aleutian archipelago, which extends like a long comma from mainland Alaska. Dial bought a cheap ticket to a neighboring island, then talked his way onto a plane flying a Japanese film crew to Umnak.
"It was 60 miles across the island," Dial says. "He was six, and I didn't make him carry a pack because I didn't want to spoil it for him. Sometimes I would carry him on my back. That's actually where he started calling himself Roman. There's only people on both ends of the island, but nothing in between. There's a family on one end, and when we landed, they go, 'Well, what's your name? What are you doing here with your son?' I said, 'My name's Roman, and I'm going out on a nice walk.' They look at Cody and go, 'Well, what's your name, little guy?' and he said, 'Well, I'm Roman, too.' "
After the Red Cross called off its search in Corcovado, Dial began working back channels to get the U.S. military involved in a rescue effort. As days passed, though, his request seemed to vanish in the murky depths of American bureaucracy. On August 11, frustrated and increasingly desperate, Dial visited a psychic who gave him a set of map coordinates in Corcovado. He hired a plane and flew to the location — a ranger station near the Pacific coast that was along Cody's intended route — but found nothing after searching the area on foot. Days later, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who had been shepherding Dial's appeal, told him the Defense Department had concluded it lacked legal authority to mount a search-and-rescue operation in Costa Rica.
Dial immediately began calling friends in Anchorage to put together a covert search-and-rescue mission. "I was tired of waiting for the cavalry to arrive," he says. "He's stuck somewhere, and I've got to get him." In Alaska, Peggy got in touch with Brian Horner — an affable former instructor with the Air Force's notoriously punishing SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school and the owner of an Anchorage-based survival company called Learn to Return (LTR) — who agreed to send an LTR team to Corcovado, free of charge. Hours later, Horner and two employees, a square-jawed former Special Forces soldier named Clint Homestead and Frank Marley, a search-and-rescue expert, met at LTR's hangar-like training facility to assemble gear: climbing rope, rope ascenders, machetes, radios, trauma kits.
Twenty-four hours later, they boarded a plane bound for Costa Rica. Two other Alaskans — Todd Tumolo, a 29-year-old Denali mountain guide, and an aristocratic bird-watcher named Brad Meiklejohn — also flew in to join the effort. Dial, meanwhile, was in San José trying to wrangle permits for the search — though, if the attempt failed, he intended to enter the park illegally. At a pretrip briefing, Horner told his team that if they got into legal trouble, the emergency code words were Warren Zevon: Send lawyers, guns, and money.
On August 21, Dial and the Alaska group drove to the Rio Tigre. Their plan was to search an approximately one-square-mile area around where Segura reported seeing Cody. Lugging packs loaded with ropes and rappelling gear, they labored upriver in the sweltering jungle heat. Around 12:30 pm, the group reached a fork in the river, walked up the left branch, and then scrambled over the landslide. While setting up camp nearby, they were inundated by a torrential downpour. Over the next four days, the rains would begin every afternoon with near mechanical precision, turning the park's gullies into fast-filling traps and its ridges into mud-slicked high wires.
In the morning, Dial began searching a gully near where he suspected Cody might have gotten trapped. "I just used my intuition about what he would have done if he had run into this landslide," Dial says. He and Tumolo then found a trail that led up to a ridge. They looked for bent branches, machete marks, a burst of color signaling a piece of clothing in the brush — anything to indicate Cody might have passed through.
The LTR team, meanwhile, concentrated on the landslide. Homestead, who would earn the nickname "Chop Chop" for his zeal with the machete, cleared a path through brush trapped in the wall of debris. After combing the area, he, Horner, and Marley hiked down to the fork in the Rio Tigre and then walked back up the right branch — a high-walled canyon filled with water deep enough to reach their chests. Soon the sky darkened. Not wanting to get trapped in a flood, the Alaskans turned back for their camp. Homestead led the team on its return down the river. Then he suddenly stopped. Two figures were coming toward him.
One day before, I had hopped a 12-seat turboprop from San José and landed in Puerto Jiménez. After making contact with Dial, my plan had been to hire a local guide, link up with his team, and then accompany them during the search. Corcovado's topography and thick jungle canopy, however, had prevented my calls from reaching Dial's sat phone. That afternoon, I hastily hired Reyes Morales, a gold miner with a roguish grin and an Errol Flynn mustache who knew Corcovado as well as perhaps anyone in the Osa. He was also a skilled tracker. Morales would, I hoped, pick up a sign from one of Dial's teams, then take me to their base camp. At the last minute, Dial had managed to secure legal permits for his search. At MINAE headquarters in Puerto Jiménez, however, an officious park ranger with gelled hair had informed me that I would not receive similar permission.
Early the next morning, Morales and I waded into the Rio Tigre and began hiking upriver. Steep canyon walls rose high above, trees clinging to their sides at oblique angles. Morales walked fast, hopping over rocks and clambering up the river's steep banks to catch shortcuts through the forest. I moved cautiously, wary of a shattered ankle and snakes. The river soon grew deeper, the terrain rockier. All around, Corcovado pressed in — dense, choking, stiflingly hot. Navigating its immensity with a compass and a rudimentary map seemed a heroic undertaking.
Three hours later, Morales stopped at a fork in the river. "Roman aquí," he said, pointing at boot prints leading up the right branch. Twenty minutes later, he stopped again. Several hundred yards away, Homestead was walking downstream — along with a park ranger and a police officer, part of a government contingent accompanying Dial's search. Alarmed by a strange gringo and an unknown local in an off-limits part of the park, the officer drew his pistol. "Where is your permission to be here?" the park ranger, a short man in a dirty green T-shirt, asked me. Dial's team had just encountered a group of poachers, Horner explained, and the Costa Ricans were jumpy. He then clicked on a GoPro camera.
"In case you disappear," Horner said.
After a protracted discussion, the park ranger ordered Morales and me to leave Corcovado. As we slogged back down the river, the police officer stayed close behind me, while the park ranger trailed Morales. Two hours later, at a ranger station in Dos Brazos, I was told to wait. The official with gelled hair from Puerto Jiménez soon arrived. Looking displeased, he waved me over to the back of his pickup. "If you go in again, then I will have you arrested," he said. The Costa Ricans, it seemed, were unenthusiastic about the possibility of another gringo going missing in Corcovado.Raising Cody, Dial envisioned a fellow comrade in adventure and forged him in what might be described as the Alaska mold: independent, intrepid, self-sufficient. "I always wanted him to be a companion," Dial says. "My dad left home when I was nine or 10, and I don't feel like he ever shared anything with me except mathematics." According to Krakauer and other friends, Dial could be brash and even combative — he once punched a climbing partner in the gut — but, unlike many type A parents, Dial says he avoided pressuring his son. "I went on a trip with him every year pretty much since he was three," he told me. "I'd say, 'What do you think? Do you want to do this?' I didn't push him into it."
After Dial started teaching at APU, his research soon took him to far-flung jungles around the world, with Cody as his frequent companion. In 1998, Dial traveled with a class from APU to Corcovado. Father and son, along with Dial's students, spent nearly a week hiking the main tourist trail from Los Patos — the same area where Cody likely entered in July — to La Sirena, then walking north along the coast. At night, Dial gave lectures about tropical ecology. "He was fascinated," Dial recalled of his son. "He would sit up close and take better notes than anyone else." Over the next several years, Dial and Cody traveled to jungles together around the world: Corcovado again in 2001, Borneo, and Bhutan.
By virtually all accounts, Cody was more risk-averse than his father. "A deliberate, thoughtful kid," Dial says. "Not bold — more like his mom that way." But Cody also embraced some of the same challenges that captivated his father. When he was 17, he and Dial competed in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic as a team. That year's race called for a sprint from Eureka to Talkeetna — a distance of about 150 miles and one of the Classic's most technically challenging routes. They rode mountain bikes through tundra hills, lugged them over a high pass, then lashed the bikes to packrafts and paddled miles of whitewater on the Talkeetna River. They came in sixth, but beat the previous year's winning time. "I felt like a bad parent, teaching my kid about sleep deprivation," Dial says. "But he knew he could go without sleep. He knew he could get cold and wet. We trained a lot for the trip. I was very proud of him."
After attending William & Mary, in Virginia, Cody returned to Anchorage and enrolled in APU's environmental sciences master's program. In 2012, he met Katelyn Barnett, a junior with a mordant sense of humor and an irresistible laugh. She and Cody were soon spending weekends backpacking or skiing to her cabin in Talkeetna. "He liked being cold and wet and miserable — I can only assume because he grew up doing it with his dad," she says. But, Barnett believed, Cody was also not immune to the pressure of being the son of one of Alaska's most famed outdoorsmen. "It's hard to live in the shadow of Dial," she told me. "Little Roman's not his dad, but he wants to be his dad."
As Cody worked on his master's thesis — a study of a small, omnivorous ocean crustacean — he began to encounter problems with some of his data. He had planned to have his paper finished by the spring of 2013, but months passed and, as the project lagged, he grew frustrated. By later that summer, it had stalled completely. "He was trying to finish in August, and he didn't," Barnett says. "And then he was like, 'Fuck this, I'm going to go travel for a year.' "
After spending a few months bumming around the Lower 48, Cody took a flight on New Year's Eve from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City. By chance, his father was also flying in with several friends for a packrafting trip. Cody hopped a bus to Veracruz, and he and Dial spent 10 days paddling miles of whitewater on the state's famously turbulent and dangerous Alseseca River.
"It has all these waterfalls — we counted like 15 or 20 in two miles," Dial says. "You have to use special techniques to go off." According to his father, Cody had mostly stopped paddling after injuring his back in 2008 and was out of practice. "He swam a bunch — no one else was swimming that much — but he'd get back in his boat. We walked around the Class V waterfalls, but other sections were solid Class IV. On the last day, we ran it again and he ran every waterfall without swimming at all. It was beautiful — the sun was shining straight down and the mist was capturing these rays of light. I went first, and I'd be looking back, watching to see how he was doing, and he was just styling all the moves, doing perfect." It was the last time Dial would see his son.
By the evening of his third day in Corcovado, Dial was growing dispirited. Cody had now been missing for 45 days. It was possible, though increasingly unlikely, that Cody was still alive. Dial had been in Costa Rica for a month, much of that time spent in the jungle. He was gaunt and worn down, older-looking. He also feared for the safety of his fellow searchers. Earlier, Horner had slid down the side of a ridge, crashing through trees before a vine arrested his fall. There had been several close calls with snakes — including an eyelash viper Tumolo chopped in half with his machete. That night, a 130-foot tree, waterlogged from the daily rains, toppled over and nearly crushed the LTR team while they slept.
Despite the dangers, Dial wanted to check one last location: a patch of jungle by the fork in the Rio Tigre where he had seen vultures circling. In the morning, he, Tumolo, and Meiklejohn hiked down to the area. After hours of bushwhacking through thick brush and humping over corrugated terrain, they still had found nothing. "We were walking up and down these hills and cutting our way through vines and finding nothing. Finding nothing at all," Dial told me.
At the same time, the LTR team explored a ridge above the landslide. Homestead took point, moving slowly to watch for snakes. The ridgeline gradually narrowed to a foot-wide path, dropped downhill, and delivered them to a cliff. After rigging ropes to a tree, the three men rappelled off the top as the afternoon downpour began. Fifty feet down, they found themselves in a flooding canyon. They charged downstream, then scurried over the side of a 12-foot waterfall. "The water was roaring," according to Horner, "and we're doing that, 'OK, don't panic, come on.' " Six more waterfalls lay ahead. Using each other as human ladders, they scrambled down one after the next as the canyon filled.
The next morning, having found no evidence of Cody — and by decree of the Costa Rican government, which had limited Dial's search to five days — the two teams broke camp and hiked back out to Dos Brazos.
"I kept thinking I was going to find him," Dial told me the next day. "But we really searched the place. I'm convinced he isn't there — at this point, all of us are. There's not that many probable places that a person can go, but there's an infinite number of improbable places. And you just can't search the improbable ones."
A logician by temperament, Dial had spent long hours turning over the possibilities in his mind. It was possible that Cody — propelled by stubbornness or perhaps still disoriented — had continued searching for his original, intended route. Following his compass and fighting through the dense jungle, any number of potentially lethal dangers awaited: snakes, peccaries, treacherously slick ravines. Dial vigorously rejected this notion, however, and, after days searching the park, had become increasingly convinced his son had followed the Rio Tigre toward Dos Brazos. The route is arduous, but not lethal. It is also well traveled. That Cody had not been found along the river, Dial suspected, indicated his son could have been murdered before he made it out of the park.
"I don't feel like he's in the jungle hurt or dead of natural causes," Dial told me. "That leaves the other two possibilities: He decided to disappear, go have his own life. That would be really out of character for him, but I don't leave it out of the realm of possibility. The third thing is he was murdered. That's what I'm left with."
Such a theory is not far-fetched. Over the past decade, at least a dozen expats and tourists have either mysteriously vanished or been murdered in Costa Rica, with nearly half of the confirmed killings taking place in the Osa. In an eerily similar case to Cody's, a 28-year-old graduate student from Chicago named David Gimelfarb disappeared in another national park in mainland Costa Rica in 2009. His parents, at one point, suspected Gimelfarb was the victim of foul play. It is entirely plausible that Cody Roman Dial met some similarly grim fate. It is also true, though, that for a parent confronting the death of a child, a son who may have died engaged in a pursuit passed down to him by his father, the prospect of outside agency offered some glimmer of relief. "I don't know if he's alive or dead, but I'm convinced that my son didn't disappear in the jungle," Dial told me. "That feels good to me that he didn't. I'd rather he not disappear that way because then it's like all of this training all of his life — and he did something wrong."
A few hours before, we had driven to meet another local who reported seeing someone resembling Cody. But the lead hadn't panned out, and Dial, who had appeared invigorated by the familiar comfort of forward momentum, now seemed drained. He stared out the truck window as we crossed a rickety bridge over the Rio Rincon. In a few hours, Peggy and Cody's sister, Jazz, would be flying in from Anchorage so the family could regroup. "There's nothing worse than losing your kid," he said after a while. "It's like losing a part of yourself — like being alive and dying at the same time."
Late last September, I sat with Dial and Peggy in their kitchen in the quiet suburbs of Anchorage. The couple's one-story house is messy and comfortable, with a coil of climbing rope hanging from a birch in the front yard. From the kitchen window, the Chugach Mountains are visible in the distance. It had been nearly a month since Dial returned from Costa Rica — and nearly three months since Cody disappeared — and he and his wife were trapped in a kind of agonizing holding pattern, tethered to the jungle thousands of miles away. They had hired a private investigator to dig for new information. He had tracked down Pata de Loro, who admitted to having guided a different backpacker, according to Peggy, but found little else. A few weeks before, Dial also announced that they would return to Corcovado in late December — to continue the search.
Dial had now largely given up hope that Cody had been abducted or disappeared to start a new life. Kidnappers would have contacted the family with a ransom demand; the latter notion, he felt, was wishful thinking. Instead, Dial had come to increasingly believe his son was the victim of foul play. Once he and Peggy returned to the Osa, he said, "we're going to look around and go places we didn't go before. We have some crazy ideas — meet with Catholic priests holding mass and see if anyone knows anything. I hope something comes from it." Peggy planned to meet Segura, whom she found suspicious, and go door-to-door in Dos Brazos and other towns. "Somebody knows something," she told me.
A few hours before, Katelyn Barnett had dropped off a plastic bag filled with some of Cody's belongings. Peggy, an energetic and purposeful woman, had placed the bag in another room and then resumed cooking a plate of hamburgers. Now, sitting at the table, she rested her head in her hands. "It's like you just want an answer — a good one," she said. "I don't know. There's too many possibilities, and they keep running through your head. I don't sleep, because all I dream about is finding him. I'm in the jungle looking. I'm always searching for him."
The most devastating aspect of Cody's disappearance was, perhaps, the lack of conclusive evidence. A body, though terrible to behold, might provide some measure of closure. Haunted by the unknown, the parents of David Gimelfarb had been returning to the country every year to search for their son. Before I left Costa Rica, Brian Horner had pulled me aside to talk for a few minutes. In 2008, he said, his 19-year-old daughter had died of an aberrant heart attack — an experience that had compelled him to join the search in Corcovado, but a fact he had not divulged to Dial until that night. "I told him, 'I want you to realize this is going to hurt you. It's going to hurt really bad.' " Horner paused. "All the things he's done," he said, "he's never had to confront losing."
The death of a child is a violent unraveling of the natural order. The experience is irreparable, utterly shattering, and without reference point in human experience. Books on the subject sometimes compare the trauma to an arduous pilgrimage or a mountain which, in time, can be summited. But the pain can neither be navigated nor overcome with indomitable will. There is no route through such grief. That Cody had come from a family that deeply embraced adventure — as well as its risks — would bring its own tormenting questions. Dial had cheated death on many occasions and survived; his son, very likely, had not.
"A lot of parents would be appalled to think of letting their kids take those kinds of chances," Krakauer told me. "But I got it with Roman — his kids were the same way he was. The whole family had this philosophy that is really admirable. To live an overly cautious life in many ways is as dangerous as its opposite. What I worry most is there'll be this guilt they feel or criticism, 'R2's death was your fault.' I don't buy that. It was a terrible thing, but I applaud Roman for the way he's raised his kids, the way he's lived his life. I hope people see him as a role model and not a cautionary tale."
A few days later, I met Dial at his house once more. He answered the door unshaven and bleary-eyed. The night before, he said, he'd begun reading The Cloud Garden, a book written by two Brits who'd been kidnapped by guerrillas while attempting to cross the Darién Gap in Panama. We sat down in the kitchen. "I think, 'I may not see him again,' " Dial said. "I get upset a couple times a day. I miss him."
Dial had set up his computer on the kitchen table. He played a video of his 2012 trip through Bhutan, Cody flickering in and out of the frame as they drove along the small mountain kingdom's roads. Opening another folder, Dial played a slide show he'd made of his search in Corcovado: the small creek in the clearing, the landslide, the bamboo forest. After several minutes, I asked him about something that had puzzled me since I left Costa Rica: Corcovado was crisscrossed by a dizzying labyrinth of hundreds, probably thousands, of small trails. How was he sure Cody hadn't taken one of them, hoping to push through the jungle, as he had in the Petén, but then become lost or hurt attempting to reach the coast? The question upset him, perhaps because he resented its implication of error, or simply because he had tolerated prying for long enough.
"My son wouldn't go on those little trails," Dial said, leaning forward and thumping the table. "I've spent 25 years walking trails with him. He wouldn't blindly fuck off — that's what Chris McCandless would do. That's what you would do. That's what someone who has no experience would do. If you have experience, you backtrack and get back on a good trail. How do I know? Because he's my son."