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In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008)

Backpacking Light founder and publisher Ryan Jordan shares memories of our friend, "JohnO."

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by Ryan Jordan | 2008-03-19 00:08:00-06

On Monday, March 10, John O'Mahoney died suddenly during his battle with lung cancer.

"JohnO," as we all liked to call him, was an important force in helping to inspire the lightweight backpacking movement as we know it today, starting with his personal web page and his founding of the BackpackingLight Yahoo Group.

JohnO had a passion for lightweight backpacking that reflected not only his enthusiasm, but his desire to share it with others because he truly believed it would change their life on the trail. The number of people he impacted positively by inspiring them to go lighter can never be measured:

I can only say that he had a great impact on me.

john-omahoney-memorial - 1
Ron Richards (L) and John O'Mahoney (R) on the Georgia AT in 2000. Photo: Ryan Jordan.

I had the great pleasure of walking in the woods with JohnO on a number of occasions. My most memorable times with JohnO were in his home range, the Appalachians - and in one of mine, the Tetons.

One particular trail event we shared comes to mind and warms my heart when I think about it.

We had planned a traverse of the Teton range from Glade Creek south, to wherever the mountains decided to spit us out.

There were three key moments in time on this trek that are .... seared ... into my memory. The first of those moments was upon my arrival into a creekbed where JohnO and other members of our party decided to stop and camp. I was walking with Glen Van Peski and Don Johnston, and we decided to join them for the night. After a long day on the trail, I was eager to make dinner, as the last light of dusk was fading.

Halfway through dinner and well after sunset, I began choking on something sharp that was stuck in my throat. I was unable to cough it up. JohnO peered down my throat, said with vigor,

"Oh my GOD!"

which rapidly sent me into a state of panic, and I began to sweat. He said to me,

"Oh man, it's huge, and long. The only way you're going to get it out is by forcing yourself to throw up."

Those of you who know me intimately know also that I abhor the thought of vomiting and will go to great lengths to avoid it. JohnO, too, knew this, and looked upon me with compassionate eyes (and a playful smirk) as I walked away from the group to avoid great embarrassment.

I unsuccessfully shoved my finger down my throat in a series of gag events, none of which resulted in the expulsion of the stuck object, let alone an ounce of vomit.

john-omahoney-memorial - 2
JohnO and crew at “Spork Throat Camp” in the Tetons. L to R: Ron Richards, Glen Van Peski, Don Johnston, Ryan Jordan, and John O'Mahoney. Photo: Ryan Jordan collection.

As I turned around, the wheels were clearly spinning in JohnO's head. Then his eyes lit up. I knew I should run, but couldn't move. He dug into his pack, pulled out a shiny implement that I assumed was from his first aid kit, and came towards me like a crazed surgeon. As he got closer, I recognized the object that was making a beeline for my mouth at a high rate of speed - an early model titanium spork.

Before JohnO could reach me, I stiff-armed him to keep him at bay with my left hand and reached down into my throat with my right hand to pull the object out myself - and this time, succeeded.

I yanked my fist out of my gagging intake valve, and held between my two middle fingers (“the grabbing mechanism”) was a 2-inch long seed husk from some type of mountain grass.

As I coughed up blood and felt a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to be evacuated, JohnO put his arm around my shoulder, and said quietly,

"See, I told you that spork would work!"

This was followed by his trademark guffaw that echoed off the quiet walls of our private canyon in the Tetons.

Those were only a few of the many nights I've been able to spend with JohnO in the wilderness. As our friendship deepened, so too did our relationship to things wilderness and beyond.

When I told him I wanted to start a magazine business to promote lightweight backpacking, he laughed at me, but it wasn't the same type of laugh I heard after the spork incident. It was the type of laugh that said, “Yes! Hallelujah!” JohnO provided tremendous support to me as a business person and a member of our community as Backpacking Light Magazine has grown over the years.

When JohnO started walking the IAT south of Cape Gaspe, Quebec, in 2000, he would call me from payphones and ask me about hiking in knee deep mud and constant rain. He had the gear, he had the skills, and there wasn't much I could tell him that he didn't already know. And so I told him simply “keep your head focused on the tread, take it one step at a time, and stay tuned to whatever comes.”

When my wife gave birth to a stillborn daughter a few years after his IAT walk, JohnO was among the first people to pick up the phone and encourage me. More remarkably, he stayed in touch regularly through the aftermath of one of the most difficult battles of my life. During my darkest days, I broke down and told JohnO: “I have no idea what to do, John.” He reminded me:

“Keep your head focused on the tread, take it one step at a time, and stay tuned to whatever comes.”

When JohnO called me from the road on a long distance truck drive, I told him that it sounds a lot like long distance hiking. He agreed. Especially the part where you resupply at truck stops with Little Debbies Snack Cakes and enjoy a hot shower. I asked him what the low points were.

”Flat tires, no family, and running out of gas.”

Yep, JohnO taught me that truck driving was indeed a lot like thru-hiking.

JohnO's infectious laugh, interest in people, uncompromising character, and as much passion for life's lows as its highs, all put him in a class few ever achieve, and I can only hope to realize in my dying days.

JohnO taught me a few simple rules of life.

  1. Family matters.
  2. Character counts.
  3. Hike light.
  4. Have fun.

Godspeed, friend.

john-omahoney-memorial - 1
John O'Mahoney 1946-2008. Photo: Ken Knight.


"In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008)," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-03-19 00:08:00-06.


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In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008)
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 03/19/2008 00:21:54 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008)

Do you have something to share about John? We'd love to hear about it.

Edited by ryan on 03/19/2008 01:18:03 MDT.

Mark Larson
(mlarson) - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
What a loss on 03/19/2008 05:51:18 MDT Print View

I never knew him, but I knew John's website well. After my first couple traditional (heavy) backpacking trips, I started googling for a better way. John's website was one of the first gateways to lightweight hiking for me. I've gone back there dozens of times to read his journals and surf all the links to his fellow LW hikers and manufacturers.

My condolences to the family. I'm glad that he shared his passion with us.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 03/19/2008 07:11:36 MDT Print View

Like Mark, JohnO's website was one of my first exposures to lightweight hiking. It led me in turn to others, inlcuding Adventure Alan, Jardine, BMW & BPL. I was relatively new to the internet and Google was just making its name. It was amazing to me that people would take the time to put together such valuable information for people they didn't know. It gave me insight to the excitment that he and others had about this topic.

It's a testimony that JohnO will never know just how many people he influenced. I hope his website continues for others to stumble upon.

Misfit Mystic

Locale: "Grand Canyon of the East"
RE: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney on 03/19/2008 08:21:06 MDT Print View

I never had a chance to meet John O, but from Ryan's words it's obvious he was a man of simple grace. A rare quality these days. To Ryan and others close to him, I'm sorry for your loss. But this community to a degree is a testament to his life; how many of us leave such a legacy?

A life well lived. The ultimate aspiration for all of us I think. How many of us really achieve it? John O'Mahoney did.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
RE: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney on 03/19/2008 10:12:43 MDT Print View

John O's website was one of my first exposures to UL, too, along with Michael Connick, Ultralight Joe, Adventure Alan, and even Ryan Jordan's Yellowstone Backpacking Journal. It's been a wonderful trip since then and I thank JohnO and all the others for making such a big difference in my life.

My deepest condolences to the loved ones of JohnO.

Hope he is traveling beyond all weight considerations.

Steven Reed
(stevendreed) - M

Locale: Midwest
Re: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 03/19/2008 12:10:47 MDT Print View

I was fortunate to be able to hike with John on the Teton hike that Ryan describes above. I had totally forgotten the "spork" down the throat incident. I was reminiscing about that trip and remember John, Ron and I hiking several hundred feet down through this waterfall/creek, cussing this route that "Ryan" mapped out for us. Imagine our dismay when we got to the bottom and found out we'd hiked down into the wrong valley. At that point we had considerable discussion about where we were and almost split up. It was John who kept us together and working as a team. I'm not sure we ever did find the route that Ryan described. (it seemed so easy to see on the map before we started) I know afterwards Ryan couldn't believe we had missed that couloir on the opposite side of the mountain we supposed to come down.


Meredith Eberhart
(nimblewill) - M

Locale: Midwest
Re: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 03/19/2008 13:49:47 MDT Print View

I had the pleasure of not only knowing John, but also enjoyed spending time hiking in the Gaspe with him in 2000.
John helped me reduce my packweight to a manageable level. One of the folks he put me in touch with was Kurt Russell. Kurt was way ahead of his time--as to stitching up lightweight gear. As a result of John O's urging, Kurt became one of my steadfast sponsors by providing one of his Nomad Lite tents. That tent now has over 17,000 miles on it.
Hiking and lightweight backpacking has lost a great advocate and a dear friend. RIP John O.
Eb "Nimblewill Nomad" Eberhart

Carol Elaine Donaldson
(Coosa) - F
JohnO -- never forgotten on 03/19/2008 14:39:02 MDT Print View

I accidentally found out that JohnO had passed away and I can only say that I am blown away by that sad news.

I think it was late Spring, early Summer in 2000 (it could have been another year) when JohnO asked me to cache some water for him and his hiking partner at Unicoi Gap. I left the two gallon jugs hidden under leaves with a 3x5 card tacked to a tree with his name on it and directions to the water. I went back the next day to pick up the empties and never located them. I heard from him later thru email, I think, that they'd found the water and had stuck the empty gallon water jugs at Unicoi Gap behind the rock. Someone else must have taken the empties away because they weren't there.

I ran into JohnO at a number of Trail Days. I recall the 1999 TD because he was so excited about hiking in 2000.

Gone but not forgotten, 'old friend.' And I'll remember your family in my daily prayers.

mark hudson
(mvhudson) - F
Johnny O' - In Memory on 03/19/2008 16:00:52 MDT Print View

I knew John through long association in ALDHA (, and was always amazed at his intense enthusiasm for life...

And his enthusiasm never left off his ability to laugh at himself. When ever you asked him about his latest misadventure he's start out with a guffaw and "Oh man!" I can hear him now...

Some of us eastern hiking fanatics get together every winter for a "Ruck" outside of Carlisle Pa, in a hostel right on the AT. A few years ago John had the great idea of doing a three or four day hike into the get-together. Gee, it was snowing (didn't John seem to be an even bigger "weather-witch" than most of us?). Anyways, unknown to John the top of his pack had come undone, and all the snow, sleet, and slush dropping out of the trees was landing in his pack and saturating everything. I don't know how he bailed out of his hike, but bail he did, and unashamedly regaled us with his adventure...

John, we're going to miss you!

Kevin Lane
McO on 03/19/2008 18:19:22 MDT Print View

I find it so hard to accept he has been stolen from us. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence, but after looking for a couple of days for the email for McO and Caboose (Ron) I posted a request on a list on March 12. I had not heard from him in a few months and wanted to speak with my fellow Bellies.

McO was more a partner in crime with me than anything else. Meeting him for the first time at a Ruck, we spent many other, but far too few, days together. I recall one night in particular when we shared a room at The Maples in Damascus, during Trail Days. John had the tendency to yell in his sleep and I falsly accused of snoring. The next day we sensed that the other occupants were somewhat inquisitive as to what was going on. I remember the names of two of the other guests, Ed Garvey and Earl Shaffer. I still treasure those three amigos.

McO was more than a guy we all knew, he was the mayor of the trail, of whatever trail he might be on. I am not sure whether I liked hiking with him more than hearing about hikes he had been on. I am sure that I find it so hard to understand that he is no longer there.

Sleep now my sweet prince

Don Ladigin
(dladigin) - F - M
In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney on 03/19/2008 21:40:10 MDT Print View

What I remember most about JohnO was his enthusiasm. He had abundant enthusiasm for hiking, for life, for wholesome fun, and enthusiasm for sharing knowledge.

The world is a better place because JohnO was in it for a while. I think no greater thing can be said about anyone...

Kenneth Knight
(kenknight) - MLife

Locale: SE Michigan
In memory of JohnO on 03/19/2008 22:38:05 MDT Print View

My turn I suppose. Like others here I was fortunate enough to hike with JohnO on several trips. I wasn't present for the sprok incident since our groups had split up by then but the story as regailed to us after the trip was done back at the Anvil was exceptional. I recall trips with JohnO to the Tetons and to the east coast. For example, some fine times were had along the AT in Northern Georgia back in October 2000 around campsites with less than firey gumbo provided by Karen Susa. She and JohnO were able to weave wonderful yarns of things they had seen in the past. I just sat back with Ron and listened and enjoyed myself. That same trip when visiting McAfeee Knob we all had a wonderful time at one of the most photographed spots along the AT (in sunlight no less!). JohnO could always brighten a day and whether you agreed or disagreed with him on a subject you always came away feeling good.

** Ken **

Vera Hurst
(veraj) - F
In Memoriam: Goodbye good friend on 03/20/2008 14:54:16 MDT Print View

John O's laugh and joking nature was one of his best qualities....I met him through his lightweight backpacking website and our ALDHA the PA rucks. We shared a mutual love of teaching young people about the outdoors...probably one of my favorite memories are his BPing light workshops at Gatherings...funny but packed FULL of great info.

There was no doubt that he loved his family & friends, loved the adventure that was his life and loved the outdoors. When I saw him last, at the Gathering '07, I hugged him hard because I just wanted him to know how much he meant to all of us. Hard to image a Gathering without him. But I know he's hangin around up there with his wings on upside down and his crown on askew, making the angels laugh just like he made us laugh...

Fare thee well, my friend and keep the light burning for us...


Alan Garber
(altadude) - F
Re: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 03/20/2008 17:41:01 MDT Print View

What a moving tribute/eulogy.

I am truly sorry for your loss.

I expect there are many people who will miss John.

He sounds like someone I would have very much enjoyed knowing.

Here is a Native American Poem which gives me comfort:

I give you this one thought to keep -
I am with you still - I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft starts that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone -
I am with you still in each new dawn.


Kevin Lane
McO on 03/20/2008 18:04:10 MDT Print View

I keep coming back here, hoping McO will hit us all with a big laugh and explaining how it is all a joke

Ken mentioned the idea of a memorial hike. I was wondering if we could put together some sort of relay event, or perhaps a simultaneous outing. Sort of like a trail day to honor him. Man this hurts

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Sorry to hear about JohnO on 03/21/2008 14:05:58 MDT Print View


Sorry to hear of the loss of your good friend JohnO. Your post was sad, but your story and the picture made me smile.

For all of us, the longer we live, even if we seek lightness, the heavier our burden of losses becomes.

His advice should be followed by all of us...

"Keep your head focused on the tread, take it one step at a time, and stay tuned to whatever comes."

charles kopenhafer
(mark28) - F
john O on 03/22/2008 08:32:51 MDT Print View

i have known John O for 35 years or better . my experiences were somewhat different than the hikers here in that John & I were working street Cops with the Brick township police dept. in brick N.J.
john was one of the very few cops that i considered utterly reliable in any situation. there was the added benefit of working with him on hairy jobs, he was the only officer that was considered crazier than i was.
i will miss that mad irish gleam in his eye, and his wicked smile, usually just before he did something outrageous.
he could be crusty at times, but he was an good, honest, and decent man who loved his family & always did the right thing.
i am proud that that he called me a friend.
the world will be a smaller, lesser place with his passing.
go with God my friend,
mark kopenhafer

Donald Johnston
(photonstove) - MLife
In memory of JohnO on 03/26/2008 08:43:29 MDT Print View

I had the privilege of meeting and hiking with JohnO several times. I never saw him without a broad smile on his face.

JohnO preparing for a hike

Others have spoken of his sense of humor. Visiting a gear shop with JohnO was a fun experience not to be missed.

He leaves behind a large family of people who's lives he helped lighten up in several ways.


Edited by photonstove on 03/26/2008 09:21:04 MDT.

Jim Walke
(jaywalke3) - F
Re: In Memoriam: John O'Mahoney (November 8, 1946 - March 10, 2008) on 05/18/2008 10:29:58 MDT Print View

I just learned about JohnO's passing from a mention in "AT Journeys" magazine.

I have vivid memories of him from the Tetons trip:
- JohnO and Ron trying to hang 30lbs. of food bags from a branch that might hold half that. It was like a bear pinata.
- JohnO festooning himself with orange blaze tape to keep from being mistaken for a rutting elk.
- His *two* full-size cans of bear spray worn bandito-style.

Most of all, I remember his stories: his eyes lighting up as he recounted the FS ranger who spotted a grizzly nearby, the wild re-enactment of the plunge down the "wrong couloir," and his simple joy at the gear shop sale and the steakhouse.
JohnO was a character who was having a good time, all the time, and he encouraged (by example) that those around do the same.


Stephanie Howard
(alany188) - F
In memory of JohnO on 05/30/2008 00:30:33 MDT Print View

I had a very different relationship with John then most people here. I actually met him at a summer camp that he was a counselor at a few years ago. Its a camp for kids who have or have had cancer. It was only my second summer there and I didn't know many people and I was still kind of shy/quiet. Anyone who knew John knew he was anything but shy or quiet for that matter.He is loud and crazy and such a trouble maker. He helped me through so much and he inspired so many kids there including myself. He was such a role model and so trustworthy and he was always there when you needed him. He seriously was like a second father to me. Camp will never be the same without him and no one will be able to cause such an uproar on a fishing dock at 6am like he could. He is truly missed.....I honestly don't know if I'm going to make it back to camp this will be so hard without him...he always encouraged me to make a difference and to be yourself but most of all- to stay strong- even when he got sick, he never let it get the best of him....He was truly amazing and I know hes missed by sooo many......
~Steph H

Edited by alany188 on 05/30/2008 00:33:15 MDT.