Questions litter missing hiker's trail

2005-12-06T00:00:00Z Questions litter missing hiker's trailSTEVE LIPSHER The Denver Post Casper Star-Tribune Online
December 06, 2005 12:00 am  • 

MINTURN, Colo. (AP) - Out of water and exhausted near the summit of her first 14,000-foot peak, Michelle Vanek sat down on a rock on a windy September afternoon and implored her hiking companion to go ahead.

It was the last anyone saw of the 35-year-old Lakewood mother of four, who disappeared high on Mount of the Holy Cross in a case that remains an unsolved mystery despite the largest search in Colorado history.

Did she stumble and fall to her death or mistakenly wander down the wrong route, eventually to be overcome by the elements, as searchers speculate? Was she killed by an animal, perhaps indicated by a spattering of blood spotted in the snow some distance away? Or did a mysterious squatter who refused to answer questions from sheriff's investigators have anything to do with her disappearance?

Newly released investigative documents detail the numerous missteps taken by Vanek and her hiking partner, Eric Sawyer, and the exhaustive seven-day search that ensued. But the complete story remains elusive.

Rescuers and family members all believe that Vanek is dead.

"Nothing leads me to believe that Michelle Vanek is not on that mountain," said Tim Cochrane, who headed up the search for the Vail Mountain Rescue team. "I just can't tell you where she is."

Sawyer, who asked not to be identified to the media during the search, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to official reports, Vanek and Sawyer agreed to try 14,005-foot Holy Cross after talking about climbing a fourteener together for more than a year.

Vanek was so excited that she and her husband, Ben, went to Gart Sports and Costco the day before the excursion to outfit her for the occasion. A photo that Sawyer took from the trail shows Vanek dressed in a light jacket, hat, gloves and black stretch pants. She carried ski poles and only a small Camelback water pack.

Sawyer and Vanek arrived at the Halfmoon trailhead southwest of Minturn at about 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 24.

Shortly thereafter, the hikers made the first of what would be a string of mistakes. Sawyer - an experienced hiker who had 38 of Colorado's 53 fabled fourteeners under his belt - left his lunch and water purifier in the car.

"Eric made the comment after they got started on the hike that he had a bad feeling about the day," Eagle County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Linn reported.

Then they started up the wrong trail - venturing onto the longer and more difficult Halo route rather than the relatively easy North Ridge route.

They also moved much slower than Sawyer had hoped, as Vanek lagged 30 to 60 feet behind him.

Asked why he didn't turn around when he realized the mistake, Sawyer said that they "would not have had time to reach the summit," Linn reported.

At nearly 1:30 p.m., Vanek complained that she had run out of water, and Sawyer soon had none left, either.

"Within approximately 400 yards of the summit, Michelle told him she was tired and could not go on," Linn reported.

Sawyer, 36, said he offered to turn back, but Vanek insisted he go on. He told her either to wait for him there or begin traversing toward the East Cross Creek trail, where he would meet her for the descent.

"He started up toward the summit. He arrived at the summit at exactly 1:42 p.m," Linn wrote.

Howard Paul, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, said separating is a common and sometimes critical mistake, which in this case likely was compounded by others.

"She's in a position now where she can't be seen because perhaps she fell, because she started moving, because she couldn't wait any longer, because it was cold," he said. "You just see this chain link of events, any of which, had they not occurred, the situation wouldn't have happened."

On the summit, Sawyer called his wife to say they were running late. According to witnesses Bill and Julia Taylor, he was there only about five minutes.

"He just seemed to be rushed because he had to get back to his hiking partner," Julia Taylor said.

Sawyer and the Taylors exchanged typical pleasantries and snapped each others' pictures before he headed down.

A short time later, they heard Sawyer yelling what they thought were calls for "help" but actually were his shouts of "Michelle!"

Over the next seven days, more than 700 searchers scoured the area. Dog teams chased down her elusive scent; climbers scaled the broken ridgelines; volunteers streamed down every drainage; and as many as five helicopters at a time buzzed the area, including one that used a device designed to detect any source of heat on the ground.

Early on, searchers found a watch hanging on a tree, giving them false hope they were on her trail. Meanwhile, family friends arrived in large numbers to help look for her.

"As it matured, especially by days three and four, then it got to be complicated," Cochrane said. The planning then shifted to: "How do we manage, efficiently and effectively, this group of people and keep everybody safe?"

Some trained rescuers assigned to lead novices complained they couldn't move as fast or into as difficult terrain as they would have on their own.

But others were cheered by the extra eyes and ears, giving them hope that Vanek would be found, perhaps even alive.

Rescuers noted that she was in good shape. They also recalled a woman who got lost in the same area about eight years earlier who survived for nine days before searchers found her.

At the end of the first day of the search, rescuers encountered a mysterious backpacker coming down the trail who refused to talk. He hid behind a tree and then ran down the trail, Deputy Steve Wilson reported. Others said he defiantly refused to talk with them.

Searchers later encountered a tent with a light on, but the person inside would not respond to their questions or open the tent's zipper.

The next day, sheriff's investigators met someone they believe was the same person. After declining to provide an ID, he reluctantly told Deputy Karen Waddell his name was Peter Martin. He was not questioned further, and investigators do not presume he was involved in Vanek's disappearance.

That night, a storm brought torrential rain and snow, and searchers began to lose hope of rescuing Vanek, who was dressed in black stretch pants and a windbreaker and did not carry extra food or clothing.

Asked by Detective Doug Winters why he didn't prepare her better in case of an emergency, Sawyer said that they were anticipating only a day hike.

Backcountry travelers are advised to always carry the "10 essentials," including extra clothing, food and water, in case they run into trouble.

When the detective asked Sawyer if he had anything to do with Vanek's disappearance, he cut off the interview, saying that he wouldn't answer any more questions without a lawyer present.

He has not been questioned again, but Winters said that absent any evidence to the contrary, Sawyer's account is not in dispute.

Ben Vanek, Michelle's husband, told authorities that he was convinced that Sawyer didn't do anything intentional to harm her, although he lamented what he called "an awful decision" to leave her behind.

Ben Vanek could not be reached for comment. Michelle Vanek's father declined to discuss her disappearance, saying it was "still too early."

As the search continued, rescuers couldn't decipher any of the few clues they found. On Sept. 28, searchers discovered a duffel bag with a shotgun just off the Cross Creek trail; later that day, a dog team came across some blood spots in the snow just south of the summit, although it was never determined to be from a person.

Six days after Vanek vanished, Cochrane took Vanek's husband and two others up in a helicopter so they could grasp the "magnitude" of the mountain.

"They could see the searchers, little figures crawling in the couloirs and crawling in the boulder fields," Cochrane said. "I think that gave them the perspective that this wasn't an easy mission."

The next day, 336 volunteers - trained rescuers and good Samaritans alike - made a final push to find Vanek. By the end of the day, Cochrane and the family agreed to call off the search.

"A lot of people coming out of the field on Saturday indicated they were willing to go back in on Sunday," Cochrane said, "and my comment was simply this: 'If you can show me a clue, show me a reason why, I'd crank this thing back up in a minute.' We never found a ski pole. We never found anything. Typically we do, and that would have sustained us for another week, if we had one tiny little bit of evidence."

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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