Matt Zalaznick

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October 1, 2005
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Search for missing hiker ends

MINTURN " Not a trace of Michelle Vanek was found in more than seven days of searching the High Country.

The rescue effort was called off Saturday night after a day in which more than 220 people scoured Mount of the Holy Cross for signs of the 35-year-old mother of four who has been missing for more than a week.

"Typically by now we have some sort of clue or evidence indicating some direction of travel or where she may have sheltered," said Tim Cochrane, the Vail Mountain Rescue search commander.

"In these cases you find a candy wrapper, a dropped glove " this girl had ski poles, where is that stuff?"

Capt. Bill Kaufman, a spokesman for the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, said the search was halted because, "any further mission would not lead to the possibility of finding Ms. Vanek."

Childhood friends of Michelle Vanek, valley residents, professional rescue crews and other volunteers " some of whom started hiking before dawn Saturday " had joined in one last, massive attempt to find the woman who disappeared while hiking the 14,005-foot mountain with a friend Sept. 24.

"It's hard to figure she's out there," said Janice Hagestad, a friend of Vanek's from the Lakewood area who made sandwiches for searchers Saturday. "(Saturday) morning, it was pitch dark and cold, and to think someone spent the last several nights out there. I can't even imagine. It's scary."

Barbara Hogoboom of Eagle was among the vanloads of exhausted searchers who returned to the search headquarters at Minturn Middle School as the sun set Saturday night. Hogoboom said she started the day optimistic, but left the mountain discouraged.

"I really felt like this was in my backyard and I needed to do what I could," Hogoboom said. "I really felt like with this many people, if she was anywhere within reach, we could've found her."

Vanek " who searchers believe was "tired and thirsty" in the hours before she was lost " stopped to rest about 400 feet below the peak while her friend continued on. When he returned, she was missing, authorities say.

Cochrane said it's possible Vanek was seriously hurt in a fall and was too injured to either help herself or signal any of the dozens of helicopters or hundreds of searchers who looked for over the last seven days.

"We felt had Michelle been in the area we were in, we had a 90 percent chance of locating her," Cochrane said.

She also may have taken shelter somewhere, but perhaps her health deteriorated during the days of the search, which included rain and snow in the middle of the week.

"It's truly a mystery as to where Michelle is," Cochrane said. "That's probably the most baffling thing " we've put five different search dogs where we know she was, and they haven't found anything."

Cochrane believes Vanek also may have followed a natural snowfield that, to a hiker at the top of it, looks like an easy way off the peak, Cochrane said. But he, said, it leads to a 60-foot drop and some of "most treacherous cliff bands around."

The rugged area consists of "dead-end" ledges among 50- to 75-foot pine trees that block the view of search helicopters flying overhead, Cochrane said. Search teams have looked for Vanek at lower altitudes below these ledges, he said.

"Unless we have some clue, if she did fall there, I don't know how we're going to find her," Cochrane said.

Searching the 5 square miles of cliff bands would be highly complicated and dangerous, requiring experienced climbers to drive bolts in the mountain and repel from ledge to ledge.

But there are no signs " such as broken branches or other disturbances " to give searchers an idea where to start looking, Cochrane said.

Cochrane said the Vail Mountain Rescue crew has been called to Mount of the Holy Cross this year 17 times for lost hikers. They have found all 17, he said.

"It's not a hard mountain, but it can be a tough descent," he said, but did not rule out all hopes of finding Vanek. The remains of a hiker lost 10 years ago on Blanca Peak, a fourteener in southern Colorado, were recently found, Cochrane said.

"At some point I firmly believe this mountain will give Michelle back," he said.

Vanek and her friend took the harder of two routes to the summit. Hikers who were on the mountain the day Vanek disappeared told searchers they saw her at a hut high along the route to the peak.

Vanek and her friend then had to traverse an "extremely steep, dangerous knife-edge" ridge " known as the Hayload Route, Cochrane said.

Searchers also have scoured that area in case Vanek returned to the ridge after being separated from her friend and fell, but didn't find a trace of her there, either, Cochrane said.

Hikers on the mountain Sept. 24 also have told searchers they saw a "shape" below the summit " that could have been Vanek " when her friend reached the top, Cochrane said.

Though Eagle County Sheriff's Detectives are still investigating, there is no indication of "foul play" in Vanek's disappearance, Capt. Kaufman said.

Authorities say Vanek was wearing gloves, a hat and a jacket that would have provided some warmth. She was also carrying some energy bars.

Vanek's family hasn't spoken to the media since her disappearance, but a friend of the family, Bob Davis, said the family was "overwhelmed by the number volunteers" involved in the search.

"This has been a vast outpouring of human kindness," Davis said. "Michelle's loss cannot be replaced ... Michelle is a mother, wife, daughter, sister and best friend.

"Michelle now walks with God," he said.

Volunteer Shelley Gaberik of Ft. Collins said she joined the search Saturday because she plays hockey with one of Vanek's cousins.

"Everybody was combing, everybody did really well," Gaberik said. "We just didn't find her."

Assistant Editor for Local News Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado


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The VailDaily Updated Oct 2, 2005 12:02AM Published Oct 1, 2005 02:34PM Copyright 2005 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.