Mistakes plagued hike that led to disappearance
December 8, 2005
HOLY CROSS WILDERNESS – Eric Sawyer spent five minutes on Mount Holy Cross on a blustery, cold September day before he retreated to Half Moon Trail and found his hiking partner, Michelle Vanek, missing.A string of mistakes plagued Sawyer and the 35-year-old Front Range mother of four, documents from the Eagle County Sheriff’s investigation show. The two took the wrong trail, had little food and water and later split up.Sawyer, 36, told police he had a bad feeling when the day started. He left his lunch and water filter in Vanek’s car at the trailhead to Half Moon.”He stated he was thinking to himself that this was a recipe for disaster,” Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Linn reported.The end result of Vanek’s disappearance was a one-month criminal investigation and the largest search-and-rescue operation in Colorado history. Nearly 700 people participated in the search.During the search, rescuers found few leads and lots of dead ends:A watch hanging from a tree branch wasn’t Vanek’s. A duffle bag containing a shotgun was found on Wednesday Sept. 26, 100 yards past the Cross Creek trailhead, deputies reported. Later that day, a dog team spotted what appeared to be blood in the snow. No footprints were found and teams could not follow up on the blood because of foul weather, deputies reported.
‘Only a day hike’Sawyer and Vanek had planned for more than a year to hike one of Colorado’s fourteeners. Vanek left all the planning to Sawyer, who had climbed 38 fourteeners, reports show. At Half Moon Campground on the morning of Sept. 24, Vanek had on black stretch pants, hiking boots, a windbreaker, hat and gloves. She carried some energy bars, poles and a CamelBak full of water.Dep. Doug Winters asked Sawyer why he would take a person who has never hiked a 14,000-foot peak but not carry the necessary survival items in case of an emergency.”He stated it was only going to be a day hike,” Winters reported. “He stated they were not planning to stay overnight.”Leaving at 7 a.m., the two would soon make a miscalculation. Sawyer and Vanek, who was complaining of a headache, ventured from Half Moon Campground, intending to approach Holy Cross from the north on Half Moon or North Ridge Trail. Sawyer told police Vanek was moving slowly but not having any problems.Near the trail to 13,000-foot plus Notch Mountain, Sawyer consulted his map and found they were on the wrong trail. The two were on the Halo Ridge route, a circuitous 9-mile route that approaches Holy Cross from the southwest.Behind schedule, Sawyer chose to push on, later telling police the two would not have time to summit the peak if they turned back to look for Half Moon Trail. Soon they came upon a hut where they stopped for 10 to 15 minutes to take shelter from the cold and wind.At any given time, Vanek lagged behind Sawyer by up to 60 feet. Sawyer told investigators he had to help Vanek keep up with him so they would not fall even further behind schedule.
Before crossing a snowfield below the peak, Vanek told Sawyer she had run out of water. He offered her an energy “goo,” but didn’t know if she ate it.Four hundred yards from the summit, Vanek told Sawyer she was tired and could not go on. Sawyer told police he offered to go down and that Vanek insisted he summit the peak.Sawyer told Vanek to traverse the west slope of the peak to Half Moon Trail, where he would catch up with her. It would have taken another 45 minutes to get off the mountain if Vanek didn’t start toward the trail, Sawyer said.This is where rescuers have speculated Vanek headed west and fallen off the ridgeline into the Cross Creek drainage, where large pine trees could have blocked the views from search helicopters. The area consists of a series of steep, wooded cliffs rescuers said would be too difficult to explore without some of sign of where they should look. Sawyer summited Holy Cross at 1:42 p.m. He called his wife to tell her they would be late because they hiked the wrong trail. He met some other hikers, Julie and William Taylor, and he exchanged small talk and snapped some pictures. Julie Taylor said Sawyer was on the peak for five minutes.When Sawyer came down from summit, he could not find Vanek on the trail. He went back to the snowfield where he left Vanek and did not find her.The Taylors heard what sounded like someone yelling “Help.” Upon inspection, the two found it was Sawyer yelling “Michelle.”Suspicious charactersA small team of rescuers began looking for Michelle that evening. The next night, rescuer Brenda Parks and her partner ran into a man who refused to talk to them and hid behind a tree to hide his face. He ran down the hill.
No further contact was made with the man by rescuers or deputies.The next day, Monday, rescuers confronted a suspicious person in a yellow tent with a light on inside. The individual refused to unzip the tent or respond, Linn reported.Rescuers and deputies found a man coming off the trail they believed to be the person in the tent. The man reluctantly told deputies after prodding that his name was Peter Martin. He offered vague details about where he lived and told deputies he had no identification. He had a brown tent.During the investigation, Sawyer was interviewed twice. On the second occasion, Winters asked if Sawyer had any involvement in the disappearance of Vanek.”He stated he didn’t,” Winters reported. “I asked Eric if he harmed her in any way. He stated he did not. At this point, Eric became upset. He advised that he was not going to answer any more questions without an attorney present.”Vanek’s husband, Ben, was also interviewed. He said he loved his wife and knew she and Sawyer did not have a romantic relationship. Ben Vanek said he trusted Sawyer to take care of his wife.But would he harm her?”He stated Eric doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body,” Winters reported.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or firstname.lastname@example.org.