Gone but not forgotten: Remembering missing hiker Michelle Vanek, 15 years later
Ethan Whitson was 6 years old when his aunt, Michelle Vanek, disappeared in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Now 21, he has been thinking about it ever since.
“I don’t remember much from my early childhood,” he said. “But I’ll never forget the morning it happened. … It definitely shaped my upbringing, whether I consciously knew it or didn’t really consciously know it at the time, it really impacted me.”
Vanek was hiking the Mount of the Holy Cross trek known as the Halo Route on Sept. 24, 2005. She became fatigued, and her and her hiking partner decided to separate. He climbed to the summit with intentions to meet back up with Vanek in a different location.
She was never seen again, and no trace of her body or belongings were ever recovered, haunting both her family and those who combed the wilderness looking for her.
Nate Goldberg was one of many locals who tried to find Vanek. He was taken into the area by helicopter and was among some 700 people, searching tirelessly for eight days.
In the years that followed, Goldberg guided Vanek’s family into the Holy Cross wilderness on several occasions, and kept an open invitation for anyone from the family who wanted to return.
“I have an unwritten rule, if anyone from the Vanek family wants to go anywhere near there, I’ll take them,” Goldberg said.
‘It haunted me’
After growing up in Colorado and developing an interest in hiking, Whitson moved to California to attend college and seek out different surroundings than he grew up with here in Colorado.
But the situation he lived through with his family never left his mind.
“It haunted me, as a kid, not having any closure,” Whitson said. “I would think about it all the time. Often, it was difficult for me to fall asleep at night. I would have dreams about it, and she would be in my dreams.”
This summer, after climbing several fourteeners and training for a few months, Whitson placed a call to Goldberg.
“I got a call out of the clear blue from Ethan, and he said he wanted to do that Halo Route,” Goldberg said. “I asked him, ‘What kind of shape are you in?'”
While Vanek was herself a marathon runner, she was not likely prepared physically or mentally for the Hale Route, which involves hours of scrambling over loose rock on across vast swaths of unmarked wilderness. Goldberg says while her and her hiking partner set out to make it to the top of Mt. Holy Cross, it’s unlikely that they had intended to take the Halo Route.
“It was the summer that they were putting in the new outhouse up there, so when they arrived at the trailhead in the morning, it was still dark, and there was a big crane up there,” Goldberg said. “I believe that they got disoriented, and instead of getting on the Half Moon Pass Trail, for the traditional route, they got on the Fall Creek Trail, and didn’t realize it until they got to the top of Notch Mountain. At that point they said we’re already up at Notch, you can see the top (of Holy Cross,) let’s just do this Halo Route. … When you’re looking across, and seeing that route, it doesn’t seem that far.”
The route is notoriously farther and more treacherous than it appears from Notch Mountain, and going in that direction — clockwise — is even harder, Goldberg says.
Goldberg learned of Whitson’s athletic background, switching his focus to high alpine hiking this summer after moving on from Division 1 college baseball in California.
Rather than attempt the identical route, Goldberg took Whitson in the reverse direction — counter clockwise — descending the Halo Route, rather than climbing it as Vanek attempted.
“Even if you’re physically fit enough to do that route, the mental aspect of the exposure — you’re stepping over loose rock for about six hours, there’s huge crevasses and couloirs and cliffs — if you’re not used to seeing that stuff it can be really scary,” Whitson said.
Whitson said Goldberg provided him with a perspective that not many others could.
“It was really cool to be able to walk past all these points, and we were able to stop and he would tell me about the events, we just kind of pieced our way through the whole thing, all day,” Whitson said. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
Maintaining the proper line on the Halo Route takes concentration, and in hiking it with Whitson 15 years after searching for Vanek, Goldberg said he had to be careful to mind the distractions that popped up.
At one point, “I pointed down, I said there’s the couloir that I got dropped off in by helicopter the first day of the search,” Goldberg said.
The pair kept hiking that direction for a moment before Goldberg second-guessed the decision, realizing they had missed a turn.
“In my gut I was thinking this isn’t the right way, but I was distracted, thinking about things,” Goldberg said.
After completing the hike, Whitson later recalled the brief detour as one of the moments that has given him a better knowledge of his aunt’s experience.
“I’m with someone who is extremely experienced, one of the top guides in the area, and we missed a turn ourselves,” he said. “It was not far, in terms of the area of the whole hike, from where her point of last being seen was.”
A big difference in Goldberg and Whitson’s brief foray in the wrong direction, Whitson said, was “We fully had our wits about us, and had just ate and refueled,” he said.
With his aunt likely experiencing some level of delirium, in addition to hunger and fatigue, Whitson says he now has a full understanding of how easy it would be to miss a turn and get lost.
“Looking around at the whole entire landscape from both sides, I just thought there’s endless possibilities of what could happen to a human being in here,” Whitson said.
The events of that day “made more sense after the hike,” Whitson said. “It offered great clarification, which was fantastic. That was really what I was looking for, and I was glad Nate could provide me with that. And I don’t think anyone else really could, to be honest.”
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