Informal search continues for Holy Cross hiker |

Informal search continues for Holy Cross hiker

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyJames Nelson, of Chicago, set out on a five-day, 25-mile hike Oct. 3. He hasn't been seen since that day.

VAIL, Colorado – No signs of missing hiker James Nelson turned up this past weekend during a search and rescue training in the Holy Cross Wilderness, Vail Mountain Rescue Group mission coordinator Dan Smith said.

“We found the usual assortment of food wrappers – none of them his – and a fleece that was not his,” he said.

An informal search continues for Nelson, 31, of Chicago, as rescue workers keep looking for him during their trainings and area hikers document their attempts to find him on

Nelson’s fiancee reported him missing Oct. 8 after he failed to return from a five-day, 25-mile backpacking trip in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

The official search ended Tuesday, but grassroots efforts are still under way to find Nelson.

On Saturday, 48 rescue workers from Vail and neighboring counties conducted their weekly training in the Holy Cross Wilderness, where they also looked for signs of Nelson. Rescue workers with dog teams searched along Fall Creek from Lake Constantine to the Eagle River, Smith said. They also searched five gullies in the Three Wise Men area, scoured the Bowl of Tears and conducted an in-depth search along Fall Creek Trail, which had been part of Nelson’s planned route.

The many boulders, logs and deep ravines in the Holy Cross Wilderness make the terrain difficult to search, Smith said.

“If you have somebody down and hurt, in this country, you could be 10 feet from them and not see them,” he said.

With the official search over, several area hikers have been getting involved in the search for Nelson.

“We’re getting phone calls from people asking, ‘Hey, I’m going into the Holy Cross Wilderness. Is there any place you want us to look?” Smith said.

One of those people is 42-year-old Rich Haefele, a hiker from Lakewood who decided to search in the Holy Cross wilderness this past weekend after reading posts about Nelson on

“You just have to feel for his family,” he said.

Haefele said he followed Fall Creek Trail to the Notch Mountain cutoff, where he dropped down to Fall Creek and hiked to Lake Constantine. He searched the east side of Lake Constantine, then criss-crossed the trail to Fall Creek Pass.

He found nothing.

“It feels like a needle in a haystack kind of thing,” he said.

Smith has been discouraging inexperienced hikers or those who are not acclimated to the altitude from searching for Nelson. If experienced hikers call him to say they’re heading into Holy Cross, Smith has been giving them ideas on where to search, based on various theories on Nelson’s whereabouts.

No clue is too small to report, Smith stressed.

“If people are out there in the woods and they find something they think is a clue, don’t hesitate to call us,” he said.

For instance, Nelson had been carrying two blue hiking poles, so if anyone spots them, they should call, he said.

Anyone with clues about Nelson can contact Smith at 970-949-9938.

As the days wear on, friends and family members are clinging to hope. Many people have been trading messages about him on Facebook.

“I’m praying for him all the time,” said Ben Larson-Wolbrink, a friend of Nelson’s from seminary.

Larson-Wolbrink went to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with Nelson from 2001 to 2004. They shared a group of friends who studied and played ultimate Frisbee together.

“He was very smart, he had some frustrations, but he was a guy with a big heart,” Larson-Wolbrink recalled. “After my wife and I got married, he wrote one of the most thoughtful letters I’ve ever received.”

Given what Larson-Wolbrink knows about Nelson’s character, he dismissed the idea that Nelson could have purposely disappeared.

“I really, highly doubt that James would just choose to disappear and pull something like this, especially with his fiancee,” he said. “Really, in the last several years, he seemed to be much more joyful and celebratory in life, so this seems out of character for him. My fear is he’s hurt and in a place where he’s unable to respond to the calls or in a place where he’s not visible…

“I’m just hoping he’s hanging in there.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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