Michelle Vanek - Strange disappearances from the US mountains

Michelle Vanek, disappeared September 24th, 2005, Mount of the Holy Cross, Eagle County, Colorado.

Michelle Vanek, Mount of the holy cross

On 24th September 2005, Michelle Vanek, a 35 year old mother of four, went to climb one of the famous Colorado "fourteeners" for the first time. She chose Mount of the Holy Cross, a relatively difficult hike with an elevation of 14,005 feet.  But she was in very good physical shape,  being a triathlete and marathoner. By the end of that day, it was the last time she or her possessions were ever seen.

There are 54 mountains in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet in height and these are known as "fourteeners". These are challenging hikes given the possibility of acute mountain sickness  (AMS) and the rapidly changing weather conditions above treeline.  Each year the mountains claim victims from falls, avalanches and weather. AMS can cause headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and lethargy. Some fourteeners are relatively easy, but others are more technically challenging, requiring decent fitness or technical abilities in climbing. 

Michelle was also accompanied by a friend who had hiked 38 fourteeners, Eric Sawyer. The two of them had planned for more than a year to hike one of Colorado’s fourteeners and Michelle left all the planning to Sawyer.  They set off together on the hike and she was wearing a jacket and pants, a hat and gloves, hiking poles and a CamelBak backpack. But her and Eric carried no maps, compass, GPS or personal locator beacon.

Mount of the holy cross, Colorado

Things quickly started to go wrong on the hike. Michelle was complaining of a headache as they started from Half Moon Campground at 6.30am, 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. The sign indicating the easier North Ridge Route and the more arduous Halo Route was reportedly being replaced by park services. 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. The Halo Route can take up to 2 days to hike due to its length, distance above treeline, and the up-and-down path of the last few miles

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.

Holy cross ridge, Colorado

They also soon realised that Eric had left their food and his water purifier in the car. Unfortunately there's no way to reduce the length of the hike on Halo Ridge without serious climbing or taking a very steep off-route slope down.

By the time Eric and Michelle reached the top of Notch Mountain on the way to Holy Cross, Michelle was already slowing down. By 1.25pm, Michelle and Eric had run out of water - not good.

Within half a mile (and 500 feet of altitude gain) of the top of Mount of the Holy Cross, Michelle decided she couldn't finish the hike and she told Eric to continue to the summit, despite his objections to her suggestion. He told Michelle to traverse what he estimated to be about 600 feet to the North Ridge Route for an easier descent, an area covered in large boulders. It would have taken another 45 minutes to get off the mountain if Vanek didn’t start toward the trail.

Holy cross ridge, Mount of the holy cross, Colorado

Eric hurried to the summit, arriving at 1:42pm. After spending only a few minutes at the summit he headed down back towards the North Ridge Route to meet Michelle. Eric continued down the trail back towards Half Moon camp looking for Michelle but to no avail. He never found her and she had completely disappeared. 

A small team of rescuers began looking for Michelle that evening. The route to the North Ridge is where rescuers have speculated Vanek headed west and might have 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 sign of where they should look.

A huge search and rescue effort, led by the Vail Mountain Search and Rescue team, was quickly started the following day and involved around 700 searchers who combed the area the following week. It was the largest search effort in Colorado's history. Dogs were used but the search was hampered by torrential rain. Tim Cochrane, head of the Vail SAR team said "It's truly a mystery as to where Michelle is. That's probably the most baffling thing. We've put five search dogs in the area where we know she was, and they haven't found anything". That 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.

The possibility of foul play was explored, as a shotgun was found in a duffel bag on the mountain on Wednesday, September 26, 100 yards past the Cross Creek trailhead and there were reports of a suspicious man in the area. 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 bad weather.

Rescuers confronted a suspicious person in a yellow tent with a light on inside. The individual refused to unzip the tent or respond. Later,  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. Unfortunately, he was never investigated further. Was he involved in Michell's strange disappearance?

Michelle's sudden disappearance from the Mount of the Holy Cross is a baffling case. Minutes before she vanished she had been with her hiking partner. Was the stranger in the tent, the man spotted hiding in the woods, gun in the bag and blood connected? Foul play certainly seems a possibility and if not altitude sickness may have been a big factor exacerbated by dehydration.