18 years after a hiker vanished on Mount of the Holy Cross, a clue emerges
The mountains can sometimes be slow in revealing their mysteries. One of those mysteries may be nearing a solution.
Michelle Vanek, a 35-year-old mother of four from the Lakewood area, went missing while on a hike to the Mount of the Holy Cross on Sept. 24, 2005.
Vanek, a newcomer to the mountains, was hiking the mountain with a friend, Eric Sawyer. The two separated, with Sawyer heading to the summit. Before they separated, he told Vanek what route she should follow back down. She was never seen again.
In October 2022, a local man and his son were hiking off-trail in a boulder field when they found a boot. The pair took photos but left the boot where they’d found it. Vail Mountain Rescue Group President Scott Beebe said the man contacted a friend, one of the rescue group’s mission coordinators.
After a team failed to find the boot — the discoverer pointed to the wrong spot on a map — a team and the man went up again and found it.
Beebe said the boot is a distinctive one and was later identified by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office as being identical to the boots Vanek was wearing when she disappeared.
The team did what’s called a “scuff search” in the immediate area, looking for any signs of clothing or the hiking poles Vanek was using. That search came up empty.
When the snow is out of the area this year, probably late July or early August, teams with cadaver dogs will head up again.
The area where the boot was found is teeming with animal burrows, Beebe said. The dogs will search as many as they can looking for human remains.
While Vanek’s remains are still missing, the location of the boot gives searchers a better idea of what happened that day. In essence, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Beebe and others are being tight-lipped about the exact location the boot was found. The group doesn’t want independent searchers looking, especially since it’s off any trail.
“You have to bushwhack to get there,” he said.
Beebe said Vanek followed Sawyer’s directions down the mountain but took a wrong turn.
The searchers, as many as 800 people over the course of the eight-day effort, were mostly searching the western side of the boulder field. The boot was found in a spot that searchers intended to scour on the last day of the search, but they were thwarted by about 18 inches of new snow.
Beebe noted that the map notes from the time state that the area was “impossible to search.”
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek has a search grid map from that search hanging on his office wall, a reminder of a case still unsolved.
Mount of the Holy Cross is a challenge even for the experienced, van Beek said. Beebe said just the hike to the location of the boot takes the better part of three hours, and that’s with people who are in shape and know the terrain.
“Look at how often people who stay on the trails (get lost),” van Beek said, adding that several people every season get turned around. Most of those people self-rescue, but the rescue group knows the terrain well through hard experience.
Other secrets revealed
It isn’t just Mount of the Holy Cross that can closely guard its secrets. Since van Beek took office in 2015, he said there have been a few sets of human remains discovered. Those remains sometimes belong to people who hadn’t been reported missing.
Vanek’s case hasn’t been fully resolved.
“It’s all assumption, but an educated assumption,” van Beek said. Beebe’s own educated assumption is that Vanek succumbed to hypothermia. She was dressed only lightly, and overnight temperatures dipped into the low 20s in that week. It’s likely she went to sleep and never woke up, he added.
Beebe said he’s been in contact with Vanek’s family, and there are plans to lead the family later this summer to the spot where the boot was discovered. That meeting went “really well,” he said.
And, he added, he’d like to contact Sawyer in order to tell him he didn’t do anything wrong that day.
One of the offshoots of the search for Vanek is that Vail Mountain Rescue Group now has a much closer relationship with the National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
The dogs will likely get a ride to the search site later this summer, Beebe said. And at least one member of Vanek’s family is likely to receive the same courtesy, a way to perhaps solve one of the valley’s bigger mysteries.
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