Search for skier yields no clues Monday at Aspen Highlands

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Scott Condon/The Aspen TimesVolunteers check Monday for signs of missing skier Jeff Walker beneath the catwalk serving the Olympic Bowl trails at Aspen Highlands. Teams of skiers and riders scoured the steep terrain thick with trees in Olympic Bowl for Walker.

ASPEN – A helicopter, rescue-dog teams and a small army of volunteers failed to find any sign Monday of Jeff Walker, an Aspen man whose last known whereabouts were at Aspen Highlands on Thursday.

“Right now, our search efforts are inconclusive when it comes to his whereabouts,” said Pitkin County sheriff’s Deputy Alex Burchetta.

Scores of people scoured nooks and crannies of Highlands in search of Walker, 55, an expert skier who, according to friends, skied Highland Bowl nearly every day.

Aspen Skiing Co. ski patrollers used eight dog teams to search the bowl and adjacent terrain from top to bottom, according to Burchetta. Nine members of Mountain Rescue Aspen assisted the ski patrol in a search of the steep and heavily timbered Temerity terrain. And 72 friends of Walker’s and other volunteers from the public were used to search the front of the mountain, from the top of the Loge chairlift to below mid-mountain.

A helicopter searched Highland Bowl and surrounding terrain late in the afternoon using a Recco locator system. Friends believe Walker had a Recco reflector installed in his ski jacket. A helicopter carrying a Recco detector flew over Highland Bowl after that section of the ski area closed. Searchers hoped that the radar system would detect Walker’s location.

The Recco search equipment sends out a radar signal, according to the company’s website. The reflector generates a return signal when hit by the radar signal. The company’s website said the system’s range in the air is around 200 meters. A North American representative of Recco said the radar is unaffected by snow or thick timber, Burchetta said.

The ongoing uncertainty of Walker’s whereabouts was frustrating his friends Monday.

“That’s the worst part,” said Rob Mobilian, a friend and former employer of Walker’s.

The uncertainty also has convinced the Sheriff’s Office to scale back its efforts in the field.

“With the total areas searched to date in mind, the decision has been made to suspend search efforts by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen,” a statement from the Sheriff’s Office said. “This was a joint decision made by the Incident Management Team and representatives from both Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Aspen Skiing Co. The Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol will, however, continue to perform targeted searches in and around the boundary lines of Aspen Highlands over the coming days.”

Friends also have vowed to continue their search. Mobilian urged members of the public to look for Walker while skiing at Highlands – but to make sure they ski with a partner and stay inbounds.

Walker is a former restaurant sommelier who had developed a wine-selling business. Friends became concerned about him Saturday and reported him missing to authorities. Aspen Skiing Co.’s records showed that his ski pass was last scanned Thursday at 12:04 p.m. at the base of Highlands. Walker’s personal items, including his cellphone, were found in his ski locker in Aspen, according to Burchetta.

An investigation is ongoing to detect if there was any activity traceable to Walker outside the ski area since Thursday. Sheriff’s Office investigators are looking into his credit-card and cellphone use and bank-account activity, Burchetta said.

“We have to look at all possibilities,” he said.

Burchetta said the lack of clues at Highlands hasn’t altered the focus or priority of the off-slope investigation. The Sheriff’s Office already was looking into whether Walker might have departed Highlands on Thursday.

Monday was the second day of intensive searching at Highlands. About 60 members of the public assisted in the search Sunday, according to Walker’s friends. On Monday, about 24 members of the public initially braved the morning chill, and the number of searchers swelled throughout the morning.

Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol Director Mac Smith told volunteers assembled around 9:15 a.m. near the patrol headquarters that 70 to 80 percent of the mountain was searched Sunday. Some areas, particularly steep terrain thick with trees, needed to be searched again, he said.

Volunteers were divided into pairs and then assembled into larger teams ranging from four to eight people. Smith assigned them to cover specific trails and then report back for new assignments. At times, the teams peered into the trees along intermediate trails to see if there was any sign of Walker. At other times, teams went into the terrain that was very steep and very thick with trees, such as glades on the Olympic Bowl side of the ski area and in the Steeplechase area. The volunteers were ordered to crisscross the terrain possibly attractive to Walker.

The search attracted help from everyone from Walker’s close friends to people who had never met him but wanted to help. Kevin Von Ohlen and his wife were among the volunteers. Von Ohlen said there were people searching who know Walker much better than he does. He said he knows Walker from a monthly dinner gathering among friends. Walker always brought the wine, Von Ohlen said.

Von Ohlen expressed a sentiment of many of the searchers.

“Even if I didn’t know the person, I would still come out and help,” he said.

Tim Kurnos, another person who said he knew Walker but wasn’t one of his close friends, said Walker was well-liked by everybody he knew. Several people who purchase wine for restaurants and lodging properties from Walker were in the search party, Kurnos noted. He said he made time to search Monday “to help a friend.”

Von Ohlen also noted that many of Walker’s acquaintances from his work were taking part in the search.

“The restaurant industry is one big circle of friends,” he said.

Jesse Bouchard said he doesn’t know Walker but heard about the missing man Sunday evening from Kurnos and volunteered his time Monday to help with the search.

“It says the skiing community cares,” he said of the strong turnout.

During the course of the search, various participants expressed hope that there will be a miraculous outcome. One of three women riding a chairlift to prepare for the search effort in the morning said she hoped Walker was having a midlife crisis and that he soon would be back safe and sound.

Another searcher said he was haunted by the possibility of Walker hitting a tree and lying unconscious. Snowfall since Thursday made the search more difficult. Aspen Highlands reported 10 inches in the bowl on Sunday from a storm that started Friday evening. Routes through the trees at mid-mountain were still covered Monday with a thick blanket of snow.

The snow, Burchetta said, “is making it more difficult finding what we’re looking for.”

Several searchers said the incident drove home the fact that a person shouldn’t ski alone. Even an expert skier can catch an edge and end up in a bad situation, one searcher noted.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is asking anyone with information to call 970-920-5300.