What happened to the missing Holy Cross hiker?
October 14, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – James Nelson is the second hiker in six years to vanish into the Holy Cross Wilderness.His disappearance and that of Michelle Vanek in 2005 are chilling reminders of what can go wrong in this vast, rugged wilderness.”We could have a Bermuda Triangle up there, almost,” Bag and Pack employee Michael Hand said “The Holy Cross triangle.”Rescue workers called off the search for Nelson, 31, of Chicago, on Tuesday after a four-day search failed to turn up a single clue. Nelson set out on a five day, 25-mile hike Oct. 3. His fiancee reported him missing Friday evening.Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy has said he suspended the search because no clues emerged and resources were dwindling.”We spent four days with many man hours and a lot of people in the field searching everywhere in that huge, huge area,” he said. “He hasn’t been seen in over a week. We have no clues. There’s nothing on the ground.”Workers with the Vail Mountain Rescue Group will keep looking for clues when they visit the wilderness for training, Hoy said. However, the rescue effort is on pause until any new information turns up.”If we got some new information that we felt could be credible then we would have it checked out,” Hoy said.In a somber quest for closure, Hoy took Nelson’s family, friends and fianc to the deck at Vail’s Adventure Ridge Tuesday, where they looked out over the Holy Cross Wilderness where Nelson disappeared.”It’s rough for them, as it would be for anyone,” Hoy said. “They’re strong but obviously this has affected them.”Folks said a prayer for Nelson during a chapel service on Wednesday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nelson works as director of official roster records at the church’s Chicago office.People at the church are grappling with the search coming to a halt.”We’re glad they were able to conduct a thorough search and were able to do it safely,” Church spokesman John Brooks said. “We understand there comes a time when a search like this has to stop. We’re disappointed and sorry James wasn’t found during the course of the search.”When it comes to what might have happened to Nelson, authorities are at a loss. Two hikers spotted Nelson on Oct. 3 but no one has seen him since.”Did he get disoriented? Did he have an accident? Did he get lost up in the boulder fields?” Hoy said. “I guess you could say there’s plenty of theories on what might have happened but we don’t have anything to pin on one solid theory.”Eerie foreshadowingA fellow hiker apparently suggested Nelson bring a beacon on his trip in case he got into trouble.The suggestion happened at a Chicago Backpackers Meetup Group event in a Chicago bar, group member Jeff Wegerson said. Wegerson met Nelson briefly during the event, and remembers Nelson using a handheld device to show a fellow hiker his proposed route for the Holy Cross hike.Twice, the fellow hiker suggested Nelson bring a beacon on the trip, since Nelson had been planning to do the hike alone, Wegerson recalled.Nelson said nothing in response.”My take on his vibe was that he appreciated the sentiment and understood what he was dealing with and consciously chose not to take it [a beacon],” Wegerson said.What went wrong?The route Nelson had planned for himself in the Holy Cross Wilderness should not have been too difficult for an experience hiker like himself.He mapped out a loop around Mount of the Holy Cross, following well-worn trails such as Fall Creek and Half Moon Pass.”That’s actually a really easy to moderate hike,” Hand from Bag&Pack said.However, Nelson had been considering climbing the 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. That’s one of the more difficult 14ers, Hand said. In fact, one notorious fork on Holy Cross Ridge has led many hikers astray, he said.”A lot of people get really confused right there, especially first timers who have never really hiked the trail or are not familiar with the terrain,” he said.Another theory claims Nelson’s interest in relics might have led him into Holy Cross City, a ghost town. Rescue workers scoured the town and some of the mines in the area but found nothing, Hoy said.Other factors may have been working against Nelson as well. Although the weather hovered in the mid-70s throughout the first few days of his trip, it took a bad turn over the weekend, Hand said. He heard up to a foot of snow fell in some places.”If that’s the case, if he were to somehow become unconscious high up, he could have been covered and that could be another factor,” he said.Nelson appears to have experience with difficult hikes. On a Web site for the Chicago Backpackers Meetup Group, Nelson wrote “I organize trips that tend to be strenuous and involve hiking for an entire day at a steady pace; often over difficult terrain or in challenging weather. Trips often require hiking 10+ miles.”Still, Nelson had never hiked in Eagle County before.Hand said hiking alone in Holy Cross is not a good idea, especially for people who are unfamiliar with the terrain.”Definitely, when you go backpacking , especially for that long, the buddy system is the only system I use,” he said. “It’s a safer system. Even if you don’t get lost, if you roll an ankle, break a bone, get sick, some random incident, you always want to have somebody with you to go find help.”