The case of missing hiker Michelle Vanek is one of the most mysterious and tragic in Colorado history, but now officials have confirmed they've finally discovered a clue in her disappearance.
Vanek, 34, was hiking Mount of the Holy Cross south of Vail on September 24, 2005 when she vanished without a trace. The mother of four had set off that morning with a friend to summit what was to be her first Colorado 14er – a peak over 14,000 ft tall – but she never made it to the summit.
Instead, after a chaotic morning where the pair were unable to find the correct trailhead then set off late on the wrong trail, which took them on a much longer and more difficult route, Vanek ran out of steam. Just a few hundred yards from the summit, she told her partner she was out of water and unable to continue. It is thought she was likely suffering from altitude sickness and was poorly dressed for high altitude hiking.
She told her hiking partner to continue, and he directed her to begin her descent, telling her he would catch up with her on the way down. That was the last time anybody ever saw Vanek.
Vanek's disappearance prompted a massive search of the boulder field where she was last seen – the biggest in the state's history – but efforts were fruitless. More than 800 volunteers including members of mountain rescue scoured the mountain but didn't find a single trace of the hiker. On the eighth day, the arrival of snow halted the mission.
For 17 years, her disappearance confounded officials, but last summer, two hikers stumbled upon a piece of evidence that may finally crack the case. In August 2022, a man and his son were hiking off-trail north of the summit, below a rocky slope known as the Angelica Couloir, when they discovered a weathered hiking boot. Believing it might be linked to the case, they photographed the boot and contacted authorities, who asked the men to lead them to the discovery.
It's taken over a year, but extensive forensic testing has finally proven that the Sorel Asystec was indeed Vanek's left boot. According to reporting by Denver's 9 News, the discovery helps to shed light on Vanek's final movements that day, with president of the board of Vail Mountain Rescue Scott Beebe disclosing it reveals that Vanek mistook the couloir for the trail and descended into terrain where no one was likely to search. She would likely have only been 100 feet from the trail.
Though no other clues have been found yet, it helps authorities clear up any question about whether there was foul play involved – there wasn't – and gives her loved ones some indication of where she went that day.
There are a few factors that add to the risk level of hiking 14ers. Altitude affects everyone differently and effects range swollen fingers and shortness of breath to nausea and disorientation, which can prove fatal.
It’s often easier to get lost on a 14er than on a trail through the woods. Though treeline varies from one region to another, any 14er is bound to take you up above it. Once you leave the trees, any soft, well-maintained path tends to give way to boulder fields where you have to rely on rock cairns to navigate. This is tricky and a bit disorienting, and many unsuspecting hikers have spent an unplanned night out in the cold as a result. Read more in our article on hiking 14ers in Colorado.
Hikers are advised to research their route thoroughly, carry extra water and always stick together.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.