POLICE could be “months away” from resuming a full air and ground mountain search for missing Brit Esther Dingley, it's been revealed.
The disheartening news comes amid fears any clues to the hiker's movements have now been covered by heavy snowfall in the Pyrenees.
Bad weather has hit the search area – on the French/Spanish border – leading to a week-long hunt involving helicopters, dogs and around experts from several elite mountain rescue units being called to a halt.
Trackers did not go out Friday and have no plans to resume their work this weekend because of snow affecting the village of Benasque and the 9,200ft peak where Esther last made contact with her boyfriend on November 22.
Investigators concluded that the snowfalls would almost certainly cover “all traces and clues" for months but say some reconnaissance expeditions have not been ruled out if the weather improves.
Sergeant Jorge Lopez Ramos, head of the local Civil Guard GREIM mountain rescue team, admitted the operation may now not resume with the same intensity until next spring.
He added: “We appreciate the chances of finding Esther alive are minimal and it leaves us with a very bitter taste in our mouths.”
Speaking after the suspension he said: “We have not found anything at all in any of the areas we’ve searched that might help us discover where Esther is.
“In principle if the adverse weather conditions continue as we expect, then we’ll have to stop the search until we have a better idea of where we should be looking.
“The snow will cover the mountain and it’s possible that it won’t disappear until the spring. That means it’s possible the search can’t resume with the same intensity we’ve seen so far.
“Weather permitting searches will take place mainly on foot in areas that have already been looked at but with snow on the ground covering everything it’s going to be much more complicated to find someone that wasn’t found when there was no snow.
“Even if half a metre of snow falls that’s enough to cover up a person or a rock or something else you’re trying to find.
“The area around the route where in principle we believe she's been has been very well searched by both Spanish and French police.
“The possible variables in case she had changed her route before returning to Benasque the day she was reported missing have also been well searched.
“From there we’ve widened the search area and looked at the most obvious and well-travelled paths to rule out the possibility she may have been on one of those.
“From experience I’d say that if she was in the mountains we’d normally have found her by now but we have no guarantee she still isn’t.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that an intensive search has been conducted for someone who wasn’t found initially and only appeared some time later.
“Because of the type of clothes they’re wearing or the way in which they’ve fallen where there’s been an accident, it’s sometimes very difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding terrain.
“The clothes Esther was wearing and the rucksack she had were grey or dark-coloured and that doesn’t help a lot.”
He added: “Benasque is at 1000 metres above sea level and we’re now experiencing night-time temperatures of around minus seven and maximum daytime temperatures around freezing.
“The peak where Esther last made contact with her boyfriend is 1800 metres above Benasque so logically there’s going to be more snow and the temperatures will be lower, maybe minus 15 or lower at night-time and minus something during the day.
“With the worsening weather conditions the chance of finding her alive in the mountain now are going to be minimal.
“On Thursday 15 expert police officers and firefighters took part in the search on the Spanish side of the border. In previous days they went out with dogs but not Thursday but a helicopter took part.
“They went out fully-equipped with material including crampons, ropes and harnesses to search areas which include places off the main routes in case the missing woman had fallen down a slope or watercourse or zones you need a good technical and physical ability to access.
“There are small cavities which are not the traditional large caves that have also been searched.
“The circular route Esther was going to take is not technically difficult or dangerous and is well-used by families in the summer and has not got many places in which in a fall you could end up tumbling more than a few metres or anything like that.
“The peak we know she reached around 4pm on November 22 when she last made contact with her boyfriend, Pico Salvaguardia, has some areas which are a bit more exposed but it’s totally accessible for someone like Esther.
“Every effort has been made to find her and you’re left with a bitter taste in your mouth when so much work has gone into a search that hasn’t had a result.
“All we can hope for now is an improvement in the weather so we can continue the search and obtain some clue that helps us.
“Even if we know we’re looking for someone who is not alive because of the time that has elapsed, we’ll still carry on looking when the weather permits.
“The last information we have is still the contact she made from Pico Salvaguardia on the afternoon of November 22.
“We haven’t been contacted by anyone who says they saw her after that date.”
Other Civil Guard units including specialists in telecommunications are believed to have been asked to probe Esther’s disappearance. But the force has remained tight-lipped about the work they are doing.
They have privately dismissed the idea the 37-year-old adventurer from Durham could have been attacked by a bear and have made no comment on reports they are hunting a man travel blogger Esther said in her online travel diary had given her a lift down from the mountains.
Police have spoken to hikers who saw Esther, who rowed for Great Britain as a schoolgirl, heading towards Pico Salvaguardia on November 19.
Her 38-year-old boyfriend Dan Colegate, a former business development manager, had stayed in France with their five dogs and was house-sitting in the tiny village of Arreau in the Haute-Pyrenees.
He is understood to have been quizzed by both Spanish and French police to see if he can shed any more light on her whereabouts.
Well-placed sources confirmed she had been on the peak on November 21 and posted a selfie on Instagram before returning the following day.
The source said: “Esther was on Pico Salvaguardia on November 21.
“She left the peak to sleep in another area further down and returned to the summit the following day with the intention of heading down a little before crossing into French territory.
“She took a photo on November 21 that was published on Instagram and another the following day when she made contact with her boyfriend that wasn’t published there.”
Civil Guard spokesmen in the provincial capital Huesca and the national force HQ in Madrid, asked about what other work is being done to unravel the mystery of what has happened to Esther, will only say: “All options are being considered. None have been ruled out.”
A well-placed source said: “The Civil Guard rarely if ever go into detail about what they are doing as part of ongoing investigations.
“We know that Esther was last on Pico Salvaguardia on the afternoon of November 22 and was planning to walk a circular route taking in the border area of Spain and France before returning to Benasque where she’d left her camper van in a car park.
“That’s why the focus has been the mountains and a major operation involving dogs, helicopters and experts on the ground took place for a full week and would have continued if the weather hadn’t turned.”
On the last day of the search officers from five different Civil Guard mountain rescue teams took part in the operation.
They included four units based in Benasque, Boltana, Huesca and Jaca and another from Vielha in the neighbouring region of Catalonia.
Firefighters from the Aran Valley were also mobilised along with a helicopter from Huesca’s Civil Guard Aerial Unit.
The whereabouts of Esther’s camper van, which French police have been quoted as saying has been searched by Spanish investigators, was not immediately clear this morning.
At the start of the week Mr Lopez Ramos said: “The alarm was raised around 8pm on November 25.
"The missing woman’s boyfriend called the Civil Guard HQ, we were alerted and we subsequently informed the French Gendarmerie because the route she was planning to take was a circular route along the borders of both Spain and France which went through both countries.
“The vehicle she had been using was located where she had parked it in Benasque and the mountain search operation began on both sides of the border the following day at first light.
“She had given her boyfriend only a rough idea of the route she was going to take but it was enough because there’s not a lot of options in terms of the paths she could follow.
“That version coincides with the testimony of witnesses who have contacted us to say they saw her on her way up to the summit she was on the afternoon of November 22.
“There’s a couple of variants on the route we think she was planning to take although there’s one that’s the more normal and more probable.
“But in any case we’re looking at both and have so far found nothing.”
He added: “She was going to sleep the night of November 22 in a mountain refuge near Pico Salvaguardia called Refugio de Venasque which is in French territory but we don’t know if she reached it or not.
“There’s no-one else we know of that saw her after she reached the mountain summit and there’s no evidence either way pointing to whether she stayed at the refuge or not.
“Like other mountain refuges in the area, it’s closed at the moment and only a part of it is open that enables people to stay for the night in a small area of it and cook with their own material.
“If she did stay there and met someone else there, that person has not contacted us or the French gendarmerie to tell us."
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