Gendarmes to scale down search for British hiker Esther Dingley in Pyrenees

French mountain gendarmes say they will scale down the search for missing British hiker Esther Dingley after finding no trace of her in the Pyrenees.

As Dingley’s partner, Dan Colegate, continued to retrace her steps, rescue teams warned that forecasts of rain and snowfall in the next 36 hours could force them to wind down the search operation.

“We have looked all over our side and our colleagues in Spain have been doing the same,” Pierre Gaillard, the deputy commander of the high-mountain gendarmerie platoon told the Guardian.

“Today, we sent a helicopter up over the high ranges, but this is an area we have already searched. It’s complicated to find someone up there because part of the area is under snow. The Spanish are doing the same on their side.

“The weather is good today and it’s not possible that she went missing because she was caught up in bad weather, because the only time it was bad was the night of Thursday to Friday when there was snowfall and ice, but we were already looking for her by then.”

Dingley, 37, from Durham, who has been travelling with Colegate around Europe in a camper van for the last six years, had set off on a solo trip, leaving the vehicle in Spain where she started walking on 21 November. She was due to return to Gascony in France to meet Coleman on Wednesday but failed to make contact. Alarmed at being unable to reach her, he reported Dingley missing.

Dingley was on the Chemin de l’Impératrice (Empress Path) hiking route via Port de Venasque before heading for Porte de la Glère in the Luchon valley, along mountain corridors at altitudes of up to 2,738 metres (8,990ft) on the French-Spanish border.

Gaillard said the gendarmes had not been able to ascertain where Dingley had gone missing. Her last contact with Colegate was via a WhatsApp call on Sunday 22 November, when she indicated she was on the Pic de Sauvegarde.

“After that she put her phone on airplane mode to save the battery and there is no data use or GPS trace since then. Theoretically her itinerary meant she should have done the loop and crossed into France before returning, but we cannot say for sure. We have no indication of whether she crossed the border or not,” Gaillard said.

Since then, Spanish and French mountain rescue teams using helicopters have repeatedly swept the area either side of the border.

“If she stayed on the paths she shouldn’t have had a problem, but sometimes with the snow and ice at altitude it’s difficult to follow the paths,” Gaillard said, adding that Dingley was wearing dark clothes and carrying a grey rucksack, which added to the difficulties in finding her. He said there was no sign of her yellow tent to suggest she had been camping out.

He said that Colegate, also from Durham, was also searching the mountain and had retraced Dingley’s route but was not with the rescue teams.

“He prefers to walk on his own,” the gendarme said.

Gaillard said investigators had not ruled out any theory, including that she might have encountered another person and died in suspicious circumstances.

“We are not just mountain rescuers, we also investigate so we are keeping all lines of inquiry open.” He said the chances of finding her were now “extremely slim”.

He added: “We will be sending a smaller team out to search tomorrow but after that, bad weather is forecast including heavy snowfall.”.

On Saturday, Colegate wrote on the couple’s Facebook page: “I’m broken. Shattered to report that my beloved Esther, the person who taught me how to feel, is missing. Search and rescue teams have so far found no trace of her.”

On its Facebook Page the Peleton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne has put out a research alert and appeal for witnesses which reportedly prompted some negative responses, over lockdown rules in France banning hiking.

The appeal insists: “This message is aimed at saving a human life. Even if we understand the emotions raised by this behaviour during a period of lockdown, please do not comment on this subject. We are faced with an emergency here.”

“I haven’t been following the social media, but I understand there were people who complained about this, but the lockdown rules are different in Spain where she set off so perhaps she didn’t know,” Gaillard said.


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