On Sunday, October 3, 31-year-old James Nelson from Chicago set off on a five-day, 25-mile hiking trip in the Mount of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area in central Colorado. His fiancé took a photograph of James with his pack at the trailhead before he set out. He was sighted two more times that day before disappearing without a clue.
On the evening of Friday, October 8, when James didn't return to his end point where his fiancé was picking him up, she reported him missing. Over the next four days, the Vail Mountain Rescue Group and others spent over 1,000 man-hours searching for Nelson but found absolutely no clues or leads to his whereabouts. Since the official search was suspended, Colorado climbers have informally searched the area, following his proposed route, deviating and exploring other valleys and ridges, and trying to deduct what he might have done out there in the wild.
The Mount of the Holy Cross, a 14,005-foot peak that is the centerpiece of the 122,797-acre Mount of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, is one of Colorado's most famed mountains. The peak, named for a distinctive cross-shaped couloir on its northeast face, was a myth until pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson made an image of it in 1873.
So what happened to James Nelson? Where is he? What went wrong? Did he have an accident? Did a mountain lion attack him? Did he fall into a lake or fast moving stream? Did he get off-trail and fall in one of the boulder fields and become trapped? Did he get disoriented? Did he fall into an abandoned mine shaft? Was he the victim of foul play? Did he bushwhack off trail and get lost? Did he concoct the disappearance and flee to Mexico?
Every question raises a theory about Mr. Nelson's disappearance but the fact is that no clue has been found in the area. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
James Nelson was photographed at the trailhead, talked to two other people on his first day, and then vanished without a trace. No equipment or clothing has been found. James told the first person he met on the trail that his pack weighed 70 pounds. He had a tent, sleeping bag, plenty of food, a GPS unit, two whistles, warm clothes, and everything else that he would need to survive if needed for a couple weeks if he got lost.
The vast wilderness area surrounding Mount of the Holy Cross is rugged and intimidating with deep valleys filled with boulder fields, sharp ravines, dense forest, and cliff bands. It's not an easy place to explore on foot, especially by a man who had never been there before.
James Nelson is not the first person to get lost or vanish in this area, which has been dubbed Colorado's "Bermuda Triangle."
An eerily similar and mysterious disappearance happened in September, 2005 when 35-year-old Michelle Vanek vanished during an ascent of Mount of the Holy Cross. A few hundred feet below the summit, she told her partner she was tired and would wait down on the main trail below. After climbing to the summit, her partner descended to the meet-up spot but she wasn't there. For the next few days, over 700 search-and-rescue volunteers, Colorado's largest search operation ever, combed the area but, as in Mr. Nelson's case, turned up no evidence or sign of Michelle. She too vanished without a trace.
My thoughts and prayers are with James Nelson's family and I, like every other climber, hopes that he is found alive and well. But the fact is that it is now late October and he disappeared three weeks ago. While there has been a lot of warm weather in the high mountains, there has also been a lot of cold weather, with nighttime lows dipping into the teens, and snow has fallen. I drove by the wilderness area just yesterday and fat snowflakes were flying at 9,000 feet.
Winter is coming Mr. Nelson. Hope you're hanging in there and will be found soon.
Photograph above: James Nelson at the trailhead hours before vanishing in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.