The wildernesses of our world have seemed to constantly call out to the adventurous, luring them in with the promise of thrills, adventure and an escape from modern society. It is in some people’s nature to want to go out into the wilds and live a simple life, to shuck off modern conveniences and get back to nature, yet sometimes nature does not want to give them back. Some of the strangest unsolved mysterious disappearances there are have gone down in the great outdoors, and here we will look at a woman who pursued her dream to go out hiking on an ambitious journey, and just kept on walking right off the face of the earth.
Esther Dingley and her partner, Dan Colgate, first met as students at Wadham College, Oxford University, and upon graduating Dan took up a successful academic career at Oxford’s chemistry research laboratory while Esther pursued a master’s degree. They would end up at Cambridge, where Dan got a position as a postdoctoral research assistant in the department of engineering, Esther took up a job as a personal trainer, and it seemed that life was great until a series of hurdles caused them to reassess their lives. Esther was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and depression, Dan developed a potentially life-threatening complication after a surgery, and they both became tired of their humdrum lives. Realizing their lives were in a rut, in 2014 they decided to do something wild, putting away all of their possessions into storage, postponing their planned wedding, and setting off on a journey to tour Europe in their camper van. It was supposed to be the two of them on the adventure of a lifetime, but dark days were ahead.
The trip started out well enough. For the first few years of their planned 6-year trip, the couple drove around to various exotic locales, along the way living the simple life and cycling, hiking, and mountain climbing. In the autumn of 2020, they were staying at a remote farmhouse in the village of Arreau, in the Gascony area of France at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. At this point, Esther decided that she wanted to do some travelling on her own, and so while Dan stayed behind at the farmhouse she went off on what was to be a month-long solo excursion. This was supposed to be her last big hike and adventure before the two were to head back home and their trip was to come to an end, but Dan had no clue that it literally was to be her last hike, and that she was about to keep on hiking right off the face of the Earth.
Esther arrived in the camper van at the village of Benasque, in Spain, on November 15, 2020, from where she began her trek into the Pyrenees. On November 17 she was seen at the Angel Orus Refuge at an altitude of 7,000 feet, and at the time she would be later described as being in good spirits and excited about the hike. She would contact Dan on November 22 from the top of Pic de Sauvegarde via the application WhatsApp, sending a photo and saying that she planned to walk eight miles between Port de la Gléré and Port de Venasque before hiking down the mountains into Refuge Vénasque, in France, where she would spend the evening. This was the last time Dan would hear from her. When he went to their prearranged rendezvous on November 25, she was nowhere to be seen and authorities were notified.
They soon found the abandoned camper, but at the time there wasn’t yet too much worry, as Esther was described as very physically fit and an avid outdoorsman and seasoned hiker, and additionally the weather had been sunny and clear, with only very light snow. She knew how to survive out in the wilderness and it was surmised that she had perhaps just gotten sidetracked or was taking longer to reach her destination than expected, but as the days went by with no further word from the woman the search became more urgent. Mountain rescue teams used search dogs, helicopters and drones to scour the area but there were no signs of her, and no sign that she had ever reached her stated destination. In the meantime, there were some new leads pursued. Police believe that the last people to have seen her was a man named Marti Vigo del Arco and his girlfriend, who reported that they had passed her going up Pic de Sauvegarde on their own descent shortly before she had her last contact with Dan. They explained that the woman had been very heavily loaded with a backpack and had asked them for some fruit, but this was ultimately a lead that led nowhere.
Another potential lead was that it would turn out that Esther had left a Facebook post on November 19th that mentioned her hike that day being postponed due to heavy snow, also making mention that an unnamed man was giving her a lift down the mountain to the camper, and authorities immediately began tracking this mystery man down, believing him to be a crucial piece of the puzzle, but there was no way to tell who he was and he was never identified. Another clue came with a man named Jose Antonio Ballarin, who on November 21, the day before she vanished, gave her a lift to the footpath leading up the mountain she was last seen on. However, according to Ballarin, she told him about her planned route, and it was much different than what she had told everyone else and the one police believed she had taken. While it was thought that her plan was to take a circular from Port de la Glere to Port de Venasque via Pico Salvaguardia in Spain, her conversation with Ballarin suggested that she was actually planning to cross the Pyrenees into France to the town of Bagneres de Luchon. What this basically means is that if what she told Ballarin was correct, then it means that her route had drastically changed and that search teams were looking in the wrong place. But why would she do this? No one knows. Ballarin himself would lament:
It’s terrible to think I was one of the last people to see her alive. But when I look back, I don’t think she was doing anything foolhardy. She seemed perfectly happy. There was nothing that made me worry for her. She was just a capable young woman heading up into the mountains for a few days of adventure. She seemed like a sensible young woman. I dropped her off and that was the last I saw of her. It was only a couple of days later that I found out there was a person missing and it was the woman I had given a lift to. The police spoke to me and I gave them the same information. It’s horrible to think something bad has happened to her. I just hope she’s in some French city and just hasn’t got in touch for a reason because if she’s still in the mountains, I can’t see how she would have survived.
Authorities rethought their search operations and combed several alternative routes, but they still found no trace of Esther and began to suspect that she was no longer in the area or in the mountains at all. One idea was that she had decided to willingly leave her life behind, leaving that last message to Dan and her stated route as a diversion to cover her flight off to her new future. It came to the attention of authorities that there were hints that Esther was perhaps not happy about the idea of going back to her old life after her 6-year trip around Europe, and that her and Dan had been having problems. Some clues to this possibility is that CCTV footage of the woman before her disappearance showed her looking thoughtful and sad, and there is also the fact that if her cell phone had been turned on her location could have been triangulated through cell towers, but it was off, either broken, out of batteries, or intentionally switched off. A representative of Dan Colgate has denied the possibility that she ran away, saying:
This is totally out of character, in every way. Also, Esther has no motive or means to do so. She hasn’t accessed any funds. There were no large cash withdrawals in the weeks leading up to her trip. Finally, she was already doing her own thing as part of her usual relationship with Dan. She didn’t need to vanish to get time to herself.
Another idea is that Esther simply is simply a tragic case of death by misadventure. She may have fallen through a frozen lake or gotten lost in the wilderness to die, but she was a very experienced hiker with plenty of supplies. It also seems odd that her body wouldn’t be found and that she should have a problem in the pleasant weather she was having when she disappeared. Colgate doesn’t believe that she got lost or died out in the wilderness, and has said of this:
Taking into account Esther’s high level of experience, the nature of the terrain, the good weather she would have had, the fact she had a clearly defined route for Sunday evening and Monday, and various other factors, both search coordinators have essentially told me that the prevailing opinion in the search teams is that she isn’t there. If she had fallen from one of the paths, they really would have expected to find her given the intensity, the closeness of the search and the fact most of the trails are really quite straightforward across open ground. She had successfully gone up and down the same peak the previous day. If she had found it hard, she wouldn’t have gone back alone. Esther is adventurous but not a gratuitous risk-taker. A happy, experienced, well-equipped and fit young woman went missing in an area with clear paths and mostly open terrain. An intensive search found no sign of her, or any of her equipment. It is as though she vanished into thin air.
Of course, there is also the dark specter of foul play hanging over all of this. After all, this was a young woman on her own in a foreign land in rugged, remote surroundings, so it is not too hard to imagine she might be targeted by nefarious parties who either murdered her or kidnapped her, or she may have been accidentally shot by a hunter. At the time the region was in lockdown due to Covid-19, and so no one was technically allowed to travel more than one kilometer from their home, but this means little. Dan Colgate has said of this:
That doesn’t mean that nobody could have been up there, and that somebody who was breaking the rules didn’t see an opportunity when encountering a lone female hiker. In such a mountainous location, there is no practical way to police anybody choosing to ignore the Covid restrictions. Given that the intensive search found no trace of her, this is why the criminal investigation is absolutely necessary. With the additional knowledge that nobody else should be nearby and so close to a road, an individual with a weapon could feasibly force somebody back to their vehicle. I believe that somebody else has been involved in Esther’s disappearance and against her will. This is a terrifying prospect and I wish I could believe otherwise, but I cannot.
So what happened to Esther Dingley? Where did she go? How could she so completely disappear without a trace like this without any real clues or leads? Was this just the terrain that overcame her, or was it foul play, a desire to get away, or something else? It seems as if the wilderness just took her and whisked her away, and for now we are without any answers, her case remains cold, and only she knows what really happened out there.