When they gave up their well-paid jobs and set off on their travels in a second-hand camper van, Esther Dingley and her boyfriend, Dan Colegate, told baffled friends and family members: ‘It’s a feeling we’re searching for.’
For the past six years, that unconventional quest has taken these two brilliant young Oxford graduates to the some of the most beautiful corners of Europe, to the peaks of the Dolomites and the Swiss Alps, as well as the slopes and summits of the Pyrenees.
It was here nearly two weeks ago that Esther, who rowed for Great Britain as a schoolgirl, vanished after setting off on a solo hiking adventure on the Spanish-French border.
As snow began to fall on Thursday, hampering the efforts of rescue teams searching for the super-fit 37-year-old in the area where she was last seen, her 38-year-old partner Dan and her family were still praying that she may yet be found alive. ‘It’s a very distressing time for everyone,’ says her aunt, Elizabeth Wolsey. ‘We have no idea what has happened to her.
‘Her father is distraught. We feel utterly helpless. It goes round and round in your head — where is she? — and yet there’s nothing you can do but wait for news.’
Despite daily searches conducted by both Spanish and French authorities over the past ten days, using dogs, helicopters and drones, there has been no sign of Esther. No response from her phone. No clues to her whereabouts.
When they gave up their well-paid jobs and set off on their travels in a camper van, Esther Dingley and her boyfriend Dan Colegate told loved ones: ‘It’s a feeling we’re searching for’
For the past six years, that unconventional quest has taken these two brilliant young Oxford graduates to the some of the most beautiful corners of Europe, to the peaks of the Dolomites and the Swiss Alps, as well as the slopes and summits of the Pyrenees. It was here nearly two weeks ago that Esther, who rowed for Great Britain as a schoolgirl, vanished after setting off on a solo hiking adventure on the Spanish-French border
More, in a moment, of her movements in the days before she vanished after reaching the 2,800ft summit of Pic de Sauvegarde on November 22 — not to mention the ongoing theories surrounding her disappearance. But with snow closing in on the mountains where she was last seen, rescuers from the Spanish Civil Guard say the ‘weather window’ is rapidly disappearing. The search has already been scaled back and may soon be called off entirely.
‘If it snows as forecast and the temperatures drop as we expect, we’ll have to stop the search until we have better idea of where we should be looking,’ says Sergeant Jorge Lopez Ramos, head of the mountain rescue team in the village of Benasque, where Esther was based in the days before her disappearance.
He added: ‘The snow will cover the mountain and it’s possible it won’t disappear until the spring. That means the search can’t resume with the same intensity until the spring.’
The situation is a torturous one, particularly for Esther’s partner, Dan Colegate, who has spoken of being ‘broken’ and ‘shattered’ that ‘my beloved Esther — the person who taught me how to feel — is missing.’
The last he or anyone heard from Esther was just before 4pm on Sunday, November 22, when she sent him a selfie taken at the top of the Pic de Sauvegarde on the Spanish side of the border. The image shows her beaming at the camera from a snow-capped peak with a sweeping mountain vista behind her.
Conditions were clear and there was still at least an hour-and-a-half of daylight left — plenty of time for the highly experienced hiker and trail runner to reach the mountain-side cabin where she was planning to spend the night. There is no evidence, however, that she ever got there.
According to Dan, Esther was well-prepared for what was meant to be the last walk after several weeks of solo hiking. Their last conversation had been about ‘how excited we were to see each other, as this was her last trip before driving back’.
Esther also spoke to her father, Henry, before setting off up the mountain, phoning to tell him of the preparations she had made.
‘She told him she was preparing for her last hike before heading home to Dan,’ says her aunt. ‘She’d got all the right clothes and equipment and she knew where she was going. She was looking forward to it.’
Esther set off on her solo adventure in early November, leaving Dan and the couple’s five dogs behind in the tiny French village of Arreau in the Haute-Pyrenees where they were house-sitting.
It was the second time in two years she’d headed up into the mountains alone. ‘When I do something like this it helps me not to feel scared about other things. I also feel less stressed about the urgency of things in my mind,’ she wrote.
Esther Dingley, 37, was hiking the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain when she vanished last week
Police are hunting for a mystery man who had a chance meeting with Briton Esther Dingley at the top of a Pyrenees mountain three days before she vanished, and took this picture
Was this ‘the feeling’ to which she and Dan referred when they rented out their Durham flat and set off on their adventures in 2014?
On the morning of November 22, several hours before Esther sent her final message to Dan, the couple featured in a BBC regional news article from Tyne & Wear. Esther said that beneath the surface of their former conventional lives in the UK, both had felt hollow inside, like ‘zombies sleepwalking through life’.
She added: ‘We were always just chasing the next objective, always chasing something bigger so we could do something in the future.’
It was a theme Dan mentioned in the 2019 book he wrote about their hiking adventures, Turn Left At Mont Blanc: ‘Esther and I had always done our best to be high-fliers, scrambling up the ladder of success’.
They met at Wadham College, Oxford, in 2001. Dan was a second-year chemistry student when Esther arrived to study Economics and Management.
The granddaughter of World War II hero Warwick Dingley, who was awarded the Military Cross for his service in Italy, she had been born in Amsterdam to a Dutch mother and British businessman father.
Following her parents’ divorce, Esther and her mother moved to the Buckinghamshire village of Stone. She was a boarder at £36,000-a-year Headington School in Oxfordshire, where her skills as a rower saw her representing Great Britain in the Junior European Cup.
Both she and Dan left Oxford with first-class degrees, and went on to study at Durham University, where Dan gained a PhD and Esther a Masters, before taking up research jobs at Cambridge. Then they left academia to start their own venture capital-backed business. They also dabbled in the property market, borrowing heavily from the bank.
Dan Colegate, the British partner of missing hiker Esther Dingley, was searching for her alone in the Pyrenees earlier this week
Police involved in the search warned that Esther could have fallen or she could be sick as the snow fall has made the search harder
But with all their earnings eaten up by debt, the venture folded. Esther set up a personal training business and Dan found work as a business development manager. But, as Dan puts it, they were experiencing ‘disillusion verging on depression.’
By the beginning of 2014, Dan was receiving counselling for depression while Esther had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, sparked by her own mental health struggles.
After Dan suffered a near-death experience they re-evaluated their lives again. Having suffered bowel problems since childhood, he underwent what should have been routine surgery to fix a hernia but while in hospital developed necrotising fasciitis which became so serious that Esther was advised to say goodbye.
As she put it: ‘It was time for us to think again about our lives.’
Over the past six years, the couple’s adventures have taken them hiking or cycling across the Alps in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria.
At the end of October, Esther embarked on a month-long solo adventure. She told the BBC she and Dan had decided to spend a few weeks apart, with Dan staying with the dogs in Gascony while she went off in the camper van.
‘We realised that during the coronavirus we had not been apart for a year so decided to each just do our own thing for a bit. This whole thing has been really good for us; we are genuinely happy now,’ she said.
Over the past month, she completed several solo hikes, some of them day trips. At other times she camped overnight either in her tent or in mountainside cabins, posting photographs of the breathtaking scenery she saw each day.
The arduous hikes she undertook were well within her capability. A keen athlete, in April this year she raised more than £4,700 for NHS Charities Together by cycling a 36-hour marathon.
She carried all the equipment necessary for winter mountain walking: ‘I love being a snail,’ she wrote on Instagram on November 17. She added: ‘I love carrying everything I need with me on my back. It gives me confidence and freedom . . . because I know I have everything I need to survive with me.’
Mr Colegate (pictured), Esther’s partner of 18 years, has given statements to police in Spain and France as they hunt for the hiker
On that occasion, she turned back from her planned route because the snow was too deep. A couple of days later, on November 19, bad weather forced her to abort an overnight trip. She returned down the mountain with a fellow hiker who gave her a lift back to Benasque, where her camper van was parked. Two days later, she headed back to the 2,800ft summit of Pic de Sauvegarde. ‘I’m in heaven,’ she wrote on Instagram on November 21.
The selfie she sent to Dan the following afternoon was the last time she made contact. She was due to return to Gascony last Wednesday, and when she failed to make contact Dan raised the alarm. Head of the Civil Guard mountain rescue Sergeant Ramos says their failure to find her is baffling given that visibility has been good and that the terrain is largely open. The route she was following is well-used by families in summer. According to experts, there are not many places where it’s possible to fall more than a few metres.
Sergeant Ramos said his team has also searched areas off the main routes and small crevices and cavities in the rock face.
Attempts have also been made to pinpoint Esther’s location via her mobile phone — not an easy task given that there is no signal in parts of the mountain and the masts to which her phone would have connected as she walked are thousands of metres apart.
‘You’re left with a bitter taste in your mouth when so much work has gone into a search that’s had no result,’ says Sergeant Ramos.
Pierre Gaillard, deputy commander of the French high-mountain gendarmerie platoon, says the last time Esther’s phone was active was when she called Dan just before 4pm on November 22. ‘There is no data use or GPS trace since then,’ he adds.
While the possibility that Esther is still on the mountain remains the most likely scenario, a police investigation has been launched. Officers will reveal nothing except that all options are being considered. Theories abound.
Five days before she vanished, Esther posted pictures on Facebook of a large animal print in the snow. Brown bears are known to inhabit the Pyrenees and, although they are said to be frightened of humans, it’s another possible line of inquiry. Police are also seeking to speak to the man Esther met at the peak of the mountain three days before she disappeared.
She mentioned him in a Facebook post on November 19, saying they’d hiked down together and he’d given her a lift back to her van. Police believe he may hold vital clues about what plans she might have had.
Back in 2014, when Dan was seriously ill, Esther spoke of how the fear of losing him had changed her outlook on life: ‘All of a sudden, someone says the person I love and was planning to do it all with could be gone by the morning.’
Last May, Dan reflected on what she must have gone through. ‘I never really appreciated how hard it was for her to go home alone, to an apartment full of our shared life with no guarantee that life would resume,’ he said. ‘It takes strength to be the one left behind.’
How tragically prescient those words seem now.
‘I need her back. I can’t face the alternative,’ he wrote on Facebook page on November 28, when Esther had been missing for four days.
Their nomadic life is one that many dream of, but few dare to attempt. But Esther’s disappearance has turned their hard-won happiness on its head.
Until she is found, there is no end in sight for her partner and family as they face an agonising wait for news of the woman they love.