Police investigating the disappearance of British blogger Esther Dingley in the Pyrenees are seeking a man who gave the solo hiker a lift, it was revealed last night.
Spanish and French authorities believe the unknown individual could prove crucial in tracking down the 37-year-old from Durham, who was reported missing over a week ago.
Search teams have been scouring hiking trails in the mountainous border region but have found no trace of her despite using drones, helicopters and dogs.
Her partner Dan Colegate, who first reported Ms Dingley missing on November 24, said investigators are now considering ‘options beyond an accident’.
On November 22 the Oxford graduate sent Mr Colegate a selfie from the 8,983ft Pic de Sauve-garde mountain.
Three days before, she had said on Facebook that bad weather had scuppered her original plan and she was forced to accept a car ride from a man.
Esther Dingley, 37, was hiking the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain when she vanished last week
An investigative source in Spain told the Sun: ‘This man would have had conversations with her… It is imperative we find him.’
It is unclear exactly what rescuers now believe happened to Ms Dingley, since her car was found abandoned in the Spanish town of Benasque, from where she had set out on the final leg of a month-long solo hiking adventure on November 21.
Investigators now believe the reason they cannot find her is because she is no longer in the mountains and have listed her as a ‘missing person’ case across the whole of Spain.
Mr Colegate revealed the new information on a joint Facebook page where the couple have documented six years of their nomadic travels across Europe.
He penned the post just hours before snowy weather hit the Pyrenees, which rescuers believe will be the start of the winter snow dump, making search efforts much more difficult.
He wrote: ‘With no result day after day, 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 although they can never be 100% sure, the prevailing opinion in the search teams is that she isn’t there.
‘That 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.
‘As things stand tonight, Esther is now listed as a national missing persons case in Spain and the case has been passed to a specialised judicial unit in France.
‘This means they will be looking at other options beyond a mountain accident.
‘While this is a terrifying development in many ways, I’m trying to focus on the fact that it leaves the door open that Esther might still come home.
‘She was so utterly happy and joyful when we last spoke, I’d do anything to see her face and hold her right now.’
Dan Colegate, the British partner of missing hiker Esther Dingley, was searching for her alone in the Pyrenees last night
After a week of searches Dan said search teams have concluded that the reason they cannot find Esther in the mountains is because she is no longer there (couple pictured together)
Her plan had been to hike from the town to Pic de Sauvegarde, a mountaintop in the Pyrenees, which she reached on November 22 – sending Mr Colegate a picture via WhatsApp, which was their last contact.
From there she planned to walk between Port de la Gléré and Port de Venasque – a route of some eight miles – before hiking down from the mountains on Wednesday.
But after two days without contact, Mr Colegate reported Ms Dingley missing on November 24, just a day before her trip was due to end, sparking a massive manhunt.
Faced with encroaching bad weather, Spanish police had broadened the search on Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt at finding Ms Dingley.
Meanwhile French police said they were using phone records to try and hone in on her last known position, due to the ‘excellent’ signal in the mountains.
Several phone masts are located in the remote spot, meaning her phone would have ‘pinged’ signal off them for as long as it was turned on.
‘There are excellent communications and there is no reason why the last known position of the phone when it went off cannot be found,’ French investigators said.
Footage released on Tuesday shows the helicopter crossing rocky outcrops and icy peaks on the border between Spain and France.
On Saturday, Mr Colegate said 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 Monday, he added in a new post on social media: ‘ I just wanted to write a short thank you for all the support and messages that have arrived in the past few days.
‘I want to write a more complete update soon, but as of now there is still no sign of Esther anywhere in the area she was intending to explore, despite extensive searching from both sides of the border.
‘I am going to do some more walking myself now before the sun goes down.’
The 37-year-old from Durham was on a month-long solo trip and was supposed to return on Wednesday
At one point in the Spanish police film, the helicopter hovers over a lone woman on a hillside while an officer, using a microphone, asks her: ‘Are you Esther?’
The woman shakes her head as if to say no. Then the officer asks if she is Spanish and she nods in agreement before the helicopter flies away.
A spokesman for Spain’s Civil Guard said: ‘We have broadened the search to nearby hills and the search party has increased. We are not only using mountain rescue personnel but also all members of the environmental team who are available in the Huesca area. We continue to keep an open mind about where Ms Dingley might be now.’
French police sent a search team of sixteen people up the mountain on Monday along with national police experts.
On his Facebook page, Mr Colegate’s father, Mick, said: ‘We’ve spoken son and you know that I will be on the first available flight when you come down from the mountains ..you don’t have to be strong and face this all alone…love you son.’
Ms Dingley started walking from Benasque, Spain, on November 21. French police said all trace of her was lost at 4pm on Sunday, November 22. No more phone messages were received after then.
Spanish authorities were alerted on November 25 of her disappearance and alerted their French counterparts the following morning. They found her vehicle on the Spanish side of the border.
Miss Dingley was a yoga enthusiast who had been a private trainer before giving up her career to travel around Europe
The paths she was taking were marked, well-indicated on maps and pretty well-frequented in normal times, French police said.
Several witnesses saw her on the Spanish side on Sunday and spoke to her.
There is an unmarked refuge just over the French border but police said there was no sign that it had been used.
A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said: ‘Our staff are supporting the family of a British woman reported missing in the Pyrenees.’