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9/26/2013 Sheriff: Ongoing mission may end up as a recovery

While authorities remain hopeful, they are expecting the worse in the case of a hiker lost in the Sangre de Cristos for nearly a week.

The unidentified 36-year-old Denver man left his home on Tuesday, Sept. 17 and was expected to return on the 21st. Search and Rescue crews began looking for the man midday Sunday as soon as he was reported missing, but Sheriff Fred Jobe said the mission could now be a recovery rather than a rescue.

"Mountains really don’t care," said search and rescue volunteer Gary Stamm.

Stamm and a dozen other volunteers suited up on Tuesday to look for the man who was believed to be in the Crestone Needle area. The search started mid-day Sunday when

Snowstorms over the last few days have made search attempts dangerous.

"The mountains are what we’re fighting against," Stamm said. "Weather is making it worse for everyone."

Several teams have joined Custer County Search and Rescue. Expert ground pounders have been sent in from Summit, El Paso, Fremont, and Douglas counties.

"We are searching the whole Crestone mountain range," said Search and Rescue’s public information officer Ray Varney. "The search and rescue workforce who are here are experienced high altitude rescuers. We have the best from the counties that are helping."

The hiker’s vehicle was found at a parking area, but search and rescue have not been able to discover a tent or other evidence that points toward which direction he went.

"He is an experienced hiker," Varney said. "He’s climbed 13 of the state’s 14ers."

The man left Denver without telling his family where he was specifically going. He also went alone.

"Today is the big push," said incident commander John Peleaux on Tuesday, September 24. "It’s the second day that we’ve got the Blackhawk helicopter and we’re using it to get several teams up on top."

The Army National Guard is aiding the search, providing the Blackhawk for transportation and air support. It has supplied four personnel to assist.

"We are very thankful for their help," Peleaux said. "They are experts and we have too few people."

The weather on top of the Crestone mountain range is reportedly solid snow and ice. Sheriff Jobe stated that conditions are treacherous for the search and rescue teams.

"The situation with the ice," Sheriff Jobe worried, "limits what they are doing. If they don’t find him on Tuesday, they will scale it back and go in later when some of the snow melts."

Varney stated that the weather is expected to deteriorate by the end of the week, starting on Friday, September 27.

"We don’t know if he’s injured," Varney said. "He could be hunkered down, or he might have even come out on the other side. We just don’t know. It is up to the sheriff to determine how long the search goes on."

Family members have come to Westcliffe, and Peleaux hopes to bring them closure no matter what the news may be at the end.

- J.E. Ward