The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and rescue personnel have suspended their search efforts for longtime local Jeff Walker after a thorough sweep of Highlands Ski Area produced no results on Monday.
At least 72 community members joined 16 ski patrollers, eight rescue dogs and nine Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) volunteers in an attempt to find Walker, who was last seen by a snowcat driver on Thursday afternoon hiking Highland Bowl.
The search team also tried to find him using a Recco Rescue System, which can pinpoint a person trapped under snow using an electronic signal. Officials believed that Walker had the technology in his jacket. On Monday afternoon, they used a helicopter, equipped with a Recco detector, to perform an aerial search of the area, but the effort produced no new information, according to Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy Alex Burchetta.
Since Thursday, Aspen Skiing Co. has recorded close to 10,000 skier visits on Highlands. With the number of daily visitors combined with the amount of people who searched for Walker on Monday, authorities believe they have sufficiently covered the area, Burchetta said.
The sheriff’s office will continue its investigation into Walker’s disappearance and focus on finding clues to where he could be, Burchetta said. Law enforcement searched Walker’s Hunter Creek apartment on Monday but Burchetta declined to comment on what was found because it’s an ongoing investigation.
“The search is by no means called off,” Burchetta said. “It’s just suspended.”
Highlands Ski Patrol will continue looking for Walker, Burchetta said.
“[Ski patrol] just doesn’t feel like they need to have the sheriff’s office or MRA’s resources to do that,” Burchetta said.
Walker’s friends notified local authorities of his disappearance on Saturday night, and a search was launched the following day. Walker’s ski pass was last scanned at the Exhibition chairlift on Thursday at 12:04 p.m. and his cell phone, wallet and street clothes were found in his ski locker near the gondola at Aspen Mountain. Walker is known to gear up there and take the bus from Rubey Park to Highlands where he regularly skis the bowl.
Early morning search
On Monday at 9:15 a.m., about 30 people stood quietly at the top of the Loge Peak chairlift waiting to be directed by the Highlands Ski Patrol. As latecomers joined the group, they were met with hugs and silent waves from others. Most came with friends and many knew each other.
Ski patrol director Mac Smith divided the public into groups and gave them specific runs to sweep between the top of the Loge Peak chairlift and mid-mountain.
About 70 percent of the mountain was covered during Sunday’s search, Smith told the group of volunteers. On Monday, the job was to check the rest of the area by combing through gladed terrain. Smith asked all volunteers to go slowly and methodically through their assigned sections looking for any signs of Walker and asked that no one disturb the scene if he was found.
After each lap, the teams reported back to ski patrol before they were assigned another run. In the meantime, ski patrollers and MRA searched Highland Bowl. Among those searching included Ute City restaurant owner Walt Harris, Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch and Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan.
Throughout the day, volunteers came and went, some taking a single lap while others stuck it out for the whole day. One group of locals spent four hours sweeping areas in Deep Temerity and Olympic Bowl.
After one lap, local resident Jeff Halferty, who has been friends with Walker for over 20 years, recalled how he met him through Widespread Panic shows and “just hanging out in Aspen.” Another volunteer, Jesse Bouchard, manager at the Hub of Aspen bike shop, said he doesn’t know Walker, but his friends do so he thought he’d join the effort.
By noon, a pair of snowboarders, Briana Von Ohlen and her husband Kevin, had made four laps sweeping steep and deep terrain. During a break between sweeps, the couple recalled stories about his youthfulness. Walker is 55 years old but he looks more like 40 and he acts like he’s 30, Briana said. That’s probably because he is so active, she said. He’s known to hike the bowl in the winter and Smuggler Mountain in the summer, she added.
Conversation went quiet as the pair remembered what the task of the day was.
“I can’t believe we’re up here looking for Jeff,” Kevin said with a pause. “... But he’d do the same for me.”
After the public search officially ended, a group of Walker’s friends, many with tear-stained faces, sat at the base of Highlands waiting for word from authorities about what to do next. As a friendly gesture, one person passed out martini stir sticks, which Walker is known to hoard and love. Walker is known in the community as a wine expert and his involvement with area restaurants.
Shawn Gallus, who has known Walker for about nine years, brought his binoculars to help him look for signs of his friend in the snow. Sometimes it’s difficult to see things that are right in front of you, so the binoculars help, he said as he looked up at the mountain.
Gallus was generally soft spoken, admitting that it was a difficult topic for him to discuss. He was surprised that the rescue dogs didn’t find Walker in the bowl, Gallus said. Walker is conservative enough of a skier that he wouldn’t have ventured in the backcountry by himself and it makes sense that he would be in the bowl, he said.
“I just want to know where he is,” he said.
Gallus said he was pleased that so many locals came out to help search.
Most people who are friends with Walker said they weren’t surprised to see such strong support from the community because he is well known and much loved.
His family, some of whom traveled from Baltimore, Md., waited at the Out of Bounds restaurant and bar at the base of the ski area for news. An immediate family member, who asked not to be named, said that they feel blessed by the outpouring of support the Aspen community has given in trying to find Walker.
“We feel the love,” she said.
The sheriff’s office asks that people looking for Walker on the mountain stay in bounds, search in pairs and be careful, Burchetta said.
“As much as we want to find something we don’t want anyone to get hurt doing it,” Burchetta said. “So we stress safety.”
The public is encouraged to contact the Aspen Highlands ski patrol directly at 544-3052 with any information generated from searches taking place within the boundaries of Aspen Highlands. Any general tips about Walker’s location can be given to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office at 920-5300.