Authorities were planning this morning to remove the body thought to be missing skier Jeff Walker from of an out-of-bounds area in Highland Bowl, where a snowboarder discovered him on Wednesday afternoon.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said a team of personnel, investigators and Highlands ski patrol were planning to assemble at 7 a.m. today to begin the recovery effort.
The sheriff’s office and ski patrol determined that it was too late in the day and conditions were not safe to remove the body on Wednesday evening.
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle confirmed a snowboarder found a dead body in what’s known as the “grey zones,” beyond the Northwoods portion of the bowl and an area called Child’s Play. The snowboarder reported the body to Highlands ski patrol around 4 p.m. Patrollers went to the area, confirmed that a body was there, took photographs and called the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
The deceased man was wearing a blue jacket, which was what Walker was described as wearing when he was last seen hiking the bowl on Thursday, March 7 — exactly two weeks ago.
“Although we cannot positively identify him, it appears to be Jeff,” Hanle said. “It appears that it was a collision with a tree.”
Walker, 55, was last seen hiking Highland Bowl by a snow-cat driver on the afternoon of March 7. His ski pass was used last at the Exhibition chairlift at the base of Highlands at 12:04 p.m. that day. On March 9, Walker’s friends reported him missing, and his street clothes, wallet and cell phone were found in a day locker he uses near Aspen’s gondola plaza. Walker, a wine consultant and former sommelier at a local high-end restaurant, was known to hike Highland Bowl almost daily.
Hundreds of community members and patrollers from SkiCo’s four mountains spent most of last week searching the mountain, placing green ribbons on trees where wells were searched to indicate he was not found in those areas.
Hanle said the terrain in and around the bowl had been previously searched, however this vast section where the body was located had not had a ground search by ski patrol. Rescue personnel did fly over the area but nothing was discovered.
“Our thoughts have been with Jeff’s family and friends throughout this time and although the outcome is not yet confirmed, they remain in our in our prayers,” Hanle said.
Walker’s family, including his mother and sister who live out of town, along with his girlfriend, Liz Sathe, who lives on the Front Range, had been in Aspen all of last week during the height of the search but left a few days ago. They spent most of their time at the base of Highlands waiting for news and praying.
Sathe said earlier this week that she and family members had resigned themselves to the fact that Walker probably died on the mountain.
“There was a lot of momentum last week,” Sathe said Tuesday. “We didn’t think it was going to go on this long. ... I am confident we’ll have closure. I know we will get it.”
Sathe said Walker was the love of her life and she misses him.
“He is totally going to be missed by the community,” she said on Tuesday.
Walker’s friends were continuing to search for him in the bowl and on the mountain. Highlands ski patrol director Mac Smith said earlier this week that patrollers were still actively looking for Walker during their normal daily duties.
The sheriff’s office and Mountain Rescue Aspen spent Monday, March 11, searching Highlands with no signs of Walker and suspended the search. Rescue personnel resumed the search on Thursday, March 14, based on information from the family, who had brought in the assistance of psychics. Family members and rescue personnel also searched the ski area and the vicinity via helicopter and by car in the Maroon Creek Valley using a scope looking for disturbances in the snow.
On Wednesday, March 13, Walker’s younger brother Buzz created a campaign online where people could donate money that will help fund the search efforts. Within a day, donations surpassed the campaign’s $10,000 goal and by Thursday evening more than 120 people had collectively donated just over $18,000 to the cause. The donations are expected to go toward the expenses of the search.
The sheriff’s office was treating Walker’s disappearance as a missing person’s case and looking into his life, including bank account activity and other personal information.