MRA relaunches search efforts for missing local skier

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) is relaunching its search efforts today for longtime local Jeff Walker, who was last seen hiking the bowl a week ago.

MRA, a volunteer rescue nonprofit organization that serves as an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, suspended their search on Monday evening after nine members spent two days scouring the area alongside 16 ski patrollers, eight rescue dogs and over 100 community members. At the time, officials believed the parties sufficiently covered the area and MRA’s resources were no longer needed.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office decided on Wednesday night to send a team to check for signs of Walker in an out-of-bounds area below Olympic Bowl, said Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy Alex Burchetta.

Walker’s family members have focused their attention on the area after his friends went up Maroon Creek Road and used a scope to survey the area on Tuesday. The group noticed a minor disturbance in the snow and have since notified the authorities.

“It’s just one of the areas that [the family has] asked us to search so we’re doing it,” Burchetta said.

A team of MRA volunteers will meet at Highlands at 8:30 a.m. today and will use ropes to repel off the catwalk to search the area, Burchetta said.

Walker was last seen hiking Highland Bowl on Thursday afternoon by a snow-cat driver. His ski pass was last scanned at 12:04 p.m. that day on the Exhibition chairlift at Highlands. Friends became concerned on Saturday when they didn’t hear from Walker. They discovered his cell phone, street clothes and wallet were still in his ski locker near gondola plaza in Aspen.

Ski patrol spent Wednesday searching backcountry terrain bordering Aspen Highlands, dubbed the “grey zones,” said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. They primarily focused on areas located just outside the G-zones on Highland Bowl, he said.

Ski patrol also sent teams with rescue dogs down the trail called “No Name” in Olympic Bowl, as well as in the out-of-bound areas adjacent to the run, based on what Walker’s family told ski patrol, Hanle said. Those searches found no sign of Walker, he said.

Patrol will continue searching the grey zones on the edges of the bowl today, Hanle said.

“We’ll continue to do everything we can within reason,” he said.


 Contributed photo
Jeff Walker

Groups of self-directed volunteers also continue to show up looking for Walker within the ski boundary, Hanle added. Friend’s of Walker encourage volunteers to tie florescent green tape to trees where wells have been searched.

In the meantime, Walker’s family is trying every approach they can to find him. They have recruited a psychic to inspire searches of certain areas, and on Wednesday they hired their own helicopter carrying two experienced spotters to look for signs of him in the backcountry. No new information came from today’s helicopter search, Burchetta said.

On Wednesday, Walker’s family and close friends held hands in a circle at the base of Highlands and prayed that he would be found. Spirits were high and they were generally optimistic that the day’s search would produce results. The warm weather is encouraging because it will help melt snow that could be covering him on the mountain, said one member of the party, who requested not to be named.

As the sun set and the day’s search produced no new information on Walker’s location, his girlfriend Liz Sathe, gave a tear-filled thanks to the SkiCo and patrollers for their dedication.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we want people to know how grateful we are for the [Highlands] ski patrol,” Sathe said.

Under the leadership of Highlands ski area manager Kevin Hagerty and Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s vice president of mountain operations, the patrollers have been relentless in their search for Walker, she said.

“Their willingness and their teams have been so amazing,” Sathe said as she cried. “It’s moving beyond words. We know how disappointed they all are that they can’t find anything and I want them to know that we appreciate it.”

Walker’s younger brother Buzz created a campaign online where people can donate money that will help fund the family’s search efforts. The donations will reimburse them for the cost of renting a helicopter and traveling to Aspen, among other expenses, Buzz said in a video posted on the website.

Some of Walker’s family members traveled from Baltimore, Md. to join the search. By Wednesday afternoon, the campaign raised $1,045 of its $10,000 goal from nine separate donations. To donate visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/find-jeff-walker?c=home.


dorothy@aspendailynews.com