The body thought to be that of missing skier Jeff Walker, which was found late Wednesday in an out-of-bounds area of Highland Bowl, had injuries consistent with a gunshot wound, according to a Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office statement released on Thursday.
The body of a male skier was recovered Thursday morning from a spot known as the Grey Zones, skier’s right of the Northwoods portion of the bowl, near an area called Child’s Play. Investigators found a firearm near the body. The recovery was a joint effort between the sheriff’s office, Highlands ski patrol and the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office. The recovery effort took more than three hours and included a sheriff’s investigator, a coroner and several ski patrollers, according to Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.
The cause of death, manner of death and the identity of the deceased skier will not be released by the coroner’s office until after an autopsy is completed, which may be today.
A snowboarder independently searching for Walker discovered the body on Wednesday afternoon and reported it to Highlands ski patrol around 4 p.m., according to a sheriff’s office press release. At the time, 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 that evening. Recovery efforts were launched Thursday at 7 a.m.
The unidentified snowboarder came upon the body, which had clothing consistent with Walker’s, including a blue ski jacket, black pants and green ski boots. The snowboarder found a backpack near the body in the snow and hung it in a tree to mark the area, which was in steep and tree-dense terrain.
“There was a backpack nearby in a tree that was put there by the snowboarder to make it easier for investigators to find the location, which turned out to be a good thing because of today’s weather,” DiSalvo said about Thursday’s blizzard-like conditions.
DiSalvo said he notified Walker’s mother of the discovery on Wednesday evening. Family members, who live out of town, are expected to travel to Aspen in the next day or two. A local memorial service is being planned.
The body is suspected to be Walker, a longtime local and wine consultant who has been missing since March 7. He was last seen that day hiking Highland Bowl in the afternoon. In the two weeks since, a communitywide search effort had been launched in an attempt to find him, drawing hundreds of volunteers, local law enforcement and rescue personnel.
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle thanked everyone within the company and in the community for their extraordinary efforts during the search.
“This was a tragic incident and our thoughts and prayers are with Jeff’s family and friends,” Hanle said.
Map courtesy of Google earth
The yellow arrow on the above map marks the approximate location where a body was recovered on Thursday morning adjacent to the Highland Bowl. This section of the mountain is within the U.S. Forest Service permit area for Aspen Highlands, but located in a permanently closed area outside of skiable terrain.
After days with no new leads on his location, a group called “Tie one on for Jeff Walker,” was created on the social-media site Facebook that asked its members to search tree wells and tie a piece of florescent-green tape to the trees which had been searched. His family also raised over $18,000 through an online effort, which will go toward search efforts.
Ski patrol and MRA sent a team in to search for Walker in the Grey Zones, but nothing was discovered. That likely is due to the expansiveness of the area, the amount of snow that had fallen in the days after his disappearance and the fact that rescue personnel had no reason to focus their efforts on the specific area near Child’s Play, which is relatively far from the ski area boundary, said Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Alex Burchetta.
Generally, search and rescue teams base their efforts on areas where a person would likely be, Burchetta said. Based on interviews with friends and family, officials learned that Walker didn’t regularly ski out-of-bounds terrain so they focused the search within the ski area, Burchetta said.
On Thursday afternoon, comments on the Facebook group page, which grew to 575 members, offered condolences on Walker’s assumed passing.
If he did take his own life, Walker deserves an Academy Award because he was a classic example of a person who is happy, said Mike Smith, a friend of Walker who has known him for 20 years.
“There was never a moment that we weren’t smiling with him,” Smith said. “He was one of the best additions to our life.”
Smith was with Walker the night before he disappeared, having dinner at Elevation with a group of friends. They drank fine bottles of wine, ate a great dinner and everyone was smiling, Smith said. It’s weird to think he would take his life the next day, he said.
“We just had the best night at Elevation,” Smith said with a pause. “How does your mind change that quickly?”
Smith could have imagined all of the other possibilities explaining Walker’s disappearance, like he hit a tree while skiing and still hadn’t been discovered or he left for another country, he said. Suicide, however, was not one of the options.
“I would say out of all of my friends, he is not the one I would think this would happen to,” Smith said.
Rob Mobilian, owner of Piñons and a friend of Walker’s, also was at dinner that Wednesday night. Walker appeared to be as happy as he’s ever been, Mobilian said.
“People who know him as much as I do know he was in a good place, not depressed and not in any kind of trouble,” Mobilian said. “You would know if somebody was feeling really weird or out of kilter.”
Walker’s friends are shocked about the possibility that he took his own life. Still, the official cause and circumstances of his death haven’t been determined yet and suicide might not be the case, he said.
“The way this whole thing has been playing out, who knows what’s going to come out,” Mobilian said.