A massive search for a hiker who has been missing for a week in the Holy Cross Wilderness was suspended Saturday after about 200 searchers failed to find the 35-year-old Lakewood woman.
Bob Davis, a family friend, thanked the search and rescue teams who have looked for Vanek for the past eight days.
"For Michelle we give our thanks for the support you have extended our families during this rescue mission. When our faith was challenged, you were there," he said. "This has been a vast outpouring of human kindness. We are overwhelmed by the numbers of volunteers, their compassion and commitment. It renews our faith in humanity. We arrived as strangers and now have any new friends, and we are thankful there were no volunteer injuries."
"Michelle's loss can not be replaced but you have assisted us in maintaining our faith. We are positive that Michelle's spirit remain in our hearts and the Vail valley. She is a mother, wife, daughter, sister and best friend. She now walks with God."
Vanek, a mother of four, was last seen last Saturday when she stopped to rest while her hiking companion continued to the peak of the 14,005-feet summit. She was gone when he returned.
Search leader Tim Cochrane said early Saturday that Vanek, who was already tired and thirsty when she went missing, might have followed a snowfield away from the trail and toward the Half Moon Campground, where her friend had parked his car. Cochrane said it appears to be a good way out but it contains a 60-foot drop and dead-end ledges.
The area also is covered by tall pine trees, which would block the view of search and rescue helicopters.
"Unless we have some clue, if she did fall there, I don't know how we're going to find her," said Cochrane, a member of the Vail Mountain Rescue Group. "There's no clue to indicate which direction she went."
Five search dogs brought to the place Vanek was last seen have not been able to find anything, he said.
Bill Kaufman, spokesman for the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, said 100 search and rescue team members and 100 volunteers participated in the search Saturday. They began heading out before dawn to fan out over the Mount of the Holy Cross in one of the largest searches of its kind in Colorado.
"I think it's unprecedented to have 200 searchers on one mountain," Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the trained rescue teams focused on the boulder fields above tree line, which are strewn with rocks the size of cars and refrigerators.
"They're literally doing an arm-to-arm, fingertip-to-fingertip search. There are a tremendous amount of nooks and crannies where people could look for shelter. There is a tremendous area to cover," he said.
He said the volunteers divided into small groups of about 10 each and team leaders were given radios to keep in touch. The volunteers also searched forested areas below tree line.
They had asked anyone planning to make a trip to the Mount Holy Cross Wilderness to avoid the area so that search crews can continue to focus on the job.
Cochrane believed Vanek may have suffered from altitude sickness, a condition which leaves victims dehydrated and can impair their judgment and rescuers felt that whereever she was, she was not able to move on her own.
"I would think at this point that Michelle is not mobile and not responsive, due to the fact that we've had so many people in the area," said Cochrane. "We have not seen any tracks and we've had not any response to our calling and our whistles."
Even though she had been missing a week and had endured nights with snow and sub-freezing temperatures, rescuers were buoyed by reports that Vanek had some food, and was wearing a hat, gloves and a jacket when she was last seen.
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