Searchers checking 'pretty hairy' areas of Holy Cross Wilderness for missing Chicago hiker

James Nelson reportedly intended to climb Mount of the Holy Cross but never signed summit register

By David O. Williams
Real AspenOctober 11, 2010
Forty-eight people from five different search and rescue groups led by Vail Mountain Rescue are scouring the Holy Cross Wilderness Area for missing Chicago hiker James Nelson this afternoon.

Eagle County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly said around 12:30 p.m. that there still was no sign of the 31-year-old Nelson, who began hiking a circuitous 25-mile route in and around the Vail Valley's highest peak on Oct. 3.
Missing hiker James Nelson of Chicago.
Courtesy of the Eagle County Sheriff's Office
Nelson was hiking alone but well equipped, although he has no cell phone. His fiancé reported him missing Friday evening, and Vail Mountain Rescue Group began searching for him on Saturday just as a cold front moved through the area. A few inches of fresh snow fell at higher elevations over the weekend, but the weather today has been sunny and clear, with temperatures on the valley floors in the low 50s. Nighttime temperatures will dip below freezing at higher elevations.

Cordingly said the summit of 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross – Eagle County's only “fourteener” – was on Nelson's proposed route, but his name was not signed on the summit register.

She said searchers checked all of the trails on Nelson's proposed route and are now looking for him in “some areas that are kind of hairy.” The sheriff's office is leaving it up to Vail Mountain Rescue as to whether they need additional volunteers, but they would have to have backcountry skills because of the tougher terrain now being searched.

“(Nelson) had a weird circular route that he had drawn up,” Cordingly said of Nelson's proposed solo trek, “but the search and rescue guys were telling me it wasn't really passable in some areas and we're not sure where he veered off.”

Cordingly said two areas of interest are the old mining town of Holy Cross City and the Bowl of Tears lake area, although she said searchers are exploring any possible route deviation Nelson may have made if he found a particular area impassable due to steepness or the ruggedness of the terrain.

She also said Nelson may have had an interest in collecting old mining artifacts, so searchers were looking in abandoned mines that dot the wilderness area.

She said Colorado Army National Guard helicopters from the High Altitude Aviation Training Center at the Eagle County Regional Airport would begin pulling searchers out around 4 p.m. depending on the weather.

Nelson had some experience with the Chicago Backpackers Meetup Group, but most experts don't recommend traveling alone in the Colorado backcountry in October, when weather can change quickly from fall to full-on winter at elevations two miles or more above sea level.

The Chicago Sun Times newspaper reported Nelson is from the Ravenswood area of Chicago and works as an administrator for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is headquartered in Chicago.

On the Chicago Backpackers Meetup Group website, which Nelson has been a member of since 2006, he posted this introduction:

"I organize trips that tend to be strenuous and involve hiking for an entire day at a steady pace; often over difficult terrain or in challenging weather. Trips often require hiking 10+ miles. I am also quite knowledgeable about most backpacking gear."

Under the question "How much backpacking experience do you have?" Nelson's entry reads "No answer yet."

comments: 2 Comments on "Searchers checking 'pretty hairy' areas of Holy Cross Wilderness for missing Chicago hiker"

elkmtnman – Oct. 11, 2010, at 4:21 p.m.

This search sounds an awfully lot like the search for Michelle Vanek of Lakewood who went missing on Mt. of the Holy Cross in the fall of 2005. Nothing was ever found in her disappearance either, AFAIK. And it was the most difficult trip I had ever taken when I joined the volunteer effort to try to find her.

CopperSnowboarder – Oct. 12, 2010, at 9:24 p.m.

I am finalizing my book on hiking in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area and planned to ascend Cross Creek this week to Treasure Vault Lake and Fancy Pass. Now, in addition to an overnight hike, I will also be on the look-out for the missing hiker from Chicago. My early thoughts were that a hiker could lose trail between Holy Cross City and Fancy Lake, where the trail is vague when snow-covered, or in the less-worn trail below tree-line between Fancy Pass and the lower Cross Creek area. However, after reading further details in this article, I am now concerned that the hiker may have attempted to ascend the steep, unmarked slopes of Holy Cross Ridge at a place like the amphitheater around Tuhare Lakes, which exposed him to potential slip-and-fall injuries. As with the Fourteeners that killed ten this year, hikers need to be prepared for dramatic changes in weather and stay cautious concerning approaches to hazardous terrain in the Colorado wilderness areas.

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