Missing British backpacker Esther Dingley could have fallen after being caught out by a snow-covered mountain path in the Pyrenees, a local expert has speculated after possible human remains including a skull were found near where she was last seen alive.
The remains – which were discovered by Spanish and French hikers on the approach to the Puerto de la Glera pass, Port de la Glere in French, on Friday – have been sent to a lab in Toulouse for comparison with Ms Dingley’s dental records and a DNA sample from her mother.
Ms Dingley, 37, had been planning to cross back into Spain through the pass after spending a day hiking on the French side of the border before she went missing on November 22 last year. Her last known contact was a WhatsApp call with her boyfriend Dan Colegate from the summit of the Pic de Sauvegarde, where she took a selfie of herself.
The two Oxford graduates had been travelling around Europe in a camper van for years after quitting their careers and Durham home. Missing persons charity LBT Global, which has been supporting Mr Colegate and Ms Dingley’s family, said that confirmation of whether the possible human remains were a match would take ‘days or even weeks’.
According to Guilhem Garrigues, the keeper of the Venasque refuge on the French side of the border where the British hiker had planned to spend the night, Ms Dingley could have fallen in snow.
He explained that the paths she was believed to have taken were clear on the Spanish face of the mountains, but could have remained covered in snow around the Puerto de la Glera pass, where the slopes are normally shaded and which could have taken her by surprise.
The keeper – who handles hosting, maintenance and cooking duties at the refuge – added police had resumed searches for Ms Dingley two weeks ago after the winter snows melted and that officers told him they believed it likely her remains would be discovered by the public by chance.
Mr Garrigues told the Times newspaper: ‘The hike is easy in the summer and there are about 20 people who do it every day. But in the winter it changes completely. It’s steep and anyone can make a mistake and slip, or be unbalanced by a gust of wind.’
Missing British backpacker Esther Dingley could have fallen after being caught out by a snow-covered mountain path in the Pyrenees, a local expert has speculated
British hiker Esther Dingley (pictured with her boyfriend Daniel Colegate) went missing November 22
Ms Dingley, 37, had been planning to cross back into Spain through the pass after spending a day hiking on the French side of the border before she went missing on November 22 last year
Meanwhile Ms Dingley’s family said in a statement they are ‘urgently seeking clarification’ after bones believed to be human were found on Friday near where the hiker was last seen.
An investigating French source on Saturday said there was no ‘immediate proof as to the identity of the remains’ and that ‘a medico-legal procedure will be followed to establish the identity of Person X in the days ahead.’
Mr Colegate wrote in the 23-page report about Ms Dingley’s plans to do a circular hike between Spain and France which involved sleeping at a mountain refuge.
He said in his dossier: ‘An individual that Esther met on November 19 came forward to say he had specifically suggested this route through France, between Port de Venasque and Port de la Glere, to Esther when he met her. There is no reason to think that Esther did not stick to this plan.’
In a section titled ‘Esther’s Planned Onward Route’, he suggested she reached the mountain refuge in France and slept there overnight before continuing a hike to return to her initial starting point in Spain.
He said: ‘Her onward route would have involved a descent northwards towards the Hospice de France, a flat traverse westwards around the Imperatrice Way, and a climb southwards to the border at Port de la Glere. From the border the route descends back towards Hospital de Benasque.
‘This route would have been well within Esther’s capabilities for a day hike, in addition to the fact she had a tent, camping equipment and significant experience using it.
‘Distance was 16km with 1100 metres of ascent, five to seven hours of hiking time. The weather remained excellent that Monday. The route is very obvious on the ground and also from the terrain when starting from Refuge de Venasque.
A mountain runner raised the alarm around 2pm on Friday after discovering what he believed could be the remains of a body near the spot where missing hiker Esther Dingley went missing late last year.
Specialist officers from Spain and France have carried out several searches of the area around the Puerto de la Glera hiking trail, where Ms Dingley was hiking before she went missing
‘It’s basically impossible to get lost in good visibility here. The entire route is a well-made and easy to follow path. Although Esther believed and had warned family that there was poor signal in the area, in fact the signal is very good on the French side.
‘Within half an hour of leaving the refuge, Esther should have been able to use her phone for most of the rest of the day.’
Officers from the Civil Guard went to the spot but alerted their French counterparts after confirming it was on the other side of the border. One unconfirmed local report said the unnamed runner had come across a human skull.
A Spanish radio station covering the province of Huesca which includes the town of Benasque where Ms Dingley began the hike she vanished on, said: ‘Sources close to the investigation have indicated that the skull could correspond to Esther Dingley’s because of the colour and length of the hair.’
French and Spanish police have both confirmed bones have been found but have not gone into any more details.
Civil Guard sources said yesterday officers were ’90 per cent certain’ they were human remains but insisted the job of analysing them for confirmation and more clues was now a French task.
LBT Global said in its first written statement overnight: ‘LBT Global is aware of the discovery of what may be human remains close to the last known location of Esther Dingley.
Her partner claimed in a recent BBC interview he ‘could no longer agree’ with the idea she had suffered an accident
‘We are urgently seeking clarification. The family have been informed of the discovery and we are supporting them now.
‘Until anything is confirmed there will be no statement or interviews with any family members. Please be aware this may take days or even weeks.’
Specialist forensics officers from the General Directorate of the National Gendarmerie (DGGN) will carry out the task, under the supervision of France’s Interior Ministry and an examining magistrate.
Up to 3,000 unidentified bodies are found in France every year, including ones in vast rural areas such as the Pyrenees, said the source.
‘Prosecutors order analysis in the case of suspicious death, and that is when the entire procedure starts,’ said the source. ‘Genetic and dental material is gathered before burial can be allowed. It is a potentially complex procedure.’
DNA analysis is considered the most accurate part of the identification process, but samples are not always available to pathologists if a body is badly decomposed, or reduced to bone, said the source.
Christophe Amunzateguy, the chief public prosecutor of Saint-Gaudens, has been informed about the discovery of the remains, and was liaising with police investigators this weekend.
Missing Esther Dingley’s camper van was spotted parked up in Benasque . Witness Lucie was walking her dog Tipo when she spotted the camper van with the light on and someone inside on December 2
French police commander Jean-Marc Bordinaro, who has been involved in the search for Ms Dingley from the start, said: ‘We cannot say anything at the moment because the discovery of the bones is too recent and they must be properly analysed. We will not have a result for several days and possibly several weeks.’
Commander Bordinaro confirmed that Ms Dingley was believed to be heading towards Port de Gléré when she went missing.
It is thought that she intended to spend a night in a mountain refuge in France, but there was no initial evidence that she had actually entered French territory.
Mr Bordinaro said his colleagues were contacted by Spanish police on Friday afternoon, after the remains were discovered at about 2pm. Mr Bordinaro had previously admitted that it was ‘very likely’ that Durham-born Ms Dingley had been involved in a mountain accident, and had been unable to raise help.
The search for her was called off in February because of deteriorating weather, but it resumed in the Spring.
In her final message to Mr Colegate on November 22, Ms Dingley wrote: ‘Might dip into France. Hoping Refuge Venasque has a winter room. Keep you posted when can. Love you xxx’
Puerto de la Glera is close to the to the 8,796ft Pico Salvaguardia summit where Oxford graduate Esther last made contact with Mr Colegate around 4pm on November 22 last year.
Specialist officers from Spain and France have carried out several searches of the area. A co-ordinated air and land search by police mountain rescue experts from both countries took place on July 1.
Civil Guard sergeant Jorge Lopez Ramos, whose Greim elite mountain search and rescue team led an eight-day search for Ms Dingley on the Spanish side of the border before it was halted last December because of bad weather, confirmed late last year Puerto de la Glera was on the route Esther told her boyfriend she was planning to take before she disappeared.
British hiker Esther Dingley was seen at Eroski supermartket in Benasque, Spain, on Novermber 19, days before her sudden disappearance
Referring to the mountain pass by its Spanish name, he said at the time: ‘Esther told her partner she was planning to spend the night in a nearby refuge on the French side of the border called Venasque before doing a long half-circle to re-enter Spain through a mountain pass called Puerto de la Glera and heading back down to Llanos del Hospital.
‘It would have been a long day’s walk or she could have spent the night somewhere and finished the following day.
‘We don’t know if she reached Venasque that night. It’s shut at the moment and only an emergency part of it is open for people to sleep in and consume any food they have with them.’
French police chief Jean Marc Bordinaro said yesterday: ‘We cannot say anything at the moment because the discovery of the bones is too recent and they must be properly analysed. We will not have a result for several days and possibly several weeks.’
A prosecutor based in Saint-Gaudens is expected to make an official statement if there are any changes to the current situation.
Spanish Civil Guard said the discovery was a matter for the French police to comment on as the bones had been found on their side of the border.