THE devastated boyfriend of a British hiker who vanished in the Pyrenees has said she “wouldn’t leave her loved ones in the dark” if she was alive.
Dan Colegate, 38, is continuing to scour the mountain range where his girlfriend Esther Dingley, 37, was last seen in a selfie on top of the Pico Salvaguardia summit on the Spanish-French border in November.
Mountain rescue teams resumed the search for Esther in June after foot patrols, dogs and helicopters found no trace of the Oxford graduate last year.
Dan has launched his own search for his girlfriend of 20 years, climbing to the 8,796ft summit where the love of his life posted her last selfie on social media before vanishing.
He has been scanning the slopes and searching nearby areas in a desperate bid to find out what happened to Esther.
Speaking to The Times, Dan said: “Esther would not leave her family or myself in the dark like this.
“The idea that she would harm herself at a time in her life when she was happy and had so much opportunity ahead of her, and do so in a way that she would be completely vanished, doesn’t fit.”
The couple had been together since meeting at Oxford University, where they were both studying chemistry 20 years ago.
“I’ll keep going until I can look at the map and say, ‘She’s not there’. I’ll keep going until there’s nowhere to look,” he said.
“I can’t imagine any pleasure in a future that doesn’t involve Esther.
“It’s very difficult to process something when you don’t know what’s happened. My feeling is I’m very much in limbo.”
In 2014, the couple decided to rent out their flat in Durham and spent almost seven years travelling across Europe in a motorhome, blogging and writing books about their adventures.
An experienced solo hiker, Esther walked 225 miles in a month in the Pyrenees, accompanied by two dogs, in 2019.
“Esther was very, very comfortable and competent in the mountains. These trails wouldn’t have troubled her,” Dan said.
“It doesn’t mean she couldn’t have slipped – but if she slipped, where is she? That’s what I can’t get my head around.”
He added: “Esther knew better than most how to fuel her body and how to look after herself, underlined by the many much more demanding solo trips she had safely completed.”
It comes as the clairvoyant advising cops on Madeleine McCann’s disappearance shared coordinates where he claims Esther’s body is buried.
Michael Schneider believes Esther was killed and bundled into a vehicle before her body was dumped or buried by a stream six miles away from her last known location.
The lead has been reported to investigating officers, and could come as a further devastating blow to Esther’s family, possibly dashing hopes she’ll be found alive.
Schenider claims to find missing people by looking at a photo of them and asking God if they are living or dead.
And Dan also thinks something sinister might have happened to his partner – and the cops haven’t ruled anything out.
“She may have been forced to go with someone at gunpoint,” he said.
“A horrifying prospect, but it does mean there’s a part of me in my gut that feels Esther could still be out there, alive. Part of me requires a seed of hope just to get up each day.”
He last spoke to Esther, a champion rower who represented Great Britain in the Junior European Cup, on video call on November 22 as she stood on the summit and she sent a photograph and text to him at about 3.30pm.
It read: “I’m on a col/peak so can’t stop for too long. Can’t wait to read all your messages. Love you very much XXX having a really good time.”
About 35 minutes later she told Dan she was heading for the Port de la Glere mountain pass the next day.
She added: “Might dip into France. Hoping Refuge Venasque has a winter room. Keep you posted when can. Love you xxx.”
Dan said Esther planned to spend the night at an isolated, unmanned French mountain shelter, Refuge de Venasque, before hiking back into Spain to the motorhome the next day.
But Esther failed to show up on November 25.
She was reported missing and cops knocked on the door of the vehicle she had left in the car park before setting off on her trek, but she wasn’t there.
Dan, a talented ice hockey player, described how he was the first focus of the police investigation, with detectives searching the couple’s French house-sit in a village 100 miles north of the Pyrenees.
“They searched the house, looked in all the wardrobes, pulled the cover off the swimming pool. They went through everything.
“I was glad they got it out of the way. But I never felt like a suspect. I couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Esther’s disappearance. I was 100 miles away, with only a push bike for transport.”
Ria Bryant, Esther’s mum, has rented a house in Benasque, the small Spanish town in the Pyrenees where her daughter was based before she vanished.
The 74-year-old told The Times: “I find it quite painful being here. I do not seem to be able to sleep but I want to go to the place where they find her.”
Ria insists her daughter wouldn’t have set off to start a new life without telling her or Dan.
‘SHE WAS MY BEST FRIEND’
“That wouldn’t be Esther at all,” she said. “She wasn’t only my daughter, she was my best friend. We’ve always had a very open relationship, we share even the most private things.”
She added: “I found it incredible how well she and Dan got on – Esther was the busy bee, meeting people, planning where they were going, what they were doing. He was the practical one. They connected.”
And Dan said: “The idea that she would precipitate a massive search and rescue operation and an international police investigation because she felt like going off-grid for a bit would be total anathema to her.
“If Esther wanted time on her own, she just had to say the words, ‘I feel like a bit of time to myself’ – that’s it. She knew that, because that’s what she was doing.”
As the search resumes, Sergeant Jorge Lopez Ramos, whose Greim elite mountain search and rescue team led the eight-day search for Esther last year, said snow on the north face of the peak on the French side of the border meant work there had to wait still until the summer.
He also said officers were counting on the possibility of information from the hikers who throng the Pyrenees in the peak months of July and August if they found nothing earlier.
Spanish Civil Guard officers who have been working on the ground will be supported by a helicopter from mid-June which have a permanent base in the town of Benasque where Esther had been stayed before vanishing.
Lopez Ramos said: “We have spent some time going into the mountains and seeing what the snow is like and looking at places where we think Esther could have had an accident.”
In April, The Sun revealed how five other people have gone missing in the last 15 years near where Esther vanished.
Spanish lawyer Andres Funes, 61, went missing near the spot in March.
And four other European hikers have vanished in the glacier-rich region since 2006. All, like Esther, were on their own.