French and Spanish police believe British hiker Esther Dingley deliberately went missing in the Pyrenees because she feared her nomadic life was set to end.
With her partner Daniel Colgate reportedly wanting to settle down after six years of European camper van adventures, authorities have said they are focusing their investigations on a ‘voluntary disappearance’.
At around 10.30am on Saturday, November 21, Ms Dingley, 37, set off up a mountain path from a spot known as Plan de l’Estany. It was the day before the Oxford graduate was last seen alive in the Pyrenees near the village of Benasque,.
Mr Colegate – who is not considered a suspect – has since been interviewed by police three times to gather background information on his partner.
Captain Jean-Marc Bordinaro, who is leading the investigation into Ms Dingley, told The Times that officers were unable to dismiss ‘the theory of a voluntary disappearance’.
‘Esther Dingley wanted to continue with her current way of life, journeys in a camper van and sporting activities including hiking, whilst Daniel Colegate seems a little tired of this nomadic life,’ he told the newspaper.
‘Did [she] want to go off on her own to live her life and organise her own disappearance? There is nothing enabling us to eliminate this working theory. This situation provoked some tensions within the couple, but nothing too much.’
His comments came as the Mail learned that Ms Dingley set off on a different route than the one planned when she vanished three weeks ago, according the a man who gave her a lift the day before she was last seen.
After travelling with him for about five miles and at around 10.30am on Saturday, November 21, she set off up the mountain path from a spot known as Plan de l’Estany. It was the day before the Oxford graduate was last seen in the Pyrenees.
Pictured: Ms Dingley with her partner Daniel Colegate, who has been interviewed by police three times over her disappearance. From these interviews, police say they believe that Ms Dingley could have gone missing voluntarily because she feared their nomadic life could end
Ms Dingley with her partner Daniel Colegate, pictured in 2014 at the start of their motorhome adventure. After being on the road for 6 years travelling around Europe, Mr Colegate was reportedly looking to settle down
Jose Antonio Ballarin said Esther discussed her route with him – and it was different from the one she was believed to have been planning
Captain Bordinaro has also previously surmised that the couple’s life was not as happy as their social media pages might suggest, which showed them as a happy couple travelling Europe together.
Speaking to MailOnline earlier in the week, Bordinaro ruled out the possibility that Ms Dingley suffered an accident and hinted at the voluntary act theory then as well.
‘It does not seem probable that Esther suffered an accident, and it is not credible that she was eaten by a bear or that she has fallen into a lake,’ he said.
‘We believe that her disappearance is either the result of a voluntary act, or as a result of someone else’s actions[…]. It appears that their (Dingley and Colegate’s) lives together were not as happy as the images posted on social media suggest.’
The couple met at Oxford University where they both studied. Ms Dingley was reading Economics while Mr Colegate studied Chemistry.
A book and memoir written by Colegate and later published titled ‘What Adventures Shall We Have Today?: Travelling from More to Less in Search of a Simpler Life’, published in June, says that after they both graduated with first class degrees, they settled into successful academic careers, The Times reports.
Pictured: Ms Dingley and partner Mr Colegate on their travels in Venice, Italy. The pair left their life in Britain behind in 2014 and set off to travel Europe
Later, in 2013, the pair looked for a new start. Mr Colegate started working as an administrative worker at Newcastle University, while Ms Dingley worked as a personal trainer. They had also both been diagnosed with depression.
A wedding was arranged for February 2014, but at Christmas the year before, Mr Colegate required surgery and the pair decided to call off the wedding and set off for a new life of travelling.
Last year, Colegate arranged for them to stay in a remote farmhouse in the Pyrenees village of Arreau, which they decided to return to when lockdown began earlier this year. But at the end of October, Ms Dingley set off alone for a hike.
On November 15, she parked their campervan in the village of Benasque, which has now become the site of the on-going investigation into her whereabouts.
The last person to see Esther was Spanish Olympic skier Marti Vigo del Arco, who was coming down from Pico Salvaguardia with his girlfriend on November 22 at around 3pm as Esther was going up.
It is known that she reached the peak of the mountain because of a selfie she sent to Colegate at the top, just before 4pm.
Esther Dingley, 37, was hiking the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain when she vanished, prompting a search and rescue operation that has since been suspended due to the weather
A French investigating source said the possibility that she has walked down the mountain and is somewhere in Spain or France has ‘pretty much been ruled out completely’.
The source added: ‘By now she would have made contact with somebody. She is a very intelligent and capable woman who understands her responsibilities. There is no way that she would just ignore everybody.’
Speaking exclusively to the Mail this week, Jose Antonio Ballarin – who gave Ms Dingley a lift on October 21 – said Esther discussed her route with him, and it was different from the one she was believed to have been planning.
Under Spain’s lockdown rules, the retired businessman shouldn’t have offered a lift to a stranger at all. But something about the sight of the 37-year-old woman carrying a large khaki backpack made him pull over, he said.
Esther, who often took lifts on hiking trips, jumped in and travelled with the 71-year-old and his grandson for five miles, chatting about her plans until they reached the footpath leading to the Pico Salvaguardia, or ‘safeguard peak’.
When she went missing, she was thought to have been in the middle of a hike of several days, taking a circular route from Port de la Glere to Port de Venasque via Pico Salvaguardia.
Having set off from Benasque that Saturday morning, Esther was believed to be planning to spend Sunday night at the Refuge de Venasque before looping back to Port de la Glere and Benasque.
Esther stayed at his 7,000ft Angel Orus Refuge (pictured) on November 17, and seemed ‘in very good spirits’
But she had previously changed her routes to get around icy tracks or to avoid bad weather and in her conversation with Mr Ballarin – conducted in French because she spoke no Spanish and he no English – she appeared to suggest she was considering crossing the Pyrenees into France.
She said she was going to French town of Bagneres de Luchon and mentioned the city of Toulouse.
Wearing a mask in the front passenger seat of his Subaru 4×4, she tried to show him her route on her phone but he was unable to look closely because he was driving.
Esther’s conversation with Mr Ballarin raises the possibility that she might have radically changed her plans at the last minute, perhaps explaining why there has been no sign of her despite extensive searches before winter blizzards set in last week.
Mr Ballarin says he is haunted by the crossing of their paths. He said: ‘It’s terrible to think I was one of the last people to see her alive.
‘But when I look back, I don’t think she was doing anything foolhardy. She seemed perfectly happy. There was nothing that made me worry for her.
‘She was just a capable young woman heading up into the mountains for a few days of adventure. She seemed like a sensible young woman.’
The Oxford graduate parked the Fiat camper in a car park in the Spanish town of Benasque on November 15 before setting off on her solo trek around the Pyrenees
Since this conversation took place, it has become clear that Esther returned the following afternoon to the Pico Salvaguardia after a short hike in the area.
This contradicts what she appeared to tell Mr Ballarin.
Their conversation took place several hours before Esther spoke to her partner, who guided investigators to her last known position and to the route she told him she was on. Rescue teams have also scoured alternative routes.
Understandably, Mr Ballarin is worried. ‘I dropped her off and that was the last I saw of her,’ he said.
‘It was only a couple of days later that I found out there was a person missing and it was the woman I had given a lift to. The police spoke to me and I gave them the same information. It’s horrible to think something bad has happened to her.’
An experienced hiker, Mr Ballarin warns that the lakes in the area are highly dangerous. The authorities are not ruling out the possibility that Esther may have fallen into freezing water.
The so-called Boums lakes are among those close to where Esther was last seen. Beyond these, which are close to Bagneres de Luchon, there are numerous other deep water ‘pits’, which can be perilous.
Dan Colegate, the British partner of missing hiker Esther Dingley, was searching for her alone in the Pyrenees earlier this week. Pictured: A map showing the likely route she was taking
France has specialist teams of ice divers able to enter mountain lakes but the problem in winter is getting them into position.
And with no clear evidence that Esther has fallen into one, it would be impossible to deploy divers to all of the lakes in the area.
Mr Ballarin said: ‘I think that if they were to search those lakes properly with divers, there’s a chance they could find Esther’s body and potentially even those of other mountaineers who have gone missing.
‘Once you lose your footing and start falling down the mountains here, there’s nothing to stop you.’
Mr Ballarin fears the worst. ‘I just hope she’s in some French city and just hasn’t got in touch for a reason because if she’s still in the mountains, I can’t see how she would have survived,’ he said. ‘We have to think the worst.’
The last person to see missing hiker Esther Dingley (left) alive Jose Antonio Ballarin (right) said she discussed her route with him – and it was different from the one she was believed to have been planning
On Thursday, it emerged that Spain’s Guardia Civil had all but abandoned efforts to find Esther as thick snow has blocked the mountain trails where she was last seen.
Sergeant Jorge Lopez, head of the Civil’s Mountain Rescue brigade, said the arctic weather conditions made any further expedition up the mountains ‘useless’.
He told MailOnline: ‘There has been heavy snow last night which makes a new search today impossible. ‘It’s useless to search in a place with more than half a metre of snow. ‘A great effort has been made in the search for Esther but without result.
‘If weather conditions improve then we may carry out our normal tactical training in the Benasque area so that it doubles as a search. But there is little chance of that happening at the moment.’
Trails leading up the mountains are now covered with thick snow. Animal tracks – arctic hare, wild-goat, lynx and possibly bear – have been the only sign of life.
The Guardia Civil have said they are ‘considering all options’ for Esther’s disappearance.
But Sergeant Lopez said it was ‘most probable’ that she had suffered an accident in the mountains.
He said: ‘When someone is lost in the mountains, the first hypothesis is always that they are in the mountains.’
The conditions continue to batter the picturesque resort and surrounding national park she ventured into (pictured) making the search for her ‘useless’ according to Spanish authorities
Sergeant Jorge Lopez, head of the Mountain Rescue brigade, said the arctic weather conditions made any further expedition up the mountains ‘useless’. He told MailOnline: ‘There has been heavy snow last night which makes a new search today impossible. Sergeant Lopez said it was ‘most probable’ that she had suffered an accident in the mountains
While Spanish investigators believe Esther is most likely to have suffered an accident in the mountains, their French counterparts across the border believe that is ‘not probable’.
They fear her disappearance is ‘either the result of a voluntary act or as the result of someone else’s actions’.
French Gendarme Captain Jean-Marc Bordinaro said it is ‘not probable’ that Esther suffered an accident and her disappearance is ‘either the result of a voluntary act or as the result of someone else’s actions’.
He added that Esther and Daniel’s lives ‘were not as happy as the images posted on social media suggest’.
His comments came after officials interviewed Ms Dingley’s partner for a third time about her disappearance.
Four officers from the French Gendarmerie paramilitary force spoke to Colegate at the farmhouse in Gascony that he is house-sitting on Monday afternoon.
Mr Colegate, 38, had stayed at the £1000-a-week holiday let while long-term partner Esther embarked on a solo hike trip in the Pyrenees mountains last month.
Bordinaro maintained that Mr Colegate had been interviewed as a witness, not a suspect, telling MailOnline: ‘We interviewed Daniel Colegate at the farmhouse where he is living in the Gers department on Monday.
‘We want to investigate all possibilities. We do not rule any line of inquiry.
‘But it does not seem probable that Esther suffered an accident, and it is not credible that she was eaten by a bear or that she has fallen into a lake.
‘We believe that her disappearance is either the result of a voluntary act, or as a result of someone else’s actions.
‘We went to see Mr Colegate so that we could go through social media with him – messages, etc.
‘It appears that their lives together were not as happy as the images posted on social media suggest. However I would like to stress that we interviewed Mr Colegate as a witness not as a suspect.’
Mr Colegate has since called for an investigation into a mystery figure spotted sleeping in his girlfriend’s campervan 10 days after she went missing.
On December 2, a dog walker said she saw a light on in the British-registered Fiat Chausson camper and, on closer inspection, spotted a figure lying on the back seat.
A dog walker took this picture (above) of missing British hiker Esther Dingley’s campervan with its light on and someone sleeping in the back parked in Benasque, Spain, on December 2 – ten days after she vanished
Sources close to the case insist the person pictured in the Chausson van late at night was not Mr Colgate, with whom she has been travelling with for six years.
Spanish police have dismissed the sighting in the Spanish resort of Benasque, but Matt Searle, spokesman for Esther’s family and Mr Colgate, told MailOnline: ‘Daniel and Esther’s family are extremely interested to find out who was inside the camper with the lights on.’
‘We are investigating the sighting of someone inside the van on 2 December. They are asking the Guardia Civil to investigate who it was as well.’
The young dog walker, called Lucia, said she first saw the light on in the van when she took her dog Tipo for a walk at about 7pm on December 2 in Benasque, Spain.
However, she became increasingly concerned when saw the figure laying down in the back when she popped out a second time at 10pm.
In an exclusive interview with MailOnline, Lucia said she was ‘fobbed off’ when she called the Spanish police.
Officers ruled out the van sighting, claiming it was a plain clothed forensic officer – working late at night without protective clothing and driving an unmarked vehicle.
CCTV video released earlier this week showed Miss Dingley in a supermarket in the Pyrenees, where a shopper who saw her described her as looking ‘sad and thoughtful’.
The fitness enthusiast challenged staff at the Eroski store in Benasque over the price of a packet of chia seeds as she provisioned for her march over the mountains on Thursday 19th November.
A local English teacher could be seen coming to her rescue as Esther fails to understand the manager’s explanation over discrepancy in the cost of her shopping – as she could not understand Spanish.
In the supermarket, the Chia seeds had been marked at a discount which only applied to shoppers in possession of a store loyalty card, Maria-Carmen – the teacher who helped Ms Dingley in the shop – explained.
Pictured: Esther Dingley is seen at Eroski supermarket in Benasque, Spain on November 19, days before her disappearance. The video shows Ms Dingley appearing ‘sad and thoughtful’ as she wandered around the supermarket
Maria-Carmen told MailOnline: ‘Esther wanted to buy a packet of Chia seeds which were discounted. But you only get the discount if you have the Eroski loyalty card.
‘The girl at the till tried to explain this to her but she not understand because she did not speak Spanish.
‘So the girl called me and I came to explain this to her. She said that didn’t matter and bought the seeds any way. We didn’t have a long chat because I was on my way to work but she seemed a sad, thoughtful.’
Maria-Carmen explained: ‘I saw her a couple of days later doing yoga in the street by her camper van. It is not a usual sight to see someone doing yoga in the street in Benasque so I noticed it.
‘Later I heard that the English woman, Esther, had gone missing and I contacted the police and told them that I had helped her. I just hope she is ok.’