A MYSTERY man who gave missing hiker Esther Dingley a lift three days before she vanished in the Pyrenees is being hunted by police.
Authorities in both France and Spain are now actively looking at ”other options” after a six day search for her revealed no clues.
Esther, 37, was reported missing by her boyfriend Dan Colegate on November 25 three days after she sent him a picture of herself on top of the 8,983-ft Pic de Sauvegarde on France’s border with Spain.
On November 19 , she said on Facebook how bad weather had forced her to change her plans and she accepted a lift from a fellow hiker to head back down to the valley where her camper van was parked.
She wrote: ”I had the option of staying at a great cabin, even had a mattress, but it was only 2pm or going down with my fellow hiker and getting a lift.
“He’d take me further up the valley so I could continue my planned tour to another refuge or back to the camper…”
The man is believed to have dropped Esther off at Benasque on the Spanish side where her van has been found by police who are examining it.
An investigative source in Spain said:”This man would have had conversations with her and may know what she planned.
“They may have arranged to meet and hike another route. It is imperative that we find him.”
Mobile phone signals were believed to hold the key to Esther’s disappearance yesterday as police began looking at options “beyond an accident.”
Exhaustive searches of mountain trails in the Pyrenees between France and Spain have found no trace of the hiker who was last heard from 11 days ago.
And rescue teams backed by drones, helicopters and dogs have now told her distraught partner they are now convinced she is not on the mountain.
Authorities in France and Spain now believe experienced lone hiker Esther may have gone – or been taken – somewhere else.
Oxford graduate Esther, originally from Durham, started walking from Benasque on November 21 but all trace of her was lost at 4pm the following day after she sent a smiling selfie from a peak.
Her phone will have continued to send signals to mobile network masts if switched on, revealing her approximate location unless it was deactivated, broken, or taken from her.
Partner of 18 years Dan, 38, revealed non-accident theories were being probed in a post on his Facebook page yesterday.
The former company director – who has been travelling the wilds of Europe with Esther for six years – wrote: “If she had fallen from one of the paths, they really would have expected to find her given the intensity, the closeness of the search and the fact most of the trails are really quite straightforward across open ground.
“As things stand tonight, Esther is now listed as a national missing persons case in Spain and the case has been passed to a specialised judicial unit in France.
“This means they will be looking at other options beyond a mountain accident.
“While this is a terrifying development in many ways, I’m trying to focus on the fact that it leaves the door open that Esther might still come home.
“She was so utterly happy and joyful when we last spoke, I’d do anything to see her face and hold her right now.”
The peak is surrounded by rocky crags and deep mountain lakes but French investigators say “signals were excellent” thanks to nearby masts.
A source said: “These cell towers communicate with devices when they are turned on, so technically the missing person’s phone can be tracked down to its last known location.
The couple met while studying at Wadham College, Oxford but went travelling six years ago in a camper van after both suffering depression brought on by humdrum jobs.
They meant to tour Europe for one year but stayed on and recently began producing a travel blog with pictures of their adventures – and adopted five stray dogs.
In a soul-searching interview in April this year, both admitted they both had emotional issues that needed resolving.
They said in the joint interview: “We’ve learned travelling doesn’t really solve any problems, it just changes them – the biggest challenges have been emotional.
“Removing many of the conventional life stresses allowed a lot of suppressed issues to creep up over time.
“It’s been a very cathartic experience at times, especially when sharing a tiny living space with a long-term life partner.”
Esther’s car was found abandoned in Benasque, from where she had set out on the final leg of a month-long solo hiking adventure on November 21.
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Her plan had been to hike to the Pic de Sauvegarde, and then walk the eight miles from Port de la Gléré to Port de Venasque, before hiking down from the mountains on Wednesday.
Dan reported her missing on November 24, just a day before her trip was due to end, sparking a massive manhunt.
He was unavailable for comment last night. Esther’s family in Aylesbury, Bucks also declined to comment.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please call the Samaritans for free on 116123.