UPDATE: 5/27/12

Eagle County Sheriff’s Office may have located the human remains of James Nelson at a remote campsite near Holy Cross City, an old mining community ghost town.

Nelson’s journal indicates that he may have been experiencing altitude sickness, something that can be unpredictable, affecting even very experienced mountaineers. However, folks coming to Colorado from lower elevations are more susceptible.

You may read in other articles that some of his gear is missing, including his gps, camp stove, and his camera. Some comments I’ve read at other sites draw the conclusion that there must be more to the story, and insinuate foul play. However there are a couple more likely scenarios. Two winters of snowpack building and melting over the site will move gear all over the place (see photo below). My guess, and hope, is that some of these items might be found. Another likely scenario is that some hiker saw an abandoned campsite, didn’t know that a hiker went missing in the area, and pocketed the more valuable items.

Our condolences go out to the Nelson family and James’ fiancé. Everything I’ve read about James is that he was an honorable and loving man who had a passion for the wilderness.

James Nelson Campsite
James Nelson’s Campsite – Eagle County Sheriff’s Office

ORIGINAL POST – Why Can’t They Find Missing Hiker James Nelson? – Oct. 23rd 2010

Search and Rescue had spent over 1000 man hours in four days scouring the Holy Cross Wilderness before they called off the search for missing hiker, James Nelson. As I write this, it has been twenty-one days since Nelson struck out on the trail on Oct. 3rd. A few volunteers have been looking for him still, but no one has found a trace of him. Why? Why can’t they find James Nelson?

Some Possible Reasons Why:


A Bermuda Triangle in Colorado? –

The Holy Cross Wilderness has its host of strange and mysterious stories about people vanishing within its nearly 200 square miles of rugged landscape. It has even been termed the “Holy Cross Triangle.” The most perplexing account is that of Michelle Vanek, a 35 year old triathelete and mother of 4 who decided to climb Mt. of the Holy Cross in September of 2005. Just 400 feet below the summit, Vanek became exhausted and sat down. She and her hiking partner made plans to meet back at the main trail for the hike down, then her partner pushed on to the summit. After summiting, he hiked back down to their rendezvous point, but Vanek never showed. That began the largest search and rescue operation in Colorado history. Over 700 volunteers assisted in the effort. They combed the mountain and wilderness area for days, but found no sign of her.

If James Nelson decided to summit Mount of the Holy Cross, he may have accidentally descended into the Cross Creek area. On 14ers.com, the mountain is noted as being notorious for funneling people into Cross Creek drainage when they lose the trail. However, Nelson’s name was not on the register at the summit, and no one spotted him on the mountain. Additionally, his plans to attempt Holy Cross were not definite. My guess is that Search & Rescue poured a lot of energy into searching the mountain because, if that indeed was where Nelson was lost, altitude and exposure would make his window for a rescue much smaller. Hopefully, Nelson decided against the ascent, however he did have plans to go off trail.

Where Hikers Typically Get Off-Trail on Mt. of the Holy Cross.
Photo by Chicago Transplant as Posted on 14ers.com
Bushwacking Off-Trail –

Though one friend commented that James was a “stickler for staying on the trail”, he may have gone off trail for several miles, essentially cutting across to another trail. A map posted by Nelson’s sister on 14ers.com shows his plans to bushwack on day 4 of his itinerary. From the Cross Creek Trail north of Mt. of the Holy Cross, Nelson would cut his own trail east, until he eventually could descend onto half-moon trail. It’s a burly hike, and it would be very easy for an experienced hiker to get turned around.

James Nelson's Intended Bushwack
This map was posted by Nelson’s sister on 14ers.com showing the general route that her brother intended to bushwack from Cross Creek to Half-Moon Trail.
Off-Trail Unintentionally –

This is a very typical scenario: A hiker sets up camp as the sun sets. It’s dark, but he knows that he needs water. He grabs his water filter and headlamp, then heads off into the night toward the sound of a nearby creek. All the while, he assumes he knows the way back. When he gets to where he remembers setting up camp, it’s gone. This happened to a good friend of mine in Rocky Mountain National park. He wandered around in the night, almost fell off a cliff, then somehow made it to an utility station, found an unlocked Jeep Cherokee where he stayed the night. This also seems to be what happened to Denver native, Jesse Capen, who in November went searching for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains.

Nelson is a photographer and a similar scenario could have occurred if he downed his pack and attempted a short hike for the purpose of getting a particular photograph.

Cliff Bands –

The area around Mt. of the Holy Cross is riddled with 5 square miles of cliff bands. Many of these have to be negotiated technically, with ropes. Some of these areas just cannot be searched without putting searchers in harm’s way, especially as the weather turns in October. Cliff bands can easily get a person trapped. You climb down a small section of rock, then you realize that you can’t get back up. It’s easy to panic once you are stuck, then to make poor decisions. Many people fall in an attempt to down-climb. Hopefully, Nelson didn’t wander into this kind of situation.

Animal Attack? –

Mountain Lions and Black Bear are the two animals big enough to really harm a person in this part of Colorado. However, attacks are pretty rare. In this case it’s important to know that animals are not neat and tidy when they attack. It can’t be ruled out, but an animal attack of this nature would have most likely scattered a lot of evidence in the woods that would have been found by now: pieces of fabric and scattered equipment, etc.

Foul Play –

No evidence points in this direction. In Michelle Vanek’s 2005 disappearance, there was some blood found and a couple run-ins with suspicious individuals camped or squatting in the area. In Nelson’s case, there have not been any persons of interest or evidence of foul play.

Massive Boulder Fields –

These create small caves and coves in this area. If Nelson took cover for the night or to get out of the weather, ground searchers and even those searching for him by helicopter might not be able to see him.

October –

In the fall, the weather turns in the Mountains. October is when you can really see and feel the shift. If the worse happened to Nelson, then snow can make finding a person extremely difficult. Also, it buries the important clues that could help the effort to find him. The good news is that the weather has not yet come in full-force (but it will soon), and that snow also has some benefits. It makes colored objects stand out and footprints more visible.

Leave No Trace –

James Nelson is an Eagle Scout and respects the wilderness. He practices Leave No Trace principles, meaning he is not going to leave trash around and his campsites would show minimal impact. This makes him harder to track.

Mines and Mining Areas –

Holy Cross City, an old mining site and Colorado Ghost town, has been searched after hearing that James was interested in old mining relics. Abandoned mine shafts and adits can be incredibly dangerous. There are usually signs posted outside of them with a list of several ways you could die inside: old explosives, Carbon-Monoxide and other gases, and collapse of the mine. The encouraging thing is that Nelson’s friends and family describe him as “focused and intelligent”, highly doubting that he would attempt to enter these areas.

Reasons for Hope:


His Gear –

From the photo at the trailhead, he appears well-prepared. He seems to be someone pretty obsessed with gear, so I’m assuming he has some good stuff on him. He has a GPS, trekking poles, tent, down sleeping bag, among other things.

james nelson
Picture Taken Of James Nelson at the Fall Creek Trailhead
His Character –

From reading 20+ pages of forum posts on 14ers.com, and every article that pops up on my google reader, I’ve really come to respect this man. He is adventurous. At the same time, he is really sharp, even wise. Some have put him down for hiking solo and not carrying a cell phone, but these aren’t necessarily stupid decisions. Cell phones have very limited use in a place like this, usually only on the higher ridges. I’ve carried Satellite phones on trips I’ve guided and couldn’t get a connection all day. Hiking solo should definitely be a calculated decision in an area like this, but it doesn’t appear that Nelson made the decision willy-nilly. And he did the most important thing he could do: He left an itinerary.

Search & Rescue Still Out –

Though the official search ended on Tuesday, Oct 12th, Search & Rescue volunteers were back on the trail and with dogs on the weekend of Oct. 18th. The dogs even picked up his scent along Lake Constantine. Search & Rescue in this area is known to be one of the best in the state, and the Nelson family has expressed their gratitude and confidence in their efforts.

Community of Volunteers Looking for Him –

I spent a couple hours on 14ers.com reading the posts by the community there. Several of these men and women have hit the trail together looking for Nelson. I will make a quick aside and say that if you are making plans to go look for Jim, it’s a rough time to do it. You should be highly experienced, with someone, and contact search and rescue first. Two members of the community just finished retracing Nelson’s intended bushwack as well as scoured a few other areas. You can read their trip report here.

Hunting Season –

Hunters will be out in full-force. They travel cross-country and in areas that most hikers never visit. They may be the people most likely to find clues or even find James.

Stories on the Mountain –

There have been many amazing rescue stories from this area. Two of them give us good reason for hope. My one disclaimer is that weather is the big difference. Still, these are encouraging. In July of 1997, Kathleen Kinderfather, spent 5 days lost near Mt. of the Holy Cross before they found her. Here is the incredible part – she was 67 years old. The second story happens in 1968. A 16 year old boy got separated from his family in a hail storm. They found him alive 2 weeks later on the slopes of the mountain. These aren’t intended to give false hope. We know the statistics are grim, but as long as we don’t have any other story to tell, we may as well be telling stories of hope.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Nelson family and James’ fiance during these days.

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson has been hiking in Colorado for over 20 years. The owner and editor of Dayhikes Near Denver, Aaron writes every trail profile as a local guide who has hiked hundreds of miles of trails along the Front Range and deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.