A search has resumed for missing Brit hiker Esther Dingley as her devastated boyfriend continues to walk trails in the Pyrenees in his own effort to find her.
Specialist police officers have been able to comb the 8,796ft Pico Salvaguardia summit where the Oxford graduate last made contact with partner Dan Colegate around 4pm on November 22 after the winter snow thawed.
Sergeant Jorge Lopez Ramos, whose Greim elite mountain search and rescue team led the eight-day search for Esther last year before it was halted because of the bad weather, said snow on the north face of the peak on the French side of the border meant work there had to wait still.
He also said officers were counting on the possibility of information from the hikers who flock to the Pyrenees in the peak months of July and August if they found nothing earlier.
Civil Guard officers who have been working on the ground will be supported by a helicopter from this weekend onwards which will have a permanent base in the town of Benasque where Esther had been staying before vanishing.
A Spanish court probe opened after the Durham-born 37-year-old went missing remains open.
Mr 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.
“A helicopter has been assisting officers on the ground but we haven’t found anything.
“The south face of the Pico Salvaguardia can now be hiked to the summit without any problem.
“That’s one of the places we’ve looked because that’s where we know Esther made her last contact with her boyfriend and we haven’t found any clues that help us get any closer to finding her.
“There’s still snow on the north side near the summit on what would be the French side so nothing can be ruled out there for the moment.
“The snow there could take a month to melt but it’s impossible to give a precise date.”
He added: “Our busiest period of the year when we have to carry out most rescues is about to begin and we won’t be able to search for Esther systematically like we did at the beginning because of the resources we have and the fact that it would make no sense to repeat searches of possible accident locations which have already been looked at several times.
“But we’ll have a helicopter again here from June 19 and we’ll use it to rule out areas whilst looking at others on foot that we know to be difficult and maybe haven’t been searched as closely as the ones on the route Esther indicated she was going to take.
“The summer is the most likely time of the year when we’ll get information that could help us because that’s when most people are walking in the mountains.
“At the end of the day 1,000 eyes see more than eight, the summer is when more people leave the well-trodden paths for whatever reason and we’ve got a good chance of seeing some change to a situation which at the moment is the same as it was last year when the search was called off.
“The number of hikers in the area starts to increase towards the end of June but July and August are the two months when there is most people.”
Well-placed sources said Esther’s business development manager boyfriend remained in the area and the missing Brit’s mum Ria Dingley-Schoneveld had travelled to the Spanish Pyrenees earlier this year although she is thought to have left the region now.
Dan Colegate revealed in his last Facebook post in April that he had been exploring the lower altitude parts of the trail Esther had walked before she vanished, paying particular attention to woodlands bordering her proposed route.
Using the post to deny reports at the time the police search had resumed, he repeated an earlier claim he found it hard to understand why his girlfriend was not found in November “if she had suffered an accident”, and vowed to “continue to search because it is all I can do”.
He added: “I remain in regular contact with the authorities and I am recording all of my activities using a GPS device, passing this information to the police and search teams to assist their own planning when the time comes.”
Dan, who is being assisted by support group LBT Global, ruled out the idea of a voluntary disappearance in January and insisted Esther could have been harmed by someone and a criminal investigation was “absolutely necessary” while winter weather prevented police from searching for her in the mountains in the event she had an accident.
A woman judge based an hour’s drive away from the Pyrenees village of Benasque in Boltana remains in charge of the Spanish judicial probe sparked by Esther’s disappearance.
Maria Saenz Martinez has yet to approve the return of the camper van Esther had travelled to Spain in to her boyfriend.
The vehicle remains at a Civil Guard station in Benasque where it was taken for forensic analysis soon after Esther vanished.
French investigators have made their own inquiries and share information with their Spanish counterparts on a regular basis but are understood to have obtained no new indications about what might have happened to the missing Brit since the suspension of the mountain search.
Esther was expected to spend the night in an unmanned shelter on the French side of the border the day of her last conversation with her boyfriend but it is not known if she ever arrived.
They spoke after she reached the summit of Pico Salvaguardia, which the French called Pic de Sauvegarde, for the second time in two days.
She was seen by several witnesses including an Olympic Spanish skier she asked for some fruit hiking on the path leading up to the summit.
Esther’s mum admitted in February: “Each day has been nothing short of an excruciating hell for me, balancing on the edge of breaking down.
“Not knowing where she is or what has happened to our beautiful Esther is destroying me and our family.