ESTES PARK — “Jeff’s body has been found,” echoed the radio message that ended an eight-day search for park ranger Jeff Christensen on Saturday afternoon. “Please be safe on your return.”
The message dashed the hopes of more than 200 search-and-rescue volunteers hiking through a rugged 26-square-mile area in the Mummy Range looking for a sign of Christensen, 31.
A hiker found Christensen’s body at approximately 1 p.m. near Spectacle Lakes, southeast of Ypsilon Mountain, according to Rocky Mountain National Park officials, who said he probably fell.
News about Christensen’s death was slow to reach visitors of the park, however. Nearly an hour after park officials shared the news with reporters, a woman wrote a note on a message board in the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center asking for Christensen’s safety.
Christensen disappeared on July 29 while on a hiking patrol.
When he did not show up for work the next day, park officials mounted a search. Since then, search-and-rescue crews, helicopters and dog teams from around the state have been scouring the rough terrain for the experienced park ranger and veteran Winter Park ski patroller.
“We tried our best,” said Rocky Mountain National Park firefighter Emily Gubler. “That’s all I could do. This is definitely not wanted.”
Gubler and other grief-stricken searchers descended the Lawn Lake Trail on Saturday afternoon, some so overcome with emotion they had to be held up as they cried.
“At least it’s closure,” said Matt Bradley, a member of the Park County Search and Rescue team. “It’s sad. There’s so many things that can happen. And they do happen.”
National Park Service investigators are expected to know more about Christensen’s death in the next few days.
Park officials Saturday evening were unable to confirm whether the hiker who found the body was a member of a search team or how long it might have taken Christensen to reach Spectacle Lakes.
They also don’t know whether Christensen was alive Wednesday when searchers thought the ranger might be signaling for help with gunshots, smoke and clicking on a radio channel.
“Our hearts are heavy for his family, his National Park Service family, his friends and all search-and-rescue personnel who assisted with the effort to find Jeff,” incident commander Eddie Lopez said at a 7 p.m. news conference.
A couple from Oklahoma City reported seeing Christensen near the Mount Chiquita summit on the afternoon of July 29. He had told co-workers that morning that he was planning a backcountry patrol through the Mummy Range from the Chapin Pass Trailhead to the Lawn Lake Trailhead. The hike is 12-14 miles, with most of it on steep terrain above timberline.
“We know you were hoping for a better outcome,” said Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson, tearing up.
Christensen’s parents arrived in Colorado on Tuesday from Forest Lake, Minn. They had vowed to stay here until their son was found.
“They are pretty much coping right now with this news,” Patterson said. “Obviously, just like us, they were hoping for a happy ending, too. And that just didn’t happen.”
Patterson said Christensen had never patrolled this area before but that it was possible he had been hiking there on his own.
She said she believes this is the first on-duty death of a ranger in the park’s 90-year history.
Times-Call News Group staff writer Adrienne Hoenig contributed to this report.
Jenn Ooton can be reached at 303-684-5295, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.