When he saw Esther Dingley from the village of Benasque driving up the mountain road, Jose Antonio Ballarin was unsure whether or not to stop his car.
According to the Spanish blocking rules, the retired businessman should not have offered a stranger an elevator at all.
But something about the sight of the 37-year-old woman carrying a large khaki backpack made him drive by.
Esther, who often took the elevator on hikes, jumped in and traveled five miles with the 71-year-old and his grandson. They talked about their plans until they reached the footpath that led to Pico Salvaguardia or the "Protective Summit".
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 what was believed to have planned it
There she made her way to the mountain from a place called Plan de l & # 39; Estany at around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 21st.
It was the day before the Oxford graduate was last seen in the Pyrenees.
Speaking exclusively to the Post this week, Mr Ballarin said Esther had discussed her route with him – and it was different from the one she believed she planned.
When she went missing, she was probably in the middle of a multi-day hike and took a circular route from Port de la Glere via Pico Salvaguardia to Port de Venasque.
After Esther left Benasque that Saturday morning, she planned to spend Sunday evening at Refuge de Venasque before returning to Port de la Glere and Benasque.
But she had previously changed her routes to avoid icy stretches or bad weather, and in her conversation with Mr Ballarin – in French because she didn't speak Spanish and he didn't speak English – she seemed to propose going the Pyrenees to France cross .
She said she was going to the French city of Bagneres de Luchon and mentioned the city of Toulouse.
Jose Antonio Ballarin said Esther discussed her route with him – and it was different from the route she supposedly planned
She was wearing a mask in the passenger seat of his Subaru 4×4 and was trying to show him her route on her phone, but he couldn't look closely because he was driving.
Esther's conversation with Mr Ballarin suggests she radically changed her plans at the last minute and may explain why, despite extensive searches prior to the onset of the winter storms, she hadn't seen any signs of her over the past week.
It is believed that the Spanish and French police are now considering the possibility that their disappearance may have been "voluntary".
A senior executive who was involved in the search suggested that her partner Daniel Colgate, 38, with whom she has been traveling Europe in a motorhome for six years, is considering settling down and that Esther feared the end of her nomadic lifestyle.
Pictured: Ms. Dingley with her partner Daniel Colegate, who has been interviewed three times by police about her disappearance and says he will be approached as a witness and not a suspect
Meanwhile, Mr. Ballarin is haunted by the crossroads of their paths. He said, "It is terrible to think that I am one of the last people to see you alive.
“But when I look back I don't think she did anything foolhardy. She seemed perfectly happy. There was nothing to worry about her.
She was just a capable young woman who went to the mountains for a few days of adventure. She seemed like a reasonable young woman. "
Since that conversation it has become clear that Esther returned to Pico Salvaguardia the following afternoon after a short hike in the area.
This contradicts what she seemed to be saying to Mr Ballarin.
A dog walker took this picture (above) of British hiker Esther Dingley's missing motor home with the lights on and someone parked in Benasque, Spain, on December 2nd – ten days after she disappeared
Their conversation took place several hours before Esther spoke to her partner, who led investigators to her last known location and the route she told him she was on.
Rescue teams have also searched alternative routes.
Understandably, Mr Ballarin is concerned. "I dropped her off and that was the last time I saw her," he said.
“Just a few days later, I found out that one person was missing and it was the woman I had taken away. The police spoke to me and I gave them the same information. It's horrible to think something bad has happened to her. "
As an experienced hiker, Mr. Ballarin warns that the lakes in the area are very dangerous. Authorities don't rule out the possibility that Esther may have fallen into frozen water.
Dan Colegate, the British partner of missing hiker Esther Dingley, looked for her alone in the Pyrenees earlier this week. Pictured: a map showing the likely route it should take
The so-called Boums Lakes are among those near which Esther was last seen. In addition, there are numerous other deep water pits near Bagneres de Luchon that can be dangerous.
France has specialized teams of ice divers who can enter mountain lakes, but the problem in winter is getting them into position.
And without clear evidence that Esther fell into one, it would be impossible to use divers on all of the lakes in the area.
Mr. Ballarin said, "I think if you search these lakes properly with divers, there is a chance you will find Esther's body and possibly even that of other climbers who have disappeared."
37-year-old Esther Dingley was wandering the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain when she disappeared, resulting in a search and rescue operation that has since been suspended due to weather conditions
"As soon as you lose your footing and fall down the mountains here, nothing can stop you."
The last person Esther saw was Spanish Olympic skier Marti Vigo del Arco, who was coming down with his girlfriend from Pico Salvaguardia on November 22 at around 3 p.m. when Esther was ascending.
“We know that from the last selfie she took there and the phone conversation with Dan, she climaxed shortly before 4pm.
A French investigation source said the possibility that she went down the mountain and was somewhere in Spain or France has been "virtually completely ruled out".
The source added, “She would have contacted someone by now. She is a very intelligent and capable woman who understands her responsibilities. There was no way she would just ignore them all. "
Mr Ballarin fears the worst. "I just hope she's in a French town and for some reason she didn't check in 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."
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