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Missing hiker’s family finds a way to give back to searchers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When we lose someone we love, grief is a path lined with friends and family offering their hands, shoulders, ears, thoughts and prayers that often cannot reach beyond our darkness and our numbness, so, at times, it feels our journey is traveled very much alone.

Members of the Cook family of Corrales – from left, Ryan, 16; Sara, 11; mother Maureen; and Kate, 19 – wear the T-shirts that will be available for sale starting Sunday to raise funds for the Dave Gives Back initiative. (Courtesy of Jesse Zuretti)

Maureen Cook of Corrales has been on such a journey since September 2016 when her husband, Dave Cook, set off on what was to be a happier journey of his own high into the iconic Maroon Bells in the Elk Mountains near Aspen, Colorado, and never returned.

Five years later, her journey has brought her to a clearer, stronger place than she was when I first reached out to her for a column about Dave in 2017, a year after he went missing.

She is ready now to talk about how she plans to honor Dave’s memory by thanking those who tried to bring him back home to her and those who do the same for others when the wilderness turns too wild.

Dave Gives Back launches Sunday to promote mountain safety education and fundraise through the sale of T-shirts, tank tops, baseball hats and water bottles on the website, with 100% of the proceeds going to search and rescue organizations.

Merchandise is emblazoned with the campaign’s logo, a depiction of a hiker against the silhouette of the Maroon Bells.

Sunday’s start date was chosen to coincide with the beginning of National Search and Rescue Week.

“These incredible organizations are almost always made up of volunteers and can be called upon any time of the day or night to help those lost or injured in the area,” Cook wrote as part of the Dave Gives Back mission statement. “It was very difficult to watch the many search and rescue volunteers put their lives on the line attempting ground and air searches, and exposing themselves to the potential of injury in the extreme terrain and weather of the Elk Mountain range. Those unselfish individuals put their personal lives on hold to help us and we will forever be grateful for their efforts, even though we have yet to find Dave.”

Dave Cook, 49, of Corrales, was an expert climber who had summited nearly 50 peaks higher than 14,000, feet but disappeared in September 2016 on a trip to the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colo. (Courtesy of The Cook Family)

It had been so unexpected. Dave was an experienced, fit and careful climber, summiting more than 50 peaks in Colorado since high school and aiming to conquer his 47th fourteener – the term for peaks with elevations of at least 14,000 feet – on Sept. 19, 2016, a week after his 49th birthday.

A parking pass left in his black Jeep that warm, sunny day indicated that he had arrived at the base of the Bells at 11 a.m. He was seen heading up toward the Bells around 1:40 p.m. Pings off his cellphone from one of the peaks were noted between 4 and 6 p.m.

And then, nothing.

“They could not find Dave, but those search and rescue folks were the lifeline I needed,” Cook said.

Since then, she has tried to gain her footing on her own, find the way forward and find something meaningful to do in Dave’s name.

“I didn’t have the energy for a long time,” she said. “I kept thinking that, once we found him and had a proper funeral, I would find that strength and healing to take that next step.”

But, as time passed, with no Dave and not as much healing as she might have liked, she took that next step, anyway.

“I knew I had to,” she said. “I had to come to know that I could do this on my own.”

So she continued on as the single parent to their three children, Kate, 19, Ryan, 16, Sara, 11. She continued on as the boss of their company, Right Sized Inventory, an inventory optimization tool.

And she continued to be inspired by the card Dave kept above his desk where he wrote the eight missions he lived by:

Have a positive attitude. PT (physical training) and live healthy. Motivate yourself and others. Earn respect. Set goals. Live with integrity. Mentoring. Have fun.

Selecting a mission became a Cook family tradition. Every New Year’s Day, each of them chooses theirs for that year – anything from losing weight to practicing the piano more.

This year, Cook’s mission is to honor her husband at the five-year mark.

“It just felt like the right time,” she said.

Dave’s eight missions, in his own handwriting, will be printed on the back of the T-shirts.

Future events for Dave Gives Back are expected to include sales of such seasonal items as mugs and beanies, and a charity run through Corrales.

Monetary donations are always accepted and are tax-deductible, she added.

It is still new terrain for her, stepping outside her cocoon to meet new people, new challenges, without Dave. It had made her feel too vulnerable in the past to ask for help after his disappearance. Now, she is willing to ask for that help to make Dave Gives Back a success.

“This feels right,” she said. “Now, I go to bed feeling gratified. And I think Dave would be proud.”

So far, the help she needs has fallen into place, the hands of those friends and family along her path still reaching out to her.

Now, as she continues along her journey, she is reaching back to them.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.