ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (CBS4) — Authorities believe they have recovered the body of a man who went missing in Rocky Mountain National Park in February 1983. Rudi Moder, described as a 27-year-old West German living in Fort Collins and an experienced winter mountaineer, was reported missing six days after embarking on a planned backcountry ski trip.

(credit: CBS)

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He left the Zimmerman Lake trailhead on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park Feb. 13, 1983, and told a friend he was visiting to pick him up days later.

“My reaction was finally. Finally, we know where he was,” said Don Davis, now 72.

Davis remains a SAR manager for Larimer County Search and Rescue, but doesn’t work in the field any longer. He remembers the search for Moder well.

“The information we had at the time, he’s a West German citizen. He was in the West German Army. One of the things I remember hearing is he soloed in Nepal, there was some kind of circuit route. He did that alone. So from that, we know that he was very experienced in the mountain environment from his military training and some of the things he did.”

They had no photo, since Moder had not been in the country long. They knew whomever they found in the search area would likely be him.

Heavy snow fell between the time Moder went for days of skiing before he was reported missing. There were no tracks.

“They pretty much immediately found his food cache hanging in a tree, explained Davis.

Search crews examine avalanche debris during an effort to find a missing hiker in February 1983. (credit: Rocky Mountain National Park)

“And then they searched up into the Box Canyon area and as they were coming out, one person felt something on his ski. And he looked down and he’s like, ‘oh there’s a pack.’ So we found his pack and his snow cave because they dug around. And sleeping bag and stuff was in there so we knew he stayed there at least one night.”

They were told Moder had plans to ski above tree line. The area is rough and steep.

“I could see multiple avalanche paths that had run and we knew that that was a high probability that he had got caught in an avalanche.”

But after four days they gave up. Over the years, searchers and rangers walked the area in the summer months, but found nothing.

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In mid-August 2020, another hiker discovered what is believed to be Moder’s remains, the park stated in a news release Thursday morning. The skeletal remains were found in – remarkably – Skeleton Gulch.

“We searched Skeleton Gulch. But remember it’s a huge area,” said Davis.

Park rangers tried to do further searching after the remains were spotted last year, but had to stop because of the approaching Cameron Peak and East Troublesome wildfires. Then there was snowfall.

The investigation resumed this past summer. Park rangers, assisted by the FBI Evidence Recovery team, further searched the scene and found skis, poles and boots, along with remains of personal items believed to belong to Moder.

“We are assuming he was caught in an avalanche,” RMNP spokesperson Kyle Patterson told CBS4. “Remains were scattered within the slide path. It does not appear that there have been more avalanches in the same slide path based on tree size and growth.”

Periodic searches by park and county personnel in the years since produced no other clues.

(credit: CBS)

Since this summer’s recovery, the Grand County Coroner’s Office has attempted to identify the remains through dental records. The effort was not successful.

The remains have been returned to Germany with the help of that country’s government.

“It’s closure for our team members that were involved in that mission. I already talked to a couple of them.”

He feels for the family who may still be alive in modern-day Germany.

“Because it’s hard on the family when somebody disappears. I don’t care how old they are. There’s always, what happened to them.”

But about Moder, he thought, his loss was one that happened while pursuing a passion.

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“He died doing what he liked to do… At 27, you’re not thinking about your death at that point.”

Alan Gionet