When he saw Esther Dingley heading up the mountain road from the village of Benasque, Jose Antonio Ballarin wasn’t sure whether or not to stop his car.
Under Spain’s lockdown rules, the retired businessman shouldn’t have offered a lift to a stranger at all.
But something about the sight of the 37-year-old woman carrying a large khaki backpack made him pull over.
Esther, who often took lifts on hiking trips, jumped in and travelled with the 71-year-old and his grandson for five miles, chatting about her plans until they reached the footpath leading to the Pico Salvaguardia, or ‘safeguard peak’.
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 the one she was believed to have been planning
There, around 10.30am on Saturday, November 21, she set off up the mountain path from a spot known as Plan de l’Estany.
It was the day before the Oxford graduate was last seen in the Pyrenees.
Speaking exclusively to the Mail this week, Mr Ballarin said Esther discussed her route with him – and it was different from the one she was believed to have been planning.
When she went missing, she was thought to have been in the middle of a hike of several days, taking a circular route from Port de la Glere to Port de Venasque via Pico Salvaguardia.
Having set off from Benasque that Saturday morning, Esther was believed to be planning to spend Sunday night at the Refuge de Venasque before looping back to Port de la Glere and Benasque.
But she had previously changed her routes to get around icy tracks or to avoid bad weather and in her conversation with Mr Ballarin – conducted in French because she spoke no Spanish and he no English – she appeared to suggest she was considering crossing the Pyrenees into France.
She said she was going to French town 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 one she was believed to have been planning
Wearing a mask in the front passenger seat of his Subaru 4×4, she tried to show him her route on her phone but he was unable to look closely because he was driving.
Esther’s conversation with Mr Ballarin raises the possibility that she might have radically changed her plans at the last minute, perhaps explaining why there has been no sign of her despite extensive searches before winter blizzards set in last week.
Spanish and French police are now believed to be considering the possibility that her disappearance could have been ‘voluntary’.
A senior officer involved in the search has suggested her partner Daniel Colgate, 38, with whom she has been travelling around Europe in a camper van for six years, is considering settling down and that Esther dreaded the end of her nomadic lifestyle.
Pictured: Ms Dingley with her partner Daniel Colegate, who has been interviewed by police three times over her disappearance, who say he is being spoken to as a witness, not a suspect
Mr Ballarin, meanwhile, is haunted by the crossing of their paths. He said: ‘It’s terrible to think I was one of the last people to see her alive.
‘But when I look back, I don’t think she was doing anything foolhardy. She seemed perfectly happy. There was nothing that made me worry for her.
‘She was just a capable young woman heading up into the mountains for a few days of adventure. She seemed like a sensible young woman.’
Since this conversation took place, it has become clear that Esther returned the following afternoon to the Pico Salvaguardia after a short hike in the area.
This contradicts what she appeared to tell Mr Ballarin.
A dog walker took this picture (above) of missing British hiker Esther Dingley’s campervan with its light on and someone sleeping in the back parked in Benasque, Spain, on December 2 – ten days after she vanished
Their conversation took place several hours before Esther spoke to her partner, who guided investigators to her last known position and to the route she told him she was on.
Rescue teams have also scoured alternative routes.
Understandably, Mr Ballarin is worried. ‘I dropped her off and that was the last I saw of her,’ he said.
‘It was only a couple of days later that I found out there was a person missing and it was the woman I had given a lift to. The police spoke to me and I gave them the same information. It’s horrible to think something bad has happened to her.’
A n experienced hiker, Mr Ballarin warns that the lakes in the area are highly dangerous. The authorities are not ruling out the possibility that Esther may have fallen into freezing water.
Dan Colegate, the British partner of missing hiker Esther Dingley, was searching for her alone in the Pyrenees earlier this week. Pictured: A map showing the likely route she was thought to be taking
The so-called Boums lakes are among those close to where Esther was last seen. Beyond these, which are close to Bagneres de Luchon, there are numerous other deep water ‘pits’, which can be perilous.
France has specialist teams of ice divers able to enter mountain lakes but the problem in winter is getting them into position.
And with no clear evidence that Esther has fallen into one, it would be impossible to deploy divers to all of the lakes in the area.
Mr Ballarin said: ‘I think that if they were to search those lakes properly with divers, there’s a chance they could find Esther’s body and potentially even those of other mountaineers who have gone missing.
Esther Dingley, 37, was hiking the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain when she vanished, prompting a search and rescue operation that has since been suspended due to the weather
‘Once you lose your footing and start falling down the mountains here, there’s nothing to stop you.’
The last person to see Esther was Spanish Olympic skier Marti Vigo del Arco, who was coming down from Pico Salvaguardia with his girlfriend on November 22 at around 3pm as Esther was going up.
‘We know that she reached the peak because of the final selfie she took there and the phone conversation she had with Dan, just before 4pm.
A French investigating source said the possibility that she has walked down the mountain and is somewhere in Spain or France has ‘pretty much been ruled out completely’.
The source added: ‘By now she would have made contact with somebody. She is a very intelligent and capable woman who understands her responsibilities. There is no way that she would just ignore everybody.’
Mr Ballarin fears the worst. ‘I just hope she’s in some French city and just hasn’t got in touch for a reason 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.’