Doctor and Daughter Missing Climbing Colorado Mountains

PHOTO: Michael von Gortler and Makana von Gortler, a father and daughter in Colorado who are missing after not returning from a climb at Missouri Mountain, are pictured in this undated file photo.PlayCourtesy Melani Holton
WATCH Colorado Dad, Daughter Missing on Hike

A doctor and his 20-year-old daughter are missing in Colorado after not returning from a climb up 14,000-foot-high Missouri Mountain.

Michael von Gortler, 53, an emergency room doctor and his daughter, Makana von Gortler, a junior at the University of Colorado, were last heard from around 12:20 a.m. on June 22 when Makana texted her boyfriend, Paul Kasemir, 25, to say that she and her father were going to climb the mountain in Chaffee County that day and drive back on June 23.

The father and daughter, both experienced climbers, have taken these trips for many years, and Dr. Von Gortler has written articles about climbing techniques and safety.

Family members and friends fear that the two may have been injured and are lost in dense forest, or that they may have been buried in snow, which is melting this time of year and can be unexpectedly perilous.

Extreme Trips Are 'Dangerous,' Mother Believes

The yearly trip began around June 14 when the duo went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. That is the last time Melani Holton, Makana's mother, spoke to her daughter, who did not tell her of plans to scale the mountain. When the trips begin, she said, the two are usually unreachable in areas with no cell phone service.

"This is something the two of them have done over the years," said Holton, who has been separated from Von Gortler for many years. "You have the parents that take their kids to the beach for vacation. That's me. And you have the parents that take their kids camping or hiking. That's Mike."

Holton said she has always been against the trips because she thinks they are dangerous, but Makana, which is Hawaiian for "gift," continues to accompany her father on them. Nevertheless, Holton said her daughter has said that the trips have gotten too extreme for her but she continues to go to be with her father.

Once, on a similar climb with another father and daughter, the Von Gortlers decided to go off-trail. The friends remained on-trail and grew worried when the Von Gortlers were nowhere to be found at the bottom. They contacted mountain rangers, who found Michael and Makana six hours later.

The father and daughter had planned to spend a few days after the climb at Dr. Von Gortler's vacation home in Buena Vista, Colo., before returning to Boulder, on June 25 or 26.

Holton thought she might see her daughter on June 26, but said it was "routine" when she did not hear from her and assumed she was catching up with her boyfriend and friends after the trip.

On Monday, when Holton did not hear from her daughter after trying a phone call, and voicemail and text messages, she began to feel "uneasy."

When she arrived at work the next morning, she had an e-mail from Makana's boyfriend saying he had not heard from her yet.

This is when she truly became concerned, Holton said.

"If he hasn't heard from her, this is not good," she said.

She began making more phone calls and contacted the Chaffee County sheriff's office. Dr. Von Gortler's car was found parked at the trail head, and a search began on Wednesday with skilled searchers, a sniffing dog and an airplane.

The Last Text Messages

Kasemir and Makana have been a couple for more than a year and a half. He was the last person to be in contact with her.

On June 21 at 6:15 p.m., Makana texted him, saying, "I just got back to Buena Vista with my dad. I left my phone here, its on roaming so i cant talk. We had a great time and were gonna try a 14 er tmrw. Ill be able to see you in a few days, Ive missed you too."

A "14er" refers to the Colorado mountains that exceed 14,000 feet.

"She was just hoping things would go well," Kasemir said. "Last year, it was really hard on her."

The last texts from Makana came very early on June 22. At 12:23 a.m., Makana texted, "Were hiking Mt Missouri tmrw, staying the night here and then driving back the 23rd. I will help my dad pack the next day, so I can see you the 25th and we can celebrate whatever month were in now."

The last message came a minute later: "Love you so much."

Two days later, Kasemir's multiple texts asking if she was back and if he could call her went unanswered.

A few family members experienced in climbing went to the mountain on Wednesday to search, including Makana's cousin and close friend, Nicole Box, 28.

"If you stay on the logical trail, you're good, but once you go illogical, it can be really dangerous," Box said. She describes the terrain as rocky, steep and almost covered with dense forest.

Box says the two are experienced climbers and describes Dr. Von Gortler as obsessive about packing survival equipment, to the point that Makana complains about heavy, excessive packing.

However, what worries Box is a potential water catastrophe. During this time of year, the snow from the top of the mountain is melting, causing roaring rapid-like rivers to continuously rush down the mountain side. People can lose their footing and be pulled into these when trying to get water.

"It roars. You can't scream her name because she wouldn't hear you," Box said.

The search continues today with more advanced rescue efforts, including 24 skilled searchers, more canine searchers, technical climbers and three helicopters, one of which is a Black Hawk that is shuttling searchers to higher altitudes in order to cover more terrain.

Suzanne Kutz, Box's mother and Makana's aunt, believes there are two main possible scenarios that could have happened.

The first is that the Von Gortlers have been injured and are stationary somewhere in the dense forest. She said the dogs are being air-lifted to strategic locations along the mountain, such as spots where the Von Gortlers may have gone off-path and along the mountain's rivers. If this is the case, she is hopeful that the dogs will be able to find them. Searchers are also looking in the reservoir at the base of the mountain where the rivers converge.

The second scenario is far more perilous. Kutz said that in order to get to the mountain's summit a snow field would have to be crossed. Holton's husband, Robert Holton, was searching yesterday and told her that these fields look like deep snow that can be walked on, but are actually much more sheetlike as they melt simultaneously from above and below. If someone were to step on this, there is a good chance they would fall through and be buried in snow, which could also turn into an avalanche.

Dave Cotten, an information officer for the emergency command post working with the Chaffee County sheriff's office, said that while these scenarios are both possibilities, the investigation is not focusing on any one scenario.

"We're still hopeful. They're skilled hikers in good shape," Cotten said. "It's rough but survivable. We're anticipating finding them fine." He said the search will continue through the holiday weekend, if need be.

Makana: "A Breath of Fresh Air"

Makana's mother also remains hopeful, and she was preparing to leave home for the mountain when she spoke to today.

Holton describes her daughter as "the sweetest, most loving and gentlest girl in the planet." Makana is a biology major in the pre-health department at the University of Colorado. Holton says her daughter loves music and dancing and is the president of the tango club at school.

Passionate about animals, Makana has volunteered at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida for two summers. She participated in the rescue and rehabilitation of a deformed dolphin named Winter, who was the first dolphin to receive a prosthetic fluke?the part of the tail that is parallel to the flippers and allows the animal to move its tail up and down. A major motion picture about this story, "Dolphin Tale," is set to be released in the fall. Holton said her daughter is incredibly proud of this experience.

"That's the kind of girl she is. There's a musical sound to her voice when she talks, and she just participates so fully in life," Holton said. "When her boyfriend's parents first met her, they described her as 'a breath of fresh air.'"

Holton asks that anyone with any information, however trivial it may seem, to call the Chaffee County sheriff's office at (719) 539-2596.

"I never wanted her to do any of this. All I want is my daughter back," Holton said.