A LUXURY flat on Repulse Bay Road is being cleared this weekend as a mother prepares for a heartbreaking return to her children in Paris. Two weeks ago today, Pascal Vernhes, her husband and the father of their two girls, went walking at Castle Peak in the New Territories. He has not been seen since and is missing, presumed dead. Without his body to grieve over, one question will torment Patricia Vernhes, their family and friends: how can a hiker disappear without trace in one of the most crowded cities in the world? A nine-day search for the 35-year-old hiker finally ended last Wednesday, abandoning him to the wild. It did provide searchers with some clues. But for the full picture they will have to wait for the rugged terrain to give up its secret in a month, a year, perhaps a decade. What the colleagues of Vernhes who joined the official search did learn was that within a short drive, MTR or bus ride from towering buildings resonating with the hustle and bustle of daily life in Hong Kong, lies unforgiving countryside that can swallow up even experienced hikers. The irony of someone perishing in the wilderness adjoining urban Hong Kong was not lost on the searchers. But the dangers are real and obvious. A slip which could cause a head injury or a sprained ankle could leave a walker stranded, facing death unless someone else passed by. Castle Peak stands above the new town of Tuen Mun in the Western New Territories. Lush rainforest grows around its base. Upper levels are exposed to the elements. The terrain is steep. Gullies are filled with two-metre high vegetation, some of it near-impenetrable. With stunning views to Tuen Mun, civilisation appears deceptively close. However, danger lurks. While the sounds of development and traffic rise up from the developed valley, trails on the side overlooking the urban area are deserted during the week except for a handful of elderly monks and nuns living in a nearby monastery. At the peak and on the undeveloped western side, it would be easy to disappear without trace, said Vernhes' boss, Iain Grist. 'It's really quiet up there,' he said. Few hikers realise the dangers of Hong Kong's many country parks and walking tracks, says the Civil Aid Service's senior operations and training officer (special operations) Edward Au Yin-shan, who joined the search. With urban areas seemingly so close, they are lulled into a false sense of security, he said. This is the trap Vernhes apparently fell into. Little is known about his movements on Sunday, August 30. A security guard saw him leave the building in his Toyota Camry about 10am. He was wearing a light grey T-shirt, shorts, backpack and - oddly for such a strenuous walk - yachting shoes. 'When you and the children are not here, I plan to climb [Castle Peak],' he had told his wife on an earlier visit to the monastery at the base of the 500-metre hill. She believes her husband - who had military training as part of his national service in France and was a keen hiker - would have packed water, fruit and, possibly, some bread. About 20 minutes later his car travelled through the Western Harbour Crossing using an electronic pass. When he failed to turn up for work at the Times Square offices of PR Asia the following day, his colleagues were immediately alarmed. 'We were worried when he didn't show up five minutes after he should have started work,' said colleague Eric Benoist, citing his punctuality. Late Monday afternoon, Vernhes' vehicle was found parked near the Tsing Shan monastery at the base of the peak where walking tracks began. A search of the tracks around Castle Peak began early on Tuesday. It was widened on Wednesday when Mrs Vernhes told police her husband liked to leave the path and go cross-country. This is another dangerous practice, says Mr Au. Only experts could safely leave paths, while only the fittest should attempt long hiking trails. The less-skilled should stick to family trails in country parks. Vernhes had left his mobile phone at home. It was a crucial mistake. Another, according to hiking experts, was setting out alone and failing to tell anyone where he was going that day. Not a shred of physical evidence was found by up to 200 police officers, members of the Police Tactical Unit, mountain rescuers from the Civil Aid Service, sniffer dogs and a Blackhawk helicopter crew using heat-detection equipment. Many questions have been asked during the two-week search: did he fake his own disappearance, did he have financial problems, was he kidnapped, was he robbed and murdered, could he have taken his own life? Police, colleagues and Mrs Vernhes say they have discounted all such theories. 'He would act as a responsible man,' Mrs Vernhes said, adding her husband had shown no inclination and had no reason to commit suicide. Mr Benoist, marketing director at PR Asia, described the financial chief as 'very serious' and stable. 'He is very honest and straightforward.' 'The only thing we can believe is that he lost his way in the mountain and got trapped,' said Castle Peak police assistant divisional commander Steven So Kam-pang, who co-ordinated the search. 'He's got no financial problems, he's got no family problems.' When friends and volunteers, who continued searching after the official effort was called off, came across evidence that illegal immigrants had been hiding in the thick scrub, fears grew that he had met with foul play. Another possibility is Vernhes might have strayed into the military firing range adjoining Castle Peak, possibly stepping on unexploded ordnance. Searchers stumbled across what they believed were mortar bombs near a landfill on Thursday. The most likely scenario, according to friends and searchers, is that he was injured in a fall after leaving the track and, unable to move, succumbed to the heat, dehydration or starvation over the next few days. Regular hiker Kaarlo Schepel said he had walked the tracks on 10 occasions but only once had seen other walkers. 'It's easy to get lost there and the conditions are difficult in areas,' he said. 'We don't like to go there,' said Conway Leung Nim-ho, an experienced member of the Hong Kong Mountaineering Union. 'It's very rough and very remote. There's little water and shelter. We've only been there once or twice and that's been in winter.' Mr Leung, a survival expert, believes Vernhes would have died within seven days from the heat and humidity. But it was not until he had been missing a week that Hongkong Telecom workers maintaining facilities recalled seeing Vernhes walking along the top. The workers' failure to report sighting Vernhes, despite press reports and the signs placed at the start of walking tracks and in the car park, frustrated his friends who are convinced others saw him but have not come forward. Parallels were also drawn with the case of 55-year-old Briton Keith Gibbs, whose remains were found by a villager on Lantau 10 weeks after he went missing and perished by a stream in October, 1996. It was believed he died after falling from a high ridge above Pak Mong village and summoned his remaining energy to form rocks into the emergency SOS signal. In the meantime, Patricia Vernhes and her two daughters will try to rebuild new lives in France without their husband and father, while his colleagues and friends in Hong Kong will mark his likely death with a solemn farewell.