IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Questions linger in death of family who went 'off the grid' in Colorado wilderness

The partially mummified bodies of sisters Rebecca and Christine Vance and Rebecca's teenage son were discovered at a remote campsite this month, officials said.
Rebecca and Christine Vance.
Rebecca Vance, left, and her sister, Christine, were found dead at a campsite in western Colorado, along with Rebecca's teenage son, in July.Courtesy Desiree McDonald; via Facebook

Rebecca Vance had always been a private person, staying off social media and not one to trust others so easily. After the Covid pandemic forced her to isolate with her teenage son in their Colorado Springs, Colorado, apartment, she continued to home-school him when classrooms reopened.

Then, last summer, Vance carried out a vision with her son and her sister, Christine, to live "off the grid" in the wilderness, disconnected from a society of which she had grown increasingly fearful.

"I can definitely see Rebecca thinking that it was going to better their lives," Desiree McDonald, a friend and former co-worker, said Friday, adding, "I now know that they didn't prepare enough ahead of time. I just wish I knew."

Friends and loved ones of the sisters said they were stunned to learn this week that officials in rural Gunnison County had identified three "partially mummified" bodies discovered earlier this month as Rebecca Vance, 42; Christine Vance, 41; and Rebecca's son, 14, who was not named publicly because of his age.

A hiker found one of the decomposed bodies at a remote campsite near the Gold Creek Campground in Gunnison National Forest, Gunnison County coroner Michael Barnes said. Two of the bodies were inside a tent.

Barnes said it appeared that the group was building a "lean-to" type shelter, a roofed structure generally made from logs and used to protect from the elements.

"It is unknown exactly when they died," Barnes said in an email. “I presume sometime during the winter,” he said, adding that the cause of death may have been related to exposure to cold weather and malnutrition.

Barnes said carbon monoxide poisoning may also have been at play, since it appeared they were burning tinder in empty soup cans inside of their tent for heat.

Dental records and fingerprints were used to help identify the bodies. An official cause of death is pending the results of a toxicology report.

Questions surround not only what happened to the Vance sisters and Rebecca Vance's son, but what exactly led them to choose such a risky way of life when none of them were known to be skilled in the outdoors.

"It's hard to wrap your head around why they chose to go," stepsister Trevala Jara said. "It's hard for me."

Jara said the pandemic "broke the camel's back" for how Rebecca Vance was feeling. Her stepsister had confided in her that she wanted to live in the wild.

"Everybody felt the change in the atmosphere, the change in the politics. But she didn't like the way it was all changing," Jara said.

Rebecca and Christine Vance had explained in vague terms to other family members that they were going out of state, and kept details about their whereabouts hidden, even from Jara.

Nevertheless, "they were wonderful people," Jara said. "They had good heads on their shoulders."

Rebecca Vance, who went by the name Becky, was the more reserved sister and "booksmart," Jara said, having once worked at the now-defunct electronics chipmaker Atmel Corp.

Christine Vance was the "street smarts" sister who was more outgoing and liked to seek out relationships, Jara said. Initially, Christine didn't seem like she was going to accompany Rebecca, but last summer, she arrived at Jara's home with an urn of their mother's ashes and their deceased parents' belongings for Jara to have for safekeeping.

Jara attempted to appeal to her stepsisters to go slow with their plan and test out living off the grid on a property that she owns in the mountains with her husband that relies on a generator. Rebecca Vance resisted, she said.

While there are tens of thousands of people in the U.S. estimated to be living in communities that are known to have no access to electricity or running water, it's unclear how many purposefully choose such an extreme existence — untethered to society and the conveniences of modern life.

Interest by people wanting to prepare for an unknown future has soared in recent years, said retired Air Force Col. Drew Miller, the chief executive of Fortitude Ranch, which describes itself as a "private membership vacation country club and survival community" in Colorado.

He cautions against people living as lone wolves in the wilderness, believing they can survive harsh winters and summers without any kind of sustainable shelter and food source.

"You have to have a lot of investment," Miller said. "You have to stockpile food and have weapons and ammo. In the winter, you won't last long at all in the forest in a tent."

Concern over major "trigger events," such as a global pandemic, earthquakes or collapse of the electrical grid has prompted people to look into survival communities like his, he said.

Jara said it's unclear why her stepsisters thought they could live off the land without any experience.

Those who knew Rebecca and Christine Vance over the years agreed.

"I couldn't even imagine her back in the woods," said Leann Mitchell, who worked with Christine Vance at a Taco Bell in Colorado Springs about seven years ago.

McDonald, who worked with Rebecca Vance at Atmel from 2008 to 2014, considered her her best friend on the job. Outside work, they would go on outings together with their children, including to a snow mountain ranch in the Rockies, and do crafting and baking projects at home.

"She was not into social media and lived a very private life," McDonald said. "I am so grateful that I had an opportunity to be part of her life during those times. She was so sweet, and when she let you into her life, she loved you and was caring and kind."

The pair lost touch after McDonald left the job at Atmel but rekindled their friendship at the end of 2020 through text messages. McDonald said Rebecca Vance told her her son was initially struggling with the transition to home-schooling and she hoped life could go back to normal.

"She said she was glad we got back into contact and that once everything calms down we could see each other," McDonald said.

But that never happened.

Jara said she is struggling with what else she could have told her stepsisters, and sees what happened to them as a cautionary tale.

"If you think you can go live off the grid and do it by just watching YouTube and the internet, think twice. You need to experience it first," she said.

But at least, Jara said, they had one another.

"They were not crazy," she said. "They were very loved."