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DNA confirms bones belong to Steve Fossett

Today is a happy ending to a truly sad story. It was confirmed over the weekend through DNA testing of long bones discovered ~500 m from the crash site that were recovered last Thursday. This puts to rest the mystery of a great adventurer’s disappearance for good. While the finality of this sinks in, I am happy that there is closure to this story. Steve led a life that was admirable in many ways. One of the greatest lessons I learned from his life was to perservere towards your goal, and not to let failure or obstacles stand in your way. With his multiple attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a baloon, it is clear that failure was not an insurmountable obstacle in the pursuit of one’s dreams. I hope that Steve’s legacy lives on and that it continues to have a positive influence on adventure and exploration.

Steve Fossett’s Wreckage Found

I’m definitely very excited to be able to write this. It has been a little over a week from the positive identification of Fossett’s wreckage near Minnaret Lake, Mammoth Lakes California. As predicted and expected, it was a hiker who actually found the critical clue to locating his wreckage. The wreckage did not appear burned, was scattered at the treeline around 10,000 feet, and covered an area greater than a football field with debris, with the engine block sitting nearly 100 m from the fuselage. Despite there being nothing more than a sliver of bone to indicate that Steve was in the aircraft when it hit the mountain, this discovery puts the mystery to rest for me as a full winter and animals would make finding remains challenging. The best part is that this should put the conspiracy theories and associated garbage to rest for good. Steve Fossett deserves to be remembered as the adventurer and pioneer that he was, not a cop-out who couldn’t face adversity as several individuals tried to paint him.

So what are my thoughts on this, and how does it relate to our search? Well, I’m definitely not surprised that he was found in the Sierra Nevadas. That was our premise going down, that he did fly the 395 Hwy as he had stated prior to leaving the ranch, and that he was sight seeing in the beautiful alpine meadows when he probably ran into difficult winds, or the aircraft was too underpowered to clear the peak that he struck.

Where was he relative to us you ask? About 70  km south. Our initial search plan was to be split between the Sweetwater area and Yosemite, as we had obtained permission to search both. I had considered the Mammoth area, but was intrigued by the mystery cell-phone photo taken in Yosemite by a female hiker who was annoyed by a low flying plane. Ultimately, the plan was to spend 3 days in each location. However following the tip we received during our alclimitization day on Monday in the Bodie Hills, we refocused our efforts on the northern valleys, which ended up eating into our remaining time and then it became impractical to go to Yosemite.

In the Yosemite region, Keith and I had discussed visiting the area around Amelia Earhart peak, as well as the south trending valleys in Touloumine meadows. Although I don’t expect that we would have made it to where the wreckage was found, we would have been within at least 10 km, which would have been pretty exciting…but, we weren’t.

This whole process has been very interesting. I remember an early phone call that I had with another search group, and when I mentioned that my search area would be in the Sierra’s around Mono Lake this individual told me flat out that “I was wrong…he’s not there, we know where he is and are getting very close to finding him”. Ummmm, okay. Turns out they were dead wrong too, and searching well east of the Sierras on the edge of Whisky Flats.

The greatest difficulty I had in this whole process, was obviously determining the search area and trying to narrow it down to promising areas. This meant discounting the experts, and much of the exisiting data, which appeared to me as conflicting and therefore unreliable, but still better than nothing. The radar tracks through Powell Canyon, Whisky Flats, and south of Hawthorne were intriguing, but could have been made by anyone. The eye witness cowboy who had seen the plane hundreds of times before claimed he saw the plane fly east towards Mud Springs around 11 am…yet the radar track were around 10 am. Which was it? Neither in my opinion, so I focused on some other information…namely that Fossett said he was flying the 395 Hwy towards Bishop, that he grew up climbing mountains in the Sierra Nevadas and obviously loved the region, the scenery is spectacular, and that he’s flown gliders in that area many times and is likely quite familar with the terrain. Of all the tips (after interviewing the Mammoth Lakes patrolman), the most intriguing to me was the cell-phone photo which was shown to a park ranger, discounted by him/her, and ultimately erased from the phone. So, with this information I put together my search swath: high elevation terrain, off the beaten path, well forested, and scenic. Those were my main criteria. The start point was Mt. Patterson, and the end point was just south of Mammoth Lakes. Although I didn’t make my ultimate decision until I arrived in Bridgeport base camp, I decided that it made sense to start in the north and move south…methodically. That is why we didn’t jump to Yosemite immediately. I do remember talking with Keith though, and him being excited about Amelia Earhart peak and Simmon’s peak (which I quickly read as Simon’s peak) and said this is fate…we have to go there! Guess we should have.

Following Fossett’s discovery, many people told me that they were sorry that the team had been scooped or that someone else found him etc. Trust me, there is no need to be sorry. I am extremely happy that he has been found and that his family and friends have closure, and don’t have to deal with speculation that he faked his death. That must have been a terrible ordeal for them. Ultimately, this search was not about my team, or anyone elses team finding him and basking in the glory. Of course it would have been satisfying if our efforts did payoff, or those of another team, but the goal here was to provide closure on a mystery involving a personal hero. That was it. I felt that my team had something to offer that was unique and positive, and that is what we set out to do. Search terrain that had not been searched due to it’s ruggedness and inacessibility. In regards to Robert Hyman and Lew Toulmin’s well organized search that ran in August/Sept, I can say that we worked together to share information and apply our research and resources to solving the mystery. Based on both team’s searches, I think that many positive elements can be extracted and used for future search and rescue efforts to hopefully to save lives.

I’m sure I’ll have a few final thoughts, but I’m very pleased that the wreckage has been found, and my hat goes off to Mr. Morrow who found the id cards and led to the resolution of this mystery. Well done. Rest in peace Steve.

Search Summary

Well, it’s been several weeks since my team and I finished our search and I’ve had some time to reflect on the expedition. I’ve also had some time to think about the recent suggestions from the British insurance investigator that Steve Fossett faked his death, and is living abroad. Before I discuss my thoughts on the search, I should just say now more than ever, after seeing the terrain with my own eyes, I believe that Steve Fossett did crash. He was a man of impecable character by all accounts and I find it very difficult to believe that he would arrange his disappearance in this manner.

My feelings about the search are definitely mixed. I am very proud of my team for covering the terrain that we did with a high probability of detection. Our work has produced detailed data which I have and will provide to other teams/individuals interested in searching. The expedition also reaffirmed that there are still places near heavily populated areas that the outside world has forgotten about. This was clear to me as we found native artifacts, old and untouched mining structures and shafts, and travelled through terrain where the only trails were made by deer and bear. We were in a very isolated area and when we left our support vehicle each day were entirely self-reliant.

Many people have asked me since my return, “Will I continue to search”? The short answer is “yes”, although I do not know when I get back. I am continuing to collaborate with individuals that are interested in finding Steve and there is the potential to work together in the future. I am pleased with our search method though and would definitely look to employ the same techniques (with minor refinement) in the future as I believe it can produce excellent results.

The team has also completed the final phase of medical testing upon their return to Canada, and I will be posting the results of the study (which looked at daily energy requirements for each athlete) online in the next month or so.  In addition, I will be posting a photo gallery with some of my favorite images taken during the expedition.

To conclude, I firmly believe that Steve Fossett’s plane wreckage will be discovered in the wilderness eventually and I encourage other searchers to get involved…it is a huge area to be covered. Just be safe and be prepared, because the search area is rugged and very dangerous. It is definitely not a place for the inexperienced.

Day 6 and Search Summary

Day 6 was spent on more of a reconnaissance hike through the Cottonwood Creek Canyon on the northern slope of Mt. Grant as we were following up on a lead from a top aircraft crash expert. The initial plan was to drive to a specific  lat/long coordinate and search the slopes for several miles around that point. This idea was foiled though when we arrived to find the road gated. Instead we ended up trekking in and scanning the terrain as we went. The canyon is definitely an interesting area with mixtures of bare rocky and craggy slopes with moderately forested upper slopes in places. We also saw several large herds of mountain sheep and Greg Francek caught a deadly wasp (for his son’s insect collection. This day was the hottest by far, with the temperature reaching 42 degrees Celsius. Due to our time constraints, we did not travel far from the main road through the canyon, but did collect video footage of the area which may be of use for future search efforts.

By 3 pm on Saturday afternoon, our search had officially come to a close without locating Steve Fossett’s airplane. This was obviously disappointing for me, but the team and I knew that we were up against tough odds considering the expert searching that had preceded us. Ultimately we know that we were able to add new information to the search, and our effort can rule out specific areas from future searches.

Being on the ground though in this area, one gets a true sense of how vast and rugged it truly is, and why it is not unfathomable that an airplane flown by one of the greatest pilots of our time could not only crash, but vanish. In my opinion this is a mystery that will be solved by putting people on the ground. If enough back country hikers, athletes, or hunters travel the more remote and difficult to reach areas I think that the wreck will be found.

Overall I am proud of what the team accomplished during the week, and although we did not find the wreck, we have thoroughly covered over 100 km2, and perhaps have provided inspiration for other adventure athletes with similar skills to offer to use these skills to help others through SAR or similar groups. The team learned much during the week and we were able to hone our searching skills and become very efficient by the end.

Will we return to continue searching? Possibly. None of us like to quit or lose so time will tell. We will share our search information with others though, and provide maps of the areas we searched so to avoid duplication for any future search efforts. Collaboration and cooperation are important to this overall process and we will ensure that it happens on our end.

Thank you for following the search expedition, and thank you to those who took time to write encouraging emails and to provide helpful information.

 

Day 5 Summary

Day 5 felt like the hotest day of them all. We recorded a mid-day temperature of 35 degrees Celcius, but the dryness of the air made us all drink litre upon litre of water. Today was also a very interesting day as it was the final day of the formal search, and we found the most debris yet today.

We all woke early as usual, but had to take a bit longer to depart because we downloaded all of our heart rate and elevation data from our Suunto watches. When I have a chance to view it all it will be really cool to compare heart rate to elevation for all of the athletes. It will also be very useful to Dr. Tarnopolsky and his team as they analyse our fitness data when we return.

We searched the Sonora Canyon today and surrounding area. This region is full of old mine shafts and ruined mining buildings. Consequently, there is lots of metal debris in the area, which kept us very busy while searching. We did not find any aircraft wreckage however.

Today was a challenging day too as the effort of the previous 4 days seemed to catch up wih the team and we really had to work hard to keep the pace high. All members of the team are in good spirits, healthy, but busy tearing down camp in preparation for an early departure from the area.

We are planning to travel towards the Flying M ranch to get a sense of where Steve Fossett’s last flight originated.

My thoughts on the week is that we covered an incredible amount of terrain and all of the team worked very hard and suffered extremes each day. Despite all of this, they were all ready to go early each morning and approached each day with enthusiasm and professionalism. I am very proud of this team and the effort that they have put into this.

I will post another update tomorrow with any new information and my final thoughts on this week.

 

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