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.