BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — The hunt for multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who vanished in September after taking off by plane from a remote Nevada ranch, resumes today as a team of elite athletes and expert mountaineers starts hiking through rugged mountains on the California-Nevada border where he may have crashed.
The 10-member team is headed by Simon Donato, a Canadian geologist whose avocation is adventure racing through wilderness areas around the world. He’s focusing on remote, wooded areas near where the 63-year-old Fossett was last seen, areas that could have hidden wreckage from the small air force of private and military planes that searched for Fossett last year.
“Whether we luck out and find the wreckage or not, at least our tracks will be preserved so that in the future if someone wants to give this a try they’ll know where we already were and they can go to the next mountain range over,” Donato said in a weekend interview at a base camp between the Bodie Hills and Sweetwater Mountains.
The search area, with peaks ranging from 10,000 to more than 11,000 feet in elevation, is just east of the even higher Sierra Nevada and about 110 miles south of Reno. Because the area is close to the ranch of hotel magnate Baron Hilton, where Fossett was staying, Donato believes it’s the best place to conduct the search.
Search team members began arriving on Friday to set up camp. Donato said team members, who are paying for their own expenses, will continue their efforts through Friday and possibly Saturday, covering 15 to 20 miles a day depending on the terrain and staying in touch with Nevada authorities probing Fossett’s disappearance.
Efforts by various local, state and federal agencies to find Fossett were suspended last year. Previous searchers provided Donato with maps and other detailed information on the harsh landscape. With planes and high-tech equipment, about 20,000 square miles was covered from the air during the earlier efforts. Some ground searches also were conducted.
Donato considers Fossett, declared legally dead Feb. 15 by an Illinois judge, a hero to many people and dismisses speculation that his disappearance might have been staged, saying, “We’re here on the premise that he did crash, unfortunately. I really respect him. He has done so much.”
Donato, 31, isn’t the only private search organizer looking for Fossett. In late August, Robert Hyman, a Washington, D.C., investor and alpinist, plans to bring in a team of up to 15 climbers, mountain guides and others with backcountry expertise to check an area just east of where Donato will search.
Hyman said he will focus in and around the Wassuk Range, dominated by 11,239-foot-high Mount Grant. When Fossett took off Sept. 3 from Hilton’s ranch in a plane on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight, he headed toward Lucky Boy Pass in the Wassuks.
The search area is so rugged that for some a continued search may seem hopeless. It has on occasion taken decades to find missing people and planes crashed in the area on the Nevada-California line.
Fossett’s widow, Peggy, has issued a statement that said that an analysis of mapping photography done in late 2007 was completed with no results, she’s not involved in the latest search activity and has “no further plans for additional searching.”TIMELINE
SEPT. 3, 2007: Steve Fossett leaves hotel magnate Baron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, south of Yerington, in a small plane on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight.
SEPT. 19: The National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol turn up no signs of Fossett or his plane and end most of their searches. Other searches continue.
FEB. 15, 2008: Illinois judge declares Fossett legally dead at the request of his wife, Peggy.
MAY 1: Gov. Jim Gibbons announces a plan to bill Fossett’s widow for the $687,000 state cost of conducting a search.
JUNE 11: Peggy Fossett refuses to pay.
JUNE 27: A legislative panel allocates $419,000 to the Office of the Military to offset some of the agency’s costs for last fall’s search.
TODAY: A 10-member team of athletes and mountaineers plans to renew the search for Fossett.