Snow gone, search for Steve Fossett resumes in rugged Nevada |

Snow gone, search for Steve Fossett resumes in rugged Nevada

Brendan Riley
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARSON CITY, Nev. ” The hunt for multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, who vanished in September after taking off by plane from a remote Nevada ranch, is resuming now that snow has melted in rugged mountains where he may have crashed.

The search won’t match last year’s, which covered about 20,000 square miles and involved a small air force of private and military planes, along with ground searchers and high-tech equipment. This time, two teams of volunteers will hike through a smaller area where the 63-year-old Fossett was last seen.

Previous searchers are providing maps and other detailed information on the harsh landscape the new teams plan to cover.

“The more people we have, the more eyes and boots on the ground we have, the better our chances are of locating Mr. Fossett,” said Gary Derks of the Nevada Department of Public Safety, who oversaw the 2007 hunt. “I wish them a lot of luck.”

One team will be headed by Simon Donato, a Canadian geologist whose avocation is adventure racing through wilderness areas around the world. In late July, he’ll bring as many as 10 other backcountry athletes, several with search-and-rescue expertise, to hike through a rugged area on the east slope of the Sierra where Fossett could have gone down.

“It’s going to be getting into those hard-to-reach areas and basically crossing them off the map,” Donato said. “The best-case scenario is that we find him. The worst-case scenario ” we’re making it easier for people in the future to continue this.”

Fossett, declared legally dead Feb. 15 by a judge in Illinois, “was a hero to so many people,” Donato said. “He had a huge following. People loved him. They love adventure, and he was pushing the boundaries. Somebody like that just deserves to be found.”

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 in a borrowed plane on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight, he headed toward Lucky Boy Pass in the Wassuks.

“He’s obviously in an area that you just can’t see from overhead, even with satellite imagery and high-altitude mapping and infrared and everything else,” Hyman said.

Fossett’s widow, Peggy, issued a statement that said that an analysis of high-tech mapping photography done in late 2007 was completed with no results. She’s not involved in the upcoming activity and has “no further plans for additional searching,” she said.

Fossett, an expert pilot, lived part-time in Beaver Creek, Colo.

He took off Sept. 3 from the rugged Flying M Ranch of his friend, hotel magnate Barron Hilton, about 80 miles southeast of Reno.

The land around Hilton’s ranch is so rugged that for some a continued search may seem hopeless. While there are plenty of bare areas that seem to typify Nevada, there also are broad swaths of pine, juniper and aspen trees that could easily hide a plane.

It has on occasion taken decades to find missing people and planes crashed in the area on the Nevada-California line.

“Don’t give up hope. We waited 60 years or more,” said Jeanne Pyle, who in mid-May was finally able to bury her brother, Ernest Munn, a World War II airman whose trainer plane disappeared in 1942 in the high Sierra about 100 miles from Hilton’s ranch.

Backpackers told rangers last August they found an ice-entombed body on 13,710-foot Mount Mendel. In March, the Defense Department said forensic experts determined it was Munn, the long-missing brother of Pyle and her two sisters. He was the second of four airmen aboard the missing plane to be identified.

“We often wondered if they would ever find him,” said Pyle, 87. “Who would have ever thought about ice preserving him. It’s just been a miracle.”