A team of elite athletes and expert mountaineers has ended a weeklong hunt for Steve Fossett, finding no sign of the missing adventurer or his plane but eliminating miles of rugged terrain from areas that still must be searched.
The searchers, headed by Canadian geologist and adventure racer Simon Donato, 31, packed up their gear on Saturday after taking a day to explore a steep canyon in Nevada's Wassuk Range, dominated by 11,239-foot-high Mount Grant. That followed six days of hiking in the Sweetwater Mountains and Bodie Hills to the west, on the state's border with California.
"We didn't find what we were looking for, but we covered a lot of land that can basically be crossed off the (search) map now," team member Greg Francek said in a telephone interview. "We were looking for wreckage probably the size of one or two shopping carts - and it's hard describe the huge scale of the wild, tough country we were in. It's really something."
For their volunteer efforts, the 10 team members got more than blisters, scratches from thick brush, and run-ins with a bear, bobcat, rattlesnake and scorpion. They also won praise from local authorities whose lean budgets prevent them from the sort of extensive searching that followed Fossett's disappearance last September.
"We appreciate any help from anyone who has a desire to go out," said Lyon County, Nev., Undersheriff Joe Sanford. "I truly believe this thing will come to a close through an outdoorsman."
"We simply don't have the resources or the funding to continue to go out and look unless we have a solid lead. Up to that point, we are truly relying on individuals," Sanford added. "It's great that they have the wherewithal and the interest to keep this thing alive."
There were some highs during the week, such as finding a small aluminum door that appeared to have come from a plane. But team member Greg Francek said a close look at the door showed that it probably came from a snowcat, an enclosed vehicle that moves on tracks through snow.
Francek said the door had an external handle and heavy hinges more likely to be seen on a snowcat than on a plane. He added the door, even if from a plane, was too old to have come from the fabric and aluminum-frame plane Fossett was flying when he disappeared last September.
While one private search for multimillionaire Fossett is over, others are continuing or are in the planning stages.
Mike Larson, 49, of Carson City, said Friday that he and search partner Kelly Stephenson have narrowed a broad area to a 15-square-mile "red zone" in which they've been riding ATVs and hiking on foot for several months on days off from work in search of Fossett.
Larson, a federal land surveyor, said he's utilizing sophisticated electronic data and information developed during last year's search efforts, which cost government agencies and individuals at least $1.6 million, and believes he's on the right track.
Larson won't pinpoint the "red zone," other than to say it's southwest of Hawthorne, a small Nevada town that Fossett, declared legally dead in February, may have flown over or near after taking off from a remote Nevada ranch owned by his friend, hotel magnate Barron Hilton.
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 search in the Wassuks, near Hawthorne. When Fossett took off Sept. 3 from Hilton's ranch on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight, he headed toward Lucky Boy Pass in the Wassuks.
The search areas are so rugged that for some a continued search may seem hopeless. It has on occasion taken decades to find missing people whose planes crashed in the area. Some have never been found.
Fossett's widow, Peggy, has issued a statement that an analysis of high-tech 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."
Fossett gained worldwide fame for his scores of attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon.