A year after the Labor Day 2007 disappearance of famed aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett, a team made up of friends and admirers is searching for some sign of him or his small plane in rugged mountains just west of this west-central Nevada town.
The 28 searchers, headed by explorers Robert Hyman, Lew Toulmin and Bob Atwater, are hiking into steep, tree- and brush-choked canyons and gulches on the west slope of the Wassuk Range, dominated by towering 11,239-foot Mount Grant.
They're relying on new information that alters earlier reports on Fossett's likely path in the plane borrowed from longtime friend and wealthy hotel magnate Barron Hilton for what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight over familiar territory. He had flown over the area many times since the mid-1990s and once hiked to the top of Mount Grant.
"This is the right thing to do," Hyman said in a weekend interview at the search team's isolated camp in mountains about 20 miles west of Hawthorne. "Explorers don't leave fellow explorers lost. ... We want to find out what happened to our friend and colleague, no more and no less."
The main search area, only 10 to 15 miles from Hilton's Flying M Ranch, was flown over repeatedly last fall in what was described as the largest aerial search for a downed plane in U.S. history. An extensive ground search also was made. But Hyman said there's a lot of land that didn't get close scrutiny.
"While I feel he's under our nose here, he's in an area that's extremely hard to get to. It's the vertical terrain, it's the dark terrain, and it's the trees, the vegetation," Hyman said, adding, "You have to look for the perfect hiding spot, and not just scour the open terrain."
Fossett, 63, was declared legally dead in February by a Chicago judge. The multimillionaire's widow, Peggy Fossett, issued a statement supporting the latest effort, one of three private, self-funded searches this year. She spent $1 million on last year's search efforts. That's in addition to more than $1.6 million in Nevada agency costs.
"As the world marks the first anniversary of Steve's death, I am heartened by Bob Hyman's efforts to resolve the matter of Steve's disappearance," Peggy Fossett said. "My best wishes are with him and his team and I hope for their safe return."
Hyman's method of sifting through data obtained by previous searches, utilizing a new high-tech NASA computer program that helps to visualize the land under a plane's route, and then putting "boots on the ground" to trek over the rugged landscape drew praise from local authorities, whose investigation into Fossett's disappearance remains open and unsolved.
"If that aircraft didn't go straight down and kind of angled in under a stand of pine trees, it's going to take someone physically walking upon that scene to find it," said Lyon County, Nev., Undersheriff Joe Sanford.
"It's hard to believe in this day and age that someone could disappear like this - until you go up in an aircraft and look at how rough the terrain is. It's absolutely amazing," said Sanford. "And we're looking for something that's possibly only a foot or two square."
Hyman said research that he and Toulmin conducted since late last year turned up accounts of wrecks of similar aluminum-and-fabric planes no bigger than "a window-unit air conditioner or the size of a shopping cart or a washing machines. It could just be scattered debris."
The difficulty of finding the plane wreck invariably prompts comparisons to famed aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on an around-the-world flight attempt in 1937.
"They're both incredibly inspiring people," Toulmin said, adding, "If we don't find Steve Fossett, people are going to be coming out here for the next 50 years until he is found."
Toulmin and Hyman are hopeful about their efforts, which began Aug. 23 and will continue until Sept. 10, because they were able to narrow their search thanks to new information from a local pilot who was flying over the area on Sept. 3, 2007, the same day Fossett vanished.
Toulmin said that pilot confirmed his flight path appeared to match a radar path previously believed to have been Fossett's. The route initially prompted speculation that Fossett had flown farther east, possibly circling around Mount Grant. But with the new information, Hyman said his team was able to focus on a smaller area to the west.
The interview with the pilot was one of scores conducted by the searchers in advance of their trip to Nevada. Toulmin said the advance work was aimed at reducing what they're up against from "one needle in 100 haystacks to one needle in just one haystack."
Team members are up for the job. Many have been involved in major expeditions and high-altitude climbs, have expertise in search-and-rescue operations, and know how to use sophisticated mapping techniques. Several, like Fossett, are members of the New York City-based Explorers Club.
The latest hunt for Fossett follows a weeklong search by a team headed by Canadian geologist and adventure racer Simon Donato. Donato said he hoped the new effort would be successful - but if it isn't he's already making plans for another search in 2009.
Another search is being conducted by Mike Larson and Kelly Stephenson of Carson City, Nev. They have been riding ATVs and hiking on foot southwest of Hawthorne for several months on days off from work in search of Fossett.
Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 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. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world's best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Fossett pressed on because of his thirst for accomplishments, and had many close calls. But those who knew him well said he wasn't reckless. Fossett once said the most dangerous thing he ever did was fall off his bicycle in Chicago without a helmet on.
Born in Jackson, Tenn., in 1944, Fossett grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., and climbed his first mountain as a 12-year-old Boy Scout and got his pilot's license in college. On a fraternity dare in 1965, his senior year at Stanford, he swam to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
On the Net:
The Explorers Club: http://www.explorers.org/
Steve Fossett Challenges: http://www.stevefossett.com