Adventure Raci… Searching!March 16, 2009
By Kevin Mackinnon
Adventure science is about getting outside, exploring the world, and understanding nature in a scientific way. This can be in your backyard, or in the most remote region you can imagine. Adventure scientists explore the world in a low-impact manner, using non-motorized means when possible to make new discoveries. The concept of adventure science was developed by runner Dr. Simon Donato to solve and explore nature’s mysteries.
When they started the sixth day of searching for adventurer Steve Fossett, or, most likely, his remains, there was a sense of urgency as the group of searcher-adventurers woke up and prepared for another gruelling day. For five days they had combed the most rugged desert terrain in the Sierra Nevadas. They had endured temperatures that dropped as low as -1 C at night and climbed up to 42 C during the day. Much of their search was at altitudes above 2,400 metres.
“By the end we just wanted to find him,” says Paul Trebilcock, a 42-year-old elite ultramarathon runner from Hamilton, Ont., who is also an expert orienteer and rock climber. “The last day you could feel in the air that there was some disappointment.”
Trebilcock was part of a group led by Dr. Simon Donato, a Canadian geologist and adventure racer who is the man behind Adventure Science, a curious combination of adventure, scientific study and, if Donato’s ultimate vision comes to fruition, search and rescue. Creating Adventure Science has been the logical extension of Donato’s adventure racing career that had included the Eco-Challenge in New Zealand in 2001, Fiji in 2002 and the creation of the Canadian Adventure Racing Association.
“You spend years building this skill set [for adventure racing],” he says. “You find where your limits are, all about risk-taking, how to read maps and navigational skills. You get the ability to survive in these areas. I’ve got that skill set, but I got tired of racing. I stay fit so I can jump in a race with my friends, but racing lost its value to me. I want to do more with what I have. Being able to use these skills that I’ve developed along the way is a lot more appealing to me. Now it’s for a good cause.”
The cause for those six days last July was the search for Fossett, the billionaire whose plane disappeared in September 2007. Donato had always been a fan of Fossett’s adventure-filled life. Before his plane disappeared, Fossett had set dozens of aviation and distance records in planes, air balloons, boats and gliders. In 2005 he flew solo around the world without refuelling. He had completed Alaska’s Iditarod sled-dog race and climbed the world’s highest mountains.
Fossett disappeared in the Sierra Nevadas during a short flight after taking off from the private airstrip owned by hotel magnate William Barron Hilton. Despite an extensive search and rescue operation that included aerial reconnaissance and even satellite imagery, the plane was never found. His family managed to have him declared legally dead on February 15, 2008, but that didn’t stop many people from wondering if there could be more to this story about a man who had survived so many other close calls. How could a man who flew around the world on one tank of fuel disappear on a simple, short flight in Nevada? In fact, one British insurance investigator suggested that Fossett had faked his own death, which is why the searchers hadn’t been able to track down his plane.
At the time of Fossett’s disappearance, Donato was in Hamilton finishing his PhD at McMaster University. (He has since moved to Calgary and is working as a geologist for Imperial Oil.) He couldn’t help but spend a lot of time on the Internet following the search for his hero. Donato figured the reason the searchers couldn’t find Fossett or the downed plane was because it was either underneath trees and brush, or in a deep crevasse. He decided that the best way to find the plane would be on foot - and also knew that experienced adventure racers were just the kind of people who could cover the difficult terrain for such a search. Donato studied the search area carefully and, after following up with the previous search teams, selected a region of the Sierra Nevada mountains south of Lake Tahoe. This area had been on the outer boundaries of previous searches and, because of the terrain, would be difficult to search from the air.
Once he got the word out about his plan, it didn’t take long for many of his adventure racing friends to come on board, even though they were going to have to pay their own way. He’d been running with Trebilcock for years in Hamilton and many of their training buddies were also in for the ride. Derek Cavenay, 31, Gary Hudson, 27, Jeff MacInnis, 44, Jim Mandelli, 47, Greg Marshall, 30 and Ray Zahab, 38, would all join the 31-year-old Donato and Trebilcock as the running searchers.