Preston Morrow set out on a hike and did something true to the spirit of Steve Fossett—he went off the beaten path. Climbing to 10,000 ft. through thick brush and backwoods in the Sierra Nevada, his trusty Australian sheepdog Kona by his side, Morrow stumbled across several muddy $100 bills, a pilot’s license and two other ID cards in the pine needles at his feet. “Cool!” he said as he pocketed the money, while barely glancing at the cards. “I thought a bear took them out of a backpack, which is common out here.”
Not until later did he recognize the name on the cards: James Stephen Fossett, the wealthy adventurer missing for more than a year. Morrow, 43, steered a search team to the site, near Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and on Oct. 1 they found the wreckage of Fossett’s single-engine Citabria Super Decathlon. They also found bear tracks and four small bones, which are now being analyzed. “We had a moment of silence,” says one of the searchers, Jutta Schmidt, 47. “It’s always a somber occasion when you see the end a missing person likely met.”
Sad as it was, it also solved a mystery: Where in the world was Fossett? A hugely successful commodities trader with a spectacular second career in adventure sports, Fossett, 63, had circled the globe in a hot-air balloon and set dozens of aviation records before going on a simple solo flight Sept. 3, 2007. Due back by lunch, he never returned; eventually, 25 city, state and federal agencies aerially canvassed 24,000 sq. mi. of ruthless mountain terrain. This February a judge declared Fossett legally dead.
Yet British tabloids questioned the ruling and ran with rumors of mistresses and secret bank accounts. Now with the discovery of the wreckage, “I hope to close a very painful chapter in my life,” Fossett’s wife of 39 years, Peggy, 64, said in a statement. “I prefer to think about Steve’s life rather than his death.”
It will likely take months to determine the cause of the crash—theories include a blinding cloud cover, or possibly a heart attack. But Fossett’s friends—aware of how much he loved splitting the earth and sky in a plane—are finding some solace in the circumstances of the crash. “He used to hike in those mountains back when he was a Boy Scout,” says his college pal William Moore. “He really knew the Sierras, and I can imagine him wanting to sightsee down there. In a way it’s like he went back to his paradise.”