“To engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.”
Dust particles cloud the air as ultra runner Helene slides sideways on a vertical slope of shale. A loose rock breaks out from under her feet and ricochets down the hundreds of feet of vertical canyon wall we have been clinging to for the past four hours. We’re on the hunt for a plane wreck, a seemingly large object, but right about now it feels more like a needle in a haystack. This is our first day training in these operations, and we had not anticipated this terrain. Occasionally, a coarse smattering of desert brush provides some aid for our desperately scrabbling feet, but at the cost of slicing what remains of our tender hands. I am not an ultra runner- I am completely out of my league. I hike, climb, and surf, but rigid training has never been a part of my daily routine, and now I am paying the price as I try to keep up with this team of elite athletes in front of me. Slowly, Helene becomes nothing more than a small purple dot far in front of me, and as I pause to wipe my red and sweaty face, I fight the urge to give up. With this team, there is no man left behind, and the fact that my surrender would come at the sacrifice of the team’s mission motivates me to push myself to new heights my body has not previously known.
As the popularity of adventure sports has exponentially grown, there is an increasing focus on the me, myself, and I of adventure. Adventure athletes are constantly trying to out-do each other’s latest feats, pushing themselves to new levels of danger and thrill. With this increasing focus on individual achievement, “others” is sometimes interpreted as “obstacles,” and the benefits of team adventure are often overlooked. While individual quests have their own inspirational aspects, there are some unique lessons I learned from adventuring with a team.
I had the opportunity to tag along as a photographer on the hunt for Lt. Steeve’s jet with Adventure Science, a group of elite athletes who work together on missions such as these to use their skills for greater causes- science, knowledge, and, when necessary, search and rescue. For this mission, a team of athletes flew into Los Angeles from a vast range of locations stretching across the globe.
In order to understand the intrigue of this mission, let’s take a step back in time to the spring of 1957 in the high Sierra Nevada mountains, where the adventure originally started with a lone man, stranded alone for an astounding 53 days. Lt. David Steeves, a test pilot in the Air Force, left San Francisco on May 9, 1957 was forced to eject over the Sierra Nevadas after a plane failure. Steeves landed in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but his parachute for shelter, and two badly injured ankles from the impact of his landing. He survived the next few days of agony crawling through snow and treacherous terrain, and eventually stumbled across a ranger’s cabin with food and supplies. What followed was a wilderness survival experience akin to “Into the Wild,” hunting and gathering to survive. Fifty three days later he stumbled upon a group of hunters and was miraculously rescued. Countless searches were conducted to find the remains of the plane, but with no luck. His stories of survival came under close scrutiny. Accusations began to fly around that he had sold the plane to the Russians and faked the whole thing. He was discharged from the air force, and his marriage dissolved. Steeves survival skills in the rugged Sierra Nevadas had saved his life, only for it to be destroyed by vicious gossip and speculation of society. Countless investigations, psychological studies and profiles, and re-combing facts turned up with nothing. Steeves spent the remainder of his life fighting to clear his name, and later died, ironically, in another plane wreck.
The mystery remained stagnant until 1978, when a troup of boy scouts discovered a jet canopy in Kings Canyon. The serial numbers were checked and found to match the serial number of Steeves jet. Finally- resolution of the black stain that had followed Steeves to his grave. Still, some held firm to the original speculations, stating the canopy was light and easy to drop and plant as evidence. Until something solid was found, there was still room for speculation.
And thus, 57 years later, a team of qualified individuals gathered to crack the case open once more, in hope of finding the ejection seat, maybe even the plane itself, setting the facts straight, and vindicating the ghosts of Steeves’ tarnished name.
1. A well picked team is the key to success
Picking quality team members is crucial to the success of the team. Simon Donato, head of Adventure Science, spent a good deal of time in the months leading up to the trip reviewing applications and skyping with potential athletes before selecting the best applicants for the team. “When you’re out in the middle of the wilderness, you don’t want any surprises,” he said, “you need to be confident in the capabilities of each team member.” As we began the long road trip towards Bishop, it made for a great time to swap stories and get to know each other. While everyone was eager to charge off into the mountains, this quiet downtime getting to know each other was valuable as well. The women from the team all packed into one car for the long trip, and we began to hear each other’s stories of inspiration and hope. Together, each individual brought their own unique strengths and experiences to form a cohesive and indestructible team of wilderness detectives.
Wanda Summers is a personal trainer and ultra runner from Great Britain, and her smile and positive spirit exude strength. Wanda broke her back and the doctors told her she would never walk again, but she stubbornly ignored these admonitions, forcing herself to push through painful exercises for hours every day. “When things start to hurt,” she says, “You just tell your brain to stop listening to the pain- they’re just signals. Your body is capable of much more than you think possible.”
is a vivacious French Canadian athlete and health coach from Montreal. Helene bubbles over with energy, enthusiasm, and an overall love for life. Some people say Italians talk with their hands- well Helene talks with her body. She moves with artful precision and control, led by her ridiculously firm and toned mid-section. Helene is a feel good person- her smile, genuine interest, and bright eyes elicit stories and laughs the whole ride up into the mountain.
brings encouragement and a nurturing spirit to the group. From the minute she first walks in the door, she enthusiastically introduces herself to everyone and begins cracking jokes as her laughter reverberates down the hallway and fills the house with warmth. Jane lost her husband to prostate cancer, but she didn’t let herself sink into depression- like Wanda, she used the pain as motivation to push herself to new levels as she began competing and finding healing in the outdoors. She joined a team of other athletes who have faced losses due to prostate cancer, Team Winter, founded by our other female team member, Winter Vinecki.
was only nine years old when she lost her dad to prostate cancer. Even as a young girl, she knew she wanted to use this experience to help others, and so with the help of her mom, she founded Team Winter, a non-profit to raise money for prostate cancer research and awareness. At the time, she was already well on her way to becoming an elite athlete, as she ran her first triathlon at age 5, and completed her first Olympic triathlon at age 9. This streak continued as she recently became a winter olympics 2018 hopeful in aerial skiing, and the youngest person to complete a marathon on Antartica. At 16 years of age, she is the youngest on the team, but she speaks with resounding determination and spunk.
The whole time we’re getting to know each other,
is driving, making dry remarks, laughing, and shaking his head at how he found himself on a trip with a car full of woman. Simon Donato is the fearless leader and instigator of this whole adventure- a scientist and athlete, he founded Adventure Science as a way to combine athletic skills and scientific knowledge and apply them to solve mysteries, search and rescue, and conduct outdoor research to benefit the greater good. He now stars in Boundless, an adventure travel show on the Esquire network, and organized this search during his down time before starting the 3rd season. Thankfully, Simon has some male companionship for the long trip, as Jordan Eady is riding shotgun and they are caught up in their own witty banter and recounting old memories.
Jordan and Josh Eady
, also known as the Eady brothers, have known Simon since University.
While Simon was off studying science and competing in athletic events, they were developing their skills as filmmakers, running down the streets of Toronto chasing bands and making music videos, developing innovative and creative media on multiple fronts. They later teamed up with Simon Donato to pitch the idea of the show Boundless to a TV network. The idea stuck, and they were granted the funds to film the first season. They filmed the pilot episode in Hawaii on the Molokai to Oahu stand up paddleboard race, where I met them back in 2012 while tagging along on the escort boat. Jordan and Josh are a dynamic duo you’ll not soon forget. The stories, jokes, and facial expressions as they toss dialogue back and forth like a hot potato make for scenarios that brought us to tears laughing.
Every team adventure needs an eagle scout. The one with the extra supplies, extra batteries, first aid training, and a sharp eye for potential dangers. You wake up at 6am and open the flap of your tent, bleary eyed, only to discover they’re sitting outside next to a fully prepared backpack, 10 liters of filtered water, and a sling and guaze, just in case.
is that man. Tim Puetz is a former officer in the US Army, and now works in public health in DC. It’s clear to see there is a special piece of him that comes to life when he’s working with a team in the outdoors. When a couple of boys stumbled on our camp with a deep head injury, Tim was quick to jump to action, sterilizing and sealing the wound, all the while talking to the boys in a calm voice and assuring them they would be alright.
2. Planning and preparation is crucial
A lot of thought and preparation went into this search, long before the athletes even set foot in California. The effective operation and safety of the team depended on well constructed planning and base logistics. This is where the other three members of the team came into play- Keith Szlater, Chris Killian, and Mike Killian. While they were unable to join us beyond the pass, they were crucial elements in leading the first initial search operations for the smaller wrecks, and immeasurably valuable resources on the ground to prepare us for what lay over Bishop pass.
has been a vital member of the adventure science team for a long time, and has gone through a lot of work to make sure the logistics of communication and team safety are covered. He gives us a briefing on proper use of the radios to stay in contact with the rest of the team as we prepare to spread out and begin searching. Together with Simon and Tim, he coaches us on proper methods for scanning the canyon walls thoroughly, without dropping rocks on each other. It turns out maintaining a safe and still effective formation in terrain like this is slightly less complicated than choreographing a herd of penguins to walk a tight rope while tracing the letters of the alphabet, but he talks us through it and breaks it down. Never turn your back on Keith- he always has something up his sleeve, whether it’s the Russian anthem to salute our “Putin” leader Simon, or extra treats to perk our spirits up when we are tired and exhausted. That twinkle in his eye was a spark to keep our fire going in the nights to follow.
Chris and Mike Killian compiled extensive knowledge and resources on plane wrecks to back this entire search. An affinity for aviation runs in the family- his son Mike lent his skills as a pilot to navigate a small craft overhead to scout the areas in advance from the air. Chris now devotes a large portion of time to researching the unsolved mysteries of different plane wrecks, and reaches from an impressive repertoire to tell stories about drug money, scandals, and hidden secrets that come to light with the unveiling of the stories behind each plane wreck. In order to determine a starting point, Chris uses the intel from where the canopy was found, combined with the wind patterns and other information from the day of the crash. Along with the help of a volunteer math whiz named Corin Bowin (who is completing a physics MSc at the University Michigan), they create a trajectory within where they think the metal ejection seat has landed in the Dusy Basin. This map provides our guide to begin our search.
Behind the scenes was Melissa Stewart, who I never had the pleasure of meeting, but she relayed messages, ensured effective communication on behalf of the team while we were deep in the woods, and spent hours putting together and maintaining a blog to track our progress.
With this team of diverse backgrounds and strengths, we were fully prepared to take on the tasks ahead of us.
3. Flexibility allows the team to benefit from the strengths of each member
Originally, the plan was to pack the entire team, including base operations with their radio equipment and solar panels, over the pass with the use of mules, and spend the week based in Grouse Meadows, performing daily searches from the base camp within. Unfortunately, there was still too much snow on the pass for the mules to make the trek, and it was impossible to pack that much gear on foot. We decided to spend a few days in the area waiting out the snow and searching for other plane wrecks that Chris and Mike had spotted from the air, but hadn’t ground truthed yet. While this delayed our initial plans to search for Steeve’s plane, the day hunts through the canyons and mountains led to the successful ground truthing of two wrecks, and the entire team learned a lot about communication, search patterns, and just how small a plane wing in the middle of the mountains can really be.
These skills prepared us for the coming days, and although the snow forced us to finally go ahead and hike over the pass on foot without base camp, we had the reassurance of knowing two master base camp logistics were waiting on the other side, ready to help, and we were much more prepared to conduct our search within the Dusy Basin.
4. Communicate goals to maintain a clear focus
Each evening ended with a briefing for the goals of the next day, and summarizing of the day’s accomplishments. This not only allowed us to take pride in our accomplishments, but prepare our minds for the task ahead of us. Furthermore, it gave us a chance to rally each other for the next task. I’m not going to lie, I was not used to these kind of missions. After a day of hiking many miles with a heavy pack, chasing people around with my camera, and fighting elevation sickness at 12,000 feet, I found myself thinking to myself “this is it. Tomorrow is the day I’m going to quit.” But somehow when we talked through the goals together as a group, it brought my focus back to our original goals, and this shared group focus helped me keep my eyes on the prize.
5. When one person succeeds, the team succeeds
Shortly after Helene disappeared in the canyon walls on that first day of training, my radio crackled with her voice- “Base camp, I’ve found the plane!” Those words sent shivers down all of our spines, and we quickly oriented ourselves in the direction of the wreck. As we combed over the ruins, each and every team member was smiling and congratulating each other. Helene had been the first to find the plane, but the entire team was sharing in the victory and congratulating each other.
One very important difference in team adventure is this type of mentality- all victory is shared, and likewise, all struggles are shared. This mindset set the tone for the actions of the entire group for the remainder of the week, and was part of the glue that held the group together so tightly. For that week in time, each team member ceased to be a “me,” and became a part of the greater “we,” and the burdens became lighter and the victories sweeter.
6. Teams go farther because they push each other to persevere
Vince Lombardi Jr. said “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, nor a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.”
I thought I was pretty tough. Then I met these athletes, and they blew me out of the water. We were off trail, scouring cliff sides, and they charged up vertical inclines, clinging to nothing but loose rock, testing each foot and hand hold, dodging the falling rocks that broke loose. Not only did they navigate this terrain effortlessly, but at quick speeds, with incredible aerobic stamina and astounding strength. Each day I wanted to quit, and I found myself coming up with excuses internally. I’m not an ultra runner. I don’t train. My cardio is shot. I can’t do what these athletes do.
And then, in these moments of weakness, I found inspiration in the other team member’s stories. Each had faced a variety of challenges that all made my miseries seem small. They provided encouraging words: “Set your mind on the goal and you can make it happen.” “Don’t stop, you will get stronger.” “If you say you can’t, then you can’t. If you say you can, you will.” These phrases rang with truth, and I drew inspiration to keep going.
I took a deep breath, picked up my pack, swung it back over the welts, cinched the waist straps. Stepped onto my blistered toes, and told myself- it’s just pain, nothing more. And where I would have quit and called it a day, this team coached me to complete more physically challenging day missions than I had ever accomplished before in my life. Had I been alone, I would have given up long before. But sometimes that’s the beauty of being a part of a team that doesn’t let you quit- they pull you up right alongside them, and you realize you can achieve more than you ever dreamed possible.
7. Adventure is about the journey
In the end, we didn’t find the Lt. Steeves jet. The snowy conditions had left us with only two days to scour the basin area, and with the amount of ground we needed to cover, the chances of covering the area that contained the ejection seat within those two days were slim. But we didn’t leave Bishop dejected- far from it. I will tell you that the hike out on the final day seemed like it would never end, and when we reached the parking lot it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. And when I heard Keith telling us that him and Chris were on their way to pick us up, those were some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard. But looking back on the trip, those final moments of completion were not the moments that I cherished the most.
The moments that lingered in my mind were the moments on the trail, radioing back and forth to establish locations and secure our search paths. The moments of careful planning and preparation. The moments where we felt like the hiking would never end and all we could think about was our next meal. The moments when we rounded a bend to open up to a breathtaking meadow, a shimmering waterfall, or a towering mountain ridgeline. The moments when one person radioed in to check out a shiny object and our hearts all skipped a beat. The strong communication between the team. The lifelong lessons learned, the feeling that no matter what, everybody had each other’s back.
You can rest assured members of this team will continue to search the area every chance they get, until the ghosts of Lt. Steeves are finally put to rest once and for all. But in the end, the success of the adventure isn’t defined alone by the end result. Like life, the best moments are in the process of the journey itself: what you learn about each other, and what you learn about yourself. Because when you’re in a team, you don’t give up on each other, and you don’t let each other give up on themselves. Working with the Adventure Science team has given me inspiration to push myself to new limits I never would have previously thought possible.
In the words of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”