The seven-year hunt for the Forrest Fenn Treasure may be coming to an end, but not how many people, including Fenn himself, expected.
Paris Wallace recently became the second person to die while searching for the fabled treasure. New Mexico authorities are now calling for an end to the contest.
The mystery of the bronze chest filled with over $1 million in gold and gems has brought many thousands of people to Santa Fe, confident that they've solved the mysterious clues in Fenn's autobiography.
It has also brought "city slickers" that end up wandering lost in the mountains north of Santa Fe, requiring rescue, and now two known deaths. The question some are asking is whether the publicity and tourist dollars have come at too high a price.
"Stop This Nonsense"
Pete Kassetas, the Chief of the New Mexico State Police, told the Santa Fe New Mexican after Wallace's death that it was time Forrest Fenn dug up his treasure and announce that the hunt was over: “I would implore that he stop this nonsense,” he said. The 52 year-old Wallace had gone missing near Taos, NM on June 14. His body was discovered in the Rio Grande River by searchers the following weekend.
Throwing doubt on whether there is really a treasure hidden in the Rocky Mountains, Kassetas added, “I think he has an obligation to retrieve his treasure if it does exist.” When asked if he would follow the chief's advice, Fenn told a reporter, "I have not made any decisions. What do you say to the 100,000 people who have searched and want to continue?"
He also notes that even if he announced that he had recovered the chest and posted photos and video, there are hundreds of people who wouldn't believe him, and continue with the hunt.
Fenn Supporters Rally
In reaction to calls to end the hunt, many hundreds of people have expressed their support for Fenn and his contest. Having bonded online and in person over the million-dollar treasure hunt, these people point out that searching for the Fenn Treasure is no more dangerous than normal hiking and hunting in the same area. Supporters of the hunt note that people who aren't even looking for the treasure get lost in the same area, requiring the same expenditure of resources.
These "Fenn-atics" even hold an annual "Fennboree" north of Santa Fe, socializing, comparing notes, and taking one more try at finding the treasure.
The newspaper in Paris Wallace's hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado printed an editorial about the calls to end the hunt, surprisingly in support of its continuing. The editorial, titled "Calls to End Treasure Hunt Follow Bad Logic", concludes:
"Fenn’s treasure has inspired some people to engage the natural world and discover the thrill of adventure, possibly for the first time in their lives. The idea of hidden riches adds some spice to life. For some, the quest — the experience of trying to solve a mystery — will prove as fruitful as finding the loot. For all but one party, that’s the most they’ll get out of the treasure hunt, should Fenn let it continue."
The Thrill Of The Chase
When asked "why?", most of the people who hunt for Fenn's treasure reply "the Thrill of the Chase." This phrase is not just the title of Fenn's autobiography/treasure map that started this craze, but the motto of those hunting for it.
Fenn says his book, which covers a life exploring the wilderness of the Rockies, was meant to inspire people get off their couches, turn off the TV and video games, and experience nature. Many of the treasure hunters credit the book with changing and reinvigorating their lives.
Two years ago, a reporter from the California Sunday Magazine was interviewing Fenn at his home when one of his favorite hunters came to visit. Katya Luce sold everything she owned in Hawaii to move back to Santa Fe to hunt for Fenn's Treasure. “After the first handful of searches where you go out and don’t find the treasure, then you get it: I’m out for adventure,” she said. “The treasure is what you discover along the way.”
Seattle resident Dal Neitzel has become something of the online point man for Forrest Fenn. His website, DalNeitzel.com, chronicles the hunt for Fenn's Treasure, and collates all solid clues that have been gathered from interviews given by Fenn. On rare occasions, Fenn will post on the site himself. Neitzel notes that he has made more than 65 trips from Washington State to the desert of the Southwest in search of the treasure, and plays to keep at it until the treasure is found.
He sums up the feelings of hundreds (thousands?) of others after ending another trip empty-handed: "every time I have come back empty handed, but not empty spirited... I have been in some of the loveliest country a person can picture. Its been a wonderful experience and I am grateful that Forrest tempted me…dared me… to go out and find his treasure…The Thrill of the Chase."
"Could An 80-Year-Old Man Carry 25lb Up There?"
From the very first day, Forrest Fenn has made it clear that the treasure was not hidden in a dangerous location. The one rule that applies to anywhere you might think the treasure is hidden, is "Could an 80-year old man haul 25 pounds to that location?"
While the treasure weighs 42 pounds in total, Fenn said it took two trips over one afternoon to hide it. The bronze chest (pictured to the left) weighs 25 pounds empty. According to Dal Neitzel, the chest measures 10" x 10" x 6", and is worth $25,000 by itself.
Even after countless warnings that the treasure is not hidden on private land, not hidden in a dangerous place, not hidden where an elderly man could not go, people get carried away by their theories. One woman rented a van with a wheelchair lift, using it to pull up storm drain covers in the town of West Yellowstone under cover of night. (She was caught by police.) Others have been arrested for digging up burial sites, old ghost town outhouses, digging in national parks, and private lands. They all have ignored or forgotten what Fenn has told them.
Things To Know Before You Go
So, does all this make you want to take your next vacation in New Mexico? You aren't alone. Remember, however, that the map in "The Thrill of the Chase" follows the Rockies from New Mexico to the Canadian border. This means the treasure could be somewhere in large swaths of land in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico.
Below is a map of possible locations, and the poem that will lead you to a million-dollar treasure, if you can decipher the clues!
As I have gone alone in there And with my treasures bold, I can keep my secret where, And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt And take it in the canyon down, Not far, but too far to walk. Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it’s no place for the meek, The end is ever drawing nigh; There’ll be no paddle up your creek, Just heavy loads and water high.
If you’ve been wise and found the blaze, Look quickly down, your quest to cease, But tarry scant with marvel gaze, Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go And leave my trove for all to seek? The answers I already know, I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.
So hear me all and listen good, Your effort will be worth the cold. If you are brave and in the wood I give you title to the gold.
The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is, the treasure is NOT hidden in a dangerous place. This is something Fenn emphasizes in every interview he gives:
“Regardless of where you think the treasure is, you should not exceed your physical and mental capabilities. The treasure is not in a dangerous place. They should remember that I was about 80 when I hid it.”
Fenn has given other clues about the treasure's location over the years. Sometimes, it's something he posts on his own website. Other times, it's little tidbits of information he gives out in interviews or on TV.
Neitzel keeps up with the known clues on a "cheat sheet" on his website. Some of the things that Forrest Fenn has revealed:
- Some people have passed within 500 feet of the treasure without finding it.
- A few have passed within 200 feet of the treasure without finding it.
- You must follow the nine clues in the poem in order.
- Trying to skip clues and look for "the blaze" will get you nowhere.
After people got in trouble on wild goose chases while hunting for the Treasure, Fenn gave some more official clues on his website:
CLUE #10: The treasure is hidden higher than 5,000 feet above sea level
CLUE #11: No need to dig up the old outhouses (following the "Brown" clue). The treasure is not associated with any structure.
CLUE #12: The treasure is not in a graveyard.
CLUE #13: The treasure is not hidden in Idaho or Utah.
Both people who died looking for the treasure were found in the Rio Grande. (One had a raft.) Fenn felt the need to clarify that the Rio Grande does not count as part of the Rocky Mountains. In the same interview, he gives more advice: The treasure is not on private land, tribal land, or cemeteries. Now at 87 years old, with failing health, he says, “I don’t know I could physically get it. I’m not as agile as I once was."
I'd like to sum up this article by once again reminding people that injury and even death is a possibility when traveling in any remote, rugged terrain. As a comparison, an average of 12 people lose their lives at the Grand Canyon every year, and none of them are taking excessive risks hunting for a treasure chest.
The treasure is hidden higher than 5,000 feet above sea level. The thin air at this altitude can prostrate anyone not used to physical activity in these conditions. Again, if you are about to search in an area where an 80 year-old man with a loaded backpack could not go, the treasure is NOT THERE.
The Coloradoan gives these safety guidelines for Rocky Mountain National Park, which also applies here:
Tell someone where you're going: Your general route and when you intend to return are key information.
Pack the 10 essentials: In addition to water (3-4 quarts for a long hike), pack a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, firestarter, matches, knife and extra food.
Wear proper clothing: Layer your clothing and wear insulating, windproof material, such as synthetic or wool, not cotton. Sturdy, dry footwear is a must. Don't hike in the snow wearing jeans.
Watch the weather: It may feel like spring in Fort Collins, but winter conditions last much longer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Before you go, check weather conditions in the park at www.nps.gov/romo. Weather changes rapidly in the mountains and storms can be severe any month of the year, with lightning, rain, snow or hail often accompanied by strong winds.
Start early, get down early: Quickly moving afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer, which means lightning is a real concern, especially when above timberline. Plan to get down from the summit and below treeline by noon to avoid being caught in a lightning storm.
Dal Neitzel gives this advice specifically to Fenn treasure hunters:
When searching please don’t get target fixation or become obsessed with your solve to the point where you ignore these fundamental guidelines:
- If you can’t make two trips from your car to your solve in several hours, then don’t go.
- Don’t search anywhere an 80 year old man could not carry a heavy backpack.
- The treasure is hidden more than 8.25 miles north of the northern limits of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
- The treasure is very definitely in the Rocky Mountains.
- Never search alone or when nighttime temperatures are low or when there is snow on the ground.
- Carry some kind of device that will make your location known at all times.
- If you are going into rough country it is probably best to leave your pets at home.
- A whistle can be handy if you get separated from your partner.
- It is always a good idea to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) when you enter fast moving water. even if you are a strong swimmer.
With literally thousands of hunts a year for the last seven years, Forrest Fenn's treasure still remains undiscovered. Even with the extra clues, it will likely stay hidden long after the highly-decorated fighter pilot, art dealer, and amateur archaeologist passes away.
But who knows?
Someone may find it tomorrow.
There will be only one victor in the Fenn Treasure Hunt, but a countless multitude will have won the experiences and memories of the Thrill of the Chase.
The opinions and forecasts herein are provided solely for informational purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any product.