Perilous search for the Fenn Treasure claims lives and causes controversy

Fenn says the treasure is not near a man-made trail; many go off-trail to find it.

Perilous search for the Fenn Treasure claims lives and causes controversy

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, Forrest Fenn buried gold and jewels.

Perilous search for the Fenn Treasure claims lives and causes controversy

One 31-year-old man lost his life when his raft overturned on the Arkansas River.

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to beloved ‘80s film The Goonies, the concept of buried treasure has always been a strong impetus for adventure. However, actual, real-life examples of buried treasure are few and far between.
Folks in Florida continue to search for, and occasionally find, caches of Spanish doubloons in old shipwrecks or hidden by buccaneers, and treasure hunters in the Pacific Northwest continue to look for DB Cooper’s lost loot. Here in the Rocky Mountains, we’ve got the Fenn Treasure, a hidden chest full of glittering jewels and other valuables. And while no treasure hunt would be complete without some element of danger, searching for this one has proved particularly treacherous. Since 2016, five people, four of them Coloradans, have died in its search.

“That’s a lot,” says “Hiking Bob” Falcone, a retired firefighter and the Colorado Springs Indy’s resident outdoor recreation expert. “The statistics on this are hard to find because there’s no central repository in Colorado, so it’s all anecdotal,” he notes. “A couple of years ago on Capitol Peak, a popular fourteener, there were a lot of fatalities.” There were five deaths there in 2017, and there have been nine since 2000.
Though the fatalities at Capitol Peak were unrelated to the Fenn Treasure, they serve to illustrate how no outdoor recreation activity is without its dangers. The Capitol Peak deaths are the closest thing to which Falcone can compare the Fenn’s Treasure casualties.
[pullquote-1] Falcone attributes the Capitol Peak deaths, and some of the deaths of the treasure hunters, to “people going off the established trail, thinking they knew a short-cut, and basically falling off a cliff.” Mountain-climbing is one of those outdoor activities that have a certain amount of expected risk, which is part of the appeal for many of the would-be Edmund Hillarys out there. However, most of the deaths associated with the Fenn Treasure were middle-aged men who were largely unprepared for the conditions they found themselves in.

Forrest Fenn of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an 89-year-old former Air Force pilot and retired art and antiques dealer. At its height, his gallery grossed more than $6 million a year. After recovering from a terminal cancer diagnosis, Fenn self-published his memoir The Thrill of the Chase in 2010, in an effort to share his love of nature with others and bring people to the great outdoors. In addition to stories about his life, Fenn also described in the book a literal treasure chest — containing gold coins, rare jewels and precious artifacts — which he hid in “the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe.” He also wrote a poem, which contains “nine clues that if followed precisely, will lead to the end of my rainbow and the treasure.”
Fenn was successful in getting folks outside. The search for his loot has spawned a fanatical following of treasure-seekers. There are dozens of YouTube videos, subreddits and blogs dedicated to analyzing Fenn’s poem and reporting on attempts to find the treasure. However, there is an equally ardent online community dedicated to debunking Fenn’s claims, suggesting that there isn’t really any treasure at all — though some say that it is actually metaphorical.
“I’ve always been skeptical whether the thing actually even exists,” says Falcone.
Controversy over the nature of the treasure led a Colorado Springs man, David Harold Hanson, to sue Fenn for $1.5 million in December 2019. Hanson claimed Fenn’s original clues were “misleading.” Hanson dropped his suit in early March, after Fenn filed a countersuit.
Would-be millionaires have searched for the treasure throughout the Rocky Mountains, going “north of Santa Fe” into Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Fenn asserted that the treasure is real, and has provided additional clues since the publication of his book, limiting the treasure site to a place that has a lot of pine trees, is above 5,000 feet but below 10,200 feet, and not in proximity to a human trail. Fenn’s treasure has also brought a number of treasure seekers directly to him. In a 2016 People magazine interview, he admitted to having to “dial 911 three times” after treasure hunters showed up at his house, and receiving death threats demanding the location of the treasure.

While there have been related fatalities, they’re likely due to being overambitious treasure seekers. “People aren’t paying attention to all the things the author has said,” says Falcone. “If an 80-year-old guy can get to it, it’s probably not something that you’re going to have to scale a cliff-face to get to.”
Randy Bilyeu, 54, moved from Florida to Colorado to search for the Fenn Treasure and disappeared in January 2016. His remains were found months later near Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Fifty-three-year-old Jeff Murphy of Batavia, Illinois, was found dead in Yellowstone National Park in June 2017 after falling 500 feet to his death. Paris Wallace, 52, a pastor from Grand Junction, was found dead in a tributary of the Rio Grande River near Taos, New Mexico, in 2017. Thirty-one-year old Eric Ashby moved to Colorado from Florida in 2016 to search for the treasure and went missing in June 2017 after his raft overturned on the Arkansas River. His remains were found east of Florence.
In 2017, after this spate of deaths, New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas asked Fenn to discourage people from searching for the treasure. Fenn declined.
Most recently, on March 22, 53-year-old Michael Sexson of Deer Trail became the fifth person to die in pursuit of the trea
He succumbed to the elements after his snowmobile got stuck near Dinosaur National Monument. Sexson and his companion, an unnamed 65-year-old man from Thornton who survived that night, had been rescued from the Wild Mountain area just two weeks before while searching for the treasure.
These deaths should serve as a kind of tragic warning to anyone thinking of casually jumping into the treasure hunt, and some basic outdoor safety advice
could have gone a long way toward preventing them. Falcone’s advice for treasure hunters? “It’s like any other outdoor endeavor: If you come to a situation where you don’t have the skills to go further, then don’t. ... The key thing is that you never want to get in over your head or get above your skill-set. If you don’t have any training in how to rappel down a cliff, or how to do high-angle/low-angle rope work, the time to learn how to do that is not trying to find this treasure.”