By Robert Philip
Last Updated: 1:37am BST 07/09/2007
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No matter where he pitches up on the globe, Steve Fossett has always managed to phone home.
Nothing out of bounds for adventurer Steve Fossett
Intrepid: Steve Fossett's life has become one long adventure
With the aid of his satellite mobile, Fossett has rung his long-suffering wife of 39 years, Peggy, from Bournemouth, having just completed the first solo non-stop flight around the world…from Tanzania where he had climbed Kilimanjaro…from a Royal Australian Air Force rescue helicopter which had lifted him to safety from the Coral Sea where sharks and saltwater crocodiles were queuing up for lunch…from Boston where he had run the marathon…from Le Mans where he had completed the 24-hour car race…from Calais where he had swum the English Channel…from the frozen wastes of Alaska where he was competing in a 1,165-mile dog-sled race…from every remote outpost you can think of where they stage ballooning, 'iron man' triathlons, cross-country skiing marathons or whatever.
Alarmingly for his family and friends, such as Sir Richard Branson who describes his close pal as "the world's greatest living adventurer", not a word has been heard from Fossett since his private plane went missing over the Nevada desert on Monday. Having set 116 world records or 'firsts' in the air and on water, he was looking for a suitable stretch of land on which to challenge the world land-speed record.
Part Christopher Columbus, part Charles Lindbergh and part Phileas Fogg - the 63-year-old Chicago billionaire financier was the first man to circumnavigate the world single-handedly in a balloon - I last interviewed Fossett during a brief lull in his activities in 2000 when he told me: "There is still something very, very romantic about going round the world, either by plane, boat or balloon - and I am very much a romantic."
Perhaps it was his failure to win a place on his school swimming or cross-country teams that explains his craving to test the outer limits of human endeavour.
"As a boy, I always read biographies of the great adventurers. I kind of grew up on National Geographic with its accounts of fantastic adventures.
"Maybe that's why I climbed my first mountain at the age of 11. My own adventures have gradually taken over my life. This is what primarily I do, much more so than business."
For Fossett, life has become one, long adventure. As Branson told one interviewer: "If there's an ocean to swim, Steve will choose Christmas Day; it must be snowing and, if possible, the only day in the decade when the water ices over. I'm somebody who loves having people around, whereas Steve is generally a loner. He seems to me to be half Forrest Gump, half android. He is, I suspect at the most, only half-human. Or maybe that should be super-human."
Given such unimaginable wealth, most men would probably buy an English Premier League club, instal themselves in a luxury box, crack open the Dom Perignon, and settle back in a throne to be entertained by your underlings. Then again, most men of Fossett's age think a Saga holiday to Majorca is a bit of a thrill. "It's far more interesting to do these adventures for yourself rather than be an outside spectator," he says. "I'm in the very fortunate position to be able to do these things and I suspect many people would like to be in my shoes."
But what very, very uncomfortable shoes they have been; take Fossett's fourth round-the-world balloon attempt in 1998 when at the 15,000-mile mark, Solo Spirit ruptured and caught fire during a violent thunderstorm five miles high, plunging into the Coral Sea near the Solomon Islands, where he spent 20 hours under the twin threat of shark and crocodile attack.
"I spotted a line of thunderstorms and thought I had sufficient altitude to go over the top of them. Unfortunately, I got drawn into one and these tremendous sheets of hail started flooding me. When the balloon burst, so to speak, my first reaction was disappointment that I had failed again, but then, as I continued my descent, I realised I was more concerned about simply staying alive."
Somehow, Fossett remained sufficiently composed to jettison the fuel tanks in the final seconds before hitting the water, but describes his rate of descent as "exceeding what was believed to be survivable. I could and should have been killed. But my entire business career was a high-pressure occupation trading on the floor of exchanges and that background served me very well. Even when under a great deal of pressure, as I was when my balloon was hurtling towards the sea, I still managed to work out the problem methodically. If I hadn't kept my head, I would not have survived, I guess it's as simple as that".
So exactly what makes a man put his life on the line time after time after time? "I've climbed well over 300 mountains and I've never gotten tired of the sense of achievement upon getting to the top of any mountain, be that Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica, or a self-perceived mountain on water or in the air. Each mountain I take on, or each record I achieve, gives me an immense amount of satisfaction."
Not every mountain has been conquered. One Everest expedition had to be aborted, Colonel Gaddafi scuppered Fossett's third round-the-world balloon attempt when he refused to allow our hero to land in Libya to refuel, and he almost came a cropper on his cross-Channel swim when the tide changed and he staggered ashore about 22-plus hours later and was promptly whisked off to hospital suffering from hypothermia.
Only the final frontier remains to be conquered. "I have no ideas about how to approach getting into space, but I do have other plans in aviation which will keep me busy for years to come. I don't really like to talk about my future challenges, but what I can tell you is that I'll continue to be involved in such adventures for the rest of my life."
Let us pray that Steve Fossett will be involved in many more such adventures.