By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
An Indiana man who illegally rappelled into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone this month before being pulled out by rescuers says he was searching for hidden treasure.
Dave Christensen, 55, is convinced the canyon holds the famed Fenn treasure — a multi-million dollar cache of gold and jewels that Sante Fe art dealer and author Forrest Fenn reportedly hid some time ago.
Christensen took a scouting trip into Yellowstone just after Christmas, loaded up with supplies back in Indiana, then snowmobiled into the park again on Jan. 6.
Armed with ropes, a harness, helmet and other climbing gear, he tied off on a railing at a popular overlook and proceeded to climb down to the Yellowstone River — more than 850 feet below.
Yellowstone National Park rangers and search and rescue personnel were ultimately called to the scene, and it took them several hours to bring Christensen back to safety. He’s now facing misdemeanor criminal charges for the incident.
However, the Winamac, Indiana, resident says his attempt was to save others who may be injured or perish in attempts to discover the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” He sought to make that case in an email to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly following the incident, laying out why he believes Fenn’s gold is in the canyon.
“I am not a quack, nor have blind lust for hidden treasures,” Christensen wrote. “I’m sending this so you can analyze the information, hopefully understand its validity, and thus, potentially circumvent a ‘Mad Mad World’ or ‘Rat Race’ of searchers in the near future, or spring when Yellowstone opens to wheeled vehicles.”
Blogger Dal Neitzel estimates that nearly 250,000 people have searched for the treasure. He’s written about the subject for the past five years, prompting many to ask if he knows so much about the search, why doesn’t he find the gold himself?
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Neitzel wrote last year, saying he’d made more than 70 trips to the Rocky Mountains and planned more.
Fenn said the treasure is about 42 pounds of gold and jewels in an ornate, 10-inch by 10-inch Romanesque box. He was in his 70s when he hid the box, taking him two trips to carry the load to its hidey hole.
“Please be cautious and don’t take risks,” Fenn has said. “The search is supposed to be fun.”
However, at least four people have died looking for the treasure and several have required rescue, including in Park County.
A couple from Virginia, Madilina L. Taylor and boyfriend Frank E. Rose Jr., had to receive assistance from search and rescue crews in 2013, 2015 and 2016 after trying to find Fenn’s fortune in the Wapiti area and Shoshone National Forest. Those misadventures included Taylor breaking her ankle in 2015, which required her to be airlifted to a hospital. After another trip in July 2016 resulted in encounters with grizzly bears, Taylor reportedly told the sheriff’s office that “she was headed back East with no intentions of ever returning.”
Then in early June 2018, Jeff Murphy, a 53 year-old from Batavia, Illinois was searching for the treasure near Yellowstone’s Turkey Pen Peak when he accidentally stepped into a chute and fell to his death. A year earlier, Paris Wallace, a 52 year-old pastor from Grand Junction, Colorado died while searching for the treasure in the Rio Grand Gorge in New Mexico. After the death, the New Mexico State Police asked Fenn to call off the search for the gold and jewels.
“If someone thinks the treasure is hidden in a dangerous location, they should not search for it. There is no percentage in taking risks,” Westword reported Fenn as saying at the time. The octogenarian then added a couple more clues, saying “the treasure chest is not under water, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice.”
Christensen ignored the additional clue.
“This is his [Fenn’s] life savings,” Christensen said. “He’s not going to put it where someone can stumble across it.”
Christensen framed his decision to drop into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as an effort to ultimately help others.
“I had to do this. The story has to end,” he said. “Too many people are getting hurt and killed.”
The military veteran said he’s been working for months on a “solve” to the poetic riddle that Fenn published in 2010, which launched the search for his treasure.
Christensen made a “reconnaissance” trip by rented snowmobile to the canyon on Dec. 26, checking the logistics of getting to the spot where he suspects the treasure is hidden. Then he returned to Indiana to prepare and purchase needed equipment, including special clothing, climbing tools, 1,000 feet of climbing rope and bear spray. He also was outfitted with a Garmin transceiver in case of an avalanche.
Christensen then returned to Yellowstone, rented another snowmobile near Pahaska Tepee, loaded it with all the supplies he thought he would need and entered the East Gate on a non-commercially guided snowmobile access program permit.
“I knew it would be too hard to carry it out,” he said of the treasure. “I had my cellphone and I was going to take a picture to prove it was there and then move it.”
Christensen’s preparation and experience in the Army — where he received the Bronze Star for his service in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm — gave him the courage to take that first step over the edge of the overlook, he said.
Despite his advance planning, he admits he may have made a couple miscalculations.
Christensen later told search and rescue personnel and park rangers that he dropped his backpack and went off-rope to retrieve it. Then he slid down the canyon wall to the river.
Christensen said a friend, who he didn’t identify, was at the overlook and was supposed to help send down more rope when contacted to do so by two-way radio.
Rangers reported that after two hours of attempting to climb back up with his backpack, Christensen requested assistance.
He disputes the official report, saying that “I could have climbed out, but they wouldn’t authorize more rope.”
Christensen said he turned back from the treasure location after seeing possible bear tracks and hearing a loud moan or growl; he claimed a bear might be skipping hibernation due to plentiful food — fish that die after going over the Lower Falls.
Further, rangers were yelling at him at the time, Christensen said.
“They were yelling at me, asking ‘what are you doing down there’ and I wasn’t going to take the chance of pissing something off so I got out of there,” he said.
Onlookers and park personnel couldn’t believe their eyes.
“He was like a turtle on his back in that heavy snow,” said Gary Fales, owner of Gary Fales Outfitting and Snowmobile Tours in Wapiti, which had rented the sled to Christensen with no knowledge of his plans. “This guy was lucky he didn’t die.”
A team of rangers and 11 search and rescue members responded from throughout the park, eventually lowering an expert climber approximately 800 feet to Christensen.
It took more than four hours to bring Christensen to safety, with the team finishing the operation at about 8:30 p.m. in snow flurries and frigid temperatures. Christensen was taken to Mammoth and received two citations for creating a hazardous condition and off trail travel in a closed area.
He isn’t the first to be cited for going off trail in the canyon, said Klint Powell, incident commander and high angle technical rescues team member in Yellowstone.
Some cross-country skiers went into the canyon undetected, but were nabbed after the scofflaws bragged about their trip on social media.
“The laws and regulations are in place for a reason,” Powell said. “This one — no off trail travel — is definitely for the safety of visitors and our folks here. It puts people at risk for these type of rescues.”
Powell said he’s been involved in many rescue missions while working as a law enforcement ranger. But most of them involved accidents, not intentional acts.
“Seems like common sense to us here, but we get folks from all over the place and they don’t understand it’s a truly wild place,” he said.
The ranger, who has worked in Yellowstone a total of 10 years and trained extensively for rescues in the mountainous park, said Christensen was a “novice” climber.
Terry Dolan, an experienced hunting and over-snow guide for Fales Outfitting and Wapiti-area resident, happened to be leading a commercial trip to the canyon the day that Christensen made his descent.
Dolan took photographs of Christensen while he was “flailing” in the deep snow. Two days later, Christensen turned up at the Fales’ equipment drop-off. That’s when guide Dean Lavoy found out Christensen had been planning to search for Fenn’s gold all along.
The Fales will no longer lease equipment to Christensen now that they know his intentions, co-owner Dede Fales said. Both she and Gary are just happy Christensen wasn’t hurt during his treasure hunt.
“You’ve gotta have your brains with you — you can’t leave them at home,” Gary said.
Christensen will get another chance to enter the park before it officially opens for the summer season, when he heads to U.S. District Court in Mammoth on April 2 to answer to the citations. His search could cost him time in jail and thousands in fines if he’s found guilty. Christensen could also be banned from the park.
“If they ban me for five years, I’ll just have to wait to find the treasure,” he said. “I could have eventually climbed my way out. There wouldn’t have been any need for a rescue if they would have authorized more line. Either way, I know my actions have consequences.”