Jim Bowles 02-13-10
Alan Gage

Conoco Alaska president killed in avalanche
JIM BOWLES: Company's chief dies snowmachining; skier killed in separate slide.

By KYLE HOPKINS and JAMES HALPIN, Anchorage Daily News, Published: February 13th, 2010
Jim Bowles
The president of Conoco Phillips Alaska, Jim Bowles, was one of two people killed along with a third presumed dead after two avalanches barreled down on Southcentral Alaska off-road recreation areas Saturday afternoon, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Bowles, 57, was with a group of about 12 snowmachiners in the Grandview area wilderness between Girdwood and Seward on the Kenai Peninsula when he and another rider were buried by an avalanche that roared down a slope. His body was recovered before nightfall, while the second rider, identified as Alan Gage, was missing and presumed killed, trooper said.

Closer to Anchorage, residents along Mile 7 of Hiland Road saw a skier disappear just after 4 p.m. in the snow an estimated 1,500 feet above the road. The man, who had been skiing near the top of a ridge with a woman and dog, appeared to trigger the avalanche, rescuers said. He was pronounced dead two hours later.

"The dog searched forever for its owner," said Megan Norgaard, who lives nearby and called 911. Map of area

The Hiland Road victim was not identified because officials said they needed to contact his family, though residents said he lived in the area.

Bowles has headed Conoco Phillips Alaska since November 2004 and oversaw roughly 900 employees in the state, said spokeswoman Natalie Lowman.

"He was a great leader for our company. ... Our deepest sympathies go out to his family," she said.

Gage, 40, also worked for Conoco Phillips as a member of the company's capital projects team in Anchorage, Lowman said.

Bowles was pronounced dead after rescuers tried to revive him with CPR for at least 30 minutes, troopers said. Searchers plan to begin looking for Gage again today.

Neither man wore an avalanche beacon, troopers said.


The deadly Kenai avalanche was along the West Ridge of Grandview near Spencer Glacier, roughly a half mile from Mile 43 of the Alaska Railroad tracks between Girdwood and Seward.

The search on the Kenai Peninsula -- involving personnel from troopers, the Alaska Railroad, U.S. Forest Service and Girdwood Fire Department -- was called off for the night as darkness fell and the threat of severe weather rolling in from Prince William Sound increased, said troopers Sgt. Bryan Barlow, supervisor of the Girdwood post.

"We've got pretty hazardous avalanche conditions out here right now with the new snow," Barlow said. "We're going to have a lot of natural avalanches coming down, and the human-triggered ones are going to be a biggie as well. We've got three people deceased today as a result."

A group of about a dozen snowmachiners were traveling together in the Grandview area when the avalanche struck, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

Forecaster Carl Skustad with the Chugach National Forest's Avalanche Information Center said the snowmachiners were in moderate terrain, with probably a 35-40 degree slope. But with the weak layer underneath, that can be enough for snow to let loose, he said.

At least one member of the party drove back to the railroad tracks to call in the accident around 12:30 p.m. The response included a troopers helicopter and a Forest Service crew.

By the time the troopers helicopter got to the scene, Bowles' body had already been recovered, Peters said. Searchers were unable to locate the other victim.


The Hiland avalanche was reported by neighbors and by a woman who escaped the snow and made it to the road, said Erich Scheunemann, assistant chief for the Anchorage Fire Department.

"Avalanches are fairly common in the Hiland valley here," he said.

The pair were skiing near the top of the ridge in an area known as "three bowls," said Dean Knapp, a volunteer for the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group.

The avalanche looked to be about 150 feet wide, and roughly three-quarters of a mile from the road, he said.

Kip Melling, an instructor for the Alaska Avalanche School in Anchorage, lives about two miles from the avalanche site and recognized the man who died as someone who lives in the area.

The first people on the scene were neighbors who saw the man's hand protruding from the snow, Melling said. Debris from the avalanche was piled roughly three to four feet high in the area.

Experts warned conditions are ripe for avalanches with a recent snow dump and high winds.

"We're dealing with an instability that's long-lasting. It's been in the snowpack pretty much since the beginning of the year," Melling said.

Firefighters and police lined the roadway Saturday as the sun went down and members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group worked to recover the body. Searchers rode Anchorage and Chugiak fire department snowmachines toward the slide, switching to snowshoes to reach the body.

The man was pronounced dead at 6:25 p.m. by an Air Force physician who volunteers for the rescue group.

The victim wasn't carrying an avalanche beacon or other rescue equipment, Melling said.


The Chugach National Forest's Avalanche Information Center was calling Saturday's avalanche danger moderate with pockets of considerable danger. Forecaster Skustad said in an interview that a layer of surface hoar that formed about two weeks ago is now buried under about three feet of snow, making for potentially big slides.

Recent heavy snows and whipping winds are creating substantial danger that is only expected to get worse in coming days as a new storm moves through, Skustad said. The four feet of new snow was measured in eight days at Center Ridge in the Turnagain Pass area, while winds gusted to 86 mph midweek

"Today was the allure of bluebird weather," Skustad said. "Today was a challenging day because it had good visibility, the snow quality was nice and people were just getting out there. We need to give the mountains a chance to adjust to the new snow loads."

Friends on day trip when avalanche hit
JIM BOWLES:Conoco Phillips' Alaska president dies snowmachining; skier killed in separate slide.

By KYLE HOPKINS, Anchorage Daily News | khopkins@adn.com, Published: February 14th, 2010

The snowmachiners caught in an avalanche that killed Conoco Phillips Alaska President Jim Bowles and left another Conoco worker missing Saturday near Spencer Glacier were a group of friends on a day trip to the popular recreation area, a family member says.

"They know each other through work and hunting and fishing," said Dalon Gage, whose husband, Alan, disappeared in the wave of snow that slammed down a slope in the Grandview area wilderness. It was the first of two deadly avalanches in Southcentral Alaska that day.

Bowles -- head of the largest oil and gas producer in Alaska -- was discovered about 45 minutes after the avalanche by friends using locator beacons, troopers say.

Poor weather conditions prevented troopers from resuming the search for Gage today, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters.

Separately, troopers today identified the victim in an avalanche that came later Saturday afternoon at Mile 7.3 of Hiland Road. William Brasher Schorr, 60, of Eagle River, had been skiing in the area with a friend when a neighbor saw the snow slide high above the road.

Schorr was a Seldovia cabinet maker who had recently moved to the area, said David Chartier, a longtime friend.


A trooper spokeswoman had said in an e-mail Saturday that neither man in the Kenai Peninula avalanche wore an avalanche beacon.

But Peters said today Bowles was indeed found with a beacon.

Troopers still believe Gage wasn't wearing one, though his wife says that's hard to believe.

Gage "always played it safe," she said.

"This was not a go goof-off, play around, screw-off group of guys," Dalon Gage said. "They were very safe, well-versed, trained."

Alan Gage, who was 40 years old with two young sons, grew up in Alaska and is an avid outdoorsman, Dalon Gage said.

He worked for the oil field services company Veco for eight or nine years before joining Conoco about five years ago, she said. Gage worked as a project control engineer for the company's capital projects division.

He left for the snowmachine trip Saturday morning, she said. "They would have just driven down to near the area where they wanted to ride in."

Troopers learned of the avalanche at roughly 12:30 p.m. along the west ridge of Grandview, about a half mile from Mile 43 of the Alaska Railroad tracks between Girdwood and Seward.

Bowles was pronounced dead after rescuers tried to revive him with CPR for at least 30 minutes, troopers said.

Gov. Sean Parnell issued a statement on his death just before midnight Saturday:

"Jim brought so much to our state: his love of the great outdoors, his leadership of Conoco Phillips Alaska, and his dedication to making Alaska a better place for all of us to call home. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time," he said.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called Bowles "a great partner in the responsible development of Alaska's natural resources," in a written statement Sunday.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, praised the company's philanthropy in Alaska under Bowles' watch. "Conoco Phillips contributed $13 million last year alone to hundreds of Alaska nonprofits, from environmental causes to health care."

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who called Bowles a friend, said "Jim's generosity in giving back to our community set a high standard for Alaska business leaders," citing the new Conoco Phillips Integrated Science Building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus as an example.

Bowles oversaw roughly 900 Conoco Phillips Alaska employees.


The second avalanche came just after 4 p.m. in an area known as "three bowls," roughly three-quarters of mile from Hiland Road, said Alaska Mountain Rescue Group volunteers.

Schorr was skiing down to meet up with the friend -- another skier who was waiting about 700 feet below -- when he triggered the avalanche, according to troopers and rescue volunteers.

"He went up to do another run by himself with the dog," said Kip Melling, an Alaska Avalanche School instructor who lives nearby and is examining the site today.

A neighbor who saw the slide from his home found Schorr's body about 45 minutes later, according to troopers. He was buried in an area with about three to four feet of debris, Melling said, with his hand protruding from the snow.

Hazardous conditions hinder search for victim of avalanche
TURNAGAIN: Stay away, experts urge.

By MEGAN HOLLAND, mholland@adn.com, Published: February 15th, 2010

Dangerous conditions Monday continued to prevent searchers from recovering the body of a Conoco Phillips employee presumed dead after he was buried in a Kenai Peninsula avalanche Saturday.

The same avalanche also claimed the life of the victim's boss, Conoco Phillips Alaska president Jim Bowles. The current snowslide threats apply to any backcountry adventurers in the Turnagain Arm area and experts are telling them to stay away from the mountains for a couple of days.

"The mountains are all about timing and people need to give them time to adjust (to the new snow loads)," said Chugach National Forest avalanche forecaster Carl Skustad.

A storm dumped 5.5 feet of fresh, wet snow on the mountains in Turnagain Pass within the past 10 days, according to the forest's information center. On Monday, snow was still falling.

Much of the snow is sitting on a weak hoarfrost layer of icy snow formed weeks ago, Skustad said. Gale-force winds gusting around the Turnagain Arm mean the snow could easily come crashing down, he said.

That same weak layer is underneath nearly all snow in Chugach National Forest, Chugach State Park and all the way south to the Lost Lake area near Seward, Skustad said.

This is the third time this winter that conditions have been this deadly, Skustad said.

Those working to recover the body of oil company employee Alan Gage, 40, are hoping a break in the snowy, rainy, windy weather will come on Wednesday, said Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.

Gage was snowmachining with Bowles and about 10 others when snow and ice came tumbling down on the group of friends.

Because Gage likely was not wearing a locator beacon, finding his body may be a tedious process that could take days, Skustad said. Searchers will first have to mitigate the avalanche dangers by using explosives to release nearby snow. Then dog teams will be sent in to see if they can find the body. A metal detector may also be used. If those don't yield results, the tedium begins with volunteers, including family and friends of the deceased, painstakingly probing every foot of the snow in the wide swath where Gage could possibly be.

Searchers had to halt their efforts Saturday night as darkness fell. On Sunday, weather kept them from looking, troopers said. Gage was buried around noon on Saturday near the Grandview wilderness area.

Skustad said anyone traveling off the beaten path in Alaska should have avalanche training, a beacon, a probe and a shovel, and be with an experienced partner.

"It should be a prerequisite to traveling in the backcountry," he said.

Since 1998, 53 people have died in Alaska avalanches. That's the second-highest number of fatalities in the United States. Colorado, with a population nine times Alaska's, had 59 during the same time period.

For current avalanche conditions, go to Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center at www.cnfaic.org.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

Wilderness, the equal-opportunity killer

Craig Medred, Feb 16, 2010

ConocoPhillips Alaska President Jim Bowles was a smart, capable and powerful man accustomed to making big decisions. The little one he got wrong cost him his life.

Bowles died Saturday, buried beneath an avalanche near a place so spectacular the Alaska Railroad called the old train stop next to it "Grandview.'' Along with a sizable group of friends, Bowles had left the tiny, Kenai Peninsula community of Moose Pass that morning on his snowmobile and crossed Trail Lake to begin climbing up into the Kenai Mountains. It was a gorgeous day destined to turn horrible.

Forget now anything you might have read or heard about this accident having anything to do with the Spencer Glacier or Portage. The former is two ridges and one glacier away to the north. The latter isn't even in the picture. The mislocation of this tragedy is the result of the inevitable fog of deadlines and the lack of knowledge among many of the people on both ends of the reporting continuum, the press-release suppliers of information at one end and the stenographers of the media at the other.

Had Bowles and his friends set out up the Placer River valley from Portage past the Spencer Glacier to try to climb over the ridge to the south and then into the Bartlett Glacier valley above Grandview, what they were doing might have been considered risky. But that is not what happened.

Death for Bowles, 57, and ConocoPhillips' Alan Gage, 39, came hidden in the far more innocent terrain on the approach to Grandview up Trail Creek valley from the south.

"I might have skied that line myself,'' a backcountry-savvy friend said after looking at photographs of the accident scene.

Only he wouldn't have. Not because he is any smarter than Bowles or the people who were with him. Bowles was an intelligent guy. You don't reach the position he attained without being smart. And most of the people with him were bright, college-educated men. Exactly how much any of them specifically knew about avalanches remains unclear, but you don't get through a college engineering course without studying physics. And avalanches are all about physics. Snow is a substance at war with gravity. It wants to flow downhill. Whether it does or not is a matter of friction and cohesion.

The skiing friend who made the observation about straying himself into what avalanche experts call a "terrain trap'' near Grandview is no Einsten, but he is smart and alert. Those qualities would have helped to protect him, but they are not what would have stopped him. Being on skis is what would have stopped him. When you are on skis, you feel and hear and better see the snow around you.

Bowles and the people with him were on snowmobiles. Avalanche fatalities related to snowmobiling have been growing steadily across the West for a decade. It is the fault, if blame is to be placed, of both the technology and the failure of many of us -- myself included -- to adjust to the dangers that come with better technology.

The simple fact of the matter is that snowmobiles can now be driven pretty easily into places that could only be reached by arduous effort in the past. Where once people had to get on snowshoes to pack down a trail to drive their snowmachine forward, they can now just drive.

And that little convenience changes everything in monumental ways.

When you are on a snowmachine roaring through the mountains, you lose two senses -- sound and feel -- and you compromise another -- sight. The roar of the machine, even the quietest machine, drowns out the "whoomph" of settling snow, and the superb suspensions of snowmobiles today suck up any feel of that snow settling beneath you.

As for the changes in what you see, almost everyone should understand the relation of speed to sight. If you sit and watch, you see more than if you are walking. If you are walking, you see more than if you are running. If you are running, you see more than if you are biking. If you are biking, you see more than if you are driving.

What we see -- or at least what our mind captures of what we see -- is a factor of the speed on which we move through the environment. On skis in the Kenai Mountains, you notice any little shooting crack that opens in the snow. These can be easily missed when speeding ahead on a snowmachine.

None of which is meant to blame Bowles, who was leading this outing when disaster struck. None of this is about blaming the victim. This is about trying to save the next Alaskan from becoming a victim. This tragedy -- like so many others before it -- was not just some "tragic accident" no matter what my colleagues in the media might profess.

Tragic, no doubt. Bowles lived a successful and commendable life. Though his position at the head of one of Alaska's biggest oil producers led some to lump him, for political purposes, with the 'rape, ruin and run club', he never belonged there. Bowles was on the board of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska and, as far as I can tell, loved the wilderness that is Alaska as much or more than I do.

Professionally, I must confess, I'd feel successful if I'd done a fraction as much in my profession as Bowles did in his. But that's not what this is about. This is about how the Alaska wilderness doesn't care.

It is an equal opportunity killer. It doesn't matter if you are Caucasian, Native or colored. It doesn't matter if you are white collar or blue, highly educated or unschooled, smart or mentally challenged, professional or amateur, thin or fat or tall or short or ugly or beautiful, and the list just keeps on going.

All that matters is that you make the right decisions. If you make them, Alaska offers itself as the greatest wilderness playground in the world. And if you don't, it will break or kill you. I confess, I am luckier than Jim Bowles. I have only known the former.

But I understand the latter. I have been close. It doesn't take much.

You're out there with a bunch of friends. You're enjoying a great adventure. You decide to push only a little father up into the valley. You pay less than total attention the terrain and the conditions, and the next thing you know, you're in a maelstrom.

I've been there, too. I was lucky to survive. It makes one feel even more for the friends and families of Bowles and Gage, and then I think about "Skiing Alaska's Back Forty,'' a now out-of-print book pulled together by Dave Thorp, Skip Roy and the always-reliable Margaret Timmerman, with the help of an small army of others more than 20 years ago. It contains maps of ski routes for wild places all over the state, and in among the illustrations is a map of the Grandview area.

Where the latest, deadly avalanche struck, said Carl Skustad of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, was almost straight across the valley from where the old ski train sponsored by the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage used to stop at Grandview. And on the hill there, in the book, is imposed a capital "A" for avalanche danger.

This is the story of the Alaska wilderness. The things we don't know or fail to notice are the things that kill us.

Goddamn, but I feel for the families of Jim Bowles and Al Gage. If I could trade my life for theirs to bring them back, I would. I've been hanging around here long enough irritating people. But all I can do -- all anyone in this line of work can do -- is try to save the next Jim Bowles or Al Gage.

No one knows who that will be. If you're reading this, get some avalanche training. And then, most importantly, remember these words: If in doubt, if there is even the teeniest, tiniest bit of concern, go back. There is always tomorrow as long as you live through today.

Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com

Body of avalanche victim recovered

By JAMES HALPIN, jhalpin@adn.com, Published: February 22nd, 2010

Searchers have recovered the body of 40-year-old Alan Gage, who was killed more than a week ago in an avalanche that also claimed the life of the Conoco Phillips Alaska president, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Gage and Jim Bowles, 57, had been snowmachining with about a dozen people near Grandview south of Girdwood on Feb. 13 when they were swept away in the slide.

Bowles' body was recovered the same day, but Gage was buried and, though his snowmachine had been found early on, his body remained elusive in the tree- and brush-laden snow that came down on him, troopers said.

Poor weather conditions and high avalanche danger kept searchers from returning to the spot for much of last week, though their efforts resumed on Saturday.

Since then, 30 to 58 people, aided by dogs, radar, metal detectors and probes, have been combing the avalanche debris area slightly larger than a football field, troopers said.

Gage also worked for Conoco Phillips Alaska.

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.