ANCHORAGE - Rain, low clouds and predicted high winds Sunday grounded searchers seeking the body of a ConocoPhillips Alaska employee missing and presumed dead in an avalanche that killed the head of the company.
The avalanche at around noon Saturday on the Kenai Peninsula buried Jim Bowles, 57, head of ConocoPhillips Alaska, and Alan Gage, 39, part of the company's capital projects team in Anchorage. Gage remains missing.
"The weather is not cooperating and it's not conducive to search," said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers.
The men were in a party of 12 snowmobilers in the Grandview wilderness area, part of the Chugach National Forest, between the tiny communities of Moose Pass and Portage.
Bowles was buried for about 45 minutes before companions using avalanche beacons dug him out. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Gage apparently was not wearing an avalanche beacon, troopers said.
Troopers and U.S. Forest Service personnel rode snowmobiles 15 miles to reach the scene. The railroad brought in Girdwood Fire Department personnel and a trooper helicopter flew in from Anchorage.
Ridgetop winds Saturday averaged 10 to 20 mph and mountain temperatures were in the mid-20s to low 30s. Conditions deteriorated overnight, with two inches of new snow falling at Turnagain Pass, about 15 miles north of Grandview.
Ridgetop winds Sunday ramped up, averaging 30 mph with gusts to 40. A strong low pressure area in the Gulf of Alaska was expected to bring gale to storm force easterly winds, rain at sea level, and up to 12 inches of new snow at higher elevations.
The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said the avalanche danger rose to "considerable" with pockets of "high" hazard as the storm progressed.
"We pretty much hit the tipping point the last few days, and this next storm will just add more stress to a snowpack with significant buried weak layers," said forecaster Lisa Portune on the center's Web site.
Forecaster Carl Skustad said the snowmobile party was in moderate terrain, with probably a 35 to 40 degree slope. However, with the weak snow layer underneath, that can be enough for snow to let loose, he said.
Emergency officials said a search would resume when weather improved and avalanche danger subsided.
Bowles joined Conoco in 1974. He was named head of Alaska operations, overseeing about 900 employees since in late 2004. Jim Mulva, ConocoPhillips chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement Sunday that Bowles presided over developments that ensured the company's place and standing in Alaska.
"On behalf of everyone at ConocoPhillips, including those who had the privilege to know and work with these two gentlemen and those who did not, I want to extend our sincere condolences to the Bowles family and our heartfelt best wishes to the Gage family and make sure they know the high regard in which we hold Jim and Alan, both as co-workers and as friends."
Gov. Sean Parnell issued a statement saying he and his wife, Sandy, were saddened by Bowles' death and lauded his work in Alaska.
"Jim brought so much to our state: his love of the great outdoors, his leadership of ConocoPhillips Alaska, and his dedication to making Alaska a better place for all of us to call home," Parnell said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Bowles was a great partner in the responsible development of Alaska's natural resources.
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