Avalanche danger disrupts search for snowmobiler

17 inches of new snow, strong winds pound Turnagain Pass

Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Bad weather and backcountry danger prevented for a second day the resumption of a search for a snowmobile driver missing and presumed dead in a Kenai Peninsula avalanche.

Ap Business Wire
Ap Business Wire

The slide Saturday killed ConocoPhillips Alaska President Jim Bowles, 57. Alan Gage, 39, was swept off his snowmobile and could not be found.

Lisa Portune of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center said Monday morning on the center's Web site that pouring rain below 1,000 feet, heavy wet snow at higher elevations, and gale force easterly winds summed up the last 24 hours.

Seventeen inches of new snow fell in nearby Turnagain Pass and strong winds were pounding ridge tops.

The men were part of a group of snowmobilers in the Grandview wilderness area, part of the Chugach National Forest, off the road system between the tiny communities of Moose Pass and Portage.

Other riders on the trip told the Anchorage Daily News it took as little as 15 minutes to find Bowles but 90 minutes to shovel him out of the snow. He could not be revived.

Two members of the group, Ed Gohr, a former Conoco employee, and CH2M Hill Vice President Bob Lacher, said Bowles and another rider were at the front of a pack of about 10 snowmobilers riding in groups along a relatively flat bench and were beside a 3,000 to 4,000-foot mountain loaded with snow.

Gage was following close behind the two leaders. At some point, Bowles' snowmobile became stuck, Lacher said, and another rider stopped to help.

"About that time, I just happened to be looking up as I was traveling up the bench and saw the first of about four or five pieces of the mountain break loose," Lacher said.

The avalanche began 500 to 700 yards above the bench. The first wave of snow hammered the rider who had been trying to help Bowles, slamming him into the throttle. His machine accelerated to safety. Bowles was pinned beneath 10 feet of snow, his friends said.

Lacher managed to turn his machine around and speed back the way he'd come.

"Just as I did, I saw Al (Gage) up and to the left get hit with the main force of the avalanche and disappear in a cloud," he said.

After the avalanche, other snowmobilers in the area joined in the search. They could see one of the skis from Gage's machine poking through the snow but no sign of the rider, the men said.

The slide came about 100 yards from an area where the group had been riding for 25 minutes, Gohr said.

Alaska State Troopers said Gage was not carrying a beacon. Gage's wife said that was hard to imagine because he "always played it safe."

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

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