By Molly Brown
Anchorage Daily News
(Published June 21, 2000)

Tears flowed freely and the sound of subdued sobbing filled the National Park Service ranger station here Tuesday as the news came that a single-engine airplane missing since Monday with three rangers and a pilot aboard had been found broken and burned near the Yentna Glacier.

There were no survivors.

"The whole situation is just everyone's worst nightmare," said Park Service spokeswoman Jane Tranel. "I don't think I worked with anyone in this group who wasn't first class."

Pilot Don Bowers, 52 - an author, teacher and well-known veteran of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race - was best known to the people here as a participant in a long series of Mount McKinley rescues.

Along with Jay Hudson, his boss at Talkeetna's Hudson Air Taxi, Bowers had many times flown top cover for McKinley rescues, guiding the Park Service's high altitude Lama helicopter through holes in the clouds to save climbers in trouble.

The three younger men who died with him were part of the Park Service family, climbing rangers headed for the Kahiltna base camp. They were scheduled to replace a team just coming off patrol on the heavily traveled West Buttress route to North America's highest peak.

Jane Tranel, Park Service spokeswoman Park Service regional spokesman John Quinley in Anchorage identified them as:

Cale Schaffer, 25, Talkeetna, an experienced mountaineer who went to work as an emergency medical technician at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve last year after a two-year stint in Grand Canyon National Park. He was making the transition to a climbing ranger this year. It was the kind of job he'd sought since first going to work teaching wilderness skills for AdventureQuest back in Vermont.

Brian Paul Reagan, 27, Anchorage, a volunteer ranger. Like Schaffer, he'd been drawn to Alaska by his love of mountains. He climbed McKinley by the West Buttress last year. When he wasn't climbing, he worked for the Alaska Natural History Association at the Anchorage Public Lands Information Center downtown.

Adam Kolff, 27, Boulder, Colo., also a volunteer ranger. He had recently returned from three years in Peru working with The Mountain Institute, a nonprofit environmental group. A graduate student at the University of Colorado, he was the most experienced of the climbing trio. His love of high mountains had taken him to the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies and the Alaska Range. In 1994, he'd done a monthlong, 150-mile traverse of Mount St. Elias.

All were rescue trained. All had headed to the mountains with hopes of saving others.

"Anyone who volunteers to do this has a big heart," Tranel said.

What happened to end their lives remains unknown. The National Transportation Safety Board is just beginning an investigation.

What is known is that Bowers flew into bad weather on the way to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp on Monday. Schaffer radioed the Park Service ranger station in Talkeetna to say his group wasn't going to be able to make it to Kahiltna and that they were coming back.

Bowers radioed the Kahiltna base camp that he'd lost visibility ahead, Tranel said, "and the weather had closed in behind him."

To the west, however, he reported a break in the clouds. He was going that way to work his way out and then turn back to Talkeetna. He, like the other Talkeetna pilots who ferry climbers and tourists to McKinley all summer, had done this safely hundreds of times.

Sometimes it meant working on the edge, but that is what Bowers' earlier career as a U.S. Air Force pilot had trained him to do.

In May he reminisced about how the weather almost got him in 1996 when winds were whipping a devastating wildfire through the Big Lake area.

"The worst wind I've ever seen up there was the day of the Miller's Reach fire," he said. "The summit had a serious plume of blowing snow on it. Doug Geeting and I almost got our clocks cleaned in the downdrafts before we could find a way out. It was like being a salmon trying to go up Niagara Falls for a while."

Geeting, the owner of a competing Talkeetna air taxi, was one of the many out searching for Bowers' missing Cessna 185 on Tuesday. He was joined by pilots from all the Talkeetna air services, a pair of Park Service helicopters, an Alaska State Trooper helicopter, the Civil Air Patrol, a variety of aircraft from the Kulis Air National Guard base in Anchorage and others.

"This community is all out there," Tranel said. "We're going to find them."

But with no signal coming from the emergency location transmitter in the Hudson Air Taxi plane, and no sound out of Schaffer's Park Service radio, everyone feared the worst.

"Oh my, this is tragic," said Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley. "He's brought the race to life for so many people."

At 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, a CAP pilot radioed that wreckage had been spotted in a berry patch at the base of a scree slope at about 3,000 feet near the junction of the Yentna and Lacuna glaciers west of McKinley's summit.

It was in an area that had been rocked by powerful electrical storms Monday. There were reports from a nearby lodge that up to 4 inches of hail had fallen at about the time Bowers would have been trying to fly through, Quinley said.

The trooper helicopter delivered Talkeetna climber and sometimes Park Service volunteer Mark Stasik to the site of the crash. He found a badly broken, partially burned airplane and no survivors.

He was almost wordless when he returned in the helicopter.

"Cale lives here," he said. "He was a pretty good guy."



By Molly Brown
Daily News Reporter
Anchorage Daily News
(Published June 22, 2000)

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday started investigating the scene of a plane crash near the Yentna Glacier, while the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group recovered the bodies of the pilot and the three Mount McKinley climbing rangers he was carrying.

"We are hoping to have closure on this today," said Jane Tranel, a National Park Service spokeswoman.

The Hudson Air Service Cessna 185 had been headed from Talkeetna to the Mount McKinley base camp near 7,200-feet on the Kahiltna Glacier on Monday. Killed were pilot Don Bowers, 52, an author, teacher and Iditarod veteran from Montana Creek; Cale Schaffer, 25, a Denali National Park ranger who lived in Talkeetna; Brian Paul Reagan, 27, a volunteer ranger from Anchorage; and Adam Kolff, 27, a volunteer ranger from Boulder, Colo.

Park Service employees called the loss everyone's worst nightmare. Small aircraft routinely threading mountain passes and dodging treacherous weather are what connects the busy base camp and the mountain-climbing and tour-flight headquarters in Talkeetna.

Bowers flew into bad weather Monday about 6:30 p.m. Schaffer radioed from the plane to the Park Service ranger station in Talkeetna, saying the group could not make it to Kahiltna and was returning, officials said. Bowers turned west, where he reported seeing a break in the clouds.

Tuesday afternoon, a Civil Air Patrol pilot spotted the wreckage near the junction of the Yentna and Lacuna glaciers.

The plane was in pieces, according to Mark Stasik, a climber and Park Service volunteer. He visited the site Tuesday in an Alaska State Troopers helicopter to check for survivors and said the plane was "hardly recognizable." Parts were melted together, he said, and the left wing rested above the rest of the wreckage. Not much of the fuselage was intact.

Berry bushes where the plane was found, at the 3,000-foot level of a scree slope, were burned black, Stasik said.

The pilot was not in radio contact at the time of the crash; the cause is not yet known. The NTSB investigation will continue for the next few days, said Jim LaBelle, chief of the agency's Alaska office. Investigators will look into mechanical issues and inspect the wreckage at the crash site. If necessary, parts of the plane will be transported to the agency's laboratory for further investigation.

The investigation will also look at weather data, Hudson Air Service operations, dispatch procedures, and what Bowers knew and didn't know about what he was flying into, LaBelle said.

Basically, investigators focus on "man, machine and environment," he said. "... and it can be a tedious process, laborious and lengthy."

Flying in and around glaciers and mountains like those found near Mount McKinley is "some of the most demanding flying anywhere," said LaBelle, who has flown for more than 20 years and is a certified flight instructor. "Mountains and glaciers create their own weather patterns."

Hudson Air has long had a contract to transport Park Service employees, Tranel said. Bowers had flown for the U.S. Air Force, and was a respected pilot who had helped in a number of McKinley rescues.

The bodies were recovered about 5:15 p.m. Wednesday and flown to Anchorage, Tranel said.

The Talkeetna community of friends and co-workers will have a ceremony at some point, she said.

Friends from across the country, posting messages on the Daily News Web site, said the four men loved Alaska and will never be forgotten.




Anchorage Daily News

(Published June 22, 2000)

Air tragedy: Four die in Denali crash

Struck down in summer - and in the summer of their lives. That was the fate of four men killed Monday in a plane crash in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Veteran pilot Don Bowers flew into bad weather on his way to the Kahiltna base camp. With him were three young National Park Service mountaineers. Mr. Bowers, a former Air Force pilot, had experience, knowledge and good judgment. Like other talented Alaska pilots of the past - starting with Carl Ben Eielson - he ran into circumstances that proved overpowering to a man in a small plane.

Cale Schaffer, 25, Brian Paul Reagan, 27, and Adam Kolff, 27, were skilled outdoorsmen at the beginning of promising careers. They will be missed by colleagues, friends, neighbors and family. Their potential contribution to others' lives, whether in the mountains or in their home communities, only can be imagined.

Pilot Bowers was something of a public figure. He had come to Alaska as a young man and fallen in love with the Last Frontier. Always a pilot - and a pilot who had participated in many rescues - he was also a writer, a teacher and a musher who ran the Iditarod. He had written one book on the race, "Back of the Pack: An Iditarod Musher's Alaska Pilgrimage to Nome," and was writing another. He also wrote an annotated bibliography of books about the race (which can be found on the Iditarod Trail Committee Web site at www.iditarod.com).

In 1993, Mr. Bowers was one of the Daily News Community Voices, who appear on one of the editorial pages every Wednesday.

His writing radiated his affection for Alaska and showed his appreciation for the ambiguity and complexity of Alaska life.

In one of his last columns he wrote, "In the finest banana-republic tradition (Alaskans) have managed to find all manner of issues to divide us against ourselves. It's no wonder we have trouble presenting a united front to Outsiders on critical matters when we're having a grand old time kicking and gouging each other right here in the family over who knows more about Alaska and what it needs. In short, it's hard to pin down who is and who isn't Alaskan or who has more right to be here. We're just too diverse, and we all have our own vision of what the Last Frontier should be.

"This elbow room to disagree, after all, is why most of us are here and not in New Jersey. Because there are so few of us, and because Alaska is so vast, we have more latitude to do our own thing than anywhere else in the country."

Don Bowers was an Alaskan who did his own thing until his last day. He was a good friend and a good neighbor who will be missed by those who shared his many trails through life.


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