Photographer Galen Rowell, Wife Killed in Plane Crash


Renowned wilderness photographer and mountain climber Galen Rowell and his photographer wife, Barbara, were killed in the crash of a private airplane early Sunday morning just south of the airport in Bishop, Calif.

The twin-engine charter aircraft, an Aero Commander 690-B, crashed about 1:24 a.m. as it made its final approach to the airfield in the town on the eastern flank of the Sierra, according to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department. The pilot and all three passengers were killed.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 18, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 18, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Galen Rowell--An article in Tuesday’s California section reporting the death of photographer Galen Rowell and his wife, Barbara, in a plane crash incorrectly stated his age as 62. He was 61.

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board, who arrived at the crash site Monday, are investigating.

The Berkeley-born Rowell, 62, was often compared to Ansel Adams, with whom he shared a photographic love of Yosemite and the Sierra. As much an adventurer as a photographer, Rowell was known to become an active participant in the images he captured, from some of California’s most scenic heights to the mountains of Nepal.


“Rowell photographed the mountains of the Sierra as a challenge,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “There was a lot more distance in what Ansel did. Galen was a climber and photographed things like a climber. When I saw his photographs I always wondered, where ... did he find them?

“He inspired people to get out and engage and explore those places. He was Ansel’s successor, but was much more diverse.”

What dazzled many of Rowell’s fans was that he went to extraordinary lengths to take pictures of familiar landmarks such as Mt. Whitney and turn them into art.

“The difference between Galen and most amateur photographers is that he would be out in the Sierra for 12 straight days and be there twice a day for the twilight hours,” said George Olson, director of photography for Sunset magazine, which frequently taps Rowell’s vast number of stock images. “Galen lived his life to get those photographs, no matter what time of day. The view of those places is the same to all of us, but the picture will never be the same as the ones he took.”


Aircraft in Trouble

The couple were returning to Bishop after making a trip to the Bering Sea, where Rowell taught a photo workshop.

A caller to the Sheriff’s Department early Sunday morning reported observing an aircraft that appeared to be in trouble and then hearing a crash. An initial examination of the crash site indicated that there had been no fire, according to the Sheriff’s Department.


A spokesman for the Inyo County coroner’s office said Monday that all of the victims have been tentatively identified. The other two were Tom Reid, 46, and Carol McAfee, both of Bishop.

The charter flight originated in Oakland, with a flight plan filled out directly to Bishop, where the Rowells lived and operated Mountain Light Gallery.

Kevin Calder, operations manager for the gallery, said the couple had been expected there Sunday morning; the gallery had arranged for Reid, the pilot, to fly to pick them up. The gallery’s Web site ( said plans for services will be posted when they are finalized.

Rowell, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Life, Outdoor Photographer, Outside and other national magazines, returned in mid-July from a seven-week trek through Tibet with three friends while on assignment for National Geographic.



Mountain Climber

The photographer led an adventurous life.

Once called “a cross between Sir Edmund Hilary and Ansel Adams” by People magazine, he made first ascents of more than 100 routes in Yosemite and the High Sierra range. He also made more than 35 trips to the mountains of Nepal, India, Pakistan, China, Tibet, Africa, Alaska, Canada, Siberia, New Zealand, Norway and Patagonia.


In addition to major expeditions to Mt. Everest, K2 and Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II, he made the first one-day ascents of Mt. McKinley in Alaska and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, as well as first ascents of several Himalayan peaks.

Rowell’s wife, Barbara, 54, whom he married in 1981, was a well-known photographer, whose work appeared in National Geographic and on book and magazine covers.

The couple moved to Bishop from the Bay Area early last year and bought an old bank building in the center of town, which they turned into a gallery.

She accompanied her husband on most of his travels to exotic locations, including a monthlong trek in Nepal with actor-director Robert Redford in 1982, and a National Geographic assignment in Pakistan, where they were flown throughout the Himalayas as guests of the nation’s president.


She also was a pilot who flew her Cessna 206 for most of her husband’s aerial photographs.

Known for his photographic celebrations of the natural world and its beauty, Rowell’s best-selling image is that of a rainbow he shot in 1981 at the end of a monthlong trek through Tibet.

To get the picture he wanted, he literally chased the rainbow until it appeared to end on the roof of the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. The picture has appeared on book covers, national magazines and posters.

“You work with the elements and you put them where you want them,” he told People magazine in 1986. “In a way I’m part of the picture, not just someone standing there clicking the shutter.”


Rowell was introduced to the wilderness at an early age by his speech professor father and concert cellist mother, who took him camping in the Sierras. By age 10, he was climbing mountains on Sierra Club outings, and at 16, he made his first roped climbs in Yosemite Valley.

By the time he was 30, he had logged more than 100 first ascents of new routes in the Yosemite Valley and in the High Sierra back country.


Yosemite Assignment


Rowell dropped out of UC Berkeley and opened a car repair shop to support himself while he continued to climb on weekends.

“I started taking photographs just to show friends and family what I was doing, then I got curious about the photographic process,” he told The Times in 1987. “Making good photos became an end in itself.”

He sold his auto repair business and became a full-time photographer in 1972. A year later, he was assigned to do a cover story on Yosemite National Park for National Geographic.

In 1984, he received the Ansel Adams Award for his contributions to the art of wilderness photography.


Rowell wrote, co-wrote or supplied the photographs for nearly 20 books, including “Mountain Light,” “My Tibet” and “North America the Beautiful.”

Climbing continued to inspire Rowell.

“You can go back in the American Alpine Journal and he’s had climbs in recent years and virtually every year going back to the ‘60s,” said Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the Alpine Club, based in Golden, Colo.

“For several decades, he’s been a leading American climber. In his 60s, he was still climbing at a very high standard that many climbers younger than him would be happy to do.”


“He’s a very important figure in American mountaineering,” said Steve Roper, an Oakland-based outdoors writer and former Rowell climbing partner. “I think every mountain outdoors type in America knows his name.

“He brought the mountains to many, many households.”


Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Eric Malnic, Steve Hymon and Bill Stall contributed to this report.