Scottish Widows boss dies after losing way on freezing mountain

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A HIGH-FLYING executive credited with transforming the fortunes of a leading Scottish company has died in freezing conditions in the Pyrenees while walking the route of a historic Spanish pilgrimage.

Chris Phillips, 50, the chief executive of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (SWIP), is thought to have lost his way in heavy fog - missing by 50 metres a road that would have led him to safety.

Mr Phillips was walking at about 5,000ft over a mountain pass leading from France to Spain when a storm brought heavy snow and strong winds, forcing Mr Phillips to spend the night in the mountains. He was found by firefighters the following afternoon suffering from severe hypothermia.

The weather was too bad for a helicopter to fly him out so he was carried out on a stretcher and taken to hospital in Pamplona 40 miles away by ambulance along a road that had to be cleared by snowploughs. He died shortly after arriving.

Mr Phillips, who worked at SWIP for more than three years, was credited with leading the firm from a "period of turbulence" to become "a strong competitor" in the asset-management business, according to Archie Kane, the chief executive of Scottish Widows. Mr Kane described Mr Phillips as a "normal, healthy, full-of-beans guy, very intellectual ... a great guy who had a lot going for him".

He added: "I'm extremely distressed at losing Chris. He was a charming colleague and a gentleman. The world is a slightly lesser place without him."

Mr Phillips set out last Tuesday morning on the 16-mile walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in south-western France to the village of Roncesvalles in Spain.

He was due to spend five weeks walking along the ancient pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela on Spain's Atlantic coast prior to taking a new job in London.

It is unclear if he set out alone, but at 8pm on Tuesday he met two Italian walkers on the Spanish side of the border as they struggled through deep snow.

They quickly became separated in the fog while crossing the Col de Lepoeder and Mr Philips apparently lost the path. The Italians raised the alarm at 10pm, but it was not until 3pm the following day that he was found by rescuers on the slopes of the 4,700ft Mount Ortzanzurieta amid continuing bad weather.

A spokesman for Navarra police said the dangers of crossing from France to Spain at this time of year were well known and signs giving weather conditions were posted along the early part of the route.

"It can be spring near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port but in Roncesvalles and on the mountains above it's still deep winter," he said. "The rescuers did an incredible job to find him, but he had been out all night."

Garry Budin, a tour guide on the Camino, said he could understand how someone could get lost at the Col de Lepoeder in bad weather. "You can easily turn the wrong way. He has turned west instead of east. It's not a hard mistake to make if you don't know the way," he said.

"But there is a small road, just 50m away and once you are on it you cannot get lost, even if there's snow around. Oh God, that's a tragedy."

Mr Phillips lived in London with his wife Elizabeth and commuted to work in Edinburgh. He was a graduate of Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He was also a policy adviser for the Social Democratic Party until starting a career in finance in 1983.

He was on "gardening leave" at Scottish Widows and was due to become chief executive of Morley Fund Management in London. He was also chairman of the Association of British Insurers investment committee.

Mr Kane added: "Even though he was leaving us to go to Morley, it was on the best of terms. He wanted to go back to London, where he lived.

"He was quite excited about going on this Spanish walking trip, and I think he had done a bit of walking in preparation for it.

"I never thought of him as religious, but sometimes people keep those things quiet.

"He was very much into opera and classical music. He enjoyed that very much. He would go abroad to go to the opera. He was a very intellectual guy with intellectual taste.

"This is a very sad day for all at Scottish Widows. Chris was hugely respected across the industry and deeply liked by all his colleagues. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

"Our thoughts and sympathies are extended to his wife, Liz, and family."

• THE pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain originates from the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle James the Great early in the ninth century.

James was one of the original four Apostles, according to the Bible. His remains were the last of the original Apostles to be found.

In the First Crusade of 1099, Jerusalem fell and the idea of recapturing Spain for the Christians took hold.

This idea was then included in the Pilgrim's Guide, a pamphlet produced by a French master with close links to the Cathedral of Santiago.

In the early 12th century, Santiago became as popular a pilgrimage destination as Jerusalem and Rome.

The pilgrimage flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, but then foundered because of the Reformation in 1517.

Spiritual visits to Santiago did not become popular again until the mid-20th century.