Accomplished Kalispell Athlete Killed in Glacier Park Avalanche

Ben Parsons, 36, was descending Stanton Mountain when the fatal avalanche was triggered

By Tristan Scott & Dillon Tabish
Ben Parsons. Beacon File Photo

Updated: Jan. 6, 2:30 p.m.

Ben Parsons, an accomplished endurance athlete and Whitefish firefighter, was killed Jan. 5 in an avalanche while backcountry skiing on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park. He was 36.

The Kalispell native, a devoted family man and friend to many, was well known throughout the community, where he was recognized for his unrivaled prowess as an elite mountain biker and ski mountaineer, as well as for his infectious smile and gregarious nature.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry on Jan. 6 confirmed Parsons as the victim of the avalanche.

According to Lauren Alley, public information officer at Glacier National Park, 911 dispatchers received a report from Parsons’ skiing companion at approximately 3:15 p.m. The companion, speaking by mobile phone, told dispatchers that Parsons had been partially buried in a large avalanche on the south-facing aspect of Stanton Mountain and was critically injured. The companion, a close friend, warmed Parsons and provided medical care while awaiting the emergency response. According to Alley, a third skier was below the other two and clear of the avalanche path.

Two Bear Air, a privately owned search and rescue helicopter, responded to the incident while the ALERT Air Ambulance staged at the base of Stanton Mountain, on the north end of Lake McDonald. Park rangers also mobilized a ground search in the event the air rescue was unsuccessful.

Jim Pierce, chief pilot for Two Bear Air, said the helicopter crew arrived on the scene around 4 p.m. and extracted Parsons from his location approximately 500 yards below the summit.

“It was a pretty big avalanche,” Pierce said.

Pierce said Parsons was conscious and responsive but had experienced severe trauma.

He was pronounced dead during the course of the rescue operation.

The skiing companion was not caught in the slide and spent “a considerable amount of time” searching for Parsons, eventually locating him by voice, Alley said.

Curry said the avalanche broke off near the top of the mountain and Parsons died from injuries that were the result of severe trauma.

Avalanche danger on Thursday was rated as moderate in southern Glacier Park at elevations above 5,000 feet, according to the Flathead Avalanche Center.

Both skiers involved in the avalanche were experienced traveling in the backcountry and were equipped with safety gear, including probes, shovels, beacons, and helmets.

In the coming days, Glacier Park officials will coordinate with the Flathead Avalanche Center to investigate the sequence of events that triggered the avalanche and caused the fatality, Alley said.

With a summit at 7,750 feet elevation, Stanton Mountain is located at the north end of Lake McDonald to the west of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Ben Parsons Montana Ski Mountaineer by Mandy Mohler for Flathead Living Magazine Spring 2015

Parsons was an avid outdoors adventurer and standout endurance athlete who inspired anyone who witnessed his ambitious pursuits and achievements. A rare breed of athlete and well-liked by all, he earned the distinction of being one of the best mountain bike racers and ski mountaineers in the West.

Over the last decade, he was a member of the U.S. National Ski Mountaineering Team and competed in Europe against the top mountaineers in the world. He claimed numerous victories in the annual Whiteout at Whitefish Mountain Resort, where locals would regularly encounter him skinning up the mountain in the pre-dawn hours at breakneck pace.

Parsons also competed professionally on the Sportsman Ski Haus Cycling Team, which reached the No. 1 team ranking in the Montana Off Road Series and consistently placed high in regional events.

Rose Grant, a Kalispell resident and one of the top professional mountain bikers in the U.S., met Parsons around 2011 when she began competing locally and heard about the talented red-headed rider.

“I knew his name, obviously. Everybody does. He was such a well-known athlete,” Grant said of Parsons.

As the two cyclists became friends and colleagues, Grant realized he was much more than just a standout athlete.

“He was just so friendly and very accepting of those around him. He was always looking for the next adventure and always made people around him feel important,” she said. “He’s athletically way more talented than most people but he never made people feel that way. He was just very humble.”

Parsons served as an ambassador and mentor at RIDGE Mountain Academy, a local outdoors gap-year institution for students 16 to 22.

“He had a bright shining light for a smile and was infectious to be around. He and I gravitated towards each other from the first second we met,” Billy O’Donnell, a professional skier who founded RIDGE, said.

“He was an amazing teacher and mentor to the students, and was just an incredible member of the community.”

O’Donnell said Parsons’ passion for health, fitness and adventuring in the outdoors was inspirational to everyone who came in contact with him.

“He lived it every single day,” O’Donnell said.

“He inspired the valley and the community, and he brought that into RIDGE to share that with students to make an impact on their lives — and he definitely made an impact on students’ lives.”

Most recently, Parsons joined the staff at Whitefish Mountain Resort on a part-time basis to help develop a new ski mountaineering league.

Josh Knight, the events manager at the ski resort, remembers Parsons as a superior athlete who was always positive and appreciative.

“Memories of Ben here include being perhaps one of the most accomplished endurance athletes in the region, winning dozens of races, setting uphill records, pioneering our new Ski Mountaineering League, and all the while being the single most positive and appreciative event participant I have ever worked with in 17 seasons. He will be missed,” Knight stated.

The son of Larry and Val, Parsons grew up in Kalispell and graduated from Flathead High School in 1998. He pedaled his first bike, a BMX, at the age of 6 after his parents brought him home a present, sparking a lifelong passion that turned into exceptional competitive success.

He attended Montana State University and received degrees in education and geology. After graduating, he returned to the Flathead Valley and became a seventh-grade teacher at Fair-Mont-Egan School while expanding his outdoor pursuits.

After two years of teaching, he returned to college and trained as a wilderness EMT and paramedic before joining the Whitefish Fire Department in 2009. In 2010, Parsons saved another man’s life after finishing a 50-mile mountain bike race in Oregon. Parsons responded to a man who collapsed in cardiac arrest and quickly performed CPR. Parsons had successfully resuscitated the man by the time emergency responders arrived, and the man recovered within days after surgery.

Parsons was a dedicated father, husband, brother and son. To help support his wife, Jen, and 1-year-old son, Rowen, friends have set up a GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/benparsonsfamily.

The Jan. 5 incident was the ninth recorded avalanche fatality in Glacier Park since the park was established in 1910.

Prior to Parsons’ death, the most recent avalanche fatality inside the park occurred in April 2010, when a 37-year-old snowboarder was killed as the result of injuries he sustained in an avalanche on Mount Shields. The victim, Brian Curtis Wright, survived the avalanche but died while attempting to hike to safety.