Chasing the Spirit Bear

Kalispell mountain athlete Ben Parsons died Jan. 5 in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Glacier National Park, but his legacy of love and vigor lives on

By Tristan Scott
Burket Kniveton holds up a pair of Ben Parsons' racing skis as hundreds gather to honor Ben Parsons at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

WHITEFISH — As a cardiovascular conga line of more than 300 skiers ascended the face of Big Mountain on Jan. 8, nearly all the elements aligned to honor one of the Flathead Valley’s most vibrant personalities and vigorous mountain athletes — everything except for the red-headed ripper whose name will forever be inscribed on this local ski hill, Ben Parsons, 36, who died days earlier in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Glacier National Park.

Some of the skiers noshed squares of Lindt dark chocolate, Hi-Chews, gummies, and sticky buns — a few of Parsons’ backcountry fueling favorites — and staked out new signage designating the classic uphill route the “Benny Up!” trail.

Others had never donned “skins” or entertained the notion of skiing uphill on strips of friction-inducing fabric, but stepped outside of their comfort zones in order to celebrate the life of a friend, firefighter, teacher, son, brother, husband, and father, who reveled in the experience of introducing novices to the world of mountain sports.

Even Parsons’ Dynafit racing skis were on prominent display in the queue, lashed to the pack of his grieving wife, Jen, who made the uphill trek flanked by a cadre of the family’s closest friends, yipping into the crisp mountain air and channeling the Spirit Bear, an affectionate nickname bestowed on Parsons to denote his ginger hair and pale complexion, which shined pure as the driven snow.

Indeed, it was the presence of these people Parsons loved so much, and the community he stitched together with the warmth of his heart, that mattered most during Sunday’s heart-pounding, heart-breaking procession, which paid homage to the Kalispell mountain athlete’s otherworldly physical strength as well as to the spirit of fellowship he fostered throughout his native Flathead Valley.

Although the scene was visible from the valley floor, it was on the summit of Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort that the serpentine formation of skiers converged as one mass, huddling in a warm embrace as the vapor from 300 pairs of lungs merged in a single billow.

In surfing culture, such a gathering is known as a memorial “paddle out,” a ritual practiced by surfers around the world to honor the life of a fallen athlete. On Sunday, in a nod to the mountain culture Parsons cherished, it was called the “Benny Up,” which culminated in a moment of silence and a rollicking downhill rip through secret stashes of powder.

“Ben meant so much to all of us and he touched all of our lives, and now as we take a moment of silence, I want you to hold on to that,” Burket Kniveton, a close friend to the Parsons family, said. “Hold on to Ben.”

The silence was broken by the sound of hundreds of gloved hands clapping, creating the effect of a stampeding herd of wildebeests, which gave way to an en masse chorus of love.

“Ben, we love you. Ben, we miss you,” the crowd chanted in unison.

Holding a pair of Ben Parsons’ racing skis, Burket Kniveton embraces a friend alongside Brandon French, pictured in green, as hundreds gather to honor Parsons at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Parsons, a 1998 graduate of Flathead High School who worked as a firefighter in Whitefish, was an avid outdoorsman 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.

He experienced his highest honor when he married his wife, Jen Parsons, a triumph of fate rivaled only by the birth of their son, Rowen Curtis Parsons, who entered the world Oct. 22, 2015.

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

“Ben was my smartest, safest, most competent guide at RIDGE, hands down,” Billy O’Donnell, a professional skier who founded RIDGE, said. “He was the most experienced, the most traveled, and had spent the most time in the mountains of anyone else.”

Parsons carried that experience and wisdom with him into the mountains of Glacier National Park on Jan. 5, when he and Joel Shehan, a close friend and frequent companion on mountain adventures who was also schooling Parsons on fatherhood, set out to ski a familiar line on Stanton Mountain.

After skinning to the summit of the 7,750-foot peak, Parsons and Shehan assessed the snowpack and the time of day. It was approaching 2 p.m. and the snowpack was less stable than they’d initially thought, so rather than descend their intended south-facing line, they opted for a more conservative route to a safer aspect of the mountain.

They skied off the summit ridge and were just below and parallel to the ridgeline tracking west when Parsons triggered a soft-slab avalanche on a wind-loaded slope. The slide broke away from a weak layer of sugar snow, according to a preliminary report by forecasters with the Flathead Avalanche Center, and traveled between 1,200 feet and 1,700 feet downslope, funneling into a gully.

“We were 10 feet from complete safety when it slid,” Shehan said, adding that he and Parsons had determined it was less risky to cross the slope below the ridge than attempt to negotiate its narrow contours up top.

An avalanche on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park. Courtesy Philip Granrud

“I think this is really surprising and shocking to everyone who knows Ben and the level of his knowledge and depth of his experience in backcountry travel,” he said. “It was an isolated part of the slope, and we didn’t anticipate it reacting like it did. And Ben’s position was a safe position on that slope. He was making good decisions and being conservative, and the end result was a product of the sheer force of the mountain.”

As the avalanche carried Parsons down the mountain, Shehan watched his friend disappear from eyesight, slipping over the mountain’s convex features. Shehan began slowly descending the edge of the avalanche path while conducting a beacon search in an effort to locate Parsons, whose own avalanche beacon was set to transmit a signal in the event something went awry.

Tracking along the western edge of the path, Shehan located one of Parsons’ skis. Then he found his poles. And his mittens.

But by the time he reached the end of the avalanche’s path and searched through the debris that had collected in the narrow gully, he still hadn’t located a signal from Parsons’ beacon.

Removing his skis, Shehan boot-packed back up through the debris, growing increasingly panicked and exhausted as he tried unsuccessfully to find his friend.

Meanwhile, the late afternoon light was dimming, and Shehan knew time was not on his side.

“The window of time for survival was closing,” he said.

As he yo-yoed up and down through the debris, moving closer to the slide’s eastern edge, he repeatedly shouted Parsons’ name and eventually heard a voice call back. When Shehan found his friend, he was partially buried in the debris, and had suffered serious injuries due to trauma from trees and rocks, but he was still alive.

“It was obvious that he was in very bad shape,” Shehan said. “I think it speaks to his inner strength that he was still alive and able to communicate with me when I got to him.”

After calling 911 to initiate an emergency response, Shehan warmed Parsons and provided care to his friend, offering comfort until rescue crews arrived.

At approximately 4 p.m., responders with Two Bear Air, a privately owned search and rescue helicopter, extracted Parsons from the side of the mountain while the ALERT Air Ambulance staged on the Going-to-the-Sun Road near the base of Stanton Mountain, on the north end of Lake McDonald.

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

“Never in your worst nightmares do you want to watch your friend die, but if your friend is going to die on the side of a mountain, you are glad you were with him,” Shehan said. “Not that you feel deserving of that right, but for that person to know someone was there, when it has to be terrifying and painful and miserable all at once. You can take some solace in the fact that on some level they didn’t experience that alone.”

Brandon French has been inseparable friends with Parsons since the two met in 7th grade, when they began competing in mountain bike races and mountaineering together. A paramedic and firefighter in Kalispell, French was on duty with ALERT when he received the emergency call, which was relayed as a leg injury on Stanton Mountain.

“I had no idea that it was Ben,” French said.

As 911 dispatchers continued to update the ALERT crew, French learned that the injury was the result of an avalanche.

“At that point, I realized that it was likely going to be someone I knew,” said French, who is active in the local ski mountaineering scene.

A strong athlete in his own right, French was the friend that Parsons singled out for Jen to contact in the event she didn’t hear from him after a pre-determined deadline during one of his mountain outings, a safety net known as the “call-Brandon-something-went-wrong” deadline.

That both Shehan and French were by Parsons’ side in his final moments is testament to a powerful force of nature, O’Donnell said.

“There are very, very few people who would have physically even been able to do what Joel did, having to climb halfway back up the mountain and traverse that terrain to find Ben, and to have both Joel and Brandon there with Ben to me is just amazing,” O’Donnell said.

Brandon French and Sam Dauenhauer embrace as hundreds gather to honor Ben Parsons at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Upon arriving at the emergency room at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, other friends were on hand, including employees Andy Burbine and Jake Scott, whose serendipitous shift schedules allowed them to find the family a quiet space to sit with Ben and mourn.

“You would have been hard-pressed to find any corner in this valley where Ben wouldn’t have had support, but the providence was definitely there to ensure that everybody was exactly where they needed to be,” Josie Parsons, Ben’s younger sister, said.

The son of Larry and Val, Parsons grew up in Kalispell. 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.

Most recently, Parsons joined the staff at Whitefish Mountain Resort on a part-time basis to help develop a new ski mountaineering league tailored to skiers eager to learn more about the sport.

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,” Knight stated. “He will be missed.”

Sara Torgerson signs a “Benny Up! Trail” sign as hundreds gather to honor Ben Parsons at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In Parsons’ blog, “Mind on the Mountains,” an entry from 2014 written after he responded to a skier who died in a tree well at Whitefish Mountain Resort reflects on the law of averages that can dictate risk in the mountains, as well as the likelihood of encountering one of his friends during an emergency response.

“It’s a game of numbers that eventually during my career I will likely be treating and transporting a dear friend or family member while on shift,” Parsons wrote.

“In the meantime, don’t let this dark topic spoil a great day to live! I for one am going in search of a couple fine powder turns and the warming of a strong heart pumping blood through my body,” the entry continues. “I will do so with a thankful heart, for today I’ve been spared any tragedies thus far, and will attempt to remind myself that my time here is finite, my periods of bliss are finite, but there’s no sense in worrying about the future and accidents that are outside of our control.”

Shehan said if anyone was fluent in risk management, it was Parsons, and the tragedy he experienced alongside his friend was an accident that couldn’t have been avoided but by staying indoors.

And Parsons was never one to stay indoors.

“All of us go out there in the mountains with the realization that there is risk associated with it, and Ben was not one to take undue risks, and certainly with a family and a son, he was interested in having an athletic experience and experiencing the mountains but in an intelligent way,” Shehan said. “But even doing that involves a degree of calculated risk, just like getting in your car is a calculated risk that we take every day. I would put it on that level. It was the uncontrolled force of nature.”

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.

A public memorial for Parsons is planned for 3 p.m. on Jan. 12 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds, following a procession beginning at Majestic Valley Arena.

To help support Jen and Rowen, friends have set up a GoFundMe account at www.gofundme.com/benparsonsfamily.

“We called him Spirit Bear in part as a joke, because of his light complexion,” Shehan said. “But he was a pretty rare animal. If you caught a glimpse of him, you were lucky. We’re all lucky to have known Ben.”