Searching for Jon

The disappearance of a well-known physician and skier in the backcountry of Big Mountain draws committed search-and-rescue response, galvanizes a community

By Tristan Scott
Search and rescue teams have been looking for Jonathan Scott Torgerson near Big Mountain since Feb. 17. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

A familiar rhythm has begun to animate the Big Mountain Fire Hall, a pulse generated by the fellowship of ski-savvy volunteers and trained professionals whose congregation revolves around a single unifying mission — they’re here to find Jon.

Dozens of individuals have gathered at Whitefish Mountain Resort every morning and every evening since the extensive search got underway for Dr. Jonathan Scott Torgerson, a 62-year-old physician in Whitefish; a dedicated family man living in Columbia Falls and an experienced backcountry skier in the Flathead Valley who, on Feb. 17, went skiing alone in the Big Mountain backcountry and didn’t return.

Yet despite the chilling reality that what began as a rescue mission has almost certainly become a recovery; despite the frigid temperatures, bracing wind and blowing snow that has blanketed the valley; despite the exhaustive and exhausting efforts of the search crews both on and off the ground; despite all this bluster, the warmth taking up residency at the fire hall emanates from all corners of the community.

It has drawn together a close-knit tribe of backcountry skiers whose intimate knowledge of the mountain terrain complements a network of resources orchestrated by Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, including professional search-and-rescue crews from multiple counties and the Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter. It has stitched together a band of businesses and individuals who have ensured the search crews are fed, organizing food drops and sending hot meals to sustain skiers who have spent eight-hour days on end plowing through deep snow, navigating wind drifts and debris and probing endless tree wells in hopes of finding Jon.

Pete Costain, left, and Jason Nargi look over a map as search and rescue crews debrief at the end of the day on Feb. 22, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

At the end of the day, they gather at the fire hall, noshing pizza and cookies, sipping coffee, counting heads and debriefing one another on a dire situation made direr because of the inability to answer even the most basic questions, especially the most pressing one — what happened?

For his friends and family members, the pall of uncertainty has been agony, and yet through it all they have taken care to express their gratitude, going out of their way to assure the community that its overwhelming support and love have been a sustaining force.

Valerie Kneeland, a family friend whose Whitefish-based nonprofit, Powdered Soul, has close ties to the Torgersons, is using the organization as a vehicle to supply searchers with food and gear, donations for which have come pouring out of local businesses, restaurants and individuals. Ironically, it was Torgerson and his wife, Sara, who encouraged Kneeland to launch her nonprofit in 2013, cutting her an initial check to help fund an organization that provides local youth the opportunity to enjoy extracurricular activities, like ski racing, art lessons and soccer camps.

“Jon and Sara are just tremendous supporters of this community overall, and so for this small town to make their family a priority in a time of need is so heartwarming,” Kneeland said.

“It’s so hard in situations like this,” she continued. “When someone dies, you have almost a ritualistic dance you do to grieve and heal and find closure. We know what to do and how to respond. But in this situation we don’t know what to do. We are in this waiting pattern. And all we want to do is help the family.”

Manifestations of that desire have appeared on a large spruce tree in Whitefish’s downtown Depot Park, where prayer cards hang from ribbons, fluttering like spinnakers in the wind and bearing messages of hope and love. One note featured prominently at the tree’s trunk hangs from a basket filled with mini-Snickers bars: “Jon’s favorite Treat. Thank you for praying for us. Love, His Family,” the card reads.

Cards and notes hang from a tree in Whitefish’s Depot Park dedicated to missing skier Jonathan Torgerson on Feb. 22, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The resources dedicated to the search for Torgerson have been aggressive, with Sheriff Curry calling in favors from agencies in Lewis and Clark and Gallatin counties, whose sheriff’s departments have dispatched search-and-rescue professionals and experienced backcountry skiers to assist. Even as the search plodded into its tenth day on Feb. 26, when the Beacon went to print, Curry showed no signs of planning to terminate the search, continuing his pledge that “we’re not giving up until we find him,” despite temporarily halting the search due to hazardous avalanche conditions Monday.

Still, friends continued tracking up and down the mountain, while Flathead County Search and Rescue and North Valley Rescue teams were slated to resume their efforts Feb. 27, joined again by members of the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol and scores of volunteers, with as many as 90 people scouring the backcountry over the weekend.

They carry on undeterred by the vast amount of terrain that is part of the active search area — as much as 500 acres — while persisting in the face of a heavy snowpack that has accumulated an additional two feet in the past week, as well as a relative dearth of information that could help pinpoint Torgerson’s whereabouts. It’s likely he is wearing an avalanche beacon, for example, but its batteries may have run out, rendering its utility moot. The Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter flew the search area for days, scanning the terrain with a receiver designed to detect a signal from his beacon. However, the densely treed terrain prevented the helicopter from flying low enough to capture a potential signal.

On the day Torgerson disappeared, his cellphone pinged from a ridge between a point known as “Kona” east of the Flower Point summit and another prominence called “Goolie.” From that last-known point, search teams have fanned out on either side of the ridge, moving up and down the steep aspects in yo-yo-like patterns, probing tree wells and searching for clues.

Two Bear Air Rescue Chief Pilot Jim Pierce said it’s disheartening to exhaust all of the tools in the search-and-rescue toolbox beyond a traditional ground search, but he praised the level of commitment of the skiers combing the mountain, which he witnessed from above.

“When it got on to day three and they are literally going tree to tree, it’s pretty amazing,” Pierce said, describing the tactic deployed by search teams plumbing the depths of tree wells with 10-foot probe poles, which all but disappeared in the abundant snow.

The difficulty of the search has been compounded by the severe weather buffeting the backcountry terrain of Big Mountain with snow and wind, Pierce said, at times hampering the aerial search and creating difficult and unsafe conditions on the ground.

“It’s hard work out there, and it’s impressive to see multiple agencies and individuals come out here for someone they don’t necessarily know,” he said. “It’s extraordinary, but in Montana it’s not necessarily unique. It’s what we do.”

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry points to a search area near Big Mountain on Feb. 22, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For Jenny Cloutier, education coordinator at the Flathead Avalanche Center who has helped organize the volunteer teams searching for Torgerson, the unwavering dedication by the professional and volunteer search teams alike has been encouraging.

“I have never heard a search-and-rescue leader say something as committed as (what Sheriff Curry promised), and walking into the fire hall every day and seeing the community that has rallied behind this search has been one of the silver linings for me,” Cloutier said. “There are people who didn’t know Jon at all but they can relate to the situation, and there are people that knew him well and have been out with him skiing. Everyone dropped their responsibilities and turned out to bring Jon home. Inspiring is not quite the right word, but it is incredible to see the volume of people committed to this.”

Cloutier is one of a number of the volunteers who also interacted with Torgerson in a medical context, where by all accounts he stood out in his ability to connect with patients on a human level. His career has included a wide range of medical specialties, including geriatric care at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish.

“He is one of those people that could make a really heavy situation feel lighter,” she said. “In situations like that, someone who connects with you like a human can flip the switch in a terrible context. Jon could do that.”

Torgerson’s disappearance has also served as a grim reminder of the perils inherent to recreating in the backcountry, and his decision to ski alone and out of bounds on Feb. 17, likely venturing into the popular Canyon Creek area off of Flower Point, has given pause to those who regularly seek out fresh powder turns in Big Mountain’s backyard.

Pete Costain, a Whitefish local and experienced backcountry skier who volunteered in the search last week, said the amount of outside support to locate Torgerson is to be expected from the backcountry skiing community, a rarefied group that not only possesses the equipment, physical strength and knowledge to mitigate risk, but also a heightened awareness that risk cannot be eliminated entirely.

“You always want to follow best practices in the backcountry, but people let their guard down regularly in the canyon. I am a regular offender,” he said. “Generally the avalanche conditions are fairly stable, but when you are skiing solo and something goes wrong, what do you do? Seeing a friend suffer from something that could happen to any of us is a real eye-opener.”

Cloutier and Costain both acknowledged the personal responsibility and risk involved with backcountry skiing, as well as the passion that drives mountain enthusiasts to pursue a sport that involves a high degree of risk.

“It feeds us,” Cloutier said, noting the increasing interest in backcountry skiing. “We go into the backcountry because it feeds so many of us. The best thing we can do is to continue to provide the best education, because the demand is immense. It is booming and it far exceeds our institutional capacity.”

As the search stretched into days and teams continued to turn up few clues, the hope of a positive outcome diminished. But the dedication to bring resolution to Torgerson’s family, to bring Jon home, never flagged.

“People can see themselves in this situation,” Cloutier said. “It’s amazing. I almost cried when I went into the fire hall on Monday and saw the response. I was so thankful to see all of these people and know that these are the people that have my back if something like this happened to me.”

Back in Depot Park, the big spruce continues to blossom with prayer cards and ribbons, and Torgerson’s favorite backcountry snack offers sweet sustenance to passersby. One note fairly summarizes the community’s devotion to the ongoing search as well as Torgerson’s passion for the mountains.

“We will find you and bring you home — however, one could argue you are already home in the mountains you loved.”

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