Recovery of Missing Doctor Brings Closure to Community

Dr. Jonathan Scott Torgerson disappeared Feb. 17 while skiing in Big Mountain backcountry

By Tristan Scott
Two Bear Air flies near Flower Point on Feb. 21. Search and rescue teams have been looking for Jonathan Scott Torgerson near Big Mountain since Feb. 17. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

The body of Dr. Jonathan Scott Torgerson was recovered May 12 nearly three months after the well-known physician went missing while skiing in the Big Mountain backcountry, drawing to a close a period of agonizing uncertainty for family and friends.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said search-and-rescue crews located and recovered Torgerson’s body at 11 a.m. in an avalanche deposition zone on the north side of the mountain. Curry said it appears that Torgerson, 62, was caught in the slide on Feb. 17, carried down the mountain and buried.

Torgerson, an experienced and passionate backcountry skier, lived in Columbia Falls and practiced medicine across a wide range of specialties, including geriatric care at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish.

Torgerson’s disappearance set off a wide-ranging and intensive search effort that included professional search-and-rescue crews from multiple counties, Two Bear Air Rescue, experienced backcountry skiers, friends and family.

Although the search was never called off and Flathead County Search and Rescue Coordinator Chris Roberts continued to monitor snow depth and coordinate searches on the mountain throughout the winter, the scope of the search was scaled back dramatically. Curry said crews resumed the intensity of the search in recent weeks and were aided by warming temperatures and snow conditions in the successful recovery. Out-of-area K9 teams participated in the search, and one such K9 team from Colorado was “instrumental in today’s mission,” the sheriff said.

“The Sheriff’s Office wishes to thank all of the volunteers who have contributed countless hours in this ongoing search to bring Dr. Torgerson home to his family,” Curry said.

The specially trained dog that located Torgerson is a golden retriever named Recco, named after the technology that enables searchers to rapidly pinpoint an avalanche victim’s precise location using harmonic radar, and which is commonly built into newer outerwear, like ski jackets.

The Torgerson family had an opportunity to meet Recco and her handler, John Reller. That the searcher shared a name with Torgerson carried a special meaning, friends of the family said.

The recovery of Torgerson’s body finally brings some sense of finality to his family and friends, including many who participated in the search efforts and maintained a glimmer of hope; although remote, the chance of his survival always remained a possibility to loved ones.

Valerie Kneeland, a family friend whose Whitefish-based nonprofit, Powdered Soul, has close ties to the Torgersons, said the recovery, while difficult, helps bring closure to family members.

“It’s human nature to maintain a sliver of hope, no matter how illogical,” Kneeland said. “But he is home. He’s not home the way we wanted him to come home, but for his family to finally have answers is immeasurable.”

Curry said Torgerson’s body was discovered in an avalanche deposition zone about 200 yards above the Canyon Creek Road in a backcountry ski area known as Beaver Ponds. Search-and-rescue crews focused on the zone with a particular intensity from the outset after observing the slide by helicopter, but the heavy snowpack and hazardous conditions hindered their success.

“We knew there had been a slide in that area and during the initial phase of the search we spent a lot of time in that zone,” Curry said. “We did a lot of probing in that zone. We searched it using transceivers but we didn’t get any hits. We were also cautious because it’s in really bad avalanche terrain.”

Torgerson was wearing an avalanche transceiver that was turned on and set to transmit. However, Curry didn’t know how long before the device ran out of batteries.

Compounding the challenges of the initial backcountry search efforts was a severe storm that buffeted Big Mountain’s terrain with snow and wind, hampering the initial aerial search and creating difficult and unsafe conditions on the ground.

“There was a huge blizzard the first night, and while we had search crews out there they were not traveling up the slopes,” Curry said.

Although the fruitless search efforts marked an unbearable time for Torgerson’s family and friends, it also evinced the powerful bond the physician forged with his community.

Although he hadn’t tallied up the number of hours invested in the search, Curry said the amount of outside support to locate Torgerson was significant, particularly as the backcountry skiing community stepped up.

The county resources dedicated to the search were also aggressive, with Curry also calling in favors from agencies in Lewis and Clark and Gallatin counties, whose sheriff’s departments dispatched search-and-rescue professionals and experienced backcountry skiers to assist.

Two Bear Air Rescue Chief Pilot Jim Pierce said observing the extensive ground search from above was impressive, and he praised the level of commitment of the skiers combing the mountain and probing tree wells.

Kneeland said the groundswell of community support helped buoy the family’s spirits through difficult times, while the unwavering dedication of the professional and volunteer search teams was encouraging.

“The sheriff’s department promised not to give up on the search and they stayed on it,” Kneeland said.

Manifestations of the community support also appeared on a large spruce tree in Whitefish’s downtown Depot Park, where people hung prayer cards bearing messages of hope and love.

On behalf of the Torgerson family, Kneeland helped set up the Jon Torgerson Memorial Fund at American Bank. The fund is designed to serve as a resource for purchasing equipment and providing training to assist in search-and-rescue operations.

“The idea is to make sure rescue teams are equipped and trained to help bring home someone else’s family member,” Kneeland said. “That’s how we can help Jon’s legacy live on.”

A celebration of Torgerson’s life is scheduled to take place at Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish on Thursday, May 17, after 5 p.m. A memorial service will take place the following day at 11 a.m. St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Columbia Falls.

To donate to the memorial fund, contact [email protected].

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