Mourning the loss of a local hero

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  • BEN PARSONS removes his radio scanner out of a jacket at the Whitefish Fire Department in this 2010 file photo. Parsons was killed in an avalanche Thursday in Glacier National Park. (Nate Chute/Daily Inter Lake)

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  • BEN PARSONS removes his radio scanner out of a jacket at the Whitefish Fire Department in this 2010 file photo. Parsons was killed in an avalanche Thursday in Glacier National Park. (Nate Chute/Daily Inter Lake)

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Ben Parsons, 36, a well-known local athlete and Whitefish firefighter and paramedic, was killed in an avalanche Thursday afternoon while backcountry skiing on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park.

Emergency responders pronounced Parsons dead before they were able to transport him to the hospital. The Kalispell resident died from trauma sustained after he was caught in the slide, which occurred about 500 feet below the summit of the mountain, according to park spokeswoman Lauren Alley.

Parsons is survived by his wife and a young son. On Friday, friends mourned the loss of the local hero, whose dedication to his work with the Whitefish Fire Department was held up alongside his accomplishments as a mountain biker and backcountry skier who had secured multiple national titles.

Clint Muhlfeld, a close friend of Parsons, competed alongside the firefighter on the same mountain-biking team that won two national championships. Muhlfeld remembered him on Friday as a consummate athlete and an active community member who “had so much love for everyone — it just radiated from him.”

“He was always the guy to keep me going when I was down and one of the most incredible human beings I’ve met in my life,” he said. “His zest for life was just unmatched. He got after it so hard, and on so many fronts, with his friends and family to his athletic [ability] to everything he did. He gave it 110 percent.”

Parsons was one of the top ski-mountaineering competitors in the country, as well, competing in the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Championships and winning the annual Whitefish Whiteout randonee race on Big Mountain multiple times.

“From climbing peaks to long hikes in the park to mountain bike racing to skiing, he did it all,” he said. “He’s one of the most amazing athletes.”

Parsons joined the Whitefish Fire Department around the beginning of 2009. In 2010, a story in the Daily Inter Lake detailed Parsons’ life-saving response to a fellow firefighter who had gone into cardiac arrest. Parsons had just finished a 50-mile mountain-biking endurance race covering 8,200 vertical feet in Oregon.

But that didn’t prevent him from successfully resuscitating the local firefighter, who had suffered a heart attack while responding to an unattended barbecue sitting on a wooden porch in a resident’s back yard.

“Honest to God, he was like that every single time, and he treated every patient with the utmost respect, like they were a brother or a sister or a parent,” said Cole Hadley, who started working for the Whitefish Fire Department on the same day as Parsons. “He did it so often, and he wasn’t afraid to tell you that he loved you and he wasn’t afraid to have open, honest conversations with people.”

Hadley is the President of Whitefish Firefighters, Local 3995. He noted that the bond shared by firefighters goes deeper than just coworkers.

“He was a best friend to everybody he met. He loved his job, he loved his crew, he was our brother, and his family is our family,” he said.

Parsons graduated from Flathead High School in 1998 before heading to Montana State University, where he double-majored in geology and education.

After graduating from college, he worked on a trail crew in Glacier Park and at Rocky Mountain Outfitters before beginning a career teaching seventh grade at Fair-Mont-Egan School in Kalispell.

According to his online biography at the Whitefish-based Ridge Mountain Academy, where he worked as a coach and ambassador, Parsons left teaching after two years to pursue his next career as a paramedic.

But his role as a mentor didn’t end there. Since the Ridge Mountain Academy opened its doors in 2015, Parsons was, in the words of academy founder Billy O’Donnell, “the epitome of what Ridge was created around.”

“He was always getting kids to laugh,” O’Donnell said Friday. “Being really intense and serious and passionate about what he loved, he was also so fun and happy.”

He added, “A lot of really elite athletes don’t have all those mentoring, coaching and people skills, and Ben had all those as well as being the best athlete.”

Since moving to the area four years ago, O’Donnell said that Parsons had also become his best friend in the valley.

“We just gravitated toward each other right away and had an amazing brotherhood type of relationship immediately,” he said. “He was just such an amazing, bright, shining light, with an amazing smile.”

An online fundraising page was set up Friday to assist his wife and son. To donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/benparsonsfamily.

THE AVALANCHE that caught Parsons on Thursday was triggered near the summit of Stanton Mountain, which rises to 7,750 feet in elevation along the shore of Lake McDonald.

Alley, the Glacier spokeswoman, said Parsons had been backcountry skiing with two other people. Neither of his companions were caught in the avalanche, and one of them was able to use a cell phone to get help.

A Friday press release from the park stated the third skier had previously returned to the trailhead.

Alley said Thursday that the skier who stayed behind was able to quickly search for and locate Parsons, then warmed and comforted him until emergency crews arrived.

Sheriff Curry said Friday that Parsons was well-prepared for the elements at the time, and was outfitted with an avalanche beacon. Curry was among the responders dispatched at about 3:15 p.m., and described the avalanche as a large slide.

The Two Bear crew and Glacier Park rangers also responded to the scene while the ALERT helicopter from Kalispell Regional Medical Center was staged nearby.

Alley said Parsons was in critical condition when emergency workers arrived and that he was pronounced dead during the rescue effort.

Park officials and surveyors with the Flathead Avalanche Center planned to head into the area Friday, weather permitting, to study the conditions present where the slide occurred.

The center rated the overall avalanche danger in south Glacier Park as “moderate” above 6,000 feet on Thursday.

“Lingering wind slab instability exists throughout the advisory area particularly in locations where they formed on weak snow,” the avalanche center said in a statement issued Friday on its website. “The avalanche danger is moderate above 5,000 feet where human-triggered avalanches are possible. Carefully evaluate wind loaded slopes and keep in mind the potential for a small avalanche to step down in to deeper weak layers.”

While Glacier is a popular destination for experienced backcountry skiers, fatal avalanches in the park are relatively rare. The last such incident occurred in 2010, when Whitefish resident Brian Wright was struck and killed by an avalanche while snowboarding on a peak adjacent to Mount Shields.

This is the ninth recorded avalanche fatality since the park was established in 1910, according to the park’s press release.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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