The Kalispell man killed in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Glacier National Park on Jan. 5 possibly triggered the slide while weighting his skis in an attempt to test snow stability, according to an incident report from the Flathead Avalanche Center released Tuesday.
Ben Parsons, 36, a well-known local athlete and Whitefish firefighter and paramedic, was killed in the avalanche triggered near the summit of Stanton Mountain, which rises to 7,750 feet in elevation along the shore of Lake McDonald.
Experts with the Flathead Avalanche Center spoke with a member of the party involved in the incident and visited the site of the slide on Jan. 6 in compiling their report.
According to their findings, the party of three experienced backcountry skiers left the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 5. They were all equipped with avalanche transceivers, avalanche shovels and probes, and they read the avalanche advisory that morning. The avalanche center had rated the overall avalanche danger in south Glacier Park as “moderate” above 6,000 feet on the day of the fatal slide.
During the climb up the mountain, one of the skiers mentioned that he was feeling ill and decided to ski back to the parking lot, while the two others continued on to the summit.
After a short break at the summit, the two decided to descend the same west ridge they climbed up to limit exposure. Both would make a few turns on the adjacent slope but then cut back to the ridge, the report states.
They eventually came to a sub-ridge that separates two large southwest-facing avalanche chutes.
From there, Parsons traversed across the wide ridge and into the western-most of the two avalanche paths.
“He performed two ski pole tests in this area, then made one left hand turn followed by an immediate right turn,” the report states. “Between these turns [Parsons] down weighted his skis once or twice in an attempt to test the snow stability.”
This technique is sometimes used to test small test slopes with low or no consequence should an avalanche occur, the report notes.
“Shortly after completing his right hand turn [Parsons] triggered the avalanche, possibly while down weighting,” the report states. “The avalanche broke uphill and immediately knocked him off his feet.”
The second skier watched Parsons get swept downhill on top of the avalanche debris. He navigated down the slide path and started a transceiver search, but was unable to obtain a signal from Parsons. After calling out for Parsons, he heard a faint reply and eventually located him on the snow surface against a tree in a semi-conscious state.
Recognizing Parsons’ critical state, the skier called 911 and requested a helicopter evacuation while attempting to warm and comfort Parsons.
Parsons was in critical condition when rescuers from Two Bear Air arrived and he died from his injuries during the rescue effort.
The slide carried Parsons about 1,000 vertical feet down the slope. According to the report, the crown of the avalanche ranged from 1 to almost 4 feet deep. The slide was approximately 270 feet wide and traveled downslope roughly 2,300 vertical feet. The avalanche released on a wind-loaded slope about 12-30 inches deep.
The report notes that both skiers were experienced in both winter mountain travel and avalanche education, and that Parsons had completed a Level 2 avalanche training and his partner had completed a Level 1 avalanche course.
The full incident report can be found at http://www.flatheadavalanche.org.