Community rallies to support searchers, family of missing skier

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Messages of prayer, hope and love hang from a tree in Depot Park in downtown Whitefish for the family of Dr. Jonathan Torgerson, a doctor and avid skier from Columbia Falls who went missing while skiing off the Flower Point area at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Saturday, Feb. 17. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

As the search for Dr. Jonathan Torgerson stretches into the sixth day, a community struck with grief and worry has been left without the traditional avenues to express their feelings to the family of a man they all love. Uncertainty has precluded a sense of closure, and the result is an emotional conundrum that is difficult to sit with.

To the fill the chasm, locals are channeling the pent-up anxiety of people who feel impacted by the loss into ways that help both Torgerson’s family and the dozens of people who are searching for him on the mountain.

Torgerson was last seen the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 17, when he set out alone on a backcountry route off the Flower Point area at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Search and rescue teams, hampered by a severe winter storm this weekend, have been unable to locate him.

Touching manifestations of the outsized role he played in the community are springing up in the searchers’ station on Big Mountain and the corner of Depot Park in downtown Whitefish. Powdered Soul, a nonprofit that Torgerson and his wife were both involved with, is organizing the efforts.

Valerie Kneeland, the executive director of the organization, has been leading efforts to get food to the dozens of people involved in the search and also initiated a prayer and hope tree on the southeast corner of Depot Park downtown.

She said everyone in the community is extremely grateful for the people with search and rescue skills that are out combing the slopes of Canyon Creek, but as it stretches on it has left the rest of the valley wondering what they can do.

“Everybody wants to do something, everybody wants to feel like they are aiding their fellow community members,” Kneeland said. “There has just been such an outpouring of people asking, what can we do?”

The tree in downtown Whitefish has, since Monday morning, become adorned with dozens of dangling messages directed toward Torgerson and his family. Some notes call on prayers, angels or Allah to help, others tell stories of the way Torgerson impacted their life.

Those are the messages that mean the most to his family, Kneeland said, and she recommended anyone who was inclined to go visit the tree to leave a story of their own about Torgerson.

“He gave, he lived, he loved, he did all of the things we are supposed to do,” Kneeland said. “There is comfort in that you know that someone you loved was so loved.”

There is a sash tied around the trunk of the tree that holds up a plastic bag filled with all the string, paper and markers one would need to tie another message and hang it from the branches.

Kneeland said she visits the tree periodically to take pictures of messages to share with the family and also takes some notes down to hand deliver to them.

She said the family has asked her to convey their gratitude to the community for the outpouring of support and they view it as a testament to a life lived well.

“They just want to make sure that everyone knows that they are seeing it all and value it and it means so much to them,” Kneeland said. “It’s a testament to what an amazing connection they have with this community and how much good he brought to our community.”

Anyone interested in being put on a list to help provide food to search and rescue teams or to help the family when they need it down the road can contact Kneeland by email at valkneeland@gmail.com.

She is coordinating with the Flathead Sheriff’s Office to make sure each meal is accounted for on the mountain without too much being delivered at any given time, and will coordinate support for the family as well. She said non-perishable, high-protein items like meat sticks and protein bars are always welcome.

“Until they bring him home we don’t have answers and you are just stuck in this period of waiting and hoping, and in that period they need to feel love and the community supporting the search and rescue team,” she said.

Sheriff Chuck Curry said that Wednesday’s search was largely similar to the previous days. Approximately 30 people were on the mountain involved in the effort, searching the area of Canyon Creek in the backcountry off the Flower Point chairlift where Torgerson disappeared Saturday. The helicopter from Two Bear Air was again involved in the search.

“They are working on refining their grids, getting them a little tighter,” Curry said. “They are pretty much going tree to tree at this point.”

He said searchers would likely be out until dark again Wednesday night and if they were not successful, would continue the search on Thursday morning, just as they have for the last few days.

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