A community reporter bears witness to one of the thorniest aspects of recreationalists’ relationship with land: tragic death in the mountains.
By CLARE MENZEL
Tristan Scott, managing editor of the Flathead Beacon, is an award-winning environmental and political reporter known for his literary talent and watchdog tenacity. His 20-year career has shone a light on topics as complex as international water agreements and dark money in elections. He applies the same skill set when community members die in the mountains. These stories are where the investigative journalist, thoughtful citizen, and high-performance athlete meet. Tapping into his own experiences as a trail runner and mountaineer, Tristan boldly approaches the sharp contrast of joyful life and brutal loss. He visits this tender complexity when everything feels most raw, like this summer, when he wrote a cover story about Brian Kennedy and Jack Beard, two respected mountaineers and beloved community members who died on Dusty Star Mountain. In his writing, there’s kinship and craftsmanship—a true gift for the survivors in the immediate wake of loss.
The eulogy is, to me, high art. My father was a true master—I come from a big family, went to a lot of funerals growing up. My first job as a journalist was when I was 22, an intern at the Missoulian. There was a section in the obituaries called “Western Montana Lives.” Cold-calling family members, I realized how much people care about this process of remembering, and how healing it was. I really cared, always made the extra phone call. It had this sanctity that not every city council story has.
“These stories take a toll on me. I will keep writing them as long as I can manage. It’s a heavy mantle, especially when the writer feels a desperate urgency to convey the scope and dimensions and severity of human loss.”
Some stories, you just flip the burger. Other stories, you care so deeply you want to open a vein and let it pour out on the page. I have written thousands of stories, but I remember the eulogies in a way I don’t remember the others.
When I moved here to cover the Flathead Valley for the Missoulian, I fell in with some folks who showed me how to use my running fitness to pull off remote mountain objectives, to link up a bunch of peaks and ridgelines, but do them in a day by trailrunning the approach and exit. I’ve always flirted with these mountain activities that have risk and consequence ingrained in them.
Whenever somebody walks into the mountains with some objective and doesn’t come back, there’s a story. Part of that story is how the ropes were configured, and what the objective was. There’s a way to present the story that isn’t a clinical description of what went wrong, but without the gore and without trying to tell the story in a dramatic fashion just because it happened in the mountains.
In 2017, when Ben Parsons died on Stanton Mountain, that was so much closer than anything I have ever experienced: 13 friends texting me while I’m on the phone with the sheriff to confirm it was Ben, knowing how wrecked the community was going to be, knowing that the next morning everybody was going to read a story I put my name on. This is just my job. Every other newspaper was just going to have a press release that said, “36-year-old man died in an avalanche in Glacier National Park.” I absolutely respected him and wanted to do the things he did. He was growing a family, and doing it with all the grace in the world.
My role is stepping aside and letting the survivors, these really strong people, in the midst of unimaginable grief, do the job for you. Ben’s friends were willing to come into the office and, through tears and adrenaline, describe exactly what happened. At his memorial, everybody that spoke, did so eloquently. Writing it down is just an extension of this oral tradition.
These stories take a toll on me. I will keep writing them as long as I can manage. It’s a heavy mantle, especially when the writer feels a desperate urgency to convey the scope and dimensions and severity of human loss. A desperation to bring into focus not just who the person is, but what they aspired to be until their life got cut short. This is not supposed to be a journalist’s role. You’re not supposed to care about your subjects. I try to provide these messy details in a way that is true and accurate and journalistically ethical, but I’m still a human and all of this is fuckin’ subjective.
There’s a notion that writers and journalists all lead these itinerant, freewheeling, Walter Mitty-esque lifestyles, but as I’ve deepened my commitment to local storytelling, most of my big revelations are a result of having stayed home. The more I’ve become obsessed with cataloging the rich history of this place, the more the natural world has coaxed me into myself, connected me to my own topography.
Photo by: Mandy Mohler
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