-- — Reprinted with permission from the Livingston Enterprise
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Livingston Enterprise newspaper in Livingston, Montana on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013. Steve Parker contacted the VDT the next day to see if we would be interested in reprinting the article about his son so friends and family in the area could read not only the truth of what happened to Austin, but to gain an understanding of the kind of young man he was. Thank you to the Enterprise for reprint permission, and our hearts go out to the Parker family for their loss.
Austin Parker’s hair was standing on end.
Standing atop the craggy, nearly-11,000-foot-high Electric Peak in Yellowstone National Park, Parker could see everything — for miles in every direction — including the black, billowing storm clouds that threatened to spit bolts of lightning at his exposed position on the rocky peak. In that moment, the static-charged air swirling around Electric Peak was — literally — electric.
Austin called Aaron.
“Aaron? Get on Google Earth and look up that other trail. I’m on the summit and I’m making my way down now,” the 23-year-old said shakily as the wind whipped around him.
Aaron Davis, a 33-year-old Port St. Joe, Fla., transplant and one of Parker’s closest friends in his new Montana home, looked up the alternate route, describing to Parker where to meet up with the trail.
“I see a lake down there — does the trail take off from there?” Parker asked. “All right, man, I’m heading down there.”
After spending some time scrambling down the slopes of loose scree — broken rock fragments that accumulate from rockfalls on many high mountain peaks — Parker called Davis again at around 2:30 p.m.
“Hey, I’m going into this bowl here. I might lose cell reception,” he told Davis.
“OK … If you’re not back in four hours, I’m calling search and rescue,” Davis replied.
An hour later, Davis called Parker.
There was no answer.
At 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., he called again.
No answer either time.
At 6:30, he called one more time.
Davis called search and rescue.
“(Yellowstone) prevails with this radiant, holistic beauty that defies all logical assessments of its individual parts.” – Austin Parker’s Tumblr blog, July 2
Perfect day in Gardiner
The morning of July 16 in Gardiner was brisk and clear. Twenty-three-year-old Joseph Austin Parker, known as Austin to his family, friends, co-workers and the patrons he waited on in the K-Bar eatery, left his basement apartment.
Parker — attractive, blond and athletic — was clad in the hiking gear that had become his Montana signature over the last month: a faded leather jacket, durable pants and his Indiana Jones-esque wide-brimmed hat. He carried a light day pack on his back, properly equipped with sufficient food, water, bear spray, his cell phone and his 10mm Glock, as he treaded lightly on the stairs to meet the day.
He took a breath of the early-morning, 43-degree mountain air before slipping into his beloved 1999 Mercedes.
Car named Molly
He’d made more than 200,000 miles in this baby — affectionately named Molly — traveling from his hometown of Valdosta, Ga., to Ithaca, N.Y., where he had attended Ivy League Cornell University for the past four years, countless trips between Valdosta and Atlanta, where he’d worked for SecurAmerica, and then, just three and a half weeks earlier, more miles by making the trip in Molly from Valdosta to Gardiner.
On July 16, Parker drove Molly past the scenic Roosevelt Arch and through a snapshot of Yellowstone National Park, taking in the wonders of another Montana sunrise — something he’d daydreamed about while sitting in his office in Atlanta before he had embarked on this adventure. The calm air promised another beautiful Montana day, and for today at least, Parker was free from the bustling noise of the K-Bar.
A 20-minute drive into Yellowstone put Parker at the Glen Creek trailhead, his path of choice for the 10-mile trek to the top of Electric Peak. “My greatest challenge yet,” Parker wrote of the mountain in his Tumblr blog on July 14, two days before his ascent.
Parker grabbed his gear and set off on another of his great adventures.
“I have no doubts that my move to Montana has given most people that know me pause, as it is as strange and desolate place to them as the wilds of Denali ... Having never been to this frontier, this place of natural beauty and little human interaction, one would be easily mislead into believing that all that awaits me here are the twin specters of loneliness and (possibly) death.” – Austin Parker blog, July 3.
Austin Parker grew up in a classic south Georgia family in Valdosta, a town of 54,518 at the last census. The oldest of three boys, Parker graduated from Lowndes High School in 2008 and attended Georgia Tech before transferring to Cornell.
“My middle son got an athletic grant from Cornell, so I kind of negotiated a 2-for-1 deal,” Steve, Austin Parker’s father, said on the phone — sitting in his air-conditioned car and attempting to escape the suffocating summer south Georgia heat — after dropping one of his sons off at football practice.
Austin Parker majored in applied economics and management and graduated from Cornell in December 2012. In March 2013, he clinched a job as a manager-in-training with SecurAmerica LLC, a large private security firm.
He answered an online ad for a guest-room rental in Atlanta. Shortly after, he moved to the house, which belonged to Craig Mendel, a 37-year-old commercial real estate agent and Parker’s roommate during his four-month tenure.
“He was the kind of person that struck me as ‘beyond his years,’” Mendel said. “He was very thoughtful — he thought on a different level than most 23-year-olds.”
During his tenure with SecurAmerica, Parker was like any other bright, aspiring businessman.
“He would come home and make spreadsheets and charts, thinking of ways to make the company better,” Steve Parker said.
Ron Hall, a SecurAmerica human relations manager at the company’s corporate offices in Atlanta, and who served as Parker’s mentor during his time with the company, said he quickly realized Parker was “smart as a whip.”
“He’s very knowledgeable and action oriented,” Hall said. “He’s a go-getter. A very smart kid. When he got into a project, he might be at the office until anywhere from 7 to 9:30 at night. He’s fresh out of college, and he wanted to fix the world. He taught me more than I taught him.”
After a while, Parker realized the corporate world wasn’t for him.
“He’d come home from the office, and he’d be like, ‘I can do this, I can do that,’ and I’d be like, ‘Wait your turn,’ but he wouldn’t want to. His reaction was ‘Why? Why do I need to wait — why can’t it happen now?’ In a sense, he was very impatient to make his mark,” Mendel said.
“He knew what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be, in the context that it wasn’t in Atlanta,” Mendel added.
According to Steve, when Parker announced his resignation, company CEO Frank Argenbright Jr., a legendary entrepreneur who founded the company — which serves Fortune 500 Companies all over the world — in 2005, “tried his best to keep Austin from resigning.” Still, Parker insisted. On his last day of employment, Argenbright called the company heads together and had Parker pitch his ideas on how to strengthen the company.
“That’s the kind of kid he was,” Steve said.
After saying goodbye to Atlanta, Parker made the three-and-a-half- hour drive in Molly back to Valdosta before embarking on his journey to Montana.
“He had a job, he had a place to live, all lined out,” Mendel said.
“I will be leaving Atlanta and going out to Montana to live simply for a while. Mountains and valleys and rivers and endless prairies … Small wonder that I have long felt the call to “Go West!”. From there, the wind (and a few promising offers of employment and shelter fulfilling my dreams of sailing) should take me out to sea to sail about.” – Austin Parker blog, June 26
On to Montana
Parker’s 2,271-mile cross-country journey took him from Atlanta to South Dakota to the Beartooth Highway in Montana before he finally arrived in Gardiner. A town of 851 people, Gardiner was established in 1880 as an outpost for visitors to Yellowstone National Park. Parker used his connections with Davis, the Florida transplant — whom he had met while working for Davis’ father when he was a teenager, and who, like Parker, was drawn to the scenic landscape of Montana — to land a job at the K-Bar in Gardiner. Davis was working as a waiter at the K-Bar at the time. Parker also scored a lease from Davis on a basement apartment below the business.
“When Austin went hiking, I hadn’t spoken to him since the night before, at around 9 p.m., in his apartment,” Davis said. “He was going to bed. I stopped in to say ‘Hey, what are you up to?’ He was like, ‘I’m going to bed, going to go hike Electric Peak in the morning.’”
Davis was fishing at McConnell Landing on the Yellowstone River with some friends the next day when he saw weather approaching the Electric Peak summit.
“There was only a 20 percent chance of rain that day, but it turned out to be a 100 percent chance for him,” Davis said. “I saw the clouds (around Electric Peak), and I thought, I hope Austin’s not caught in that.”
“See the bison as they ramble across the roads, stopping up traffic of minivans and RVs for miles … They, as a part of the more natural state of things, command and control every aspect of this place, and it only takes some … tourist attempting to pet the wild animal … for that brutalistic force of nature to assert itself.” – Austin Parker’s blog, July 2
Electric Peak, a 10,969-foot mountain, is the tallest point in the Gallatin Range. Author Cedron Jones described it as “huge, and an anomaly — it’s over 500 feet higher than anything else in the range.”
The first ascent of Electric Peak was made in 1872 by Henry Gannett during the Hayden Survey. The first ascenders of the peak were nearly killed by lightning when they reached the summit, and experienced electrical discharges on their hands and in their hair, hence the name Electric Peak, according to summitpost.org.
“Electric Peak, while primarily sedimentary, has intruded igneous rock formations that were once molten into the sedimentary rocks,” Yellowstone National Park geologist Hank Heasler said.
“Those rocks — separate from the Yellowstone Volcano — are relatively higher in iron and magnesium. Any high isolated peak, whether it be the Grand Teton or Mount Moran or Granite Peak, tends to get hit by lightning a lot more. You add to that the iron associated with the Absaroka volcanics, and you have a chance for significant lightning strikes. You gotta be darn careful if you are out there,” Heasler added.
There are two standard routes to the top — the Glen Creek Trail, which follows the south face and southeast ridge of the mountain, which Parker ascended, and the Beattie Gulch trail, which ascends up the mountain’s north flank, up to the west summit.
For even strong hikers, it’s a climb — Glen Creek Trail’s 10-mile trek to the peak requires a bit of hiking before even reaching the base of the mountain. It’s physically taxing, too — there are 6,000 feet of elevation gained from the Glen Creek trailhead to the peak.
“Electric Peak is a peak like many peaks in the area — it doesn’t necessarily have a trail to the top,” Yellowstone National Park chief ranger Tim Reid said. “It’s important to take the path of least resistance and stay within your comfort zone.”
Ivan Kowski, Yellowstone’s backcountry program manager, thought back to the last time he had summited Electric Peak.
“It’s a pretty steady climb — once you get above the tree line, you get up into the scree–rocky slope section, and hikers have placed rock cairns up there to identify the easiest route. There’s a couple of places where you have to climb up and over some cliffy areas.
“It’s not too difficult, but there’s some exposure. If you were to fall, it could be a bad thing,” Kowski said.
Going up the mountain requires hikers to get as early of a start as possible, so they are back in lower elevations by, at the latest, noon, before afternoon thunderstorms roll in, Kowski said. Because the 20-mile, round-trip hike can be lengthy for some hikers, many camp along the nearby Gardiner River to shorten the distance.
Reid recommended standard hiking gear for those planning to summit — water, food, bear spray, layered clothing, and a map and a compass, regardless of if you have a GPS unit or not. He encouraged people to hike with a partner. He also recommended hikers stop in at the backcountry offices in the park and get information. The weather in the area can be a major factor, he said, since it can often be unpredictable.
“The weather is a big issue. There’s often an afternoon buildup with thunder and lightning. It’s good to leave early and be off the slopes early to mid-afternoon,” Reid said.
He also encouraged hikers to follow the basic golden rule of lightning.
“While there’s no guarantees of where lightning will or won’t strike, be in lower elevations when it’s there,” Reid said. “Don’t be the highest elevation object in the path of the storm.”
Searching for Austin
At approximately 7:15 p.m., 45 minutes after he had placed his initial distress call, Aaron Davis heard his phone ring.
The Park Service had sent out a Search and Rescue team to find Austin Parker.
Davis explained to them what had happened before Parker stopped picking up his phone.
Parker had summited Electric Peak, he said, but there was a thunderstorm quickly rolling in.
On the summit, Austin told Davis, he was experiencing static discharge, much like what the Hayden Party experienced when they first discovered the mountain. Realizing he needed to get out of the open, Parker called Davis and had him look up an alternate route to descend the mountain.
“When Austin hiked Mount Washburn (another peak in the Yellowstone area), he went up one trail and down another. I think it was that he didn’t like going back over his same footsteps. He was like, ‘I came here to explore new places,’” Davis explained.
“He was nervous and scared, but he wasn’t a rookie — he’d hiked in the Adirondacks in New York, he’d been out here (in Montana) before. I wasn’t too concerned about him — initially,” Davis added.
With that information and Davis’ description of where he thought Parker was — based on what Parker had told him over the phone — the search for Parker began.
“But there are people here (in Montana). Fine people, of a breed that no longer exists in the outside world. Montana seems to be where people go when they are fed up, and have had enough of the outside world, and wish to escape it. These words (to a careful reader) ought to ring true as ones that I myself gave as a reason for leaving my proper life in Atlanta and ending up here ... This place, it would seem, attracts the very people that have similar frustrations and disillusionment as I do with the rest of the world. As a result, I am closer than I have maybe ever been to finding people of a like mind to mine.” – Austin Parker’s blog, July 3
Steve Parker was at a doctor’s appointment with another of his sons when his phone rang, 24 hours after Austin had gone missing.
It was his sister-in-law, Charlotte Parker.
“Austin’s missing,” was all she said.
Back at home, Steve started communicating with the park rangers who were looking for Parker.
At dusk on Tuesday, rangers called off the search due to darkness, a routine procedure.
They were back on the site early the next morning, searching by foot and by helicopter for any sign of Parker.
After searching for all of Wednesday — until lack of light once again prohibited their search — there was still no sign of Parker.
Thursday midmorning, in good light, searchers in an overhead helicopter spotted something — Parker’s backpack and jacket on a scree slope near the summit, in an impossible location of the mountain.
Eric Morey, a park ranger who was actively involved in the search for Parker, had been exchanging texts and phone calls with Steve throughout the entire search for his son. He texted Steve the news, but said that because of the steep location of Parker’s gear, the helicopter crew would have to go back and pick up search and rescue personnel to search for Austin, which would take about 30 minutes.
Steve began frantically texting Morey for updates.
All he got was one simple reply: “Stand by.”
Minutes later, Steve’s phone rang. It was Morey.
“Mr. Parker, are you sitting down?” Morey asked.
“Your mind plays tricks on you,” Steve later said. “What I heard was, ‘Austin’s sitting down.’”
Then, Steve heard something no parent should ever have to hear.
“We have found your son,” Morey said. “He is deceased.”
“There really is something to being able to step out your door and walk to one of the most beautiful places on earth … the sheer magnitude of the place, with only precious few spots of human intervention to delineate it from its original, permanent state, boggles the mind.” – Austin Parker’s blog, July 2
Search and Rescue personnel found Austin Parker’s remains at the bottom of a scree cliff. His jacket and backpack had been torn away from his tumbling body and shredded to pieces when Parker fell 300 feet.
According to Steve, Austin died from massive head trauma and was dead before he even hit the bottom.
Search and Rescue team members who retrieved Parker’s body were dodging falling rock from the slopes above, hinting at the conditions Parker was dealing with during his hurried descent off the mountain.
Rescuers managed to retrieve Parker’s backpack and gun, both which were badly damaged, but couldn’t get to his jacket, which was at an inaccessible point on the slopes far above Austin’s body.
High above, a lone mountain goat watched the rescuers work.
According to Morey, during Parker’s fateful descent of the mountain, he had bailed off the face of the ridge to get out of the lightning around him.
“He lost his way and went to the left of the trail, where he fell,” Morey said.
“The Park Service did everything humanly possible to find Austin alive,” Steve said.
“The tops of the mountains are remarkably navigable thanks to the monumental engineering task that it must have required to construct (Beartooth) highway. It gives a uniquely American feeling, one of humanistic triumph over the wilds of nature in even its most desolate places.” – Austin Parker’s blog, June 26
On an August day in the muggy heat of Valdosta, Austin Parker’s best and lifelong friend, Hunter Colson, lifted the bandages of his new tattoo to see how it was healing.
The tattoo, on Colson’s arm, was of Austin’s signature hat, and a gun, a cross, and his initials.
“Austin was the best person I’ve met in my entire life,” said Colson, 23, who became friends with Parker when they were 8 years old.
“He’s the kind of person that if I had a $1 million to my name in cash, I could leave him alone in the room with it for five days, and when I came back, all of the money would still be there. There’s not many people like that,” Colson said.
Colson’s father died 10 months to the day before Parker’s fall.
“Austin was the first one there for me. He was the reason I got through it … He called me within an hour of the news. He was crying as hard as I was. I would have never made it through without him.”
“Do not fear. I must always return to my roots, my family, my friends, and other loved ones — because it is you that allows me to persevere when no one else thinks that I can do it or make it. You are, and will remain, my touchstones, beacons in stormy seas, and cool respites in the blistering heat that life can at times force us to endure. That fact will never change … I love and respect each of you, and I will see you again.” – Austin Parker’s blog, June 26
Steve Parker fought back tears as he remembered his oldest son’s tenacity and compassion. Three weeks after he got the call telling him his son was dead, on this particular Georgia Tuesday, the Parker family was trying their best to live life as normal.
“It’s been a pretty rough day today,” Steve said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a good day again, to tell you the truth.
“This kid would light up a room the moment he walked in. I know a lot of people say that about their kids, but with Austin, it was true. He died way too soon. I would have jumped off that cliff a million times to save him.”
Steve pictured what it would have been like when Austin reached the summit of Electric Peak in the afternoon of July 16.
“You have to imagine — all he heard was the wind. He probably realized what an insignificant speck he was in this world, surrounded by God’s creation,” he said.
“He said to me on the phone the day before he went hiking, ‘Dad, this is heaven to me.’ Little did I know, one day later, he would be in heaven.”
“The (Beartooth) highway launches straight into the sky, unfurling into an expansive valley floor with mountains that seem to support the heavens themselves … an intricate series of switchbacks leads you straight up into that sacred hall of the gods on high, straight to the top of the very mountains that seemed impassible mere moments before … I have experienced a life-changing event that is indelibly marked on my soul.
“It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” – Austin Parker’s blog, June 26