In today’s blog post, we have the pleasure of introducing you to Susan Purvis, a remarkable woman with a unique blend of expertise in wilderness medicine, avalanche education, geology, and search and rescue. Susan is a bestselling author, writing coach, and public speaker who wrote the award-winning memoir “Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost—and Myself.” The book narrates her inspiring career in the outdoors, starting with her education in geology at the University of Montana and Northern Michigan University, and her work as a gold exploration geologist.
Susan’s memoir has received high praise from New York Times bestselling author Sebastian Junger, who said, “Susan Purvis has written a brave and profound book about the eternally compelling topic of human survival. No one can truly understand the wilderness without going deeply within themselves, and perhaps vice versa. She’s done both and come back with truths that we all can learn from.”
Susan is also well-known for her incredible work as a K9 search and rescue specialist, training herself and her black Lab, Tasha, to find people lost in various situations. Their exceptional contributions in high altitude rescue operations were recognized by the Congressional Record in June 2003, when Hon. Scott McInnis, House of Representatives of Colorado, paid tribute to their selfless service in locating avalanche victims and providing closure to the affected families.
As the owner of Crested Butte Outdoors International, LLC, Susan offers wilderness medicine and avalanche education courses in various locations, including Glacier National Park, Montana; Lake Tahoe, Boulder, Salt Lake City, and Nepal. She is also a Brand Ambassador for Marmot, a leading outdoor clothing and gear company.
I had the privilege of meeting Sue back in the summer of 1996 when the Crested Butte Search and Rescue Team were selling raffle tickets for a Gold Pass at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. They had set up a small card table next to the Crested Butte Post Office on Elk Avenue, and as we chatted, I mentioned my background in teaching climbing as a tower director for the Boy Scouts of America and my time living in Big Sky, Montana, where I helped with the Big Sky First Responders (circa 1994/1995). Sue graciously invited me to try out and, if accepted, participate with the Crested Butte Search and Rescue team.
Join us as we delve deeper into the fascinating world of Susan Purvis and her incredible journey, exploring her vast experiences and the valuable lessons she has learned along the way, including personal anecdotes from our shared experiences in the field and insights from acclaimed experts like Sebastian Junger.
Susan Purvis’s compelling memoir, “Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost—and Myself,” has not only captivated readers but also garnered critical acclaim. As a winner of the prestigious Nautilus Book Award and the U.P. Notable Books Award, Susan’s work is a testament to her powerful storytelling and the impact of her experiences. The book has also received recommendations and endorsements from respected organizations such as the Sierra Club and National Geographic.
Delve into the captivating world of Susan Purvis, her incredible journey through the wilderness, and the life lessons she has learned along the way. Don’t miss out on this award-winning memoir that has earned the praise of esteemed organizations and readers alike.
Chapter 1: Last Ditch Effort
Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost—and Myself
If the helicopter shifts, we’re dead. Dead like the guy we’re looking for.
So much can go wrong up here. Peering out the open door, I look down at the fastmoving, unforgiving terrain. Far above the tree line, where the air is thin, volcanic rock breaks into huge spires and fins. Freeze-thaw cycles have crumbled the cliffs into strange, gargoyle-like shapes, and every crevice is filled with snow.
Tasha, my black Labrador retriever and avalanche-dog partner, is wedged between the
pilot and me. Her bum presses against the pilot’s right hip while she digs her furry elbows into
my thighs and settles her barrel chest onto my lap. Her webbed feet, splayed wide from years of
digging in avalanche debris, dangle off my leg and out the helicopter’s open doorway. In our
haste to hot-load the helicopter moments ago, I had nixed Tasha’s restraining device. As the
helicopter blades shave the air closer to the towering 13,492-foot peak, I vise-grip her neck with
my arm, pulling her closer, concerned she’ll try to jump or scramble onto the pilot’s lap.
Wiggling my toes inside my ski boots helps to keep them from falling asleep. That’s all I dare
move. If Tasha or I make a sudden movement, the two-seat crop duster helicopter, used to spray
pesticides on cornfields, might fall out of the sky. We’re about to land by putting one skid onto a
couloir, a steep narrow gully, hemmed-in by sheer cliff walls on the upper flanks of Whitehouse
Mountain in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.
As we near our forbidding landing site, I try to avoid looking down at the four-thousand foot drop, where dawn just turned to daylight over the towering evergreen trees, now shrunk to
matchsticks. Warm air turns to cold, and my knuckles are blue as I squeeze the grab handle
above the door frame.
Thirty-nine days earlier, a single-engine plane crashed on Whitehouse Mountain, killing
all four passengers on board: Richard Mills—the man we are looking for—his four-year-old son,
and his parents. Days of bad weather, coupled by avalanche hazard and extreme terrain, had
thwarted any rescue effort. Eventually, members of the local search-and-rescue team, Ouray
Mountain Rescue, were transported to the wreckage one by one. Over several weeks of searching
they found, strewn over a half-mile-long path, pieces of twisted metal, clothing, children’s
books, and three partially buried bodies. The team located all but Richard. Then, deeming the
recovery mission too dangerous, the local Sheriff had suspended the search. Until now.
All hope is on my sixty-pound retriever and five-foot-three-me.
We’re the last-ditch effort, and we’ve got one hour to find him.
After a decade as my search-and-rescue partner, Tasha has a few grey hairs on her chin,
but still looks and acts like a pup. In human years, she’s seventy and I’m forty-three. Her career
is almost over, and then mine will be, too.
Tasha and I are one of a few elite high-altitude volunteer search-and-rescue dog teams in
the United States. We live in Crested Butte, Colorado. We don’t get paid for our work, not even
a bag of kibble, yet we’re up here risking our lives.
Inside the helicopter, Tasha’s silky ears flap against her blocky head as air blasts through
my side of the helicopter. Her chest swells and retracts, panting breathlessly as the air thins. Her
tongue is pasty white. Her breath stinks. I can’t tell if her excessive panting is from nerves or the
food she gobbled down last night when she nosed open my suitcase and devoured eight cups of
dry kibble, plastic bag and all. Her bloated belly feels like a stuffed sausage.
I want to wring her neck.
How could she do that to me? Ten years of training, sacrifices, and proving our worth to
a community of doubters, many hoping I would fail. This mission is the pinnacle of our career,
and because of Tasha’s gluttony we might fail, if we don’t die first.
The pilot reduces power, and the helicopter edges closer to the mountain. Boulders as big
as cars litter our search area with fresh gray rubble, evidence of violent daily rock fall. Because
of the danger, we only have one hour to get in, find Richard’s body, and get out: the morning sun
shining on the avalanche path will cause snow to melt, releasing rocks that could pierce our flesh
and crush our bones.
“Sue, see that speck down there?” The pilot’s voice crackles in my headphones. “That’s
Bill.” He points to a narrow, snowy couloir in front of us. “He’s chopping out a landing zone.”
The pilot stares straight ahead at the colossal mountain and concentrates on placing his skid onto
the thin landing strip—no wider or taller than I am. I squint out the bubble-shaped window but
can’t see Bill.
A sharp wobble of the helicopter jolts me with adrenaline. My body jerks. I cling to
Tasha. I don’t dare let go. To calm my nerves, and her nerves too, I hum a soothing melody into
her ear, one she’s been hearing for a decade. “Good girl, Black Dog, doo-tee-dooo … I love
you.” I shut my eyes, praying the blades don’t hit the slope. I put my boot against the bubble
window and press an imaginary brake pedal to stop our forward momentum and brace for
impact. The chopper edges toward the sheer wall. Somewhere on this peak, a family’s despair is
buried beneath tons of avalanche debris. Will my family soon join in their despair?
Suddenly, I spot Bill running toward a rock wall, protecting himself from the rotors and
shielding his face from the growing blizzard of blowing snow. He’s engulfed in the white
tornado whirling beneath the chopper blades. I lose sight of him. The helicopter’s skid thunks
onto the landing strip. Tasha jerks up and digs her nails into my legs. It’s painful, but I don’t
move a muscle.
My eyes fixate on the pilot for direction. He focuses on the blade whapping an arm’s
length away from the snow. “Time to go,” he yells.
Yanking off my helmet with one hand, I pin Tasha into my lap with the other. The
deafening roar of the engine makes giving verbal commands to Tasha impossible. I rely on our
years of communicating through eye contact and hand signals to show her when to exit. Bill
crawls on hands and knees to meet us. He waits in a crouch, as directed by the pilot, until the
“You’re going to have to jump!” the pilot shouts at me.
“Jump?” I worry about Tasha’s distended abdomen. She could rupture her gut if she lands
her belly. Then I remember the raspy plea of Ed Jones, the uncle of the missing man. “I’m not
leaving Colorado until all my family members are accounted for. I’ve been scouring these
mountains for over thirty days.” Ed’s desperation had convinced me I had to come out here.
We’re his last hope. Ten years ago, when I blindly launched into this volunteer search-dog
career, I promised I would never leave anyone behind. I’ve kept my word so far.
The helicopter shudders. I clutch the handle and, for an instant, I question what I am
doing here. My husband’s pissed. He told me not to come, tried to order me not to get on the
chopper. Yet here I am, in the path of an avalanche, risking Tasha’s life and my own. Somehow,
I find it easier to jump out of a helicopter than to talk to my husband about our relationship. Is
my ego driving this? My promise to the family? Or is it that I have something to prove?
My eyes lock onto the pilot’s. He nods, now. Before I ease Tasha into Bill’s extended
arms, I look to her to tell me something. Anything. I know I’ll never bond with another being
like I have with her. Everything we’ve struggled for hinges on this moment. Her kind brown
eyes, full of confidence and foggy cataracts, stare into mine. Her calmness quells my shaking
“Tasha,” I whisper into her ear, “Time to go.”
After cueing her with a wrist flick, she lunges out and spread-eagles onto Bill’s face and
chest, knocking him backward. The two regain their feet and run together toward the rock for
protection. Slipping off my seat, I sit on the floor. One at a time, my boots find purchase on the
icy skid. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I let go of the safety handle, then jump.
Find out more about Sue and her adventures on YouTube here!
You can learn even more about Susan Purvis at https://susanpurvis.com/
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