The decorated backcountry rescuer’s life was turned upside down by a sudden divorce. She recovered, righted the ship, and is back at the top of her game, playing with the big boys out in the wild places. She plays smart, she knows and speaks her truth, takes care of her body and spirit, removing the things, the foods, the behaviors that don’t serve her anymore.
Susan and Tasha, her search and rescue dog, have been honored by the US House of Representatives, receiving Congressional Recognition for their “unselfish neighbor-helping-neighbor,” an acknowledgment of their heroic avalanche rescues in the high country of Colorado. In 2018, Susan launched her best-selling memoir, Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost — And Myself. A tale of a woman, against all odds, finding her purpose and passion and never looking back. For 40 years, she has shuffled between business owner, scientist, author, K-9 search-and-rescue dog handler, wilderness medicine, and avalanche specialist, in the male-dominated high-performance outdoors world.
Where do you live?
30 miles west of Glacier National Park in Whitefish, Montana.
You do work in the backcountry that is often associated with younger people, and with men. How are you treated by people in that world?
I don’t think of myself as an older woman. I feel as young as the students I am with until I realize I could be their grandma. I wear many hats in the backcountry. Primarily, I am a wilderness medicine and avalanche educator. Having owned my own business, Crested Butte Outdoors for 25 years, word of mouth referrals goes a long way. Most individuals, organizations, US governmental agencies, and search and rescue teams seek out my courses. So, when my teaching hat is on, young students and older men are not surprised to learn from a vivacious, energetic, and humorous educator. In March, I was hired to teach an avalanche course to an elite special forces team of men. By the way they acted as a group, I could tell I had to earn their respect, but only in the classroom. A few days later, when I was the first to load the Blackhawk Helicopter with their Commanders for an overnight winter backcountry training mission, I had their full attention. Now that I am older, I can stand alongside the biggest badasses in the business.
“Now that I am older, I can stand alongside the biggest badasses in the business”
Tell us more about being older and the credibility that gives you?
Life experience is key. What I’ve learned in my travels around the world (i.e. hottest, coldest, highest places) as a wilderness medicine specialist, risk manager, educator, or guide can’t be learned in school or from a textbook. I can offer my expertise and knowledge to share with others.
For example, I share what is it really like to stand up to a group of SAR and Urban Fire guys and shout, “I’m in charge. Stand back five feet so I can do my work.” When I lecture, I’m not teaching what I learned in a textbook or from an instructor, but what life in the outdoors managing people has taught me. I am living, breathing, and doing what I teach.
I tell people who are considering taking a class of mine or want to hire me to be an expedition medic: “You can hire me; I’m old but have experience and cost more or you can hire the young one. Your choice.” They usually acquire my services. I may be slower accomplishing things in my life compared to 20 years ago, but I am steady. Solid.
“Love yourself enough to say no to ice cream and cookies. Quit alcohol. Find a trainer”
How would you counsel someone who feels limited by the number of the age, rather than an actual limitation?
Age is just a number. I am humbled every day here in Montana. The women I know who are older than me can out ski, walk, bike me. I find a beautiful soul, someone I admire, someone I want to emulate and ask them their secrets to aging: What do they eat, how do they stay fit, beauty tips? That is why I love AGEIST. You are showing us the way to a better life.
I tell people what I did. A few years ago, I got fat, lazy and tired. I was in denial about my situation. I was drinking too much and sat around way too much which is not normal for me. So, one day I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I quit alcohol, cleaned up my diet and hired a fitness coach. It’s been a two-year journey. The process isn’t easy. It takes discipline and dedication. Conviction. And guess what? I got my old, new self back. I am happy and doing everything I did when I was 50.
Like I said before, start out slow. Only walk for 15 minutes. Love yourself enough to say no to ice cream and cookies. Quit alcohol. Find a trainer.
Our bodies change with age. How do you deal with that?
I make my health a priority. I hired a functional medicine practitioner who is helping me get my gut chemistry in balance. I hired a fitness trainer who makes me accountable for my one-hour workouts in the gym and the food I put in my mouth. I am eating more protein and vegetables and got rid of the “white” stuff.
“I am not afraid of the consequences of truth-speaking anymore”
What do you mean by you found yourself?
To find myself means to tell my truth. I am not afraid of the consequences of truth-speaking anymore. If telling my truth means lose a job, a relationship, money… then so be it. I tell myself I don’t care what other people think anymore. I was a people pleaser. Now I am a truth speaker.
How would you describe your purpose? Finding one’s purpose can be a tough search. What was your process?
Sitting down, getting quiet and digging deep to find my truth. It might look like asking oneself, “What is the denial in your life? What do you want? What stands in the way? What if…” Finding good friends, life coaches, and believing in oneself is the perfect start to conversation. My purpose is to educate, motivate, and inspire. I thrive on helping others find their purpose.
After your marriage broke up where did that leave you?
Even though I was at the top of my game professionally, when my husband divorced me, I was left broken and buried ten feet deep unable to move. I couldn’t breathe. I had to ask, “How did the avalanche expert get buried?” It took years to dig myself out.
How would you describe your relationship with Tasha?
Tasha was the creative, productive, life-affirming partner I never had, and I needed at the time. We created a bond unmatched by anything else I have experienced. How is it she did everything I asked of her on all our missions — when our life or someone else’s life depended on her ability to listen and get the job done? Yet, when she was off duty, she misbehaved like most young dogs do — not listening, eating garbage, taking off, disobeying me.
She knew I would feed amazing food, give her independence to make the right choices and, well, give her belly scratches at the right times.
Learning to Fly
Are you a pilot? What does flying mean to you?
I am not a licensed pilot. I am back in the copilot seat after a 30-year hiatus. When I was 26, I flew to Brazil and back from Montana in a 177 Cessna with a friend of mine to report on the destruction of the Amazon Basin. I am now dating a retired astronaut and he is willing to teach me how to fly again. It means freedom, allows me to keep my mind sharp, staying completely focused on the task at hand. Not unlike my search and rescue career with Tasha. One bad move or mistake could mean life or death.
Have you always been an outdoors adventure person?
I’ve been an outdoor person once I hit the ski slopes in the 4th grade. My mom at an early age dressed me up in tutus and figure skating and dance costumes. I didn’t have any part in it. It was on the ski hill and in the outdoors where I found independence, confidence, and competence. My parents would drop me off at the ski hill unsupervised. My friends and I never looked back. We took that knowledge onto the water during extended canoeing expeditions and backpacking trips around the world. I still explore and travel the world with my junior high school friends even though we all left 40 years ago.
“I learned to surf at age 50”
What are you wanting to learn to do next?
Surf and taking better care of my body by eating the right foods and getting rid of the excess in my life, both physically and mentally. I leave in a few days to housesit a place on the beach, North shore of Oahu. Going to surf, walk the beach, meditate, do yoga and write book #2. I hear the big waves are on the south shore in the summer, so I am saved by the big waves. I’ll go slow, start on baby waves.
What is it about surfing that attracts you?
I learned to surf at age 50. I was hooked. I’ve only got up on the board 5 times. That was 9 years ago. Next week, I look forward to standing up on the board another 5 times. It’s like flying or skiing powder snow. Surfing provides the 3rd dimension, free-floating, using all senses. Surfing is the most physical activity I’ve ever done. I’m looking to find the balance between the physicality and flow or the art (the non-effort). Something worth perfecting.
“To date, I’ve trained hundreds of guides to save their lives and the lives of their colleagues and families”
You have been all over the world, is some pretty wild places. Is there one place that stands out?
Great question. One of my top spots is the Khumbu in the Mt Everest region of Nepal. It’s like stepping back in time 100 years. It’s not only a place where you can walk alongside Tibetan yak herders and traders (no automobiles or motorized vehicles), but you sleep in stone tea houses and live with the Sherpas. I fell in love with the place, so in 2005, I started a high-altitude medical course in the Khumbu for the Sherpas who work on or near Mt Everest. To date, I’ve trained hundreds of guides to save their lives and the lives of their colleagues and families. I hope to begin another course in 2022.
What advice would you give to other people our age who want to take on a new challenge? Study your craft. When I set out to write my memoir, Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost — And Myself, I was told to do four things:
1.Read a lot.
2.Write a lot.
3.Study your craft
4.Hang out with writers.
The same holds true for anything we do that is new. Find a compatible coach, a mentor, a teacher. We are used to doing things alone. My wise self finally submitted to being “invincible” and ask for help. Let the experts show me how to do new things. Anything is possible, so start slow. Get a trainer. Find someone you trust your life with. For example, when I go to the north shore next week, I am going to sit down with a 75-year-old female surf legend and ask her everything about surfing. I will seek out the local and have them show me the dangers, etc.
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