The How and Why of the Book
The inciting incident that propels Sue to buy a 5-week old puppy
Mount Crested Butte, Colorado. Winter of 1989.
One Sunday morning, Stevie and his two cousins age four and six played in the snow after 31 inches of snow fell on the slope adjacent to their rental condo. They were waiting for a shuttle bus to take them from the condo back to the airport. Stevie had no idea that his vacation rental sat at the toe of a deadly avalanche zone. How would he? He was six, and from Dallas, Texas.
The champagne powder snow that Crested Butte is famous for quietly stacked up on the ridge all winter long above Mountain Sunrise Condos.
Stevie’s uncle was loading luggage into the bus when he heard a strange loud noise rumble through the air as if a bomb exploded far off in the distance–almost like a crack.
Without warning, a sea of white snow, size of a tsunami wave, thundered down the steep slope swallowing up the boys, tossing them upside down and sideways. Giant chunks of snow and avalanche debris crashed into the condo and spilled over a four- foot retaining wall. Several feet of snow as heavy as concrete poured into the parking lot. When the massive avalanche came to rest, the boys had disappeared.
At 11:22, dispatch received the first of several calls for “snow fallen off the roof at Mountain Sunrise Condos. Children trapped by snow.”
Within the next several minutes, 25 panicked voices bombarded the 911 dispatcher. Pagers beeped and emergency services radios came to life.
Volunteer ambulance and fire department personnel in street shoes joined the rescue effort. Police officers swarmed the scene with whatever they could find, PVC pipes, a swimming pool rescue hook, conduit to locate the children. With hundreds of searchers probing and shoveling, time nearly stood still, as the boys edged toward death.
Rescuers randomly scoured the avalanche path with random tools, desperately looking for something resembling soft, squishy bodies. Seconds turned to minutes as each probe strike hit the bare ground. At 11:28, volunteers discovered one boy by random probing. Racing to dig him out, he was limp, breathless and unconscious. On site, local ambulance volunteers dug out snow from around his face and initiated rescue breathing in an effort to bring him back to life. Warm oxygenated breaths circulating inside of his cold, thick, blood quickly brought him back to life.
Chaos ensued. More volunteers grabbed probing tools and formed organized lines. Five long, painstaking minutes later, the second boy was dug up from the snow by a helper. Snow packed his nose and mouth. A medic on scene began mouth to mouth rescue breathing and he regained spontaneous respirations within the minute. He was brought back to life.
Twenty minutes after the accident ski patrol joined the efforts with long aluminum avalanche probe poles and an avalanche dog. A German Shepherd, named Roxanne, trained by patrol to sniff out human scent buried under the snow, searched the debris. With the other two boys removed from under the snow, the dog’s only job was to find Stevie, third toddler somewhere under the snow.
His only chance for survival relied on the keen nose of a trained avalanche dog.
The dog searched frantically and randomly.
Seventy minutes clocked by when a volunteer eventually struck something other than the ground–soft like a body.
The ‘trained’ avalanche dog failed to locate the lifeless boy.
A backhoe and rescuers dug the boy’s body out from under eight-feet of snow.
Medics grabbed his blue, wilted body and forced breaths into his lungs. They pumped on his pulseless heart. Resuscitation efforts continued until he arrived at St. Mary’s hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado over 100 air miles away.
Despite everyone’s courageous efforts, doctors pronounced the six-year-old boy dead at 10 pm, nearly 10 hours after the accident.
After learning about the 3 buried toddlers, I ask, “Could I train Tasha to save lives?”
I did not learn about the deadly Mount Crested Butte avalanche until six years after it happened. As a student in ski patrol school, I asked the professionals why their trained dog failed to find Stevie. Bothered by their unsatisfactory answer, I took matters into my own hands.
On a whim, I decided I’d quit my job and bought a puppy. From the moment I laid eyes on my five-week-old Tasha and whispered into her silky ear, “How would you like to be a dog that saves lives?” I knew my life would change.
I did not even really know how or why I chose to give up a lucrative salary as gold exploration geologist in the Dominican Republic with my husband for a life in Crested Butte, Colorado?
But, once I made the promise to never leave anyone behind, my path was set in motion, even if it killed me.
We learn the art of search and rescue.
Training Tasha as a search and rescue dog should be easy, right? Hah!
Tasha is a willful Lab puppy who never met a command she couldn’t disobey.
And to make matters worse, I had to educate myself while I trained her. So, I teamed up with the local mountain rescue team, joined a search and rescue dog organization, and took a position at an urgent care ski clinic. I did all I could to acquire a wide-range of skills needed to begin a career saving lives in the back country.
Together, Tasha and I pursued certification in avalanche, water, and wilderness search and rescue.
Too bad I wasn’t schooled and mentored on how to navigate my way through small town politics, huge egos, and a new marriage.
Then boom! The many challenges I could have never imagined “to just save a life” began to unfold.
We deploy to 65 missions in the high country of Colorado.
To become a master of something takes about 10,000 hours. I read this in Malcom Gladwell’s book called Outliers:The Story of Success, in 2008. Too bad he hadn’t published his research 13 years earlier when Tasha and I started our search and rescue career. Had I known about the time, the heartaches and the struggles it would take to achieve “Top Dog,” I might have chosen a different career path.
It takes a special dog and a determined handler to save lives. Developing a working relationship took years to master as I learned her language and she learned mine. Along the way, Tasha and I developed an unbreakable bond.
We all know dogs have short lifespans. My window to deploy Tasha shortened as each year passed. And I prayed injury, avalanches, drownings, exhaustion, or my own stupidity wouldn’t kill her.
Tasha’s Last Mission
I can’t give away the ending. Instead, go buy the book and read it. It is now available to pre-order on www.amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.
My memoir will not be published until October, 2, 2018. I hope you can wait that long.
After this read, just maybe you’ll be determined to communicate a tad bit more with your animal and have a better understanding about how much these amazing creatures can teach us about life, love, and laughter.
Susan Purvis, Winter 2018