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Episode 59: Empowering People with Susan Purvis

Susan Purvis - avalanche dog trainer, empowerment speaker, outdoor medicine educator and author of the bestselling outdoor adventure memoir, Go Find - has dedicated her life to helping people. Today on the show she shares her transition from educator to writer, talks about how fear can hold us back and how we can get lost in our emotions and relationships just as easily as we can get lost in the woods. Listen as Susan shares how she returns to alignment and how her recent switch to sobriety has impacted her creativity.

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Episode Transcript

Iris: Hi everyone. Welcome back to Outside by Design. This week it's just me, Iris. Lisa is traveling on a work project. So it's just me this week, but I'm really excited to tell you about our guest today. Today we have Susan Purvis. Susan is an empowerment speaker, explorer, author of the best-selling adventure memoir Go Find and Susan has spent her career doing some pretty incredible things.

Susan essentially is a helper. She spent about 20 years training avalanche dogs, doing search and rescue missions, traveling all across the world as a Backcountry medic. And now she runs Crested Butte Outdoors, providing wilderness medicine, first responder, and Avalanche courses for people of all experience levels.

And here at Wheelie. We met Susan because we took one of her Wilderness First Aid classes and I cannot recommend her enough. I had taken Wilderness First Aid before, but the way that Susan teaches she makes sure that you get all the information, it's not overwhelming and she makes it really fun and funny to learn and to be prepared when you're outside.

So I'm excited for you to learn from what Susan has to say about her life. She gets into her book and whether or not she considers herself a writer. She talks about fear holding her back, all the different ways that you can get lost in life, from getting lost in the woods to getting lost in relationships, as well as her journey to stop drinking alcohol and the impact that's had on her creativity. So this is a really great, interesting episode... and let's hear it.

Lisa: Well, Susan, thanks so much for being here today. I'm really really excited that you're here for a number of reasons, one that you're a badass, two, you know, that I really like you as a person, and three, you just have so many good things going on, I can't wait to catch up and hear all about them.

Susan: Likewise. Are you recording now?

Lisa: We're recording.

Susan: Okay.

Lisa: It's happening. And... and the first question we ask everyone to answer is to describe where they are and what they're looking at.

Susan: I'm in my office and I'm looking at three beverages. I have a beautiful green drink that I just got locally my I'm on a 7 day juice fast. I have a glass of lemon water and a cup of espresso.

Lisa: Wow, going for it.

Susan: Going for it.

Lisa: And you're in Whitefish, right now?

Susan: I'm in Whitefish, Montana. Yes, looking out at the ski resort that I can't see because we have weather!

Lisa: I know it's it's looking kind of stormy out there today.

Susan: Does it feel like fall to you? Like it's ready to almost be ski season?

Lisa: Yeah, I got kind of excited about winter today.

Susan: Yeah, I know.

Lisa: Yeah, which is good. So tell us about everything that you've got going on with Go Find and Crested Butte outdoors and all the cool things that you do for our audience that's never heard of you before.

Susan: Okay. Hi. My book, my paperback is coming out in three weeks, September 3rd. So I wrote a book that came out last October called Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost and Myself. And I've been on book tour for eight months and my paperback comes out which is a big deal. So I'm on my way to Denver for my paperback release to the Tattered Cover, which has been one of my goals, you know how we set goals. I’m like, I really want to speak at the Tattered Cover, which is the largest independent bookstore in Colorado. And why do I go to Colorado? Because that's where my book takes place.

Lisa: That's right.

Susan: Yeah, so I just got back from a Western Colorado book tour for eight days. So that was fun. I got to go to all those... my old spots like Ouray, Ridgeway, Montrose, Lake City, Crested Butte, super fun.

Lisa: I bet that was really fun.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: I bet that was awesome. And... and I love your book. But why don't you tell our audience what your book’s about?

Susan: Well, that's... the elevator pitch is this: I like to say, it's the seriousness of Into Thin Air. Remember the big Everest disaster book? It's the silliness of Marley and Me. And it's the woman's internal journey of Eat, Pray, and Love.

Lisa: Yeah.

Susan: Okay. So there's that. Now the other thing I say to people, it's like I say, what did... what is my book about? I say this: how come it's easier for me to jump out of the side of a helicopter with my Avalanche dog in my lap to look for a dead person then it is to talk to my husband about our relationship together?

Lisa: Ooh!

Susan: Ooh.

Lisa: Ooh man.

Susan: Right? So how is it that we can have this amazing bond with an animal, I can teach my dog to save lives, but yet I couldn't communicate and have this really intense bond with the man that I loved.

Lisa: It's a good book. And so, you know, you have this background of ski patrol and... and Wilderness first aid and Wilderness rescue and this is super badass life, and now you're an author. So do you self-identify as an author or does it still feel weird?

Susan: Oh my God, that's such a great question. You know what? I... it took me ten years from the time I started writing my book to the time I got published. Okay, they say - whoever they are - that you know, a first-time author, a first-time filmmaker, you know, that does their whole movie, it's about a 10-year process. And I was never a strong writer, like I had to learn how to write and surround myself by writers and study the craft.

Recently, I wrote an article with a beginning, middle, and end, it was 1700 words. And I got my first paycheck. And it was published. Because I hadn't really written before. And so 10 years into this process, this summer I said, look at that! I hold up the check. I guess I'm a writer. I got $50 for this article that was just, you know, blood, sweat, and tears.

Lisa: [laughs]

Susan: You know, I say... I finally can say I'm a writer, but I couldn't say it really until this summer. Isn’t that interesting?

Lisa: It is. It is because you're going on book tours and everything.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah, it's funny how we talk to ourselves, huh?

Susan: I know. So I guess I'm an author now, and... well, I was talking to you recently that I... now that I'm an author, I created a website, because as an author you have to do all these things right? Like how do you get your message out? How do you sell your book? And I... for those of you in the audience, we have to be pretty organized about how we release our information and I was just slapping everything on this sad little website.

So recently I had to rebrand and asked my website what do I want it to do? So not only am I an author and I'm also an educator, but I also am now an empowerment speaker. That's my new title. And so I'm designing and creating that because... I want... you know, I had to ask my book when I wrote it what I want it to do and I want to empower people to get out and live their dream. And there's a lot of reasons why people don't give themselves permission to do that.

Lisa: What do you think some of those reasons are?

Susan: Yeah, well, I know, because fear. I always wanted to be a writer but I had fear that I would be broke, busted, destitute because the creative process is a difficult one. So I said, oh I'll go be a geologist instead and make a lot of money, but I always wanted to write.

So in my 20s, I thought oh my God, I can't be... you know, I was... I was broke as a 20 year old. I certainly don't want to be broke as a 30 year old. And all the writers I knew were kind of broke. So fear stops us from pursuing our passion. It's also that little monkey mind we have in our head saying, “who do you think you are? You can't sit down and write a book.” You know, “you got to go do... you know, get a real job.” And also, you know, “the people around you don't want you to sit around and write a book either.”

Lisa: I like what you chose for a real job at that time. [laughs]

Susan: Right?

Lisa: Yeah, what in your mind made, you know, hanging out the side of helicopters, like, more legitimate than…

Susan: Right. Well those... so, you know, I did get deployed out of a helicopter with my dog, you know, and it was normal, you know, it was to usually find dead people. So why are we taking such risks? You know, you're in the business of outdoor adventure. I think a lot of us like to get close to the fire. You know, how far can we go to push our limits? Because that's where you know, we tend to thrive. A lot of people... I don't want to be so generalized, but you know, they sit in their homes or their offices... their big challenge in life might be going to a yoga- hot yoga class. And you know, we're up on the side of mountains or you know biking, you know, where there's no cell coverage on 20 day trips.

So it's all what we're used to, but you know, we grow... we want to thrive and grow and I think for me, I like getting close to the edge. Like going to that unknown place where there is no road map and see how I will thrive in that environment.

Lisa: I love that too. And it feels so normal to me to go see what my body is made of.

Susan: Right. Yes.

Lisa: And it's really fun. But sometimes I feel like there's something wrong with people like us.

Susan: Well, or the mental fortitude because whether it's physical or mental, it's all the same... for me, like, the same strength. So like, you, people like you and I, we're not going to back down. We're gonna be like, we can do it. We can do anything. Is there anything you can't do?

Lisa: Oh my gosh, I... you know, I think about this a lot, is... there are lots and lots of things that I physically cannot do but I'm pretty good at figuring out how to get them done anyway.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: Whether it's like, you know, getting help or contracting out or using a bunch of people to lift something, like I can figure out pretty much almost anything.

Susan: Right? So the key… you know, part of this is asking for help, which is, you know, a key to our success. You just said it, because I didn't know how to train a dog, I had to ask for help. I didn't know how to train myself. I didn't know how to move through avalanche country. I had to ask. We surround ourselves with mentors. I didn't know how to write a book. I had to go find mentors that could help me do this. So, you know, the key... the key ingredient is asking for help. And there's a lot of people willing to help you or us.

Lisa: Absolutely, and... and what I really respect and appreciate about you is you teach avalanche classes, but you also kind of frame yourself as a lifelong learner.

Susan: Right.

Lisa: Even though you really are teaching so many people.

Susan: Right, and I teach... you know, to date... because I've been teaching Wilderness medicine courses for almost 25 years and you know, I'm constantly learning from my students, too.

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Iris: I love what Susan has to say about being a lifelong learner because Susan is... spends a lot of her time as an educator as a speaker. She's constantly helping people, but I love that she takes time to realize as she's helping people and teaching people, she's learning and constantly changing, constantly getting better, learning how to explain things better, learning how to be clearer and learning from her students. And what a... what a great outlook as someone who obviously is an expert in wilderness medicine and search and rescue efforts. She doesn't just get complacent with her knowledge level. She's constantly learning and that's something that I think we can all try to remember to do in our lives, to just never be complacent with what we think we know. All right. Let's get back to Susan.

Lisa: And so now what are you doing with Crested Butte Outdoors?

Susan: What am I doing with Crested Butte Outdoors? I just got off a big teaching schedule. I have a lot of clients and so this April, May, June, and July I was traveling across the nation. I teach one search and rescue team in Wyoming who has a contract helicopter all summer and their job is to really do rescues in the Wind Rivers because the access is so difficult and the beautiful thing... I've been with these guys for 12 years. Their Sheriff, their new Sheriff, he's young. He comes to the classes, now he has medical training. And I just got a call yesterday from their team that they had to go rescue somebody with high altitude pulmonary edema, and he's like, the sheriff saved a life! So it's nice to hear that people can use the information that I teach and you know, start to give back and... and change the outcome of people who are having trouble in the backcountry.

Lisa: We... so as you know, my whole company went through one of your Wilderness First Aid classes and last week we used that knowledge for the first time on a photo shoot.

Susan: No way, tell- do tell!

Lisa: So well someone fell and ripped open her knee on some scree and then somebody from my crew went over and said, Hi, my name is Sue, here’s some goo, and let me put this under you.

[both laugh]

Lisa: We knew what to do and we just quoted you the whole time, but.

Susan: That’s great. Oh, that gives me joy.

Lisa: Yeah, it was good.

Susan: Right, they did know what to do.

Lisa: Yeah, they knew exactly what to do.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: And taped it all up.

Susan: And let me ask you this. So what's the anticipated, if somebody lacerates their knee out in the backcountry? What are you really worried about now?

Lisa: Infection.

Susan: Yay! You get a lolly.

Lisa: That's right. That's right. I recommend anybody takes your courses because they are practical and useful and fun.

Susan: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. It's good fun.

Lisa: What are you, what do you have this winter? What do you have on the docket for all your Avalanche training?

Susan: Yeah, so we're going to, you know, the beautiful thing is I'm an AIARE instructor which is the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. I teach... I'm a lead instructor for this curriculum and we now have an office in Whitefish, Montana through Crested Butte Outdoors and Guides of Montana, which is an affiliate of Jackson Hole Mountain guides.

We teach level 1 and level 2 avalanche courses and rescue courses up at Great Northern Powder Guides which you know because we brought you along on a do some media for us. Three days at a Yurt in the backcountry. It's so magical up there. I feel like I'm in a snow globe. It's quiet. There's no cell coverage. It's storming. It's full of snow. And we just get to walk through the woods all day. It's pretty special.

Lisa: It is special. It is awesome up there.

Susan: It's so awesome up there and then we sleep up there and you know, three days later we come out with a whole new appreciation for life and we’re motivated and we have some knowledge... and you know, because I teach medicine and avalanche courses, these courses kind of all boil down to how do we make decisions, you know? And are we carrying the right things with us? Are we able to stay out here for 24 hours and survive? So, you know, when I boil down my classes, it's all about how we go. Who do we go with. Are we making the right decisions? And do we have a plan?

Lisa: Do you feel like that same decision making transfers into your creative work?

Susan: Yes. Yes, or you know, so like my empowerment speaking is, you know, I listen to people and all I think about... because in medicine we talk about what's your problem? What's your anticipated problem? And what are you going to do about it? So I hear people talk to me, you know, and they kind of go on circles about their problem. They can't really nail down their problem. So I go, “Oh so your problem is this” and they go yeah, how'd you know? And then I go well, so what are your anticipated problems? What, you know, what are you worried about with that? And then what are you going to do about it? So…

Lisa: I like... I like that.

Susan: Yeah, and then I, you know, help them. I guide them through their situation.

Lisa: What kind of situations do people typically have?

Susan: Well, one of the metaphors I use in my book is this... I taught myself and I taught my dog how to save lives. I was what I called The Lost Expert. We could find anybody in the woods in the… drowned in the water, under the snow. And in the writing process years later, I realized I was as lost as anybody I found. So I had to challenge myself: well, how does the expert get into trouble or how does the expert get off path or how does the expert get buried metaphorically?

And so you asked me, so what kind of problems do people have? So we can get lost in the woods. Okay, we understand that. We can get lost in addiction. The classic one is I might say to somebody, I think you drink too much alcohol. And what do you think the first thing that's out of their mouth is? No I don’t! Right? So we can get lost in addiction. And I can talk to you about the five phases of being lost. We can get lost in our health, like all of a sudden I found myself drinking too much this summer and getting fat, so now I'm not the fit healthy person I used to be. So I'm like, well, I have to stop because I have the knowledge now and the tools and say wait a minute. What are you doing? So we can get lost in, you know, our health, addiction, emotion, our relationship, our career, and in life. So I try to bring those people back on closer to the path.

Lisa: How do you know the path? Like, you seem so self-assured but I think that path can be hard, harder for some people than others to find.

Susan: Yeah. It's a balancing act right? Like, you know, how do we stay balanced in emotion and health and career? And you know families, and, you know, all the pressure, and, you know, aging parents and kids. [Laughs] And how do you say balance? You don't have a partner, you don't have a dog, you don't have any plants.

No, I'm just kidding. [laughs] That's easier. You know, you always have to check in and say, how, where am I spending my time? And how am I doing it? Because we get pulled in a lot of directions, right? And what are our habits and our patterns, you know, everything we put in our mouth is this, you know going to serve me? Does this help me? And you know, if it doesn't, then we need to be asking you know why we're, you know continuing with that habit.

Ad Break: Hey Lisa, did you know that there are these super comfortable shoes that are made from trees? / What are you talking about? / Yeah, they're so comfy and they're really eco-friendly because they're made out of trees. / Iris shoes don't grow on trees. / No, they don't. / But you know, what does? Creativity. / Really? / Speaking of creativity, I know of a really great creative agency called Wheelie. / What's Wheelie? / It's a creative agency for brands who thrive outside. That's where you can go for strategy, execution, photography, awesome vibes, good coffee and creativity that grows on trees. / Wow, I'm gonna contact Wheelie for all my business’s creative needs. / They all wear shoes.

Iris: As you can tell, Susan is all about self-reflection and realizing when you're getting lost in life and deciding whether or not something is still serving you. And Susan's about to jump into this idea of finding balance and alignment, which is our word of the month for August. So let's listen.

Lisa: That's a perfect lead-in to our word of the month for this podcast, which we haven't even talked about yet, but it's alignment.

Susan: Mmmm.

Lisa: And so when you hear the word alignment, how do you apply that? Like, what does that mean to you? And how are you applying that in your creative career as well?

Susan: Well, I will say my align- your “alignment” is my “on the path.” And so here's what I had to do drastically about 35 days ago because I was off. I was out of alignment emotionally, physically, mentally. Because, I'll tell you why, I had to look at alcohol in my life and say is this serving me anymore? So I'm about 40 days no alcohol and that has got me back on track. So now I'm motivated to work out. I'm getting, you know, losing weight. And I had to make a huge adjustment to get back in alignment.

Lisa: What are you, what are you finding? You feel, feel pretty good?

Susan: Yeah, like I am 10 years younger.

Lisa: Oh, wow, watch out world.

Susan: Yeah. So yeah as a writer, you know, we've convinced ourselves - or I did - like, oh, I'm just going to sit around have a glass of wine and I'll be more creative and I'll get this work done. And you know, it was serving me no purpose anymore, and it was making me tired, fat, lazy, and full of excuses.

Lisa: [laughs] Sorry for laughing, but you're so blunt. I love it.

Susan: Right? So, um, I feel great, you know, I'm working out now, and, you know, I'm getting strong. We have to stay strong or we're going to get sick.

Lisa: Yes. Yes, and you know, we're pretty strong women. We like being strong.

Susan: Right? Yeah, right. And so I'm like becoming the person I complain about. I'm like, I'm that, you know, I can't fit into my clothes, my boobs are too big, all of it. Right? So I had to get my act together. So I am… I am aligned right now.

Lisa: That's cool. And it feels good, right? It just feels different.

Susan: Oh. So good. I can stand up straight. Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah, and how do you think that transcends into creativity for you?

Susan: I am producing so much content right now. And here's... I went to the film school here in the valley last month. The Montana Institute of the Arts.

Lisa: Oh, nice.

Susan: Yeah. Well anyway, I met a woman, the owners of the company flew in a film director and she's also an actress and a writer. She does it all. She said “I quit drinking.” And I went, ah, if you can quit drinking, maybe I can. And she's, you know, probably 45 years old. And I said to her, I go, but I feel so creative. Like, I feel like, you know, when I sit around after day of skiing and have my wine I go to work. And she looks at me and she goes, “I dare you to go read the stuff you wrote when you're drinking your wine. You're probably not as creative as you thought you were.” And I went *hiss* ouch, you know, and I think there's some truth to that.

So now, you know, my sober mind is, words are just flying out of me and I'm so much more effective in how I look at my day and in the work that I get done. And I was justifying my drinking to help me be creative and productive and it's just not true.

Lisa: That's really interesting because I think to be great at creative work, you- it requires a certain level of vulnerability. In, and you know, in the same way that it does when you work a physically demanding job, like search and rescue, requires making your body vulnerable. But I think for creativity and being vulnerable putting... putting yourself out there is really scary and it is hard to do that fully sober. But that... that kind of discomfort is where a lot of really beautiful work happens.

Susan: Yeah. Right. Well, look what you have to mine out of people to get them to say what they're really trying to get on the page or in a video or you know, on the screen.

Lisa: Absolutely. And, and for you doing a rebrand, right? You are the brand, like, there really isn't... there really isn't a more vulnerable thing to do than then try to rebrand yourself as a business. And as a human. And as an evolving human, that's always changing, so.

Susan: Help me!

Lisa: [laughs] How's that going for you? What do you, what's this process of rebranding look like and feel like to you?

Susan: Well, because it's... it's, you know, every day I pick at... it's like, live on on my website and then I go in and go, oh, I gotta cut that, I got to cut that, I gotta cut that. I have to get my words just right. So fear blocks us from doing, you know, our, you know, living our full creative life. And at some point I had to finally release my book because I was so full of fear, I’m like, and one day I woke up and said, “I don't give a shit anymore.” Like I just have to let this go out into the universe. And I kind of look at my rebranding like that too. You know what, I can't care. I'm going to be me. I'm going to do the best I can, and I just can't worry about oh what so-and-so might say, you know, I just got... I have to make sure it's professional and beautiful and then it's out in the universe.

Lisa: I have a newfound appreciation for my love of words and like, the ability to find the perfect word is to me, so gratifying.

Susan: [gasps]

Lisa: That, like, it is something that just like lights me up.

Susan: Right? So, you know what my new word is, and I just got some feedback, someone- I just sent my... my copy to a friend of mine. She goes, oh - I love the word empowerment rather than motivational. You know.

Lisa: Yeah.

Susan: Motivational speaker, my word’s empowerment. I try to empower people. But you know, I do that through my courses, right?

Lisa: Yeah, you do.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: You do.

Susan: How do I do that? Will you write that down for me and a paragraph or two and then send it off? Thank you.

Lisa: I actually will, I will do that. Because I get, I mean, I got a lot out of your courses from just... I don't know. Yeah, you're quite funny and direct but also, you know, you're teaching about avalanche terrain and what could happen. But I really like you’re proactive, you know, like well, what are you going to do about it? It's really, like, not putting yourself in a victim mindset. It's like well, what are you going to do about it?

Susan: Yeah, right. There's nobody there to rescue you. Yeah.

Lisa: I like that style.

Susan: Well, and that's how we have to go through life, right? You know, how do we get unburied? We have to do it ourselves. We have to be so strong in our conviction.

Lisa: So what's next for you?

Susan: Well, careful what you ask for because I wanted to be an empowerment speaker. So I got some gigs coming up. I'm traveling to Colorado, to Michigan, to Iowa, back to Colorado, to speak and to do book promotion. I'm starting to work on book number two.

Lisa: Ooh.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: What's that going to be about?

Susan: Oh, I'm going to tell a story from my dog's point of view - my search dog’s point of view.

Lisa: Oh. That's going to be cool.

Susan: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah, awesome. Well, we are pretty much out of time. But how, how can people follow you on the internet?

Susan: Oh great. Yeah. So I have on my website, I have two. P-U-R-V-I-S, that’s my, my new rebranding page. Then my company is called Crested Butte Outdoors where I teach Wilderness Medicine and Avalanche courses that

And then I'm on, you know, Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin and Instagram. Oh my God.

Lisa: All the things.

Susan: I'm on - I'm on all the things.

Lisa: You're making it happen.

Susan: [sings] Making it happen.

Lisa: Cool. Well, thank you so much for being here. That was - that was a fun one.

Susan: All right. Talk to you soon.

Lisa: Okay. Bye.

Susan: Bye.

Iris: Thank you Susan for being on the podcast. It's always a great time when we get to hang out with Susan Purvis. You can find all the links to Crested Butte Outdoors and her website as well as her social media profiles in the show notes, and don't forget to subscribe to Outside by Design to make sure you don't miss our episodes every single Thursday.

You can follow Wheelie at @wheeliecreative on Instagram or And we love hearing from our listeners if you want to leave us a rating or review on iTunes, we really, really appreciate it. Other than that, have a great rest of your Thursday.

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