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A heart of gold: Search and rescue volunteer remembered as hard worker, loving husband and friend

Blair Speed was sitting on the cement floor inside her Bozeman home when she got the call. Travis Swanson, her husband, was involved in a climbing accident. Rescuers couldn’t find him.

Swanson was climbing Mount Cowen in Park County with his three friends on a July morning. It was his first free weekend in a while. She knew something was wrong when she got the call.

“I knew ... if he had anything in him, he would contact me,” Speed said.

She sat on the floor for hours, waiting for news between the door and the stairway to their bedroom. She listened to a police scanner for a while. She sent him a message saying she loved him.

She closed her eyes and tried picturing Swanson with a layer of protection over him, like she did when he went on bigger trips.

“I just couldn’t see him at all, and I just knew it was really bad,” she said.

After three hours, she got another call. Swanson was dead.

“It’s just such an unimaginable loss and pain. I mean, he’s everything to me,” she said.

Speed meant everything to Swanson. On his iPad, Swanson laid out his priorities in a note titled “What do I really want.” Under the category “Love,” he wrote “love Blair and myself.”

The house Speed was sitting in alone when she got the news is for her, and the life he tried to build for her, their 21-year-old cat, The Great Catsby, and their 7-year-old dog, Miss Charlotte Rae. Speed said it was “his great purpose” to be able to take care of them, and he did.

Swanson and Speed bought the lot the home now sits on about 10 years ago, and Swanson designed the house. It has his fingerprints all over it.

He poured the concrete for the floors and put up the walls about seven or eight years ago. Speed said he worked on the house nights and weekends after working his day job, and through a shoulder injury from moving rocks around to get it done.

A living room, kitchen and guest bedroom wrap around a set of enclosed stairs on the first floor. Speed and Swanson decided early on they weren’t going to have kids, so their bedroom takes up the second floor. It’s big enough for a bed, a desk and a space for yoga.

The house Swanson built is a reflection of the person he was and the life he worked to build with Speed, friends and family. Speed called him "Poppi Oso," which means papa bear, and said he had a golden heart.

Travis Swanson

Travis Swanson, a former Gallatin County Search and Rescue team member, died in a climbing accident last month.

Work

Swanson started working with his dad when he was 14 years old putting up drywall. He bought his first condo in Bozeman four years later. During his high school years, he built a mandolin. He recently played it inside their living room as Miss Charlotte Rae, the dog he called his daughter, howled and sang along with him.

Swanson put that same work ethic into building their home, finishing the project in about a year, Speed said.

Speed put together a video for Swanson’s memorial that shows him smoothing out plaster on the ceiling in one of the rooms. Speed is filming and holding a light for Swanson.

“Why are you giggling?” Swanson asks in the video.

“Because I just started videoing and you tooted,” Speed replies.

He convinced Allison McGree, the couple’s friend, to move into the house next door. McGree said they moved in this past March because Swanson told them about the house and all the great reasons for having them live next door — it was a good deal, they would be closer and they could work out in his garage.

“He had a lot of big ideas,” McGree said.

They share garages. Mostly to make room inside Swanson’s for the home gym where he hosted workouts for friends and blasted heavy metal.

On a white board, Swanson wrote, “When the going gets tough, the tough turn up the volume,” a favorite quote from Mark Twight, a prominent climber and writer.

McGree said the neighboring couples were going back and forth so often for barbecues and workouts that Swanson put a ladder between their yards.

“I think he just liked his people close,” she said.

Travis Swanson

Travis Swanson, a former Gallatin County Search and Rescue team member, died in a climbing accident last month.

Mountains

Photographs of Swanson’s favorite mountains are on the walls of the first floor of the home, mixed in with some of Speed’s own photographs.

A black and white print of three men atop Granite Peak hangs on a wall near a window in the living room.

Speed hung her wedding dress on a rack next to several pairs of skis. It’s her art and she wanted it to be where people could see it, she said.

Near the rack hangs a black and white photo of Bill Briggs’ first ski descent of the Grand Tetons, another of Swanson’s favorites.

Swanson enjoyed his time in the mountains but Speed said he was always safe. Based on gut feeling, weather or terrain, Speed said, Swanson knew when not to push it and turned around often.

“I very much trusted him in the mountains — everywhere,” Speed said.

Swanson tried summiting Denali peak, the highest peak in North America at over 20,000 feet in the Alaska Range, three times in the past five years. Speed wrote a journal for him to take on his last trip there in 2017.

She called it a gift of words and a way to reciprocate the love Swanson showed her.

Inside the black, leather-bound journal, Speed filled the right pages with her thoughts and questions and kept the left page blank for his responses. Speed asks who gives him energy to succeed on one page.

“It was you from 16,800 to the summit,” replied Swanson.

Travis Swanson

Blair points to a passage in a journal she wrote for her husband to read while he attempted to summit Denali Peak, the highest peak in North America. Each page is numbered to correspond with a specific day of the climb. On the tenth day, Blair asks who gives him the energy to succeed. Travis wrote, "It was you from 16, 800 to the summit."

Search and rescue

Swanson began working with the search and rescue team when he was 18 years old, right around the time he started climbing.

Inside the guest bedroom of the home, Speed opened a closet where about 40 backpacks hang. She said they had so many because Swanson was looking for the perfect pack for different rescues and weather conditions.

Scattered throughout the home are walkie-talkies Swanson used to listen to rescue activity, in case he was needed. She said the only way he turned the radios off was when she complained about them enough.

Speed said one time the two went to a friend’s wedding when he got a rescue call. She went to the wedding alone.

“The calls would happen and he would just go,” she said.

Travis Swanson

Travis kept walkie-talkies scattered around the house at any given time, in case a search and rescue call came in.

There are about 10 teams on search and rescue to deal with different terrain and different rescues. Swanson has been on most of those teams, and was most recently a coordinator for helicopter rescues.

When a page went out for a rescue, Swanson was in charge of finding a helicopter. Swanson would then come up with a plan and assign volunteers to different teams to rescue an injured climber, lost hiker or someone in need of help.

Joe Wagner, a member of search and rescue and part of the team that retrieved Swanson’s body, said Swanson was one of the major reasons why he got involved. Wagner became interested in the team after hearing Swanson talk about the rescues he would go on.

Wagner said when Swanson was young he was on the team because he liked the adrenaline-fueled situations. In more recent years, he said, that became less of the motivation.

“It was a little more like he found a way to volunteer, and found purpose in the community,” Wagner said.

Swanson made up for his quietness with action. Speed said Swanson was even-keeled and search and rescue brought out the leader he didn’t know he was.

“When things went bad, he didn’t falter,” she said.

Travis Swanson

A framed photo of Travis and Blair from early in their relationship sits on the coffee table in their living room.

“Speedsons”

A sheet of metal hanging from their porch reads “The Speedsons Est. September 2017,” a mash-up of the couple’s last names.

The date on the sign, however, is four months off. Speed said they eloped in May, a few days before Swanson went off to summit Denali.

“I was like, ‘I’ll never stop you from going to the mountains,’” Speed said. “But for this trip, this was his third trip to Denali, I was like, ‘We need to be married before you go up there.’”

Speed was able to convince him not to go on rescue calls occasionally. Swanson told Speed he thought of her before he thought of himself, and she understood and respected that his heart always wanted to go.

“That fulfilled him, but before taking those actions he always chose to spend time with me,” she said.

The night before his death, Speed said Swanson was going to grab a beer with the friends he was going climbing with. He stayed home and had dinner with Speed instead, she said.

She went to bed early.

“I said, ‘goodnight and I love you,’” she said. “And he packed up his stuff.”

Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2630. Follow him on Twitter @TGIFreddy.

Reporter

Freddy Monares covers politics and county government for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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