On Feb. 25, 2023, long-time Pagosa Springs resident James Lee (Jim) Sutton lost his life to an avalanche on a mountainside above Vallecito Reservoir, Colo. He was 67 years young and had recently retired from a long and esteemed career as a captain in the Commissioned Corps of the Indian Health Service. Jim worked at Rosebud (Sioux) in South Dakota, Duck Valley (Shoshone-Paiute) in Nevada and Idaho, and for the last 30 years with the Jicarilla Apache Nation in Dulce, N.M., where he was well-known personally by many of the members, elders and extended families on and off the reservation. During his tenure, he served for a time as the chief executive officer of the I.H.S. clinic. Jim learned some of the Jicarilla language as he traveled the large reservation visiting home-bound patients, their families and working with tribal administrators. He was devoted to his work and not infrequently could be found spending evenings and weekend mornings catching up on medical records and paperwork. He was both serious about the education of his patients regarding their health concerns and lighthearted in his delivery. One could always count on Jim for a good laugh.
Despite the consuming nature of his work, Jim was equally passionate about his intellectual and outdoor pursuits. He was a voracious reader with a leaning toward world history and mountaineering lore, kept up with pop culture and current events, and had an uncanny memory for dates and details, be they his own or someone else’s. His family lived many places and, as an “Army brat,” he grew up for a time in Hawaii, where he took up surfing. Endurance sports became his thing, and he did it all from triathlon to bicycle racing, then took up technical rock climbing. He worked for a time in New York City, from whence he would slip away to the Shawangunk Mountains, and advanced his prowess at climbing areas all over the American West. He enjoyed hunting deer and elk in Colorado, as well as javelina in Arizona. As the years went by, Jim became most passionate about mountain ski descents, for which backcountry ski touring around Wolf Creek and Red Mountain passes became training and prologue. He skied many Colorado 14ers and 13ers, numerous West Coast volcanoes from northern California to the Cascades, and one of his crowning achievements: 18,500-foot Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains at the age of 63.
Jim was a loving father and husband, and is survived by his wife, Susie Hannon, and daughter, Toby Sutton, both of Durango, Colo.; his father, retired Army Col. Larry Sutton, of Princeton, N.J.; and four siblings and their respective families. He is predeceased by his mother, Mary Etta Sutton, and a brother, Timmy. If you were friends with Jim, you always wanted to remain so, and therefore he will be greatly missed by a large posse of co-workers, hunting buddies, adventure partners and so many others who were graced with his smile and good cheer.
A celebration of Jim’s life will be held at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts on Saturday, March 25, at 11 a.m. All are welcome. Donations in his memory may be made to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, La Plata County Search and Rescue and the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District.