(Photos/SARPINZ)

Washington Search-and-Rescue Worker Converts Swiss Army Pinzgauer Into Ultimate Rig

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

King County Search & Rescue operator Branden Powell wasn’t entirely satisfied with his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon as his outfit’s everyday rig. So he took matters into his own hands.

Powell started answering calls with the Search & Rescue department, which serves Seattle and the Cascade Mountains, 12 years ago. He ran missions in his 2007 four-door Wrangler for the first few years. He found it was good off road but short on space for the whole crew. That’s when he started looking around for something better suited to the job.

His parameters would be difficult to fulfill. Not only did he want more cargo and passenger space, but also a smaller footprint and equal or better off-road capability.

“That seemed impossible,” Powell wrote, “but then I stumbled into the Pinzgauer during a late-night YouTube session.” The chance encounter would prove to be a game-changer.

The Life of ‘SARPINZ’ in Search-and-Rescue

Powell bought the 1972 Pinzgauer 710M from the Swiss Army, where it was in retirement. Then he refitted it for search-and-rescue and rechristened it “SARPINZ” for its new life.

The rig’s forward control layout (the driver sits over the front axle) makes slow-speed precision maneuvers easier. And its low gearing gives it the advantage on steep grades.

“It’s not a powerful vehicle, but with the gearing in it, it’ll go anywhere,” Powell said. “It’s just hard to stop it.”

Powell is also aware of the Pinzgauer’s effect on bystanders. The group can spin its conversation-starting utility into discussions with park patrons or bushwhackers, even Boy Scout troops, about backcountry safety.

King County is Washington’s most populous county, covering Seattle and parts of Tacoma. Powell’s Search & Rescue department responds to a wide variety of calls, from downtown Seattle to the deep interior of the Snoqualmie National Forest.

Summit view from Mt .Marcy; (photo: Wirestock Creators Shutterstock)
Hikers in Sneakers Stranded in 8 Inches of Snow Atop Mount Marcy Rescued
On the afternoon of Nov. 25, a small group of sneaker-wearing hikers found themselves atop a snow-capped Mount Marcy, and they were lost. Read more…

‘Built to Serve That Others May Live’

The resulting mission diversity has led Powell into multiple professional roles. He uses SARPINZ to teach off-road driving classes and works on King County SAR’s ATV and snowmobile units and its 4×4 team.

But the SARPINZ project may have its deepest roots in Powell’s personal history. A drive to help others and a propensity for building unorthodox vehicles underscore his work.

“When I think about my childhood, things felt very unstable. A lot of times, I felt like I needed help, and I didn’t always have help around,” he said.

“I had to figure things out on my own. I think at that moment, something started that led to where I am — that created this urge to help other people and give them that hand when they needed it.”

The Pinzgauer is just the latest entry in Powell’s 30-year record of off-road builds. A 1978 Toyota FJ-40 retrofitted with a Cummins R2.8 Turbo Diesel engine fills the space in his jam-packed garage, along with multiple ATVs, dirtbikes, and more.

Check out SARPINZ online or on social media — or catch a glimpse of it during one of the 180 to 200 search-and-rescue calls it helps answer in King County each year. Hopefully, though, you won’t need this impressive rig to come to your rescue.

2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 - review
Iron Horse: On Trail With the 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3
The 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 is performance-driven, user-friendly, and approachable. And it's a blast to drive.  Read more…

Stealth Studio Apartment Truck Video Still
'Stealth Studio' One-Ups Van Life Trend With Apartment Truck
Designed as an affordable, in-city "stealth" option, the converted Ford E-350 box truck contains a study, standard shower, kitchen, gear garage, and patio. Read more…

Sam Anderson
By

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.