David Finlayson fell off the granite towers in Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The only person who could save him? His 13-year-old son.
David Finlayson fell off the granite towers in Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The only person who could save him? His 13-year-old son. (US Forest Service/Creative Commons)

How a 13-Year-Old Saved His Dad’s Life

Charlie Finlayson was on the ultimate climbing adventure with his dad, David, when a loose boulder forced him to make a daunting rescue

Will Cockrell

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David Finlayson: I’d been taking Charlie into the backcountry since he was a baby. In 2015, when he was 13, we planned a trip to climb these granite towers about 13 miles into Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, in Idaho. A week in, we were about 1,000 feet up a tower. There was loose rock, so I anchored Charlie off to a tree to belay me while I did some route finding. That’s when I heard the crack.

Charlie Finlayson: I didn’t see the boulder hit him, but I saw the rock flake he was standing on come off the wall.

David: My left arm was above my head, and the boulder snapped it, crushed my helmet, and broke my back and my left leg. I ended up 40 feet below Charlie.

Charlie: I couldn’t see him, because there was this bush in the way, so I didn’t know if he was alive. He was silent for like five minutes. I kept shouting, asking if he could hear me.

David: I woke up and heard Charlie yelling. I told him I was OK but bleeding and needed the first aid kit. He lowered it down, then rappelled to me and lowered me another 20 feet to a ledge, where he helped me get bandaged. We were so far up the wall, I thought I might bleed out before we got down. But I just couldn’t say, “Hey, I might not make it.” I told him that if I passed out, he should tie me off to the wall and go. It took us until nightfall to reach the bottom.

Charlie: There was one point where I knew he was delirious, because he said, “OK, you can scramble from here, it looks pretty flat.” We were still 100 feet up.

David: Charlie went to our camp in the dark to get sleeping bags, water, and food. We stayed up all night talking. He’d doze off, then pop up to make sure I was awake. At first light, he got me moving very slowly back to camp. Many times I said, “Charlie, I can’t go any farther.” He’d say, “Let me help you make it another inch.” At camp, I told him he had to go get help.

Charlie: I said, “No, I’m not going out by myself.”

David: That was emotional. I wasn’t too worried about him getting lost, but there might not be anybody at the trailhead. The next morning he was ready. He said, “I guess I better get going.” He gave me a big hug and left.

Charlie: About three miles from camp, I ran into a couple of hikers, who told me there was a big group behind them. I asked them to check on my dad, and I kept going. At first I didn’t see anyone else, so I blew my whistle. This guy ran up to me and then went to get a ranger. That’s when I knew that my dad was going to make it.

David: I had my final round of surgeries in December. I’m still recovering, but we did an all-day climb a couple of weeks ago.

As told to Will Cockrell.