Real life: The river of no return

BY Ken Miller

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Real life: The river of no return

A backpacking trip turns disastrous, and a boy must make a heart-rending decision: should he leave his severely injured father to look for help?

The Frank Church—river of no return wilderness is the broadest sprawl of untamed landscape in the United States, covering 2.4 million acres of central Idaho. Among the area’s most spectacular attractions is the Bighorn Crags, a jagged range of 10,000-foot peaks set amid glittering alpine lakes. Near one of those pools, just after dawn on a cloudless summer day, 13-year-old Charlie Finlayson crouches inside his tent, getting ready for a long hike. He stows a water bottle and some snacks in his day pack, along with a sleeping bag, in case he has to set up a temporary camp.

He leaves another water bottle for his father, David, fills the cooking pot to the brim with water from the creek and also sets out a week’s supply of energy bars. Then he takes a GPSreading of the campsite.


He turns to David, who lies pale and gaunt in a bloodstained bedroll, his forehead marked with a purple gash, his jaw clenched in pain, his leg bandaged. “I’d better get moving,” Charlie tells him.

“Good luck, kiddo,” David says quietly. “Just take it slow and steady.”

Outside the tent, Charlie pauses and mumbles a prayer. “I’m not coming back without a helicopter,” he calls over his shoulder as he sets off.

At 52, David Finlayson had already explored many of the world's wild spaces, traversing major summits in Alaska, Europe and South America. David, a respected defense lawyer, had split up with Charlie’s mum shortly after Charlie was born. The boy lived with his mother in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, but spent most summers with his father. Although Charlie was as calm and contemplative as his dad was voluble and restless—David called him “the Zen master” and “Good-Time Charlie”—both were passionate about nature. When Charlie turned 13, David introduced him to rock climbing.

By the time they set out for the Bighorn Crags in August 2015, Charlie was ready to take on complex climbs. The pair crammed their packs with enough supplies to last two weeks. After driving six hours from Boise, they hiked for two days to reach Ship Island Lake, a mile-long jewel shadowed by tall, pointed rocks. In their first week, they completed two long climbs.

Their next ascent began on a Monday morning. Around noon, David was inching his way across a granite spire 800 feet above the valley floor, searching for a line of cracks that would lead them to the top. Charlie stood on a ledge a dozen yards to the right, lashed to a tree for safety as he fed rope to his dad. Reaching up, David dislodged a small stone, which tumbled off into the void. In the next moment, he heard a sharp crack from above as something larger broke loose. He barely had time to scream before everything went black.



"Beneath David’s dented helmet, his head was throbbing from a concussion. The pain came from so many places that it nearly knocked him out again"



When Charlie saw his father sailing through the air alongside the massive boulder that had struck him, he yanked on the rope. An instant later, an automatic braking device arrested the fall.

“Dad!” he called. “Are you OK?”There was no answer.

David hung 40 feet below his son, each hidden from the other’s view. A minute passed before he managed to call out, “Charlie, are you there?”

“I’m here! Are you hurt?”

Beneath David’s dented helmet, his head was throbbing from a concussion. His left arm and foot were shattered; the shin bone protruded through the skin, and blood was dripping onto the rocks below. A vertebra in his upper back was fractured. The pain came from so many places that it nearly knocked him out again.

“I think I’ve broken some bones,” he shouted.

“What do I do? What do I do?” Charlie sounded frantic.

“Can you lower me about 20 feet? There’s a ledge there.”

Charlie let the rope play out slowly. When David reached the ledge, he yelled for his son to lower his climbing pack, which held a first-aid kit. But Charlie was still anchored to a large pine tree, and the pack kept getting stuck in the branches. After readjusting the anchor, Charlie managed to land the pack perfectly.

With his right hand, David slathered his leg wound with antibiotic cream, covered it with gauze compresses, and began wrapping it in athletic tape. He felt detached from his own body, as if it belonged to someone else, but he didn’t want Charlie to have to see the jutting bone. Once it was covered up, he called for the boy to abseil down and join him, shouting instructions all the way. When Charlie arrived, the two of them added more tape and tightened it. “Tell me it’s going to be OK,” Charlie pleaded, struggling to control his fear.

“It’s going to be OK,” David told him, trying to believe it. “But we need to get off this mountain.” He proposed a plan: Charlie would lower David half a rope length at a time, then lower himself to the same level, set a new anchor, and begin again.

Although the pulley system enabled the 6.5-stone child to bear the weight of a 13.5-stone man, the process proved agonising for both of them. David was dizzy and nauseated, and whenever his left side touched the cliff face, the pain was almost unendurable. With each pitch, he had to hammer a peg one-handed into the rock, and Charlie had to untangle 50 yards of rope and thread it through the anchor. As the hours passed, David fought to remain conscious. “If I pass out,” he said, “don’t stick around. Hike back up the trail as fast as you can.”


“You won’t pass out,” Charlie assured his father, and himself. “We’re going to make it.”

It was nearly dusk when the excruciating abseiling finally delivered David and Charlie to the base of the cliff, and the temperature had dropped to four degrees. In his shorts and light jacket, David was shaking with cold and exhaustion. “That’s enough for today,” he said. “You’ll have to go get our sleeping bags so we don’t freeze to death.”

Their gear was in their tent, more than a mile down a steep slope. Charlie took off running. He grabbed the sleeping bags and stuffed a backpack with warm clothes and energy bars. Realising they would need water, too, he used his filter pump to fill several bottles from the lake. By the time he found his way back, night had fallen.

David saw a pinpoint of light—his son’s headlamp—floating toward him through the blackness. “Good-Time Charlie!” he exclaimed through chattering teeth. Charlie zipped him into a sleeping bag. He propped the injured leg on a rock to slow the bleeding. He made sure his father ate some dinner, then crawled into his own bag.

Worried that David would die if he fell asleep, Charlie kept the conversation going; they talked about past travels, the constellations, the accident. Eventually Charlie allowed himself to catnap—immediately checking on his father each time he awoke.

David, however, was in too much pain to drift off. He tried to distract himself by counting out his breaths. But breathing was painful, so he counted stars.

There was a chance I’d survive, he thought. But there was also a good chance I wouldn’t. And then what would happen to the kid?

David kept counting.

When the sun rose on their camp, Charlie was relieved to see that his father was awake and alert. But the mile-wide cordon of boulders, many as big as cars, was a far less welcome sight. The pair huddled in their sleeping bags for an hour or two, until the chill lifted. “Let’s go, Dad,” Charlie said. “This could take some time.”



"As Charlie’s heart rate rose, so did his anxiety level. Images flit through his mind of Dad writhing in agony, eyes rolled back"



After wrapping more tape around the blood-soaked bandage on David’s leg, they started down the slope. David dragged himself through the obstacle course inch by inch, leaving a trail of red. When he couldn’t manoeuvre between the rocks, he hauled himself over them, crawling up one side and sliding down the other. Sometimes he lost control, landing on one of his shattered limbs and blacking out briefly from the pain. He woke each time with Charlie’s tense face looming over him.

“I’m fine,” David would say, attempting to smile. The boy ran ahead periodically, scouting for the least torturous path, then trotted back to offer guidance. “Just another foot,” he coaxed. “Just a few inches.”

They reached their campsite around 4pm. David plunged his leg into the lake to clean it, and Charlie—unfazed by the gore—covered it with a new dressing.

Toward evening, Charlie cooked dinner on the propane stove. He wolfed down his portions of pepper steak and chicken teriyaki, but his father was too nauseated to eat more than a few bites.

“Charlie,” David said, “you’re going to have to go look for help in the morning.”

Picturing himself separated from his father by vast tracts of wilderness, Charlie burst into tears. “What if I never see you again?” he wailed.

“I’m sorry, kiddo,” David said. “We don’t have a choice.”

That night, Charlie slept with his arms around his dad. David stared out through the tent’s mesh window, counting stars. Just after dawn, Charlie lifted his pack onto his back and headed off on the trail, hell-bent on bringing back a helicopter that would carry his father to safety.

Charlie's destination was the trailhead, 12 miles away, where a couple of volunteers lived in a cabin equipped with a two-way radio. The path rose gently at first, but Charlie knew it would soon grow steeper, reaching 9,400 feet before plunging into a valley and climbing again. Grizzlies and mountain lions frequent the surrounding woods and as he walked, Charlie blew his emergency whistle to ward them off.

After a mile, the route met a trail to another lake. Following his father’s instructions, Charlie took the detour, shouting to anyone who might be camped there. After a few hundred yards, however, he stopped to calculate the odds: it was a weekday, when visitors to the wilderness are more sparse. If he continued on the detour and encountered no one, he’d have thrown away a valuable hour. He muttered a swear word under his breath and hurried back towards the main trail.

The hike grew more strenuous as the trail climbed up toward the pass. As Charlie’s heart rate rose, so did his anxiety level. Images flit through his mind of Dad writhing in agony, eyes rolled back. He focused instead on the rhythm of his footsteps.

Around the three-mile-mark, he heard voices and shouted, “Hello! Can you help me?”

Sprinting up the path, the boy encountered two tall, stubble-faced men on their way down—Jon Craig and his 19-year-old son, Jonathan. Choking back tears, Charlie described his plight to the pair and showed them the campsite marker on his GPS.


The Craigs debated whether to turn around and accompany young Charlie or forge on to find his father. “Please go to him,” Charlie said, insistent but calm.

“There are three groups camping by Airplane Lake in the next valley,” Jon told Charlie, circling the location on his map. “They can help you get where you need to be.” The two men disappeared down the trail.

After cresting the pass, Charlie took the side route toward the lake. His heart sank as he realised that none of the groups were there any longer.

Back on the trail, Charlie heard more voices in the distance. He blew his whistle hard and called out, and the voices answered.

Following his ears, Charlie groped his way through the pines until he came across a different pond, half a mile away. There he stumbled upon a married couple, their three children and their family friend, Mike Burt.

Hearing the urgency in Charlie’s voice, Mike, a former marine, offered to run the demanding nine miles to the volunteers’ cabin, where he hoped to call in medical aid for David. Charlie followed him to make sure that help was indeed coming.

Sometime that evening, David Finlayson awoke in hospital. Doctors had immobilised his arm and leg and stabilised his spine with a brace. Over the coming months, he would undergo several major surgeries and eventually be able to climb again. But on this night, through the morphine glow, he tried to remember his rescue.

He recalled the Craigs arriving at his campsite. When they told him they’d spoken with Charlie, he forgot his pain; he wanted to get up and dance. A young ranger (dispatched after Mike Burt reached the volunteers’ cabin) showed up soon afterward. She kept David company until he was lifted into a helicopter.

The next day, Charlie arrived at David’s bedside. Through the tangle of ropes that are IV drips, father and son hugged. Good-Time Charlie, the Zen master, had kept his promise. He brought back a helicopter.


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