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When a horrific rock climbing accident left his father’s life hanging in the balance, his 13-year-old son raced to save his life.

For Utah father-son duo, David Finlayson (52) and Charlie (13), adventure runs in their blood. The two were on a 12-day backpacking trip in the remote “River of No Return Wilderness” in Idaho when disaster struck.  

According to an interview with Outside, they were about 1000 feet up the side of a granite spire approximately a mile from their campsite at Ship Island Lake. Charlie was lashed to a tree, belaying his father, while David scouted out a climbing route.

What Happened When a Huge Boulder Broke Loose

people hiking a mountain
Photo by Eric Sanman

One second, everything was fine. The next second, a loud crack filled the air, and a refrigerator-sized boulder struck David, sending him careening 30 feet down the side of the mountain.

David suffered severe injuries including a concussion, broken back, shattered left arm and heel, and a deep gash exposing his shin bone.

“I saw him lying there and I was pretty scared,” Charlie told PEOPLE. However, it didn’t take long for his Boy Scout training to kick in. “But after a minute, I realized I would have to calm down or I’d make the situation worse. So I took a deep breath and thought, ‘Okay, I have to do this. My dad’s in serious trouble. And it’s up to me to help him.’”

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They were stranded on a ledge, partway up a mountain, 13 miles away from civilization.

It took Charlie hours to lower his father, who weighed twice his size, down to the ground. By the time he retrieved sleeping bags, warm clothes, and food from their campsite a mile down a steep slope covered in boulders, and returned to his dad, night had fallen.

“We had to spend the night on the rocks,” said David, “then the next day, he helped me crawl across the rocks to the lake. It took hours and hours and it was terribly painful. I could only go an inch at a time. I passed out a few times, but Charlie brought me back by saying, ‘Come on, you can do this. Just a few more feet.’ He coached me down.”

How One Boy’s Actions Ultimately Led to His Dad Being Rescued

two pairs of shoes against a mountain backdrop
Photo by Noel Ross

Charlie spent more than two days dressing his dad’s wounds and keeping him warm and hydrated before the grim realization set in — help wasn’t coming. If his father was going to survive, Charlie would have to set out alone.

On the third day, Charlie hugged his dad goodbye and embarked on the 13-mile trek to the ranger station. In his pocket was a note from his dad, begging someone to help his son rescue him.

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“I cannot walk so I need a rescue, unfortunately,” the note read. “Please help Charlie find one for me.”

Luckily, it didn’t take long for Charlie to find help. Three miles down the trail he met up with a couple of hikers — Jon Craig and his 19-year-old son, Jonathan. They went to check on his father while Charlie continued to the ranger station.

Five miles into the hike he came across another man, Mike Burt, a former Marine. Burt ran the remaining eight miles to call for medical aid. Charlie followed behind him.

Three days after being hit by the boulder, David was rescued. A helicopter crew from Montana airlifted him to a Boise hospital. Over the following months, he underwent several surgeries and was eventually able to go climbing with Charlie again. He credits Charlie with saving his life.

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At 13 years old, Charlie was an unlikely hero. But due to terrifying circumstances, he became the only thing standing between his father and death. And he ended up doing what all great superheroes do — he saved a life.

As for Charlie? He doesn’t think he’s a hero. “I just did what I had to do,” he told PEOPLE. “Anybody would have done the same thing.”


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