Dick Ross had to get home to babysit his dog Dolly after hiking several days in the Sawtooth Mountains.
The 71-year-old Meridian man left his hiking companion and began walking through a pass between Upper Bead Lake and Baron Lake. With no trail to follow, Ross climbed over rocks above the tree line. At Baron Lake, he joined a marked trail that would take him northwest to his car in Grandjean, 60 miles northeast of Idaho City.
Two and a half hours before Grandjean, two boulders, one the size of a refrigerator, the other an ottoman, rolled off a mountainside and struck him. He had not seen or heard anything.
“The next thing I knew, this big old boulder just rolled right past me and turned and just crushed my legs,” Ross says during an interview at his home.
He could barely move. Out of cell phone range, he yelled for hours to get someone’s attention.
This month, after months of medical treatment, Ross, a retired Meridian junior high shop teacher and Boise State University physical plant supervisor, gave an interview to the Statesman and detailed publicly for the first time the lonely, excruciating ordeal.
Began hiking when he was a teen
A Boise native and a 1965 graduate of Borah High School, Ross has been hiking mountains of the Northwest since his teens. He set out Tuesday, Aug. 21, with Ed Terry, a lifelong friend, with whom he had hiked with many times in the Sawtooths.
They spent two days hiking to several lakes, where they fished for brook and cutthroat trout. “There’s lot of hungry fish there,” Ross says.
On Thursday, the third day, Ross, dressed in lightweight wool pants and a shirt, left Terry and started heading toward Baron Lake and home. The sky was smoky from the Bible Back Fire that was burning in the White Cloud Mountains to the east. About 3 p.m., he crossed through a notch on the western edge of 10,140-foot Monte Verita. He could see Baron Lake 800 feet below.
He started down a ravine. The two boulders struck and pinned him on his back. He had not seen or heard them coming.
Ross isn’t sure why the boulders came loose and rolled but says says melting snow and ice, along with seismic activity, can make boulder fields unstable.
The smaller boulder landed on him. As he lay with his feet above him, he began digging with his hands around and under the boulders. He freed himself. With his arms, he crawled to an area with sand and gravel that appeared safe from further rock slides.
“The pain was unbelievable,” Ross says. “I just couldn’t imagine anything like that.”
To protect his left leg, he improvised.
“My foot was in my boot, but my boot was just swinging around in a 360-degree direction without any problem at all,” he says. “There just wasn’t anything there to hold it in place.”
His backpack held less than 20 pounds of gear, including a down jacket, tent, food and water. He took his walking poles from the pack to create a splint and wrapped the leg with a bungee cord.
His right leg was broken, too, and he knew it, but he left it alone: “The right leg didn’t seem to need anything.”
Hiker from Oregon hears his calls
He started yelling for help.
“I could hear my voice echoing off Baron Lake below,” Ross says.
Not long before, six hikers from the Chemeketans, a Salem, Oregon, hiking group, arrived at the lake, where they would camp that night.
“I heard the rockslide and didn’t think anything of it, since slides are typical,” Joel Zak, the group’s photographer, said by email. “It wasn’t until we heard a consistent call-out about every 15 minutes that all of us became concerned.”
John Coyier, another Chemeketan who was there with his wife, Joanna Picchi, said they couldn’t make out what was being said. “I was convinced it was someone who needed help,” Coyier said in a telephone interview.
Two club members climbed to the top of a nearby ridge to see if they could get cell coverage. They couldn’t. So, about 5 p.m., Coyier, 67, headed out toward the sound. He climbed 45 minutes to a basin above the lake. He called out. There was no reply.
Coyier resumed hiking, climbing about 500 feet higher, and reached a bench where he saw Ross several hundred yards away. He heard Ross shouting.
“He kept saying ‘helicopter,’ so I figured he needed help,” Coyier said.
Two others, one a paramedic, hike to reach him
Coyier turned back to Baron Lake, thinking it would be better to summon help than to spend more time trying to reach Ross.
Meanwhile, two other hikers, Caldwell residents Alex Marshall and Derek Call, had arrived at Baron Lake for the night, too. Marshall, a paramedic with Canyon County Paramedics, and Call were on the first day of a three-day hiking trip through the Sawtooths. They could hear Ross yelling.
After grabbing a bite to eat, the two men set off to find him. They couldn’t. By then it was 7 p.m. and the sun was already behind the peaks, Marshall said in a text message.
“We were ready to turn back,” he said in a telephone interview. “Then we got a little higher on a rise and we heard him again.”
They reached Ross about 7:40 p.m.. He was on a 30-degree slope that was “extremely unstable,” Marshall said.
Marshall examined Ross. Except for his legs, Ross was in good condition.
Spends night on rocky slope
Marshall, 42, and Call, 41, told Ross they would make him as comfortable as possible and then go for help. They removed the down jacket and tent from Ross’ pack, laid them over him and zipped him into his sleeping bag. They gave him some extra water. As he waited, he drank it and ate some energy bars.
As night fell, Marshall and Call descended by the light of their headlamps. “We took it slow and cautiously,” Marshall said.
They arrived at Baron Lake and spoke with Coyier, who had waited at the camp after learning the two men had gone to Ross. Marshall and Ross told him they would go to get help, and they set off for Redfish Lake at about 10 p.m. They walked 15 miles before finding cell phone service at the boat dock at the west end of the lake around 3 a.m. Marshall told a police dispatcher about Ross.
Rescue helicopter lifts him off the slope
Police summoned Two Bear Air, a private air rescue service in Whitefish, Montana, that serves Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington. Venture capitalist Mike Goguen used his own money to establish the service, and he pays all its costs.
A Two Bear Air crew in a Bell 429 helicopter reached Ross at about 6 a.m. Friday. A crew member descended on a line and attached a harness to Ross, who was lifted into the helicopter.
Tired and in pain, Ross was still alert enough to enjoy the view.
“I wish I had been smart enough to use my camera on my phone and take some photos of the Sawtooths,” he says. “Man, that was gorgeous.”
An eight-minute flight brought him to the Stanley Airport, where a Life Flight helicopter flew him to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.
Three weeks spent in the hospital
Over the next few days, Ross underwent three surgeries.
Dr. Annie Knierim, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, operated on his left leg to relieve pressure that had prevented blood from flowing properly. Without that surgery, muscle tissue could have died and Ross could have lost the leg, said Dr. David Zamorano, another orthopedic trauma surgeon who operated on Ross.
Ross broke the tibia, the larger bone in his lower left leg. Zamorano inserted a titanium rod into it lengthwise. The rod aligned and stabilized the bone.
In his right leg, Ross broke his fibula, the smaller bone in the lower leg. Zamorano inserted a small stainless steel plate at the base of the bone, where it joins the ankle.
Ross was aided after his surgeries by his positive outlook and by daily visits by his wife, Brenda, who worked to keep her husband’s spirits up. “He has had an unbelievably great attitude in his recovery,” Zamorano says.
He spent three weeks in the hospital. He left in a wheelchair. In late December, he returned it.
Walking and swimming are part of his recovery routine
Now he walks for about a half-hour twice a day at Kleiner Park, not far from his house on East Tahiti Drive. Using his hiking poles, he walks on the spongy flat grass in the park and across its rolling hills.
He swims twice a week to the West Boise YMCA and goes to a Saint Alphonsus clinic at the Y for physical therapy.
“Overcoming the pain and just trying to keep on moving and trying to get those muscles back and get rid of the pain — that’s job No. 1,” Ross says.
Before the accident, Dolly, the mixed-breed dog that Ross was returning home to babysit, had been deciding which of her owners she likes best: Dick or Brenda. She been with the Rosses for only a few weeks. The couple have been married 31 years and have an adult daughter, Kelly, who lives outside Portland.
Dick Ross’ hospital stay cemented Dolly’s feelings. “She decided she liked Brenda better and that’s still true, Ross says.
He is grateful for all the help he has received, from the hikers who located him and called for help, and from the doctors and nurses who have helped him recover. He is thankful for the dozens of people who wrote to him in the hospital after news of his ordeal came out.
“It could have been so much worse,” Ross says.
Zamorano predicts Ross will fully recover: “He’s going to get back to hiking out there in the Sawtooths and doing all the things he wants to do.”