It’s not going to help if you panic.
That’s what Boy Scouts learn about handling emergency situations.
Remembering that lesson, and praying a lot, helped 13-year-old Charlie Finlayson face a monumental challenge last week in the Idaho wilderness — one worth all the merit badges in the world. He helped save his dad’s life.
“They should have a badge for rescuing your old man,” David Finlayson said Tuesday by phone from Utah.
The 52-year-old mountaineer and his son were camped at Ship Island Lake in the Bighorn Crags of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness northwest of Challis. On Aug. 17, the two were scouting a climbing route when a boulder rolled off the mountainside. They hadn’t started climbing and don’t know what dislodged the big rock.
“Dumb luck. It didn’t come off too far above me, so it wasn’t rolling too fast,” Finlayson said.
But the refrigerator-size boulder knocked him off the ledge, and he tumbled 20 to 30 feet down the mountain.
The blow broke his back, his left arm and left heel. It carved a foot-long gash on his shin, exposing the bone. It dislodged a crown on one of his back teeth, ripped off his helmet and briefly knocked him out.
Their camp at the lake was on the other side of the boulder field, a mile away. They were about 13 miles from the trail head and nearest ranger, where they might be able to summon help. And they were in the middle of a 12-day trip, so they weren’t overdue. No one was going to come looking for them.
So, for the next two and a half days, Charlie assumed the role of caretaker, making sure his father stayed hydrated, fed, calm and conscious.
“He was my savior,” said Finlayson, who was worried about bleeding to death. “He just kind of coached me along with the pain and tried to help me not pass out. He kept talking to me all night.”
The first thing Charlie did was fetch Finlayson’s first aid kit, which contained compresses, tape and Neosporin. Finlayson applied the disinfectant liberally into his wound, wrapped it in compresses and taped it.
The accident occurred in the afternoon, and they couldn’t get through the boulder field to camp before sunset. So Charlie retrieved their sleeping bags and other gear from the lake so they could bed down in the rocks for the night.
The next morning, they began the slow slog through the boulder field. It took Finlayson hours to crawl through the rocks to get back to the lake.
“I had one arm, one leg ... and my butt,” he said.
Charlie used lake water to help clean his father’s leg wound. Twice he explored the lake shores and camps, hoping to enlist help from someone camping or fishing there. No luck.
Finally, they agreed that the next morning — the third day after the injury, Wednesday, Aug. 19 — Charlie would hike out until he found someone, perhaps a dozen miles or so to the trail head.
Charlie choked back tears when he set off.
“He was just afraid to leave me because he didn’t know ... didn’t know if he’d see me again,” Finlayson said.
Charlie said he hiked about three miles when he came across two men, also from Eagle. He told them what had happened and handed them a note his father had sent along with him.
The men went to aid Finlayson at Ship Island Lake while Charlie continued on toward the trail head in hopes of finding others who would notify authorities. He encountered others campers, one of whom offered to run the eight miles back to the Crags Campground to go for help.
“He got there two to three hours before me,” said Charlie, a 90-pound kid who was hauling a 40-pound pack.
The Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t quickly reach Finlayson — it’s a three-hour drive from Salmon just to the trail head — so they called Two Bear Air out of Kalispell, Mont., for assistance, Chief Deputy Steve Penner said. The helicopter couldn’t land in the trees, so it hovered while Finlayson was packaged on a stretcher, hoisted up and flown to Boise.
“It was kind of interesting. It took my mind off the pain,” Finlayson recalled.
A Lemhi County Sheriff’s deputy drove six hours round-trip to take Charlie to Salmon, where a family member met him. He was home for just a day before leaving on a Boy Scout trip to earn wilderness survival and hiking badges.
“I wanted him to stay home, and he insisted on going,” said Charlie’s mom, Katie Wilstead.
He started eighth grade at Eagle Middle School Monday. He’s already tired of telling the story about what happened on his summer vacation, he said.
“He’s quite a scientist and an adventurer,” his father said. “He’s been to through the jungles of Panama with me, up on Rainier and backpacking and climbing across Canada.”
Finlayson has had two surgeries, and will have more in the coming weeks. He broke the T4 vertebra in his upper back. He said the broken bone in his heel is upside-down.
“That’s what’s causing me the most pain,” he said. “The muscles go into spasms.”
Finlayson works as a criminal defense attorney in Salt Lake City. He and Charlie have already talked about their next adventure.
“The beach,” Finlayson said.