How a 13-year-old Saved His Dad’s Life

When Charlie Finlayson was just 13 and alone with his dad David deep in the backcountry, his father suffered a horrific injury from a rockfall. But Charlie, despite being forced to make decisions way beyond his age and experience, never doubted that his father could survive and that he could help him. Thanks to his unwavering faith, Charlie and David pulled off the impossible.

Photo: David Finlayson

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When Charlie Finlayson was just 13 and alone with his dad David deep in the backcountry, his father suffered a horrific injury from a rockfall. But Charlie, despite being forced to make decisions way beyond his age and experience, never doubted that his father could survive and that he could help him. Thanks to his unwavering faith, Charlie and David pulled off the impossible.



Transcription coming soon.

Host: A while back, I heard an episode of a popular podcast about a man who was completely blind and rode around on his bike, a skill he’d honed as a child. He would make clicks, not unlike a bat or a dolphin, and could judge distance based on sound. As a mother myself, I immediately thought about his mother. I couldn’t imagine what kind of courage it might take for a parent to buy their blind child a bicycle.

During the podcast, she told stories about him returning home bloodied and missing teeth at different times, and the criticism she endured. But despite the obvious dangers, they persisted. Science has proven that our expectations of people can physically change them. A teacher’s expectation can literally change a child’s IQ.

A weightlifter can outperform their personal best if they believe they’ve been given performance enhancers. And in the case of Daniel Kish, a guy with no eyeballs, his mother’s expectations made it possible for him to find a way to see. Our next story is a tale of ascending toward expectations. David Finlayson raised his son Charlie with the confidence that he would be a capable and dependable adventure partner, taking him as a child on backcountry pursuits from the mountains of Canada to the jungles of Panama.

When Charlie was just 13 and alone with his dad deep in the backcountry, his father suffered a horrific injury. But Charlie, despite being forced to make decisions way beyond his age and experience, never doubted that his father could survive and that he could help him. Thanks to that expectation, that unwavering faith, Charlie and David were able to pull off the impossible.


Charlie: My name’s Charlie Finlayson. I’m originally from Utah. I love to climb. I love to hike. I also love to make music. 

David: My son, Charlie, has been in the backcountry with me since he was about six months old. I know there were times that I had frozen mother’s milk with me backpacking and climbing in Canada and different places.

So he started climbing with me as soon as he could. I don’t recall what age. He’s been in mountains and jungles from Canada to South America to Europe since he was a wee lad. 

Host: Charlie is 20 now and a student at Brigham Young University. But in 2015, he was a rising eighth grader who mostly lived with his mom and stepdad. In the summer, Charlie spent a lot of time with his father David, climbing and exploring in the mountains. 

David: We had been climbing crags around here in Salt Lake City for quite a while, and he wanted to climb something much more technical and complex. 

Charlie: It was August of 2015. My dad and I had planned a two week backpacking trip with all of our climbing gear for the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. That’s foreshadowing for you. 

David: You have to carry all of your climbing gear with you when you’re going back in there, and so it’s quite an expedition sometimes. I think I had about a hundred pounds of gear, 

Charlie: and we were near the Salmon River at a place called the Bighorn Crags, which is a pretty cool place to climb.

The lake that we ended up at eventually is called Ship Island Lake, which is 13 miles into the wilderness. About day four or day five, I don’t know. We get to ship Island Lake and we spend the first day scouting out, so we’re scouting out the climbs. Ship Island Lake is about a mile long. Our campground is about a half a mile along that lake. We’re not at the main campground. We’re off the trail just camping in a place where we can easily get to the Bighorn Crags. The Bighorn Crags are this big cirque, I don’t even know how my dad found out about it. There aren’t any climbs set there, but we decided to make some.

Host: Sprawling, almost 2.5 million acres in central Idaho, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is among the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48. The Bighorn Crags, with their granite spires and jagged fins, have been called its crown jewel. There’s little to no developed rock climbing in the area but boundless potential for first ascents.

David: Charlie was doing really well. We scouted out some climbs. There was about a 1.5 miles or 2 miles of boulder fields and steep slabs and scree to get up to the walls where the granite towers are. We did one climb that we called the Balanced Rock Climb. That was a lot of fun. We scouted out a little more difficult one that we called Twin Towers because it had two towers on the very top of it. That’s the climb that we were on when the accident happened. 

Charlie: Day seven of a two-week trip, no one was expecting us to come home that early. We go to the cirque, we start the route early in the morning, and it’s pretty easy climbing. It’s 5.6, 5.7 just to start out, right, the first few pitches are really easy.

Then we get into a little bit more like 5.8 maybe. This isn’t a hard climb; it’s just a scenic route, an adventurous climb. It’s a lot of fun, especially because I’m 13. I’m not really prepared to do anything too difficult. 

David: We made it up to about 10 pitches, and a pitch is about a rope length. So we were up about 1,200 feet, I think on this granite cliff, this tower. And I had Charlie anchored to a tree that was coming out of the cliff off the route. And so I was just making my way back over to the route and I didn’t have any gear placed because I was just making my way back across this little ledge about 50 feet. 

Charlie: I’m just chilling belaying him with a Grigri, which is the safer option for belaying, definitely was the good option for this circumstance. 

Host: On a multipitch climb like this one, two climbers will tie into opposite ends of the same rope and take turns belaying one another. A Grigri is a popular model of belay device that uses an assisted braking mechanism. If a climber falls, the device will lock up, arresting the rope. 

Charlie: And that’s when I hear him yell out. 

David: I don’t know if I happened to dislodge something up above me or just was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I heard a crack and then I got hit by the rockfall that was coming down. 

Charlie: I look over, and he’s in the air, and the boulder that he was standing on is also in the air.

He was wrapped around this boulder. He had his hands on it, his feet on it, and they’re both in the air. The boulder was maybe two, two and a half refrigerators stuck together. It was a pretty big boulder, so I jumped down real quick just on the ground and hold the rope against me as hard as I could so that when he falls, I don’t fall with him. The gear doesn’t fall with him. We don’t all just perish a thousand feet down. 

Host: David hung on the rope 50 feet or more below Charlie, but from his perch on the ledge, Charlie couldn’t see his dad.

Charlie: I know that he’s there because there’s dead weight on the rope. I can’t hear him at all. He’s either unconscious or headless, I don’t know.

But he’s hanging down and I’m yelling out like, “Dad, Dad.” Nothing, not a single answer. My mind’s racing. I’m pretty neurotic, but at the same time, in emergency situations, I can process things a little bit better. So when he had fallen, I didn’t know that I had, I was panicking so much, which is weird to say.

But in that situation specifically, my mind was pretty well under control. I knew that if he was alive, we just had to do anything that we could get him down. I guess just, mentally, I understood if I just start screaming and freaking out and try to lure myself down to him before I even know if he’s alive and everything. First of all, I’m not gonna make it out alive, and if he does need help, then me freaking out is not going to do anything.

During that five minutes I just prayed, I think I probably said 20 prayers just that he would be alive. And waited for him. 

David: I dropped down below him 50 or 60 feet. So when I woke up, I just saw a trail of blood going down the cliff wall. Charlie was yelling for me. I remember he was yelling pretty loudly and pretty upset.

I think he was crying a bit, and once he found out that I was awake and I was okay, he got himself together pretty fast.

Charlie: He says, “Lower the pack down.” The guy had an actual backpacking pack with just a first aid kit, food, water, everything.

David: It was clear that my left arm was shattered all the way from my elbow to my hand, and I didn’t know exactly if I had a leg still on.

It looked like my leg was gone, but it turned out that it just had shredded in my climbing pants, and it shattered my leg, almost took it off from my knee down, and I didn’t know that my foot was crushed as well. The bone was sticking on, and that’s what was bleeding so badly. I thought I had broken all my ribs.

I don’t know if I broke my ribs, but I couldn’t breathe, so I didn’t know I had broken my back until I got to the hospital. It crushed my climbing helmet into my head. I was in a pretty bad situation. I didn’t know how much blood I had lost, but there was a stream of blood all the way down the cliff.

Charlie: So I lowered him the first aid kit, he patched himself up as much as he could. I honestly don’t know how he did that.

David: I had a pretty good first aid pack, and I got a tourniquet on my leg. I just packed it with gauze and tape. I was just trying to stay conscious. 

Host: David, his body broken, dangled over a thousand feet off the ground. They were in a remote cirque over a mile from camp and more than a dozen miles from the trail head.

David: We had not seen anybody come into the Bighorn Crags, so I was pretty concerned about what would happen if I didn’t make it and how Charlie was going to get out. I really didn’t know how we were gonna make it down. We were up too high. Charlie knew how to set up an anchor to repel from, and he knew how to do things like that.

He knew how to lower me down, that sort of thing, but I just didn’t know how we were gonna make it down from that far and that far back in the backcountry without bleeding out. 

Charlie: He says, “Okay, you’re gonna have to repel down to me.” Now I’m 13. I had repelled while we were climbing, but I had never set up a repel.

Thankfully that trip we had practiced a little bit. He had shown me how to set it up, and so this is trial by fire.  I’m looking at the dead tree hoping that thing’s gonna anchor me. It’s splintered and everything. Repelling is always fun because there’s the first bit where you’re just walking into thin air, and especially with this ledge, like I couldn’t see my dad.

All I could see was this bush obstructing everything off the ledge from my view. And I’m just lowering myself through a bush. And then I come out on the other side of the bush, and my dad is below me and I repel down to him. He’s barely on a ledge, and I see his injuries. 

So the helmet cracked, destroyed his face. The whole left side of his face is just gashed open, like his whole cheek, all of the skin gone. His left arm was just gnarly, like broken. His left heel we found out later had actually flipped around, done a 180. His left foot was just completely shot, and the scariest thing to me was just his shin. His left shin was gone.

Like I could see the entire bone of his left shin. Now like broken bones, broken back, broken face. That’s all quite a bit worse than just like loose flesh on a leg, but he was losing so much blood from this leg. A lot of blood. He had wrapped a lot of gauze around his leg using the first aid kit, which is pretty cool because he had about one functional arm, one functional leg, and a head that probably wasn’t working right already.

And so he had patched himself up a little bit. His arm, which is also like bleeding over the place, but his leg was just gushing. This was a time constraint. If we didn’t get him out on time, he wouldn’t get out. 

Host: Although it was midday and summer, David and Charlie were concerned about losing daylight. They knew that because of their position in the cirque, the sun would slip behind the mountains around 4:30 p.m. and leave them in a shadow.

Charlie: We decided to just start setting up the gear. There’s no time to think about how we’re gonna do this.

David: He got it together pretty fast and started helping me get my leg taped together in my arm and we tried to make some a splint for my arm, which didn’t work because it was just, my arm was just pulverized and then was pretty quick about helping me make some plan to get out of there.

We just had a conversation about—I didn’t say, “Hey look, I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” I just said, “Hey look, if I pass out, and you can’t wake me up, then you need to lower yourself down.” I sort of explained to Charlie how to get down and back out and then was trying to explain to him how to drive my truck if there was nobody there and how to get out to get some kind of a rescue.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have an inReach or anything with me, so we didn’t have any way of contacting anybody. We did have a Garmin, so he could make his way back out pretty easily. But then I was in and out of consciousness at the time, so we made a plan to lower me pitch by pitch back down the wall. And that’s what we did all day long.

Charlie: So the process is that he’s connected to the rope with his harness, and I’m like pushing the rope through my harness to lower him down the rock in a way that’s slow enough that he can not pass out because of pain, although it’s not a perfect 90 degree incline. And so he’s sliding along the wall and every time his foot touches the rock, he just almost passes out.

So we’re racing the clock, lowering him down, repelling down. There are maybe two or three pitches left. The sun is already starting to go down. He is freezing, like he is shivering. I’m confused because I don’t know how hypothermia works, and it’s hot for me. He had lost so much blood that he was getting hypothermic just because the sun was going down over the cirque.

Host: They were still about 300 feet off the ground when Charlie realized that his dad had become delirious. 

Charlie: He says, “Charlie, I think, I think we’re good. I think you can walk out now. I think you walk back to camp.” He says that, and I just feel alone because we still had 300 feet of vertical, sheer rock to descend. And he saw that and thought that it was flat ground.

So he’s not working well mentally, he’s delirious. That was when I realized I was 13 years old, and my dad was not going to help out as much as I thought he was because he was mentally impaired. And so that definitely scared me. 

Host: We’ll be right back. 

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Charlie and David had descended hundreds of feet, but were still far above the ground when Charlie realized that he was on his own. His dad was still alive and conscious, but it was clear that the pain or loss of blood from his extensive injuries was causing him to hallucinate.

Charlie: I felt unsafe because I thought he’s been checking all the climbing gear so far. We could have fallen because of that, and I haven’t really set up climbing gear that well before, but I start to take the setting gear into my own hands, and I start lowering him down. Just by myself without his help, which was perfect timing because at this point he really is fainting.

I’m lowering him down. There are stretches where he goes down 20 feet and probably doesn’t remember any of it because he goes to sleep and wakes up 20 feet later.

David: I was surprised; at some point we made it down to the bottom of the wall.

Host: By late evening, they were back on solid ground, but a mile or so of boulder field still stood between them and camp. David knew he wouldn’t be able to make it in the dark if at all.

Charlie: He says, “Go, go sleep at camp.” He was, I think, trying to just save me from the grief of seeing him in pain, in agony, and possibly dying. And so he was trying to get me away from him. He says, “Just go sleep in the tent at camp. I’ll be okay.” So I’m like, “No, Dad, I’m sleeping with you.” We have an argument about it, and then I just decide to not argue anymore.

I go back to the camp all the way down to the boulder field. And I stuff two sleeping bags and a bunch of granola bars. I don’t even think I got sleeping pads. I didn’t think to get that. I got water, so I have food, water. I get some more first aid gear so we can patch him up and I have stuff to sleep, so I head back up.

I take out the sleeping bags. We’re just laying on the rocks in our sleeping bags. After patching him up, he ate a granola bar, drank some water, and the night began.

David: I’d have to cut the tape every half hour on my leg, let it bleed, and then tape it back up. And he helped me, pretty much stayed up all night with me. I think I was just counting stars all night, constellations, trying to maintain some kind of consciousness. 

Charlie: He’s shivering, very cold. We’re just staring at the stars. Neither of us are in a flat spot. We’re just wedged between boulders. So if you can imagine the same shape as a hammock, we’re laying in that shape, but on boulders. He didn’t get a second of sleep. He was in so much pain that he just counted the stars.

David: The sun came up, I was surprised that I was still there, but we had a mile and a half or so of scree and boulder fields and steep slabs to get down. I had basically my right arm, and that was about it.

Charlie: He has a broken foot, a destroyed leg, a broken arm, and a broken back, and he’s just shimming along these boulders. It’s a mile of boulder field and he’s picking himself up with his right arm, moving to the next boulder. I’m just carrying this stuff with me and then trying to help him sometimes, but it doesn’t help that much.

I mean, I was 13 years old, a scrawny little kid. He’s just pushing himself along the boulders. 

David: It was intensely painful just to move. He couldn’t carry me, of course, and he didn’t want to leave me there because I was bleeding pretty bad and he was trying to help. Charlie just became my coach. We would make it 6 inches at a time. I’d pass out, and then he’d wake me back up and make it crawling and trying to crawl my way over the boulders and scree.

Charlie: I can’t imagine my dad’s pain. It must have been unbearable. It didn’t click well in my 13-year-old brain. I’m almost crying right now thinking about it because he was, there were a lot of times when he did want to give up, he would say things like, “I think you should just go.” There were a lot of times when he said, “Just go on.”

It was honestly more of a fight than it was any sort of conversation. We’d be going along, and he would say, “Hey Charlie, I don’t think that I can make it. I think that you should go out, just find someone to help. And if they can find me on the boulder field, great. But I don’t think I can go farther.”

And I remember that. I was like, “No, you have to get to camp. I don’t think that people will find you on the boulder field. It’s so big. You have to at least get to camp.”

David: I think he was just afraid that if he left, I wouldn’t be there when he came back. So he just refused to leave, and he said, “Look, you can make it the next 6 inches here.”

And he would find the route for me to go down, and I’d make it a few feet and then I’d sit there and go, “I don’t think [so],” and I’d see how this is 6 inches at a time, but it’s gonna be next year before we make it down there. He just kept prodding me saying, “No, you can do it. You can make it.”

If we have to spend the next couple of days, we’ll do it. There were several times where I would crawl over a boulder or something and fall off the other side and pass out, and he would wake me back up. That was our whole day from early morning until that night. 

Charlie: I think he knew he had to do it for me, for my sake. I don’t know that he even wanted to do it for his sake, but he knew that he should for me.

Host: After a grueling six hours, David and Charlie finally approached the edge of the boulder field. 

Charlie: He has about 30 feet left, which should take him 10 minutes. So I’m going to go make him some food and then come back when he hits the trail.

Once he hits the trail to the camp, then I need to help him walk back and then I hear him yell out. The boulders sometimes are close together, but sometimes they are spaced far apart. You can fall off them and just hit the ground, which he had done. So he had fallen off, yelled, hit the ground, caught himself with his broken left arm.

And moved all of the bones in his left arm and then fainted. So he was like on the ground, off the boulder, and I finally found him. I picked him up, sort of. He was still carrying most of his weight and we walked along the boulder field together and then along the trail to the camp. He was completely in and out of consciousness at this point.

He was fainting every 15 seconds. He would lose consciousness, slump on me, and then wake up again, and we would start walking again. Then lose consciousness, slump on my arm, wake up again. 

David: We made it down to the, to the camp, which was a big surprise to me. I was surprised to still be alive, actually. I think about the time that we made it there. I was done for. I’d lost too much blood and I couldn’t do it. So he just wrapped me up in our tent and made some food and water. We tried to figure out what to do. 

Host: It had been just about 24 hours since David’s fall. There were some daylight left, but neither Charlie nor David would be able to make it to the trailhead that day.

Charlie: We are on the right side of the lake, about 3/4 of a mile away from the main campground. So I decide, “Okay, I’m just gonna run to the main campground and maybe around the whole lake, see if I can find anybody.” So I just start running along the, the kind of overgrown trail, and I’m thinking, “Okay, at least if there are people in the main camp, everything’s going to be fine.”

I can get this out of my 13-year-old hands and like my dad will be saved. I run all the way to the main camp and there’s not a single person there. The next campground was maybe 4 miles away, and I wasn’t going to leave my dad at this point. So I start running around the lake trying to find anyone, and I don’t see anyone.

I run back to him. We wash his shin, clean out his wound, patch it up again. He’s still losing blood, but not as much now, and we’re just talking about what we’re going to do. When he mentions, “There’s just no way I can move anymore,” and he was gonna have to hike out and get rescue, I wasn’t really in agreement with that.

I had never hiked alone anywhere, and I did not want to leave him alone. We didn’t know if anybody was coming to this lake that we could tell to be with him. And so I’m praying, I’m trying to find some way that maybe we could get around this, and I’m just distraught. We’re so far away from anyone.

Everyone thinks we have a week left of the trip. He’ll be dead before anyone comes looking for us. 

Host: Charlie weighed his options. They had no cell service, no satellite phone or SOS device, and there were no other campers to be found. 

Charlie: So I said, “Okay, tomorrow at 8 a.m. I’m just gonna hike out.” Now, I was always planning to save him.

He thought he had lost so much blood. He was in such bad shape that he very possibly could die, and he did not want me to be there for that. I was obviously not informed of that until way later. But we go to sleep that night. Again, he doesn’t sleep at all that night. He’s just in so much pain. 

Host: Before Charlie hit the trail the following morning, David armed him with a note torn out of a hiking guidebook that he could hand off to the first person he found to help.

David: I’d written on there, “This is my son, Charlie. I’ve been hurt in a climbing accident. We’re at the southwest end of the Ship Island Lake, or I am, could you please help him?”

Charlie: He gave me a map of the lake and the whole wilderness we were in, and he just kind of drew on the map where he was. He wrote a note so that I could just give it to anybody that I found along the trail with directions so that the rescue team could find him.

It’s 8 a.m. I had packed my backpack very lightly, just a sleeping bag, the keys to the car, and a few granola bars, a water bottle, a water filter, and some energy pouches. I planned only to be away from him for that day. He’s definitely more of an experienced climber and wilderness person in everything than me, but at the same time, I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy for him to care for his wounds. We were changing his gauze every few hours. I knew that was not gonna be easy for him. Making food was not going to be easy. And if he needed any, like more specific help, he could barely move. He couldn’t get up or anything.

He was stuck in the tent. So leaving him, if something happened to me, leaving him was death for him and I didn’t trust myself to make it out really. I did not want to leave him, just knowing that this might be the last time I see him. So I had that note and I had the map and that’s when we said our goodbyes.

It was a hard goodbye. That was when I started hiking here around 8:15. I started praying again. I was just hauling, trying to get out, find someone. 

Host: For the first few miles. As Charlie climbed out of the lake basin, he saw no one, but then 3 miles from camp, 

Charlie: that’s when I hear two people. I just start sprinting along the trail and I meet up with this dad and his son.

The son is probably about 18 or 19. These two are miraculously from my hometown. I didn’t know them from my hometown, but we found out later we actually belonged to the same religion. Kind of crazy. I gave them a note my dad had written. Their names are the Craigs. They are awesome. A couple of studs. They told me that there was a scout troop at the next lake, which was maybe two miles farther. So I think, “Oh sweet. I’m gonna go find them. You guys can go find my dad and stay with him.” I showed them on the map where to go. From their story, when they got there, he was like, “Hey, thanks for coming.”

Host: David was relieved when the two hikers arrived at camp, not just because he knew he was saved, but because he knew Charlie was OK.

Charlie: I’m glad they were there to just be there for him. I got to the next lake that they had told me about. and I think that scout troop had just left. So I’m about to start on the trail again when I feel like, “Okay, you just need to pray again.” So I pray right before leaving the lake, and God answers, He honestly did.

I was about to hike away from the lake, keep going along the trail, when I felt a distinct feeling that I shouldn’t, even though there wasn’t a person in sight, I should just blow my whistle as hard as I could. I was probably blowing my whistle for three to five minutes, and this guy just comes running out of the woods.

It was an answer straight from God. 

Host: The hiker who heard Charlie’s whistle had been camping at a hidden lake with his family. Charlie told him this story and the man, luckily enough, said he was a marathon runner. He offered to run to the ranger station while Charlie made his way behind him. 

Charlie: So I kept hiking out to the rangers. There’s a lot of hope in this situation. He’s ahead. Every person I see along the trail already knows the story, at least somewhat. He hasn’t stopped that much to talk to everybody, but he’s like, “Hey, if you see this kid, just give him food or something. Help him out as much as you can.” I got a lot of gifts along that trail.

Host: There were 8 miles left to the ranger station, and when Charlie arrived a few hours behind the runner in late afternoon, a rescue was already underway. 

Charlie: When I got to the ranger station, they had already set up a LifeFlight helicopter to get my dad, and the rangers gave me a grilled cheese sandwich, and we waited for my other dad, my stepdad, to come pick me up. Once my dad was in Salmon, Idaho, the sheriff of Salmon drove me from the campground all the way down to Salmon and gave me a sweet sheriff’s hat that I still have.

David: The helicopter came from, I think Kalispell, Montana, and unfortunately they didn’t have any pain medicine on it. They got me to Salmon, Idaho, and then they LifeFlight me to, from Salmon to Boise. Went through my first rounds of surgeries trying to put me back together and they couldn’t do anything for my leg and they shipped me down to Salt Lake City. I don’t know how many surgeries I’ve had, 10 or 12 surgeries putting me back together. I think they rebuilt my leg and my arm three or four times each. And they had an experimental program in Salt Lake City at the IMC Medical Center for rebuilding tissue, so I went through months of—they actually rebuilt a new leg for me out of bovine tissue. It’s a stem cell thing that they did, and rebuilt the tissue in my leg and then reattached all the tendons and ligaments. And I had, basically, a big metal cage for a while. Everything healed and then three or four surgeries, trying to put that together. But yeah, I’m climbing again and I spent the winter ice climbing and backcountry skiing. And I had to relearn how to play the guitar because of my arm—all the nerves and everything were crushed, and I played the guitar just as badly as I did before. I don’t climb like I used to. I’ve had to adopt a sort of way of climbing that get past my disabilities, but still my left arm just lets go sometimes when I’m climbing. It decides to let go.

So it was a long process of surgery after surgery, and then physical therapy after physical therapy, and then neurologists and neurosurgeons and neurophysical therapy and trying to learn how to walk right again, and mostly I think when you go through something like that, you just take everything that the doctors say and use it as a challenge.

They say, “Oh, you’re never gonna walk right again. Don’t worry. There’s lots of things that you’ll be able to do, but you can’t climb again. Maybe you can ride a bike.” And so you just take everything as a challenge that they say. I’ve heard that from many different people that were told they probably wouldn’t be able to do this or that, but everything actually works.

I was pretty lucky. So my brain injury ended my career as a trial attorney. Now I am a nomad, so I have one of those nomad vehicles. I had a cabin up in the mountains in the backcountry that I lived year round in, and I sold that. And now I travel and climb and play guitar, and I meditate.

I had to start meditating a lot just to make it through all the surgeries. I didn’t want to get addicted to narcotics, and so I was using meditation, and I used weed a lot. I mean, THC really saved me from getting addicted to narcotics because I could use that to get past the worst of the pain. I really got deep into meditation.

I had some experience living with the Zen monks in the mountains of Japan at one point, so I knew something about meditation, but I really delved deep into that. I think it was ultimately the accident that changed my life quite a bit in that way. I think that I am much more on a path of trying to find who I am myself instead of the daily grind that I was in for who knows how many years before.

Charlie: Growing up, my dad and I always went on these adventures and things, but I don’t know, I lived sort of a dual life. There was my mom and my stepdad, and so there was that life, and then there was a life with my dad, which was just him and I at the time. I didn’t feel like the same person when I was with my mom as I was when I was with my dad.

I don’t know how connected I felt to either of them, especially my dad, but through this experience, I feel like we really did make a connection. 

David: I think that situation, it created some relationship between us that I think is pretty difficult to have unless you go through something like that, which I think will just exist forever between us. I could tell something had changed in Charlie too. I think what happened was that it turned out good for all of us, it could have turned out bad and I don’t know what would’ve happened, but it turned out alright. So he had this experience where he did something that I think he probably, people probably don’t think that you could do normally.

Make it out of something like that or save your old man from a climbing accident when you’re 13 years old. That’s a tough thing to do. It created something in him that really gave him a sense of being, I think, and even maybe a stronger connection to the mountains and nature, rather than scaring him away from it, he’s continued to climb and go to mountains and far away places ever since. 

Charlie: That experience was a milestone in our relationship as a dad and as a son. And you would think that I would just be like, “I’m never climbing again,” but I actually felt safer. I knew that in a situation like that, first of all, I could respond logically, not emotionally, in a way that would aid the situation. I also knew that my father and I could look out for each other like we were there for each other and until death. He was going to do everything that he could to make sure I was safe and I was not going to let him die against all odds.

And so it was a pretty good bonding experience, I guess for us, which is weird, but I know that in future trips. It’s also influenced how I feel about him and how I feel about the trip. I knew that we had been through hell and back, and we could do it again as father and son. 

Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, with writing and editing by Zoe Gates.

Scoring and sound design was by Jason Patten. Thank you to Charlie Finlayson and David Finlayson for sharing your story with us. Thanks for listening to Out Alive, and if you have a backcountry survival story that you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at This season of Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+.

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From 2022