By Brad Dison
On August 9, 1975, Randall, Dick Willey, and Dick’s eleven-year-old son Walt, hiked on the rugged Ajax Peak near Ajax Lake on the Montana-Idaho state line. At about 2 p.m., the trio reached an elevation nearing 9,000 feet. Suddenly, Randall slipped on a snowfield and went tumbling down the steep mountain. End over end, he tumbled down the mountain and crashed into rocks which jutted up out of the snow. Randall’s limp body finally came to a rest about 500 feet down the mountain from where he had slipped.
Dick and his son hurried down to Randall, but they had to move slowly as not to fall down the mountain like Randall had. They reached Randall within minutes, and, to their surprise, he was alive and conscious, but severely injured. They were afraid to move Randall too much but had to roll him onto his stomach to keep him from choking on his own blood. Dick told his son to take care of Randall while he went for help.
Seconds felt like hours. Young Walt removed his coat and wrapped it around Randall’s head to slow the bleeding. At first Walt talked to Randall to keep him calm and reassured him that help was on the way. Pretty soon, Randall began talking. He talked and talked until help arrived. Both Randall and Walt knew how important it was for him to remain conscious.
On the way down the mountain to get help, Dick located U.S. Forest Service Ranger Ed Brown. Ed called for an emergency helicopter, and he and Dick hiked back up the mountain to help Walt take care of Randall until the helicopter arrived. Three hours had passed when Dick and Ed reached Randall’s location.
At about 8 p.m., six hours after Randall fell, the helicopter arrived. The helicopter circled and landed about a quarter-of-a-mile away, the closest location for a safe landing. Medics rushed to Randall, loaded him onto a stretcher, returned to the helicopter, and flew him to Missoula Community Hospital.
Doctors examined Randall’s entire body. He had bruises, cuts, and scrapes all over his body, but most of the injuries were to Randall’s head. He had a broken jaw, missing teeth, and multiple skull fractures. A team of three doctors, which consisted of a brain surgeon, a nose and throat surgeon, and a plastic surgeon, performed a 7 ½ hour surgery on Randall, and were pleased with the results. The doctors were initially concerned that his wounds would become infected, but, due to the sterile atmosphere at the high altitude, infection never set it. The doctors reported his condition as stable. Two days after the fall, Randall’s wife, Gwen, told a newspaper reporter that Randall had suffered no brain damage and said, “it’s a miracle he’s alive.” Randall was unable to speak but recognized some friends and relatives, which was a positive sign. Randall’s mother told a newspaper reporter, “We’re so thankful he has progressed out of the critical state, but he has a long way to go.”
Nine days after the accident, Randall finally agreed to see himself in a mirror. Randall later recalled, “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad.” His head had swollen to the size of a watermelon. His face and jaws were sewn and wired together. Two weeks after the accident, Randall’s condition had improved enough for nurses to transfer him from the intensive care unit to a private room. On August 25, doctors released the “weak and nearly faceless” Randall from the hospital. Randall, along with his family and friends, knew there were many rough days ahead, but they all spoke of his positive attitude.
Dick’s family cared for Randall in their home during his recovery. Randall and Dick spent countless hours watching Yosemite Sam cartoons. Randall watched out of the corner of his one good eye. The accident had broken bones in his face and his eyes were out of alignment. One eye was four millimeters lower than the other one. Slowly his strength returned. As his vision improved, Randall and Dick played hours of ping-pong, which improved his eye coordination. Eventually, Randall only saw one ping-pong ball instead of three. Randall told a reporter, “I don’t look exactly like I once did; There’s a metal plate where my forehead formerly was. But I’m lucky to be alive.” He joked that “X-rays of the inside of my head looked like a schematic of a television set.” Self-conscious of his facial disfigurement, Randall grew a beard, and began wearing sunglasses, hats and caps.
Randall returned to work within a year of his accident. While in front of a crowd of hundreds of fans, Randall showed the audience that the accident had not affected his musical abilities. He played seven instruments and sang songs they knew and loved. Near the end of his show, Randall presented Walt with a plaque, and told the crowd how the young man had saved his life. Undeterred by the accident, Randall told of his plan to return to the scene of his accident. “I want to find a couple things. Somewhere up there above Ajax Lake there’s a hat and a pair of sunglasses that belong to yours truly.”
Randall’s career blossomed after his accident. In addition to the two Grammy Awards he had won before the accident, he won six more for songs including “Family Tradition,” “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Born to Boogie,” and “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” Through his long and continuing career, Randall has gone by nicknames including “Bocephus,” and “Rockin’ Randall Hank” but most people know him as Hank Williams Jr.
Pictured: Ajax Peak, upper left, overlooking Ajax Lake. Randall before the fall.
The Indianapolis Star, August 11, 1975, p.15.
The Missoulian, August 11, 1975, p.1.
The Tennessean, August 12, 1975, p.38.
Great Falls Tribune, August 12, 1975, p.5.
Great Falls Tribune, August 13, 1975, p.11.
The Missoulian, August 13, 1975, p.2.
The Missoulian, August 23, 1975, p.12.
Great Falls Tribune, August 24, 1975, p.6.
The Independent-Record, August 25, 1975, p.9.
The Montana Standard, August 26, 1975, p.1.
Great Falls Tribune, August 26, 1975, p.10.
The Independent-Record, August 26, 1975, p.12.
The Missoulian, November 1, 1975, p.35.
The Missoulian, March 23, 1976, p.2.
The Daily Inter Lake, April 2, 1976, p.7.
The Daily Inter Lake, June 25, 1976, p.16.
The Missoulian, August 7, 1976, p.29.