Dense forests, rugged trails, steep ridges and deep canyons. That's the stunningly beautiful and deceptively dangerous terrain of the Idaho wilderness where four horseback riders encountered murder suspect James Lee DiMaggio and kidnapped teenager Hannah Anderson last week.
Joined by NBC News, the intrepid riders — whose tip sparked a dramatic rescue operation in which DiMaggio was shot dead and Hannah was rescued — retraced the 14-mile, five-hour journey to the dirt track where they fatefully crossed paths with the pair on Aug. 7. (See more on the story on TODAY on Saturday.)
It's a treacherous path — strewn with rocks and fallen tree limbs — even for experienced outdoorsmen on horseback. For a teenage girl from suburban San Diego, on foot without the proper gear and under tremendous stress, it could have been deadly.
The four riders — retired sheriff turned rancher Mark John and his wife, Christa, and their friends Mike and Mary Young — recalled that DiMaggio, 40, and Hannah, 16, seemed out of their depth as they navigated the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, their tent perched on an unprotected ridge.
Watch NBC Nightly News on Saturday evening to see more of Kevin Tibbles' report on the four horseback riders.
The biggest tipoff that they didn't belong there: the house cat that they brought along.
"It's probably as rough as anything there is in the United States," Mike Young said of the unforgiving landscape. "Every state says they have the steepest mountains, but they haven't been to Idaho."
San Diego Sheriff's Department / AP
James Lee DiMaggio, left, and Hannah Anderson
A hiker or rider traveling through the backcountry is dazzled by the soaring trees and glistening lakes but must beware of the hazardous cliffs and the craggy rocks that pose a threat to even the sure-footed.
"It's like stepping on marbles," Christa John said.
Those familiar with the area know being prepared is the key to survival: They load up horses with sleeping bags, ready-to-eat meals and water. They wear cowboy hats and hard-soled shoes.
Hannah had on tennis shoes and sweats and was hauling a brand-new rucksack that the riders estimated to be about 60 pounds.
"That was super-strength," Mark John said of her endurance.
Former sheriff Mark John on the trail in the Idaho wilderness.
When he returned to civilization the next afternoon, he turned on the TV to learn that DiMaggio — a longtime friend of the Anderson family — was suspected of killing Hannah's mother and 8-year-old brother, burning down his house, and abducting the teen.
A call to police then led investigators to DiMaggio's car, covered with brush. Soon after, helicopters spotted the duo's campsite near Morehead Lake.
"DiMaggio had a rifle, fired one round. Lowered the rifle to shoulder height, fired one more round, and was immediately shot by members of the hostage rescue team," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told NBC News.
Shot five times, DiMaggio died. Hannah was rescued and reunited with her grieving father, Brett Anderson.
He revealed Thursday that he had spoken to the horseback riders who helped save his daughter and thanked them.
The foursome downplayed their role in the rescue.
"I don't know if we saved her life," Mark John said. "I know we set the stage for somebody else to save her life."
Hannah has not spoken publicly about the six-day ordeal but did answer some questions on a social media site and attended a fundraiser for her family outside San Diego on Thursday night.
Police have not detailed a clear motive for the double murder and abduction but friends of Hannah have said DiMaggio had a fixation with the teen.
NBC News' Matthew DeLuca contributed to this report.
On the trail in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho.
First published August 16 2013, 3:26 PM