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Trapped Hiker Had One Way Out -- With His Knife

Aron Ralston amputated his right arm five days after a boulder had pinned it.

May 03, 2003|Stephanie Simon and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

ASPEN, Colo. — His right arm was pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder. His water bottle was empty. It did not seem likely that a rescue crew could ever spot him in the narrow slit of Blue John Canyon, in the wilds of southeast Utah.

So, after five days, Aron Ralston took out his pocketknife and amputated his arm below the elbow. Then he rigged anchors into the cliff, fixed a rope and rappelled 60 feet to the canyon floor. Bleeding heavily through a makeshift tourniquet, Ralston began to hike.

He had walked about five miles when a helicopter search team spotted him Thursday afternoon on a trail through Canyonlands National Park, drained and dehydrated -- but still pushing forward.

"That's true grit," park ranger Glenn Sherrill said.

On Friday, Ralston was recovering from surgery at a Colorado hospital. And his friends were predicting he would return to the mountain wilderness the first chance he gets.

"I expect him to be out there, doing everything he ever did," nature photographer John Fielder said.

Ralston, 27, is an audacious mountaineer who has climbed 59 of the highest peaks in Colorado. A story this spring in his hometown paper, the Aspen Times, described him climbing alone, in midwinter, in the dead of night, without cell phone, radio, beacon or rope. A mechanical engineer by training, an explorer in spirit, Ralston relishes pushing his body over ice-slick cliffs. He delights in standing alone at a 14,000-foot summit as lightning crashes around him, as gray wolves howl from distant ledges.

The adventure that ended with his self-amputation was supposed to have been a modest one: a bike ride up a canyon, then a hike down through the sculpted sandstone bluffs on a bright spring Saturday. The round trip would take perhaps eight hours. Ralston thought so little of it, he didn't bother to give his roommates a detailed itinerary, as was his practice on mountain climbs.

He completed the ride without incident and left his bike at the top, planning to drive up in his truck later to retrieve it. On the way down, he used rock-climbing equipment to navigate the narrow passages of Blue John Canyon -- which in places is just 3 feet wide. After an hour or two, he came to a giant boulder wedged in the canyon, according to Sherrill, the park ranger.

Ralston scrambled over the boulder and was lowering himself down when it shifted, pinning his arm. He managed to maneuver his feet so that he was standing upright. But he could not free himself.

Authorities said he used his climbing gear to rig a webbed sling so he could try to push the rock away with his feet. It was too heavy.

He stood there, trapped, for five days, during which temperatures dropped to 30 degrees.

On Tuesday, he ran out of water. On Thursday, he "realized that his survival required drastic action," according to a statement by the sheriff's office in Emery County, Utah. He used his pocketknife to free himself the only way he could, by cutting off part of his arm. Though such brutal surgery is hard to imagine, others in desperate straits have done it, managing to sever the muscles and tendons that attach limbs to joints with a modest jackknife.

It is unclear whether Ralston hacked through his bone or whether the bone had been crushed by the boulder.

Once he had completed the job, he used his first-aid kit to tie a tourniquet around his bicep. Then he rappelled down the cliff -- and started walking.

"His instinct for survival was great," Fielder said.

Hours later, Ralston met two hikers in Horseshoe Canyon. They gave him water and walked with him until they could flag down a helicopter from the Utah Department of Public Safety. Ralston's co-workers had alerted the mountain rescue crews just that morning that he had not shown up for work all week.

"He was obviously in major distress, having cut his own arm off, but he was still ambulatory," park ranger Jim Blazik said.

Ralston remained conscious through the brief helicopter ride to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, Utah, and walked into the emergency room on his own. He was later flown to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo.

Rescuers returned to the canyon later to try to retrieve the amputated limb; they saw it, but couldn't budge the boulder.

"It's a phenomenal story, but Aron is a phenomenal person," said Tim Mutrie, the Aspen reporter who profiled Ralston.

Ralston underwent surgery Thursday night and is in serious condition in the intensive care unit. His "spirits are high and he anxiously looks forward to returning to his love of the outdoors," his mother, Donna Ralston, said in a statement Friday.

Though relieved that Ralston survived, Blazik chided him for hiking through such rugged, remote terrain alone and without leaving a detailed itinerary with friends. "As far as I'm concerned, that was a foolish act, very, very unwisely done," Blazik said, emphasizing that he was not speaking for the park service.

Ralston is accustomed to such criticism.

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