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Ranger Awed by Hiker's 'Will to Live'

Aron Ralston was described as in good spirits, recovering after self-amputating arm pinned by a boulder in the Utah desert.

May 04, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN, Colo. — Law enforcement officials gave a more detailed account Saturday of the rescue of the trapped mountaineer who severed his own arm to save his life, even as hospital officials in Grand Junction upgraded hiker Aron Ralston's condition from serious to fair. Ralston, 27, was described as being in good spirits.

An accomplished mountaineer, he was trapped in the Utah desert for five days after a boulder wedged in a narrow slot canyon shifted just enough to pin his right arm. After he ran out of water, he began rapidly losing strength and knew he couldn't last much longer. So Ralston used a pocketknife to cut off his arm below the elbow and then somehow managed to rig up a rope so he could rappel 60 feet to the canyon floor and hike to help.

Since the story came to light on Thursday, Ralston's ordeal has been the subject of national attention, complete with news conferences and live national television appearances for those involved in the rescue.

Ranger Stephen Swanke, who helped coordinate the search, said on Saturday that after officials had narrowed rescue efforts to the Blue John Canyon area of Utah's Canyonlands National Park, a helicopter was immediately dispatched. The helicopter apparently set out at about the same time Ralston had finished severing his arm and began rappelling down the sheer cliff.

Swanke said the canyon was so narrow, the helicopter pilot would never have spotted Ralston. After walking about five miles, Ralston came across a Dutch couple and their son and together they hailed a helicopter flying overhead. Swanke said that Ralston was picked up within a mile of his car.

"If we didn't find him he would have hopped into his car and driven to Green River and reported what had happened himself," Swanke said. The ranger quickly drove to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, arriving just in time to see Ralston walking out of the helicopter under his own power. He was also shocked to see Ralston was missing the lower part of his arm.

"When Aron hops out of the helicopter, he tells me very matter-of-factly that he has lost a lot of blood, that he is going to need assistance, that he has amputated his arm and that he has put a tourniquet on it," Swanke said. "He's telling me everything I need to know, as if he was trying to save me the trouble."

Swanke said Ralston's first request was that his mother, Donna, be notified. Then, as the medical staff stabilized him, the two men talked for almost an hour before the drugs given Ralston made him incoherent. Swanke knew that if he didn't get the story then, it might have been days before he could nail down the facts.

"I didn't want to wait that long to find out what's going on here," he said. Among other things, Ralston asked whether the rangers could recover his mountain bike and some climbing equipment left at the slot canyon.

"I've been doing search and rescue for 23 years and I've never seen anything like this," Swanke said. "He was just a phenomenal individual with an unbelievable will to live."

The search began over a much broader area because Ralston, as he often does, set out without telling anyone where he was going. Finally, worried friends filed a missing persons report on Tuesday night after he had failed to show up for work for two consecutive days.

Aspen Police Officer Adam Crider began looking into the case on Wednesday, sending out e-mails to surrounding jurisdictions as well as beginning a trace on Ralston's credit card charges to track his movements. The charges indicated that he had purchased gas in Glenwood Springs, Colo., about 40 miles northwest of Aspen, and that he had then purchased groceries in Moab.

At the same time, rangers in Utah's Canyonlands National Park were also mounting a search for Ralston's maroon Toyota pickup truck. On Thursday, one ranger said he remembered seeing the truck near Blue John Canyon in an area where many people leave their cars when they go hiking and camping. Searchers then narrowed their rescue efforts to that area.

On Saturday, all anyone in Aspen was talking about was Ralston's ordeal, though with outsiders many were protective of him, not wanting to say anything that might be taken in the wrong way.

"Just think about the incredible presence of mind he must have had to just stay in the moment when he could have given up," said Michael Yoder, the operations manager for the all-but-empty Innsbruck Inn. "Is this incredible or what? What kind of strength of character this guy must have."

But over at Bentley's Bar and Restaurant, local Tina Baar took a more practical point of view: "He should have someone with him," she said. "Things like cell phones don't work out there."

Ralston is an expert outdoorsman, comfortable in almost any terrain and weather condition -- the more extreme the better, many noted.

"He understood the risks and knew how to deal with them," said Brian Payne, one of Ralston's four roommates in Aspen.

Payne said Ralston showed him some pictures he took a couple of weeks ago while climbing Pyramid Peak near here. What the pictures showed was that the normal route was impassable because of unstable snow.

"So he told me he just went straight up," said Payne. "And I thought, no one does that."

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