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New Heights

Three years after cutting off his arm to survive a hike, Aron Ralston is a phenom -- a bestselling, beer-pitching eco celebrity.

July 03, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Durango, Colo. — A steel gray cloud booms down thunder and snow flurries over Engineer Mountain in southwestern Colorado. As quick as a lightning flash, an easy day hike on this 13,000-foot peak turns into a frightening adventure.

Making matters worse, the leader of the small climbing expedition, Aron Ralston, is ill-prepared for the trek, wearing only shorts, a short-sleeve shirt and running shoes. He didn't even bring the prosthetic arm he designed for mountain climbing.

Still, he leaps feet first into giant snow drifts, whooping like a kid playing in the surf. Hanging from the side of a jagged cliff, he pulls himself over with one arm, dangling over a 100-foot drop. All the time, Ralston talks excitedly about the newfound perspective he has on life since self-amputating his right arm in a climbing accident three years earlier.

"This is what I do it for," he says, catching his breath at the shoulder of the peak, where he surveys a panorama of snow-capped summits.

Three years ago, Ralston was just another outdoor adrenaline junkie, attempting to be the first person to solo climb all 59 of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus peaks in winter. During a break from his quest, he ventured into a Utah canyon where an 800-pound boulder rolled onto his right hand, pinning him for six days until he freed himself by severing his arm with a pocketknife. Within a year, he returned to the Colorado Rockies to finish his climbing quest.

Ralston's outrageous act of nerve has since made him a bestselling author, a beer pitchman, an eco celebrity and a motivational speaker in high demand by corporate America. At 30 years of age, he is one of the nation's best-known mountaineers. But in the mountain-climbing community, he is the foolhardy adventurer who nearly died after committing the cardinal sin of hiking into the outdoors without leaving word on his whereabouts.

Ironically, the biggest mistake of his life has given Ralston more fame and opportunities than he could have imagined. Ralston has come out of it with a stronger belief in a higher being, a newfound faith in man's ability to overcome overwhelming odds and an enhanced respect for the outdoors. But he is still an unrepentant thrill seeker. His friends call him Captain Fun Hog because he only feels truly alive when he tiptoes on the edge of danger.

And so, wearing sneakers and shorts, the tall and athletic Ralston scrambles up Engineer Mountain in a snow flurry, cajoling his sandal-wearing pal Chip Stone to join him. Stone makes it halfway up the mountain before turning around, his toes frozen from the snow.

"Nobody tells Aron not to do anything," Stone says. "He's the most lust-for-life person I've ever known."

The big mistake

On a warm spring day in 2003, Ralston scampered over a barrel-sized boulder wedged in a narrow granite slot in Utah's Blue John Canyon.

It was supposed to be an easy day hike, a chance to get away from the numbing-cold temperatures of the Colorado Rockies. But just as Ralston stepped over, the boulder broke free and rolled onto his right hand, pinning him against the canyon wall.

After six days of trying to lift and break the boulder, a dehydrated and delirious Ralston bowed his arm against the chockstone and snapped the radius and ulna bones. Using the dull blade on his multiuse tool, he cut the soft tissue around the break. He then used the tool's pliers to tear at the tougher tendons.

As he stumbled out of the canyon, his bloody arm wrapped in a plastic grocery sack, Ralston recalled thinking that his story would amaze his friends. But the story astonished the world. In the following days, headlines proclaimed Ralston's courage: "Trapped Climber Hacks Off Arm." "Warrior Spirit Saves Climber." "Toughest Man Alive -- Climber Tells How He Cut Off Own Arm."

While the rest of the world marveled at his courage, some in the mountaineering community criticized Ralston for failing to abide by the first tenet of outdoor exploration: If you go out alone, tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.

Because Ralston did not do that, his friends and family didn't call authorities until he had been missing for three days.

Most of Ralston's criticism came in letters to newspapers and magazines. But some mountaineers have chided him in person. A speaking engagement in Miami last year turned ugly when someone in the audience accused Ralston of profiting from a dumb mistake, prompting Ralston's fans to shout down the critic.

Ralston has softened some of the criticism by admitting his mistake. As a search and rescue volunteer in Colorado, he knows what he did was foolish, and he vows never to repeat that mistake again.

It wasn't the first time Ralston's overconfidence got him into trouble. A few weeks before his Utah accident, he barely survived a Colorado avalanche that he and two ski buddies triggered.

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