Off Life or Limb
The Aron Ralston Story
Outside Aug 03

“I felt pain and I coped with it. Then I moved on.”

So mountaineer Aron Ralston laconically summed up saving his own life by amputating his hand with a cheap pocketknife after becoming trapped in the Utah desert, a riveting tale of true grit that made international headlines this spring and captured the American imagination.

What happened!?

Ralston has not granted any interviews since his May 8 th press conference at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, however he did personally verify the account below.

At 11 p.m. Friday, April 25th, Ralston parked his truck west of Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah and slept in the covered bed at the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead. At 9:15 the next morning he bicycled 2 ½ hours south along the Maze/Robber's Roost road to reach a shortcut to the head of the main fork of Blue John Canyon. There he locked his mountain bike to a juniper tree and began hiking cross-country to intersect the canyon.

At 2:45 p.m. Ralston began descending into the deep, narrow slot of Blue John Canyon. Passing over and then under boulders that clogged the penumbral, three-foot wide passage, Ralston was negotiating a 10-foot drop between two ledges when a large boulder shifted. He snapped his left hand out but his right hand was smashed between the boulder and the sandstone wall of the slot canyon.

“The adrenaline was pumping very, very hard through my body,” Ralston later recounted in a press conference at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado. “It took some good, calm thinking to get myself to calm down and stop throwing myself against the boulder.”

Ralston's right hand was caught as securely as the paw of a coyote in a metal trap. He was alone in a remote canyon with no hope of rescue, for he had not informed anyone of where he was going. Ralston would later acknowledge that, “This is something I almost always do, but I failed to do this time.”

Aron Ralston, 27, 6' 2”, long, lean and fit, is an outdoor athlete. According to his website, “Aron's Optimal Experiences On-Line,” he has topped out on 34 of the state highpoints; climbed 45 of Colorado's 14,000ers in winter, solo ; and in June 2002, summited 20,320 ft Denali, the highest peak in North America.

In March 2003, Ralston and two companions were caught in an avalanche on Resolution Peak in central Colorado. “I just remember rolling down with it. Powder was swirling all around and I was trying to breathe,” Ralston told the Denver Post. “It was horrible … It should have killed us.”

Ralston graduated with honors from Carnegie Mellon University in 1997 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, a double-major in French, and a minor in performance piano composition. He worked at Intel for five years in Phoenix, Tacoma, and Albuquerque before quitting in the spring of 2002 to attempt Mt. McKinley and move to Aspen, Colorado. At the time of the accident he was working at Ute Mountaineering and training to become a mountain guide. Ironically, it was reading about the 1996 disaster on Everest that originally motivated Ralston. “I wondered what I would do if I were in a situation like that,” he said in a March interview with the Aspen Times.

Minutes after the boulder trapped his hand, Ralston started outlining his options. ”I began laying plans for what I was going to do.” He also inventoried his provisions: two burritoes, 1 liter of water, candy bar crumbs. Ralston spent the first of five nights in the slot canyon chipping away the rock with his multi-tool, a cheap Leatherman knock-off.

The next day, Sunday, using his ropes and climbing gear and the skills he had learned in search-and-rescue, he attempted to lift the boulder off his hand. This also failed.

On Monday Ralston rerigged the ropes and again tried lifting the boulder. “At no point was I able with any of the rope mechanics to get the boulder to budge.”

Ralston continued to chipping away at the rock, but over the next few days he would often simply pause. “There were times when I thought that was the most efficient use of my time.”

He thought a lot about dying and was at first afraid, but “came to peace with death over the time spent in the canyon.”

On day three of his entrapment, Tuesday April 29th, Ralston ran out of water. Realizing he would soon die of dehydration, and with his other options having proven unsuccessful, he was down to his last resort: severing his arm.

“Essentially I got my surgical table ready and applied the knife to my arm, and started sawing back and forth. But I didn't even break the skin. I couldn't even cut the hair off of my arm, the knife was so dull.”

Wednesday he punctured the skin but realized he couldn't cut through the bone.

By Thursday, April 31st, growing increasingly weak, having passed through stages of depression, hope and prayer, Ralston realized he would have to break his arm near the wrist to extricate himself.

“I was able to first snap the radius and then within a few minutes snap the ulna at the wrist and from there I had the knife out and applied the tourniquet and went to task. It was a process that took about an hour.”

Ralston cut through the soft tissue between the broken bones and amputated his hand.

“All the desires, joys and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me,” Ralston stated at the press conference, “Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be taking action.”

Ralston subsequently crawled down the canyon, rigged his rope, made a 60-foot rappel and began hiking out of the desert toward his truck. After traveling five miles with the stump of his right arm in a bloody makeshift sling fashioned from a Camelbak pack, he met up with three hikers from Holland, carried on with them for another mile, and was finally rescued by helicopter. Flown first to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, Utah, he walked off the helicopter to a waiting gurney team on his own power. Later he was transferred to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado where he underwent two surgeries to prepare his right arm for a prosthesis.

The park service retrieved Aron Ralston's right hand using hydraulic jacks and returned it to the Ralston family, presumably so it wouldn't end up on eBay.

A flashflood of articles, over 477 worldwide, were written about Ralston in the weeks after his accident. His story spellbound us, even more than the greed-induced gross-out fest of Fear Factor , the tit-illating voyeurism of Survivor or the whole series of ridiculous Worst Case Scenario Handbooks.

Why?

Because it was real. It was life-or-death and Ralston was all alone. No safety net. No tv crews. No prizes but the biggest: life.

I was somberly discussing the gruesome details with a fellow outdoor athlete one evening when he candidly confided, “You know Mark … I guess I have doubts. I honestly don't know if I could do that.” This from a man that had climbed six peaks in six weeks in Peru not too long ago. I must have had two dozen conversations just like this after the story hit the press. Aron Ralston, through simple courage and cool self-appraisal, had somehow sliced through all the feckless fakery of “reality” tv and got us to ask ourselves the most ineludible question: Could I do it?

Bill Jeracki could, and did. Ten years ago, while fishing near St. Mary's Glacier in Colorado, a boulder pinned Jeracki's left leg. Snow was forecast and without a jacket or pack, Jeracki didn't believe he would survive the night. Fashioning a tourniquet out of his flannel shirt and using his bait knife, he cut his leg off at the knee joint “like you separate a chicken,” using hemostats from his fishing kit to clamp the bleeding arteries. Today Jeracki runs his own company, Applied Biomechanics in Fort Collins, Colorado, which builds artificial limbs for amputees.

There are other cases. In 1987, Doug Goodale, a Maine lobsterman cut off his arm at the elbow after getting it caught in a winch. In 1993, Donald Wyman, trapped against an oak tree by his bulldozer, used a shoelace as his tourniquet (tightened it with a wrench) and a 3-inch penknife as a scalpel to amputate his broken left leg below the knee.

And yet such examples bring us no closer to an answer. If it had been me trapped alone in that dark canyon, would I have what it takes? Ralston knew what to do and had the cojones to do it. But do I? Do I? Do I? It haunts the mind like some volute poem by Poe.

Professor Al Siebert, founder of the Resiliency Center in Portland, Oregon and author of The Survivor Personality , has studied hundreds of cases of survival and found that those who manage to live through harrowing disasters exhibit specific patterns of behavior.

“Survivors rapidly read reality,” explains Siebert, “when something horrible happens, they immediately accept the situation for what it is and consciously decide that they will do everything in their power to get through it.” Survivors have the ability to rationally accept the dreadful circumstances for what they are without becoming angry or going limp, two common although inappropriate emotional responses to extreme stress.

“Getting angry is just a waste of precious energy,” says Siebert, “and passivity, playing the victim, dramatically increases your likelihood of dying.”

After adjusting to the new reality, survivors start looking very hard, but also very imaginatively, for solutions. “I call it integrated problem-solving behavior,” says Siebert. “By that I mean it's a mixture of left-brain thinking---logical, linear, Dr. Spock---and right-brain thinking---intuitive, creative, lots of leaps of faith.”

In his book The Survivor Personality , Siebert extensively examines the unique psychological make-up of survivors. One of his most intriguing discoveries is that survivors exhibit “biphasic personality traits,” which means they have oppositional, counter-balancing behavior. “It is to be proud and humble, selfish and unselfish, cooperative and rebellious … spiritual and irreverent.” In other words, Hollywood has it all wrong. Survivors are not brutish, one-dimensional Rambo types, not combustible, single-track Scarface maniacs, and not the pretty but petty star-wannabees that dominate bad tv. Rather, survivors are complex, compassionate and most importantly, flexible.

According to Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, “Beyond the fundamental will to survive, the foremost character trait of a survivor is intellectual flexibility.” Suedfeld has researched survival psychology for over 40 years, authored some 230 papers on the subject, and specializes in polar expedition psychology.

“People under high stress are more likely to become rigid, which only decreases their chances of survival,” says Suedfeld. Survivors are extremely adaptable people. They know how to improvise. If one solution doesn't work, they try another. They don't fixate on one answer. They keep an open mind, searching for options, developing strategies.”

After an all-consuming will to survive and mental flexibility, Suedfeld has identified two other survivor indicators---optimism and unflappability.

Not surprisingly, pessimism (like passivity and anger) is a non-survivor reaction. If you believe you'll somehow get out of the fix, you're far more likely to. Suedfeld distinguishes four parts to optimism: recognizing that the predicament is temporary, isolating the problem, recognizing that even if you haven't found a solution yet---that doesn't mean there isn't one, and recognizing that you do have (some) control over your situation.

As for unflappability, Suedfeld says this is basically the ability to “tolerate bizarre experiences without freaking out.” It's the old cliché: don't panic. There are only three ways to cope in a tough situation: leave the environment, change the environment, or change your attitude.

“Survivors are capable of recognizing which one, or which combination, will best increase their chances.”

Now for the reality check. Granting Siebert's description of the biphasic, sometimes contradictory nature of survivors, if, in your last prickly predicament, your dominant reaction was impatience, intolerance, panic, pessimism, passivity, pigheadedness, anger or any combination thereof---don't expect to live through your own life-or-death accident.

However.

“You absolutely can be trained to survive,” says Frank Heyl, director of the Combat Aviation Survival School, a private organization contracted with the Montana Army National Guard, Regional Training Institute, at Ft. Harrison in Helena, Montana.

“Everybody is born with the will to survive. But it's like a muscle, like a skill. You've got to nurture it, train it, build it up.”

Which is precisely what retired airforce officer Frank Heyl, 80, has been teaching for fifty years.

“I've found that the person who gives up easily is the person whose always had it easy. We call it give-up-itis.”

The antidote to give-up-itis is field experience. Naturally you start by reading the survival books, of which there are a plethora, but then you've got to take this knowledge into the field.

“Go out at night, in the wind, when it's raining, in your local woods and see if you can build a fire. Go out in the winter and practice building a snow shelter. It's all about hands-on experience. The more you practice survival skills, the better survivor you become.”

Even for this hardened military veteran, it's not about being macho. “It doesn't take Herculean strength to survive. Fact is, women are sometimes the best at survival. Men like to do things by the numbers. One, two, three, four. They like routine. But this kind of rigidity works against them in a survival situation. Women tend to be more flexible in their thinking, more adaptable.”

Every survival manual, school or class insists that you don't walk into the wilderness, even for a dayhike, without the fabled “ten essentials” (knife, water, matches, map & compass, garbage bag, headlamp, cord, proper clothing, etc), but Heyl puts two items at the top of the list.

“Your head is number one. It's the best survival tool there is. Number two,

a basic med kit and the knowledge of how to use it.”

Ralston obviously used his head, but would a med kit have made any real difference? Probably not. But Ralston's experience lies in the outer limits of the backcountry accident bell curve.

“Wondering whether you could amputate your own arm isn't very valuable,” remarks Eric A. Weiss, an emergency room physician, associate director of trauma at the Stanford University Medical Center and author of The Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness and Travel Medicine.

“You are exponentially more likely to be hit by lightning in the backcountry than to be forced to amputate your arm,” states Weiss. “Lightning is the number one natural hazard cause of death, a sprained ankle probably the most common backcountry injury.”

Statistics from NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership School, bear this out. From 1998-2000 NOLS had 465,753 program days and only 526 injuries, 48% of which were either sprains or strains caused by slipping on the trail. Wounds, bruisings, and bee stings accounted for another 21%; fractures and dislocations a mere 7%. Tellingly, given how many people still apparently enter the wilderness with fears of being attacked by bears or mountain lions, there wasn't a single animal encounter injury.

Weiss also notes that Ralston made three significant mistakes: he went alone, he didn't inform anyone of where he was going, he didn't bring a med kit.

“Going solo is OK, as long as you have a “contact buddy.” I have hardcore kayak friends for whom I am their contact buddy. Before they leave, they call me up, tell me where they're going, when they'll be out, and when I should start worrying. They also, and this is important, leave me a marked-up topo so I can find them if I have to.”

But haven't we all done this? Just shot out into the wilds alone without telling anyone. Desperate for quiet, famished for rock, thirsty for streams, craving the smell of pines. We humans need to escape our handmade prisons, to return to the primordial earth that still survives in our genes even if we now drive a fast car, live in a warm house and don't kill our own food.

And yes, of course, the chances of our quick trip into the wilderness turning into a life-or-death struggle are extremely remote, but what if … That's really the rub isn't it. What if. What if that great boulder that's been in that same position for perhaps a million years, incomprehensibly shifts the one sliver of a second that my hand is beneath it? What then? What would I do? Would I die?

For it is not being dead that scares us, right. That mute veil of blackness is inevitable and everlasting. What truly frightens us, I believe, is being a witness to our own untimely death. Facing the darkness. Staring into the merciless eyes of death. Watching it slowly come for us. Circling in the shadows like a hyena. Growling, sniffing, knowing we are trapped. Gnashing its teeth knowing we alone with no one to call for help.

We fear the pain of a slow death. We fear the pain of knowing we are dying. But perhaps, most of all, we fear we will have a choice, but not have the courage to fight---the will, whatever the costs, to tell death to go screw itself.

This is what Aron Ralston did. He could die, or he could mutilate himself. He had a horrible choice. When a serac unexpectedly falls and instantly kills a climber, we are not fascinated, only overwhelmed with grief. There was no choice, no existential struggle, no opportunity for the human will to pull ancient power from the depths of its soul and transform fear into focus.

The steadfast, implacable will to survive, is what Aron Ralston has. And what we all want.