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Aron Ralston – the Real Story

November 7, 2010 | 11:31 pm


Aron Ralston outlines during a May 8, 2003, news conference how he deliberately broke the bones in his right arm before sawing through it. His mother, Donna, is at right.
Photo by Associated Press

May 3-9, 2003: For anyone wondering about the film “127 Hours,” I’m pleased to  present The Times’ coverage of Aron Ralston’s ordeal, by J. Michael Kennedy and Stephanie Simon.



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

By 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.

He has conquered all 59 of the Colorado peaks he counts as "Fourteeners," summits of at least 14,000 feet, with names such as Challenger Point and Mount Massive. (Some climbers, using a different ranking method, count only 54 Fourteeners.)

Five years ago he set out to make history by climbing those summits again -- this time alone, in wintertime.

Veteran climbers have watched with a blend of awe and alarm as he has methodically scrambled up one after another, risking frostbite and worse as he pushes to the top, then signs his name triumphantly in the summit log. Because the risk of avalanche is greatest when the sun is out, he often climbs after midnight.

Only three climbers have ever reached the summit of every Fourteener in Colorado. None has done it solo. Ralston has 14 more to go.

Mutrie, who considers Ralston a friend, says the climber finds joy in tackling monster peaks without the oxygen canisters, satellite-guided tracking systems and communication gear that many mountaineers routinely pack. Stripped down to the bare essentials, Ralston pits himself against nature. "For him, it clarifies the goal," Mutrie said.

An avalanche in February nearly buried Ralston alive as he skied backcountry with two friends; the experience sobered, but did not stop, him. Described by friends as soft-spoken and easygoing off the mountains, Ralston focused on his climbing goals with an intensity few could rival.

"He was trying to be one of the top mountaineers," said Joe Wheadon, who shares a rented house with Ralston in Aspen. "That was what he wanted to do."

Ralston graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a double major in French and mechanical engineering and a minor in performance piano.

According to Mutrie's story, he worked for several years designing "clean rooms" for microchip production. When his employer, Intel, wouldn't give him three weeks off to climb Mt. McKinley, he quit.

"I could live out of my truck," he told Mutrie. "That's kind of an attractive lifestyle to me, actually."

Instead, Ralston moved to Aspen, took a job in a mountaineering store and packed his truck for the wilderness every chance he got.

Alone with the elements, testing his strength and his savvy, pushing himself past every limit he thought he had, he thrives.

"To challenge yourself, to survive in what can often be hostile conditions -- it's a very primal thing that people like Aron do," his friend Fielder said.

"It's all unnecessary," Ralston told Mutrie, "but at the same time it's entirely necessary for me. I wouldn't lead a happy life doing anything other than what I'm doing. This is my ultimate contribution, whether anybody likes it or not. It's my art."

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

By 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."


Grateful Climber Describes His Amputation Ordeal

* Aron Ralston speaks publicly about cutting off his arm after a boulder pinned it.

Friday May 09, 2003

By J. Michael Kennedy
Times Staff Writer

The mountaineer who amputated his right forearm when it became trapped under a boulder in a remote Utah canyon described Thursday how he had to snap the forearm bones before cutting into his flesh with a dull knife.

At a news conference in Grand Junction, Colo., 27-year-old Aron Ralston detailed the events leading up to the amputation and how he was then able to rappel down a steep cliff and walk to within two miles of his car before being spotted by a rescue helicopter. Until Thursday, a week after his rescue, Ralston had been shielded from the media by his parents while he regained his strength.

With his mother beside him and his injured arm in a sling, Ralston first thanked the millions of people who had kept him in their thoughts. He also said doctors told him that he would have lost the arm anyway because the 800-pound boulder had cut off the blood and caused severe soft-tissue damage.

"It occurred to me I could break my bones," said a composed Ralston, who underwent surgery Monday to facilitate the fitting of a prosthesis. "I was able to first snap the radius and then within another 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, whose five-day ordeal thrust him into the national limelight, then added new details about what happened in the steep, winding canyon just outside Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

Leaving his truck in a parking lot, Ralston first rode his mountain bike about 15 miles cross-country, locking it to a tree at the head of the canyon. For the first leg of the climb, Ralston said he walked with two young women before taking on the tougher part of the canyon. He said he became trapped when he came upon three large boulders wedged in the 3-foot wide canyon that he had to climb over. The second boulder rolled as he tried to scramble over it, trapping his right hand against the wall.

From there, it was five days of frustration as he tried to find a way out of his dilemma. First, he said, he tried to chip away at the boulder and cliff wall with his cheap, multitool knife, which he described as "what you'd get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multiuse tool." When that didn't work, he tried to rig up a way to lift the boulder using his climbing gear. But that, too, did not work. "At no point was I ever able to get that boulder to budge even microscopically," he said.

Ralston said that at first his adrenaline was flowing as he attempted to free his hand, then he realized he had to calm down and concentrate on solving the potentially deadly problem. As the days went by, he felt depression and remorse as well. He told reporters he regretted not leaving a note about where he was going, likening it to when an auto accident occurs the one time the driver isn't wearing a seat belt.

"This is something I almost always do, but I failed to do this time," he said.

On the third day, with his food and water gone and no hope for rescue in sight, Ralston made the drastic decision to cut off his arm. But when he tried to cut his arm, the pocketknife was so dull he couldn't break the skin.

On the fourth day he determined that the only recourse was to snap the bones, and on the fifth day he summoned the nerve to perform the operation, applying a tourniquet using his biking shorts for padding. He said the amputation and bandaging took about an hour. Ralston said he was simply being pragmatic.

"I felt pain and I coped with it," he said.

From there, he crawled through the canyon, then rigged his ropes and rappelled 60 feet to the base of the cliff, a technique that usually requires two hands. And then he began hiking out of the desert, heading for his car. A Dutch couple and their son found him about the time a rescue helicopter came into view.

When Ralston entered the room where the news conference was being held, he took pictures of the assembled gathering.

"These are for me," said Ralston, who quit his engineering job in Albuquerque last year and moved to Aspen, Colo., to devote his time to the outdoors.

He also said he was looking forward to leaving the hospital and returning to the outdoors.

And one other thing: "I'm looking forward to a giant margarita."