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Tragedy and triumph: Author Aron Ralston cut off his arm to save his life

March 9, 2012

You think you’re having a bad day?

Maybe. Or maybe not.
 
“Any day that you don’t have to drink your own urine to survive is a good day,” said Aron Ralston, mountaineer, author, speaker and survivor. 
 
“It’s all relative.”
 
Then add cutting off your own arm to survive, like Ralston also did.
 
Arguably, these are the actions of someone who’s earned the right to talk about relativity.
 
In 2003, the world was gripped by Ralston’s true-life story, the story of a then-27-year-old man who cut off his own right arm to free himself from an 800-pound rock that had fallen on his arm, trapping him for six days between the deep red walls of a tiny slot canyon the width of his shoulders.
 
When he finally emerged from that canyon, dehydrated, 40 pounds lighter, having lost far too much blood, he was, he said “within an hour of death.”
 
But he didn’t die and on Tuesday, the now internationally known speaker and book author (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) was in Bishop on tour.
 
He didn’t mince words about the 127 hours he spent trapped in Blue John Canyon in the deep red rock country of southeastern Utah. 
 
“The bottom of a lot canyon is a very intimate place,” he said. “I was about 100 feet down, in a canyon about three feet wide, seven miles away from my car, and 30 miles from the nearest paved road. The sky wasn’t even visible, all that I could see was the light bouncing off 100-million-year-old sandstone.”
 
When he set loose an 800-pound boulder that was wedged between the two walls of the canyon, causing it to pin his right arm between the boulder and canyon wall, he knew he was in deep, deep trouble.
 
“Up until that moment, the most extreme pain I’d ever felt in my life was when I smashed my fingers in the door when I was a child,” he said. “That pain became a zero compared to this. And the pain—with every beat of my heart, boom, boom, boom.”
 
Ralston’s right hand and forearm, three inches thick, were compressed into a space one inch thick, under a boulder that weighed six times as much as he did.
 
He was trapped.
 
“I was screaming, I was totally freaked out,” he said. “I cursed, I yelled.”
 
Then he stopped.
 
“I got it that I had to settle down or I was dead,” he said. “I knew the pain wouldn’t kill me, but my response to it would. Dehydration would, infection would, hypothermia would. I was a mechanical engineer, I was trained to figure out options.”
 
He spent the next many hours trying everything he could to move that boulder; using his climbing ropes, his webbing to make slings, trying to figure out a way to move it. It didn’t. He chipped at the stone with his dull multi-tool knife, getting an inch of rock removed in 15 hours. He would die before that worked.
 
“I knew right away that one option was to cut off my arm and on the third day, I tried. But when I hit bone, the knife wouldn’t go through. I was stuck.”
 
He was on what was supposed to be a simple hike that spring day in April, doing a loop between two canyons, using his bike and truck as a shuttle.
 
He was a young dude, going alone, going solo as he loved to do, and for one of the very first times, no one knew where he was, only that he might be in Utah. He had changed plans at the last minute after a previous trip was called off and when he did so, there was no cell service to carry home a message.
 
Now, at the bottom of the remote slot canyon, a place where only a few people a month might visit, he began to prepare for death. He had brought a video camera, and recorded his last will and testament. He spoke to his mother, his father, his beloved sister Sophie, telling them how much he loved them. 
 
“Mom, Dad,” he said, “I love you I am so sorry, I was just looking for adventure, trying to prove something to my self and now, I’m going to die.”
 
He had a revelation and recorded it, too.
 
“I created all of this, maybe I wanted to find out what I am made of. Maybe I wanted to know if I would give up, or would I resurrect. I didn’t know. But I wanted to.”
 
He drank the last of his water slowly, he ate the last of his food, he shivered convulsively through the cold, nine-hour nights, standing up the whole time,  pinned to the wall like a butterfly, wings clipped. Whenever he almost fell asleep, the pain woke him up.
 
Then he had another revelation.
 
“It’s not what you do in life, it’s what you are. It’s about love, about who you love, about being loved.”
 
He hadn’t known that before. He was accomplished, he had graduated with two degrees at the top of his class from Carnegie Mellon University and retired at the age of 27; he had climbed mountains and descended canyons most people couldn’t get to. 
 
He didn’t so much find religion down in that canyon as he found himself.
 
“I knew, then, we are all connected. We are all manifestations of the same energy of the universe and the energy is love. It was the most amazing thing I have ever felt.”
 
He still thought it very likely he was going to die, but down there, deep in that canyon, talking to his family through that video camera, thanking them, standing on his grave, as he said Tuesday, he was smiling. 
 
“The will to love was stronger than the will to live,” he said. “It pulled me through moment after horrific moment.”
 
On the fifth day, though, he gave up.
 
“I surrendered. I’d been trapped for 120 hours. I knew I wasn’t going to make it through that night.”
 
He carved a rough epitaph in the stone; the date, his name. 
 
It was April 30, 2003.
 
At midnight, he was still alive. The epitaph was wrong. It bugged his precise mind, but he decided to let it go.
 
Then something happened that changed everything.
 
“I saw myself step away from that boulder and go down a hallway and at the end of it was a little boy and I bent down and picked him up with my one hand and he said “Daddy, I am glad you are home, let’s play.’
 
“And we danced and danced.
 
“That little boy changed everything. I knew I was going to get out.”
 
In the morning of the sixth day, the light bulb struck, a solution he later would say his mechanical engineer’s mind should had thought of sooner.
 
“I couldn’t cut through the bone in my arm, but I could break it,” he said. 
 
So he did, leveraging the arm against the rock, snapping it.
 
Well, maybe it wasn’t that simple.
 
“I forgot there are two bones in the arm,” he said. 
 
In the Charles Brown Auditorium, the mesmerized audience gasped audibly. Some left the room.
 
“So I broke that one too,” he said. He cut through the remaining flesh and left his forearm and hand trapped beneath the boulder. It was, he said, horrific and beautiful all at once. 
 
“When it was done, just for one moment, I knew what life was like without limitations. I was going to get out. I was free. I was free.”
 
He put a tourniquet above his elbow, and put the stump of his arm into his bladderbag from his pack.
 
The euphoria faded and he knew time was tight—very tight.
 
“I was going to bleed to death if I didn’t get out soon, even with the tourniquet,” he said.
 
He still had to get out of the slot canyon, rappel down a 60-foot drop, then hike the seven miles to his vehicle. The odds were not good.
He set off.
 
At the bottom of the rappel, he found a pool of water and drank and drank and drank.
 
He hiked.
 
Two hours … three hours … four. The exhaustion, the loss of blood; he knew then, several miles from his car and many hours from medical help, that he wasn’t going to make it.
 
Then he saw something.
 
“A family,” he said. “I saw a family.”
 
Then he saw a helicopter, waiting ahead in a wide spot in the canyon.
 
His mother, his sister, his father, all of Utah’s backcountry rangers and sheriffs and feds, had found him.
 
“I had an hour to live,” he said. “If I had cut off my arm any sooner, like I had tried to, no one would have been looking for me yet, (although Ralston was gone six days, he was only 24 hours overdue to work which is what triggered the massive search that started his fifth day out) and I would never had have made it to my car. If I hadn’t, they were already getting ready to leave. It was an incredible amount of synchronicity.”
 
Later … years later … when his first son was born, he and his wife Jessica named the blond, blue-eyed boy that he had seen in his vision, Leo.
 
“For the courage he gave me that night when I first met him nine years ago,” he said.
 
“All of us have our boulders,” he said. “They can be medical, they can be financial, they can be emotional. I wouldn’t change this for anything. It has made my life what it is, rich beyond imagining. When I left that arm behind, I didn’t lose anything. Now, today, I give back, I give my time to do search and rescue, I travel. I speak like this, to give back. 
 
“Our boulders can be out blessings,” he said. “That is what I am trying to say, to show. It’s up to us to decide which.”

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