A True Tale of Survival
Pinned for five days by an 800-pound boulder in a Utah canyon, an
ardent outdoorsman amputated his own arm, then hiked five miles
This is an article from the May 12, 2003 issue
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Aron Ralston made news
around the world last week by doing the only thing he could to
survive: He grabbed a dull pocket knife and cut off his right arm
below the elbow.
The 27-year-old mountaineer from Aspen, Colo., had set out on a
one-day training excursion, riding his bike into the southeast
Utah backcountry to go canyoneering. He was 60 feet up a rock
wall in a three-foot-wide slot in Bluejohn Canyon when a
steamer-trunk-sized boulder shifted and pinned his limb. Though
he could stand upright, he couldn't pull himself free. For five
days Ralston, a former mechanical engineer for Intel, vainly
tried to pry himself loose--looping climbing rope around the
800-pound rock and rigging a pulley system with his carabiners.
But nothing worked, and on Day 3 he ran out of water.
With little hope of rescue, Ralston--who had left no itinerary
when he set out--hacked off his crushed forearm below the elbow.
He administered first aid, stanching the bleeding by fashioning
tourniquets from climbing cord and tying them around his biceps.
After rigging anchors into the cliff, he rappelled to the canyon
floor. With blood seeping through a makeshift sling, he walked
roughly five miles between the sandstone bluffs.
In Horseshoe Canyon he ran into a couple from the Netherlands who
were hiking with their nine-year-old son. The hikers waved down a
helicopter that was searching the area for Ralston. "He was
covered in blood, from his chest to his legs, shorts, socks and
shoes," says Mitch Vetere, an Emery County sheriff's deputy. "He
was calm enough to tell us where to go back to get his bike."
Flown to a hospital in nearby Moab, Ralston walked off the
chopper and into the emergency room, where he lay down on a
gurney and said, "I had to cut my arm off." Ralston was
transferred to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., where he
underwent two operations--the second, on Monday, to prepare the
stump of his arm for the attachment of a prosthesis. On Sunday a
team of 12 park rangers had located Ralston's severed limb and,
using heavy-duty hydraulic jacks, freed it from under the
boulder. They returned it to Ralston's family.
An ardent if demonstrably reckless outdoorsman, Ralston has
scaled all 54 of the Colorado peaks commonly called
"fourteeners"--summits of 14,000 feet or higher. In 1998 he set
out to become the first climber to reach the top of every
Colorado fourteener alone in winter without avalanche beacons,
radio or shovel. To date, he has conquered 44.
Last November, Ralston moved from Albuquerque--where he was a
member of the Mountain Rescue Council--to Aspen to become an
outdoor guide. The canyoneering in Utah had been intended as
training for a ski descent of Denali in Alaska later this month.
Last winter Ralston summited Denali, the highest mountain in
North America, and attempted seven of the Elk Mountain
fourteeners. In early February he and two companions were nearly
buried in an avalanche while skiing Tennessee Pass on Colorado's
Resolution Peak. "I just remember rolling down with it," he later
told the Denver Post. "Powder was swirling all around, and I was
trying to breathe, but I would breathe a mixture of snow and air,
and you'd swallow it like seawater. It was horrible. It should
have killed us. All for a dozen turns. We never should have been
One wonders whether Ralston was thinking the same thing during
those five days in Bluejohn Canyon. And where he'll go next.
Canyoneering is mountaineering's version of the pentathlon, often
combining hiking, swimming, scrambling, climbing and rappelling.
While southeastern Utah is a premier playground for canyoneers,
fewer than 100 adventurers a year dare to enter the narrow, deep
fins of Bluejohn Canyon's lower end, where Aron Ralston was
trapped in a gorge 100 feet deep and three feet wide. "You can
wander in those canyons for a good, long while," says Canyonlands
Park Ranger Paul Henderson, "and no one would find you for
The Utah Ironman tries to overcome a rough-water tragedy
Utah Lake, known by locals as Killer Lake because of its rough
waters, was eerily calm last June 8 when John Boland arrived at
the boat dock to compete in the inaugural Utah Ironman. Two hours
later, as more than 1,500 triathletes bobbed like corks in the
water waiting for the 7 a.m. start, a powerful microburst with
50-mph winds whipped up six-foot waves on the lake. Some 10
minutes after the race began, Boland, 55, was found floating
facedown in the water, the second person to die in an Ironman in
Contractually bound to return to the lake for this year's race,
on May 31, Ironman organizers have taken steps to avoid a repeat
of 2002, when, in addition to Boland's drowning, fatigued
swimmers drifted far off course. For one thing the event has been
cut in half, to a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a
13.1-mile run. Race officials have also moved the swim inside the
lake's harbor, which should provide better protection from the
wind, and increased safety personnel. Still, half of the 1,500
spots in the event remain open, an extraordinarily high figure
for an Ironman. "I used to be confident that race directors would
put on a safe race," says Hugo Aueler, an '02 competitor, "but I
won't ever go back there."