Extreme Measures

May 18, 2003

In 25 years I've been to at least 1,000 press conferences. World
Series, Super Bowls, prizefights--huge rooms full of tough guys.
But the most gripping press conference, the most unforgettable
one, was last Thursday in a little room in Grand Junction, Colo.,
starring a guy as skinny as a two-iron.

That was when 27-year-old adventurer Aron Ralston described for
the world how he had saved his life by cutting off his lower
right arm with a dull pocketknife.

For five days Ralston's arm was pinned by an 800-pound
boulder--after he'd lowered himself off it, the boulder had
shifted onto his arm--in a forbidding three-foot-wide crevice in
the remote Bluejohn Canyon in southeastern Utah. He tried
everything to move the boulder, throwing his body at it, chipping
away at it. The thing didn't budge.

On the third day, out of food and water and ideas, he stared at
his cheap multiuse tool, the kind you get free with a $15
flashlight, and realized what he had to do. He used a pair of
cycling shorts for a tourniquet, picked up the knife, took a deep
breath and began sawing into his own skin.

The blade was too dull to even do that. "Wouldn't even cut my arm
hairs," he said.

Still, for two more days, he kept at it--through skin, muscle and
agony. As he spoke, his parents, Donna and Larry, sitting on
either side of him, wept quietly. Donna held Aron's left hand
under the table. Hardened members of the media, people who'd
covered wars, were crying, but Aron didn't cry. He told his story
like a man describing how he had fixed his lawnmower.

But imagine it. How do you keep slicing into yourself against
unthinkable pain, when you know it's you inflicting that pain? "I
felt pain," he said with a half smile. "I coped. I moved on."
Then he stopped cutting. He had to. He couldn't get through the
bone.

Now, even for a Carnegie Mellon honors grad, a former mechanical
engineer for Intel, a man who has climbed solo 45 peaks of at
least 14,000 feet, all in winter, often after midnight, usually
without oxygen canisters, GPS or radio, this seemed a problem he
couldn't solve. "I needed a bone saw."

Alternating between depression and visions of family members,
friends and dreams of "tall, tasty margaritas," getting a "kind
of peace" from the idea of death and yet willing himself on, a
revelation suddenly came to him: "It occurred to me that if I
could break my bones up at the wrist, where they were trapped, I
could be freed."

It occurred to you? It occurred to you that if you snapped the
bones of your own arm, this would be a solution?

Sorry, but if it's me, I'm dead. Bring on the wolves and the
vultures. Let the winds spread my remains over the sandstone. In
fact I'm pretty sure I don't even saw into my arm. I weep when
removing a Garfield Band-Aid.

But not Aron Ralston. He found a way to live. "All the desires,
joys and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me," he
said. "Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be
taking action."

It took him most of the morning, but--and how often do you get to
write this sentence?--he was finally able to break the wrist
bones in half. Yes, he did. Using torque and the strength he had
left, the man purposely broke two bones in his already flayed
arm. As he described that, everyone in the room forgot to blink,
scribble, breathe.

Though he declined to describe what he had to do next, there is
only one thing Ralston could've done--and a hospital official
later explained this: He would've had to stretch his body away
from that trapped hand to separate the broken ends of those
bones. That would be the only way to make a path for the
pocketknife to pass through.

Who's hungry?

That done, "it took about an hour," he said, to finish the
amputation. Amazing. The man sawed off a body part and timed
himself.

Finally free, the mountain-shop worker from Aspen crawled through
that narrow, winding stretch of canyon, rappelled 60 feet down a
cliff and hiked about six miles, all with one arm and one
profusely bleeding stump, until he met what had to be two
horrified Dutch hikers.

Ralston may never play concert piano again (he minored in
performance piano composition at Carnegie Mellon), but he vows to
keep exploring every inch of the West, as did the great John
Wesley Powell, for whom Lake Powell is named--the great one-armed
explorer, John Wesley Powell.

They call Ralston an extreme athlete, but the courage and will he
displayed over those five days is not extreme, it's legendary.
Don't care who you meet, you'll never find anybody tougher than
this guy. After the press conference, back in his hospital room,
he said, "I wish I could've been funnier."

Yeah, Aron. Next time, can you do something to liven it up?

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

"It occurred to me that if I could break my bones up at the
wrist, where they were trapped," Ralston said, "I could be
freed."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)