Aron Ralston – In his own words
Aspen Times Staff Writer
From the headlines, thus far, the world knows Aron Ralston as a warrior. A survivor.
People who know him might start elsewhere: Climber, or Phish fan, or engineer, son, skier, dude, merit scholar, valedictorian, conversationalist, friend, thinker, employee at the Ute Mountaineer, climber, pianist, brother, student, traveler, climber …
He is very much a storyteller too.
And spirit. Has that been mentioned yet?
Here are outtakes from The Aspen Times’ March interviews with Aron Ralston. Best story first.
Wolves in Colorado?
“I’ve been shocked and amazed at the experiences I’ve had, and [Mount] Elbert was one of those. I went in and climbed that peak and then went and did [Mount] Massive the next day from the Halfmoon campground. When I signed in on Massive, I noticed that it had been four-and-a-half months since somebody had signed in there, but as I’m skiing in I’m seeing all these canine footprint tracks all around, and I got into this meadow at 11,000 feet, broke through the trees – it’s a half-mile-long, a half-mile-wide area where the willows are just creeping up over the snow line – and I stop and I catch my breath, and I’m breaking trail and it’s hard, and I take a sip of water.
“Then I look over to my left, where the actual trail comes up in the summertime, which I’d lost in the trees, and I look over and I could see the little grade. And while I’m looking there, I see these two blurs just run by a hundred feet to my left. `What? Whoa? Was that what I thought it was? They were gray.’ Then they come out from the other side of the trees, and I’m, like,” – whispering – “`Shit, those are wolves.’
“And now I’m really watching, and I see a third one come by, and they’re just running along, kind of loping in their side-to-side stride, and then the third one, in the middle of its stride, looks over and sees me. And we’re both just jaw-drop: `What the hell are you doing here?’ And all of a sudden – zoinks – and he’s doing this bounding leap through the snow – 3 feet of unconsolidated snow – and he’s running like a dog on a field chasing a Frisbee. Every time his rear feet come down – they’re actually in front of his front feet – and another bounding leap, and the other two are alerted and they take off, half-mile across this meadow through 3 feet of snow, and they’re running at 30 miles an hour. And it took them about 30 seconds to go from my position, gaining about 500 vertical feet and crossing this huge meadow, and they were gone through the forest.
“It was so fast that I couldn’t collect myself in time to even get my video camera out. I just stood there. I get my composure back and I start filming the tracks that they laid, and where I’m at and all this, trying to document it as best as possible, of course without having actual footage of the wolves themselves, but I saw them and they had every characteristic that you’ve ever seen of a gray wolf.
“I climb the peak [Massive], I come down and I ski out, and I called the Leadville Ranger District the next day. And the guy starts grilling me: `Are you really sure? Did you see what kind of ears they had? How long were their tails? How big did they look? Are you sure they weren’t just runaway stray dogs?’ But I’m, like, `Dude, please, come on, I know the difference between a coyote and a fox and a gray wolf, and these were three male gray wolves running together in a pack; males, because they were all the same size, and they were relatively large. They looked like they were in their winter weight, about 125 pounds at least. And they had tails a foot-and-a-half long, the big shaggy gray and white, couple brown speckles in there, and they all look identical: wolf features in their faces and snouts, triangular ears – longer than a fox ear, but not as floppy as a coyote ear – and he’s like, `Ah, um, I’m going to have to check on this.’ And he’s the guy that takes wildlife sightings, and he’s been doing it for 10 years.
“He comes back and says, `That’s what I thought. It’s been 30 years since we’ve had a reported sighting of wolves.’ And he tells me that, and I’m, like, `I don’t know what to tell you, but I saw them. You can go in there and take plaster casts of their tracks, they’re all over up there.’
“And then his voice gets kind of low, and he whispers over the phone. `I knew it. I knew they were there.’
“I was, like, `What are you talking about?’
“And he’s, like, `Well, we can’t say anything because it’s our official position that there are no wolves that make this area their permanent home,’ and that they were probably migrating through.
“But at the same time, even that, that nobody else has seen – because people don’t go in there in the wintertime – and that’s why the wolf looked at me, like, `What the hell are you doing here?’ … Those kinds of things are really special, they’re very meaningful to me, and they’re things that I never would have projected to happen when I was off starting this thing.”
Getting a start in winter mountaineering
“I climbed a couple fourteeners, Grays and Torreys, on a [fall] weekend, no less, and there’s 250 people out on the trail. And all of a sudden, all this grandeur of being in the outdoors, the spirit of the wilderness, evaporates when you’re, like, elbowing your way past people right and left all the way up and down the mountain.
“I was, like, `No more.’ If I’m going to go do this – and I’d already laid it out that I wanted to climb the fourteeners – I want to do it where I can enjoy it and maybe even do it in a way where I’m expressing myself. And I started that fall reading [Lou] Dawson’s guide book, and in the back he mentions that there had been someone who climbed them all in wintertime. I was floored. It blew my mind. They’re going to be difficult enough, how do you do it in wintertime? But I thought, `Well, nobody’s doing them in the winter. Maybe if I go do the easy ones in the wintertime, at least then I won’t be in these really crowded situations.’
“And that winter I did Quandary [Peak] and had a great time. I only saw three people on the mountain. These days, I think back and I’m, like, `It’s a crowded trip when I see somebody out on a two-day overnight backpack. “Wow, what the heck are you doing out here?'”
“I started off with the easy ones. This was back before I was into backcountry skiing and didn’t have the equipment. I only got tele skis about a year ago; up until then, I was on snowshoes. Then I did Mount Lindsey in the Sierra Blanca, and it’s a 20-mile trip. So much of it was flat, and relatively gentle, sloping downhill, that if I had had skis I could’ve taken like six or seven hours off the trip. Instead, I’m coming out under the moonlight swearing to myself that I will never snowshoe another peak again: `I will get skis, I will get skis, and it’s 10 and 11 and then midnight, and I’m still working my way out. And so, shortly thereafter, I got some skis and started doing that.”
Preparation for winter solos
“It’s a season-long kind of thing. It’s not like the night before you study up and you’re ready, right?
“There’s the physical training, so in November I was skinning up the ski mountains before they were open, doing a lot of snowshoeing, things like that, anything you can go for an hour or two or three and get your heart rate up and get acclimatized. Those kind of things are important to the overall physical preparation.
“Mentally, it’s everything from studying snowpack – there’s nothing scarier than going out blind, not knowing what’s there, and also it’s psychologically difficult because it just puts this huge unknown into it. So getting familiar with that, and knowing the routes, which is one thing I attempted to do by going out and doing them in the summertime and fall. At least I’d be familiar with the approaches, even though I ended up using different approaches for most of the winter peaks, just due to keeping things safe, minimizing risk.
“Then there’s packing lists, refining that over the years; every year the equipment list changes for me. I’ve moved from carrying extra bivvy equipment along in general on a day trip – actually carrying in a daypack equipment like I was going to be camping out, even though I had no intention to camp out. So paring that down and going faster and lighter, and getting to the point where I would be leaving my pack at a certain elevation, not carrying it above 12,000 feet, going into extreme light-and-fast mode where all I’ve got is a water bottle and candy bars.
“Again, learning the light-and-fast techniques in order to be able to shoot longer ranges, do more difficult things, and those kind of preparations are experiential that build up over the course of the project.”
On quitting Intel for the chance to climb Denali
“I was at a slide show of Gary Scott’s [presently climbing Everest]; I just went up to him afterward. … He holds the speed ascent record on Denali, and I asked him about that, speed-climbing being something I’m getting more interested in. … I talked with him about my winter fourteener trips, and pretty much right there he invited me out to talk about the possibility of me going on this trip. It was a great compliment.
“He said, `Let’s get together and talk.’ This wasn’t a guided trip, but these were climbing acquaintances of his and he just needed some help, so he was, like, `I’ll cover your expenses to come along with us.’
“`Hell, yeah!’ I needed three weeks off, but they wouldn’t give it to me. It [Intel] served me well, but if you can’t give me the time off to do what my real passion is, then it’s probably about time that this gig came up.
“It [Intel] was great for me – it got me into mountaineering, it introduced me to people, I got to move to Tacoma, where I started more peaks, doing things by myself, and then having copious fiduciary resources and substantial time off. In 2001, I took 11 weeks off, and that was all paid. I was stoked; I was getting away with murder. But you get your work done, and you can go; as long as you’re meeting your responsibilities, you’re free to do as you see. So living in Albuquerque, I actually climbed 36 of these winter solos living out of state. …
“Albuquerque’s a great athletic community. It was actually a good support group, to get to know other folks and get me involved with search and rescue, which has taught me a lot. …
“I think it’s been inspirational for some of the older people I knew at Intel who felt like they wanted to do something bold or different with their lives. There was a total mixed reaction. I loved walking around work those last few weeks. People knew what I was leaving to go do, that I didn’t plan to come back and that I didn’t plan to stay in engineering. They were either, like, `That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard – you’re taking a 75 to 80 percent pay cut doing this stuff?’ … or `Right on.’
“When times are good, things are rolling in the corporate environment, you’re well reimbursed for your energy. But at the same time, I’m having more fun and doing more trips and getting out in the backcountry more often. I joke that I’ve now got better access to the wilderness than I do the Internet. … I’m having more fun and making a wee fraction. We all figure out a way to do something to live where we want to live, and live the way we want to live.”
A good weekend?
“Every once in a while I’ll get to climb a peak and then go see String Cheese Incident play their solstice party that same night. That’s worked out for me. Did Pike’s Peak on the first day of winter last year and then drove up to Boulder and saw their concert, which I thought was a great pleasure – climb a fourteener in winter and then a concert.”
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