Aspenite cuts off his arm to save own life |

Aspenite cuts off his arm to save own life

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen resident Aron Ralston amputated his right arm below the elbow with a pocketknife yesterday in order to free himself from an 800-pound boulder that had him pinned down since last Saturday in a remote slot canyon of Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Ralston, 27, an accomplished mountaineer, fashioned a tourniquet on the arm and then rigged a 60-foot rappel down a cliff face to begin the hike back to civilization.

A search-and-rescue helicopter spotted him in the Great Gallery area of Horseshoe Canyon, where he was picked up at about 3 p.m. Thursday and flown to the hospital in Moab, Utah.

There, he walked off the chopper and into the emergency room under his own power, ending the five-day ordeal.

“I’ve never seen anybody who has the will to live and is as much of a warrior as Aron is, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years. He is a warrior, period,” Steve Swanke, supervisory park ranger at Canyonlands National Park, said Thursday evening.

“He really struck me,” Swanke, who met with Ralston at the hospital, continued. “He was superbly strong.”

As of last night, Ralston was listed in serious condition at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he was flown after doctors stabilized him in Moab.

Ralston set out by himself Saturday on an intended one-day canyoneering trip from the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead. He first dropped into the main fork of Blue John Canyon, a rarely visited area of the Canyonlands adjacent to the park’s Maze District and about 38 miles west of Moab, according to Captain Kyle Ekker of the Emery County Sheriff’s Office.

Ralston planned to follow Blue John Canyon to its intersection with Horseshoe Canyon, then down to the Maze District and back to his truck.

But as Ralston worked his way through a narrow, 3-foot-wide section of Blue John Canyon, a huge boulder fell on him, pinning the arm, according to Ekker.

Ralston told authorities the boulder weighed about 200 pounds, but Swanke said it was more like 800 pounds based on reports from a team that went to the site Thursday evening attempting to free the severed lower arm. That effort was unsuccessful, he said.

Ralston’s water supply ran out Tuesday morning, Ekker said, and by Thursday morning he was forced to do the unthinkable, “realizing his survival required drastic action.”

“But he seemed to be all right,” Ekker said. “The guys who picked him up said he was one tough sucker. And that’s all they said. Well, they used one other word, but we’ll go with that.”

Ralston, who climbed all seven Fourteeners in the Elk Range – by himself – this past winter and has climbed 45 of the Fourteeners solo in calendar winter since 1998, was expected to be back home in Aspen Monday night.

His friends and family’s concern piqued Tuesday, when he failed to show up for his shift at the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen. That night, friends contacted the Aspen Police Department and filed a missing person report with officer Adam Crider.

Crider fired the report out to law enforcement agencies across the West, specifically the Moab/Canyonlands area, where friends thought Ralston had been headed.

A combined team from Canyonlands National Park, Utah Public Safety, the BLM and the Emery, Wayne and Grand County Sheriff’s offices began looking for Ralston or his truck on Wednesday morning.

“But our information gave us an indication that he might have been in the Black Box Canyon,” Ekker said, “on the other side of [Emery] County.”

Authorities found Ralston’s trail Thursday morning, Ekker said, when a parks service employee remembered seeing his truck at the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead.

“We lucked out in finding his vehicle,” Ekker said.

With that, the search effort by helicopter narrowed in on Ralston’s position, but by that time his self-rescue effort was well under way.

After performing the amputation to free himself, Ralston fixed anchors and rigged a 60-foot rappel over a cliff, Swanke said, and then began hiking out by his intended route.

Ekker and Swanke weren’t clear how far Ralston had traveled before he became trapped, or how far he walked out afterward.

On the way out, Ralston encountered some tourists from Holland in the Great Gallery section of Horseshoe Canyon, who assisted him in walking down the canyon toward help, Swanke said.

When the group was just downstream from the Great Gallery, a landmark in the park, the chopper spotted them, Swanke said.

“I just haven’t heard of things like this before,” Swanke said. “Saturday, April 26, he gets in trouble and Thursday, May 1, he gets out of trouble, so to speak. And he self-rescues.

“With so many of these incidents, we rescue them or recover them; self-rescue is the exception and not the rule. But the thing with this one is that if we don’t find him, he probably hops in his car and drives to Green River to finish the job himself.

“The kid’s a warrior,” Swanke repeated again, this time with a emotional quiver to his voice.

“We’re involved in quite a few rescues, and we’ve had quite a few unique ones,” Ekker said, “and this one is right up at the top. We’re thankful it turned out the way it did considering how long he was out there.”

Ekker and Swanke weren’t sure whether another team would return to the site of Ralston’s imprisonment today for a second attempt at recovering the arm.

“Efforts were made to recover the arm this evening,” Swanke said. “We were hoping to get it to St. Mary’s [last night], but those efforts were unsuccessful.

“What’s going to happen [Friday] with that, I don’t know.”

Dr. Bill Rodman, chairman of the trauma department at Aspen Valley Hospital, indicated last night that the chances for “reimplantation surgery” to reattach the arm are slim.

“I’m not a reimplantation surgeon,” he said, “but I think the chance of having a successful reimplantation is going to be extremely remote at best.

“The secondary infection is the biggest issue, having done it with a pocketknife when he’s still in the backcountry, but I’m sure he’ll do just fine now that he’s in the hospital.”

Rodman said Ralston may require surgery to establish a “formal closure” on the arm.

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is]

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