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First attempt to amputate unsuccessful

Tim Mutrie

GRAND JUNCTION – Wearing a somber smile at times and a String Cheese Incident T-shirt, Aspen’s Aron Ralston provided an unnerving account of his five-and-a-half-day Canyonlands ordeal at St. Mary’s Hospital yesterday afternoon.”There were a lot of down times,” said Ralston, 27, seated between parents Donna and Larry at a press conference. “But the majority of my time I spent focused on pursuing one of the options.”Speaking publicly for the first time since self-amputating his right forearm a week earlier in an escape from a remote slot canyon of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, Ralston said necessity dictated his decisions as his options dwindled with his life energy.”The decision to severe my arm came when I realized that it was the last opportunity that I could have, and still have the physical strength to get myself out to where help could find me,” said Ralston.”At that point I wanted to have things in my control. … The courage became more a matter of pragmatics than of could I withstand the actual actions that I had to take. It was more a concern of, ‘Will I be able to think through this as I do it and keep on making good decisions once I’m halfway done?'”Ralston, who remained in fair condition and is expected to stay at St. Mary’s into the weekend, appeared drawn and thin Thursday. His spirits, however, seemed largely intact. He greeted the media horde with a camera of his own, photographing the scene from the opposite side of the table, and spoke of a thirst for a margarita, whenever doctors “so allow.””Am I proud of what I did? I feel I did what I had to do,” he said later in response to a question. “What I’m most proud of are the people in my life. From the day that I severed my hand and got out of that canyon forward, what I’m most proud of is who I am, the way I carry myself and how I interact with the world.”The pain?”I’m not sure how I handled it. I felt pain. And I coped with it. I moved on.”About halfway through a narrow slot at the foot of Bluejohn Canyon, a boulder that Ralston was holding shifted onto his right hand. He was about 150 feet of scrambling and 60 feet of rappelling away from the sandy canyon floor that was the next part of his route.With the initial surge of adrenaline, Ralston first tried slamming his body against the 800-pound sandstone egg, which had re-lodged itself on its “pinch points,” on opposite sides of the 3-foot-wide slot.With a utility knife that Ralston described as “the kind of thing you get if you bought a $15 flashlight and you got a free multi-use tool along with it,” Ralston utilized two blades and a file in first trying to chip away at the rock where it met the wall. “Where I thought maybe I could force the boulder to rotate and change its geometry in relation to my hand,” he said.”I’m very much an engineer,” Ralston said of his decision-making process during the ordeal.Ralston rigged an anchor over his head on another chalkstone, enabling him to rest in the seat of his climbing harness and begin rigging an extensive pulley system to try and gain a mechanical advantage on the boulder.First Ralston tried a 1-to- ratio pulley, then 2-to-1, then 3-to-1. and finally a 5-to-1 pulley. “At no point was I ever able with any of the rope mechanisms to get the boulder to budge, even microscopically,” he said.An accomplished mountaineer and former Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council volunteer, Ralston moved to Aspen last November after quitting a mechanical engineering job with Intel in May for the chance to travel to, and summit, Denali. He climbed all seven of the fourteeners in the Elk Range near Aspen this past winter, solo, and has climbed 45 of 59 Colorado high points to date in that style.On Saturday morning, April 26, Ralston had dropped into the main fork of Bluejohn Canyon near Burr Pass, after a 15-mile, two-and-a-half-hour mountain bike ride from his truck at the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead. Ralston locked the bike to a tree, and about a half-hour’s hike later, he entered the canyon, “near, but not exactly at, the head of Bluejohn Canyon.”Shortly after, he encountered two young women hikers from Moab. The threesome traveled downstream in the main fork of Bluejohn for about two-and-a-half hours, over mixed terrain of scrambling down-climbs, sharing conversation and enjoying nice weather.The impromptu party split up where the main fork of Bluejohn intersects with the west fork; the two women proceeded upstream, the west fork, while Ralston continued down, toward Bluejohn’s confluence with Horseshoe Canyon, the finale piece of Ralston’s intended one-day loop.Initially, Ralston set out with “Three liters of water, four candy bars and two burritos; my rope, my harness, my rappelling equipment, some extra slings and [cara]biners and rap rigs, some camera equipment, batteries, CD players and some CDs,” he said.A half-hour after splitting up with the Moab hikers, Ralston was caught in the narrow slot area, an area he described as “serpentine,” and “semi-technical and very giving of its solitude.”About 150 feet into the slot, the boulder shifted onto his hand. That was about 3 p.m. Saturday, April 26.At that point, Ralston’s resources had already dwindled: “I had a liter of water, I still had two burritos, I had crumbs of a couple candy bars, stuck to the wrappers, which were an important item. I eventually went back and ate those crumbs.”Ralston first tried to cut his arm on Tuesday, the same day he ran out of water, but it wouldn’t cut. The knife was too badly damaged from chipping away at rock.”Essentially, I got my surgical table ready and applied the knife to the arm and starting sawing back and forth and it didn’t even break the skin,” he said. “I drank the last of my water, I settled back in, spent another night. There were other attempts … and I got as far as to puncture skin and then found that I couldn’t cut the bone.”By Thursday, after five nights in the slot, Ralston resorted to breaking the bones at the wrist, radius, then ulna against the vice force of the rock. It took Ralston about an hour to complete the crude amputation. He took his first sip of water in 48 hours from a dirty pool at the bottom of the “Big Drop” rappel, then walked six miles until he encountered the family from Holland and later the rescue helicopter, only about a mile from where he left his truck.”I came to peace with death over the course of the time that I spent in the canyon. I very much felt that if it were my time to go, it would be my time to go, that it wouldn’t matter what I did. But at the same time, the counterpositive of that came very much into play, too. That, if it weren’t my time to go, then it wasn’t going to be my time to go, and it wouldn’t matter what I did, I would get out of there.”So I prayed for the decision-making to stay my hand from doing anything irrational, and I prayed for signs of inspiration to keep coming up with new ideas.”The best times were when I got to think back over my life. I recalled so many great memories with all my friends and my family and my relatives … how many times I’ve had experiences that any of us would be lucky to squeeze into a lifetime twice as long as mine’s been so far, and I felt very happy during those moments.”The motivation for his liberating act, Ralston said, is less easily understood or explained.”The revelation that came was more an inspiration,” he said. “And once this happens, all the desires and joys and euphorias of a future life came rushing to me, and maybe this is how I handled the pain, was that I was so happy to have the opportunity to be taking action.”


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