For Ralston, the challenge is the draw |

For Ralston, the challenge is the draw

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The fine line that mountaineers walk is, at best, nebulous.

Only the sport’s finest practitioners can truly distinguish it, the same ones who are continually pushing it, redefining it and, inevitably, crossing it.

Mountaineering is unique in that fashion, chiefly because it involves staking one’s life against one’s judgments. It’s a formula that cannot be substituted from person to person, case to case, mountain to mountain or canyon to canyon.

For Aspen’s Aron Ralston, that was the appeal, and challenge, of solo climbing.

“It’s all me and my decisions,” Ralston told The Aspen Times in a March interview. “Again, I think it clarifies what I’m actually doing, what the actual risks are.”

Ralston’s goal to climb all 59 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks solo in winter saw him string together ascent after ascent since his first on the relative layup Quandary Peak in 1998. By the end of January of this year, he had climbed 43 high points in winter without a single turnaround or major incident, a testament to his ability, intellect and, foremost, unflagging ambition.

“Reading about the Everest tragedy in 1996, that was one of those things that got into my head in a way and motivated me to see, `I wonder what I would do if I was in a situation like that?'” Ralston said of his magnetism to mountaineering.

But last night, Neal Beidleman, the Aspen guide credited with helping five clients to safety in the 1996 Everest tragedy, was asking the same question of Ralston.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his shoes for one second,” said Beidleman, contacted by phone in Valdez, Alaska. “I have total admiration for how he went about that, and what he did.”

Beidleman, 43, was caught in the storm on Everest in ’96 that claimed 11 lives. In John Krakauer’s account “Into Thin Air,” Beidleman was depicted as a hero. Like Ralston, he faced a media frenzy in its aftermath as the ordeal was scrutinized.

But when asked where Ralston’s story ranks in modern mountaineering legend, Beidleman quickly demurred.

“I’ve never cut anything off,” he said.

“From what I know, it seems like it’s right up there with the great stories of survival, self-preservation and courage, all those things, but maybe even more importantly, in terms of how he thought it out.

“Somewhere along the way, he got together a plan about when and how he was going to do things to maximize his ability for survival, and he executed that. It’s unbelievable,” Beidleman continued.

After quitting an engineering job at Intel last June, for the opportunity to climb Denali, Ralston moved to Aspen in November with the goal of becoming a mountain guide. Esteemed local climbers/guides like Beidleman, if not by name, were part of the draw.

“This is an epicenter of guiding in this part of the country for the kind of trips I want to do,” Ralston said in March.

He first met Beidleman in late March, prior to the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, in which both competed.

But following the publication of an article on Ralston’s lofty exploits, Beidleman and other local mountaineers, several of whom are plying a route on Everest right now, were intrigued, and wanting to know more about him.

“Who is this kid?” asked Aspen’s Mike Marolt in March before departing for Everest. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”

But upon meeting Ralston, who like Beidleman had a legacy preceding him, Beidleman was impressed.

“I really liked his energy,” he said. “He was different from what I expected, maybe just that he was very, very thoughtful. We talked about hooking up and going out to do something together.”

And as media around the world awaits Ralston’s story, Beidleman – the subject of intense inquiry following the Everest tragedy – felt compelled to revisit Ralston’s already world-class resume.

“The part of mountaineering that people don’t get is that being a good mountaineer is finding your opportunities and taking advantage,” said Beidleman, who grew up in Aspen climbing nearby peaks.

“Climbing mountains is not a static thing – you can’t look at a summit and say that qualifies as X amount of risk or X amount of difficulty. If conditions are good, you can crampon up a gully [in winter] with the same relative safety as May 15 around here, but a week before or later, and you could be up to your waist in sugar snow and it’s terrifying.

“It all depends on when you go and how you go. And to be as successful as Aron, you have to have an appreciation of that. You don’t end up where Aron is making the wrong decisions. But when I first heard about him, I was pretty impressed with what he’s been doing. But I was also concerned: You don’t know him or his judgments, and it gives you pause, as it should.”

Beidleman, like Ralston, is an engineer by training, mountaineer by calling.

“He’s an engineer and I’m an engineer, and I was thinking about it in those terms,” Beidleman continued. “I was thinking he must have been thinking just like I think in a situation like that.

“But f–ing-A, what a story. The dude is tough as nails.”

[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is]

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