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Peak Performer

Tim Mutrie

One screw was gone and the other five were coming loose.

As Aron Ralston collected himself at 13,900 feet on Mount Wilson, following a dicey, off-route traverse on a solo climbing mission, he was astonished to see his ice-tool rattling free. The tool, attached to his prosthetic right arm by a socket joint and held fast by screws, was about to fall off.

Climbing in mid-March, Ralston had expected avalanche slopes, cornices, deep, loose snow and mixed rock-and-ice climbing. But loose screws? What he really needed at that moment ” the frailties of his high-tech hand exposed, just like those of his real hand, one year ago this week ” was a multi-tool. Or just a screwdriver.

“What am I going to need a knife for?” Ralston said about his decision to leave it in his tent.

So, using his ice ax and a mountaintop prayer not to drop any precious metal pieces into the snow, an emergency fix commenced. Three times the former mechanical engineer took apart his prosthetic wrist ” where forearm meets either hook, pick or enhanced plastic hand ” and three times he screwed it back together.

At last, he got it right.

Thirty minutes later, Ralston stood at 14,246 feet in the San Juan Mountains, on the summit of his second fourteener in two days, numbers 46 and 47 on his list. The perch also afforded Ralston views of 11 nearby San Juan peaks, the lion’s share of what remains in his 6-year-old attempt to solo-climb all 59 ” by Ralston’s count ” of Colorado’s 14,000-footers in winter. (Most peak baggers consider 54 Colorado peaks to be fourteeners.)

Now 28, Ralston became famous last spring, after a five-day brush with death in Utah’s remote Bluejohn Canyon. Trapped by a boulder on April 26, he escaped by severing his own right arm on Thursday, May 1.

Since the accident, made worse in part by his failure to tell anyone of his whereabouts, Ralston has become a cell-phone owner. And though he failed to bring a simple multi-tool on his Mount Wilson ascent, he did leave a detailed itinerary with a friend.

When he emerged from the San Juan backcountry, both exhilarated and exhausted, he called to say he was OK. Then, piloting the same five-speed pickup that authorities hunted last spring in their frantic search of the Canyonlands, Ralston drove back to Aspen and boarded a plane for Monterey, Calif.

There, he gave an inspirational speech, one of about 10 so far for school groups and corporate audiences. The one-armed Aspen mountaineer has become a minor celebrity, known around the country and even abroad. But the solo fourteener climbs marked a private, and more meaningful, victory for Ralston.

“That was the culmination,” he said last week at Explore Bistro.

“Other people had a lot more confidence than me, saying I’d be back soloing fourteeners in winter, no problem. But honestly, I had my doubts. I know how hard it is,” he said.

And the risks?

“Yeah. I think about it. But it hasn’t changed me. I haven’t backed off,” he said. “It just gives me one more thing to overcome, another element of fear, and it’s the exercise of playing through that, going ahead with a bold initiative, where I get satisfaction.”

No slowing down

On April 14, the same day he road-tripped across the desert with Aspen friends to hit three Phish concerts in Las Vegas, Ralston submitted to a New York editor the final manuscript for a book chronicling his Bluejohn experience. The book is scheduled for release by Atria Books on Sept. 14, coinciding with a Dateline NBC documentary with Tom Brokaw. Domestic and international book tours are planned, including spots on Letterman and Oprah, and foreign-language editions will come out six months after the English version.

Meanwhile, during the editing stage, Ralston has time and plenty of ambition to climb and explore. He’s penciled in a jaunt or two through Utah’s Black Box Canyon for May, and in June it’s the East Face of Mount Whitney in California, the tallest peak in the lower 48. After that, it’s a ski mountaineering route on Mount Shasta, another California fourteener.

“I’d say he hasn’t slowed down a bit,” said Elliott Larson of Aspen, a friend who skied with Ralston in the 40-mile Elk Mountains Grand Traverse race from Crested Butte to Aspen in April.

“And I’m not surprised,” added Larson, “not because having part of a limb missing isn’t a big deal, rather because doing things in the outdoors are so important to him.”

The Easter ham

Last April, Ralston soloed Cathedral Peak near Ashcroft on the day the Pine Creek Cookhouse burned down. He claims the historic eatery was still intact when he skied past it that afternoon. But the following morning, as an Aspen Times group skied past the ashes toward the Lindley Hut, Ralston ” a newcomer to the annual excursion ” was fingered as a prime arson suspect.

Soloists, after all, don’t have alibis.

This winter, Ralston’s name again found its way onto the Times’ sign-up sheet for the trip. He showed up with a ski pole clutched in his prosthetic vise, bearing his usual bounty ” the famous margaritas, a battery-powered blender and a bottomless well of hilarious and chilling stories. He was a ham one moment and a stoic philosopher the next.

On Easter morning, Ralston was doing dishes and had been asked to expedite the production of pancakes. He demonstrated the versatility of his hook “appliance” by pinching a sponge and plunging it into a sputtering-hot pan of bacon grease and water. In a minute, the pan was clean and hotcake-ready.

After breakfast, Ralston, a telemarker, pointed to a basin above the hut ” the northwest basin of Star Peak, he surmised. We’d eyed the spot a year before, and with a foot of fresh snow blanketing the Cooper Creek drainage on a bluebird Easter Day, we agreed to do some exploring.

After several sets of high and lonesome turns, I asked him what this holiest of Christian holidays had meant to him.

“It’s the last Thursday of April for me, kind of like my resurrection, my own personal little Easter,” he said. “It was a miracle.”

Big Thursday

For Ralston, the anniversary of his Bluejohn Canyon escape will be a celebration. He and his family will observe the occasion on Thursday, April 29, the fifth Thursday of the month (it fell on May 1 last year).

“All my relatives will be around, a big barbecue, and my dad will be grilling out back,” he said. “My dad just called me up, ‘How do you make margaritas? What do I need to buy?’ So we’ll be using the special Ralston recipe, the ones I couldn’t stop thinking about in the canyon.”

Traveling in the Czech Republic until Wednesday, April 28, Ralston promised his mom he’d be home near Denver for the party that night. The next day, he’ll deliver a speech honoring his mom ” who along with Larson, spearheaded the initial search for him ” in a benefit event for Warren Village, a Denver residential-living program that helps single parents, mostly moms, secure career-track livelihoods. Ralston doesn’t expect it to be a tough day.

The six-month anniversary, however, when he returned to Bluejohn Canyon with Brokaw and friends and a TV crew, was a different story. Ralston stood on the rock that pinned him, and later, by himself in the slot, he spread the cremated ashes of his hand.

“That was emotional, that was intense, it was like going to my own funeral because I was back.” he said. “That specific location was my grave for six days.”

“Going back there was bringing it to closure. I cried in my truck from Moab at least until I hit the state line on my way home, just feeling like I’d closed it. From that point on, I haven’t felt like there’s been anything I’ve really grieved about or felt sorrowful over. …

“Psychologically, the summer had been difficult with all the recuperation and recovery,” he recalled. “But that trip to Moab marked me ” not only am I recovered but I’ve closed this loop by going back to that same place. … I closed it rather neatly, I think.”

The way back

Next winter is already “blocked out,” Ralston said, in order to pursue the final act of his fourteener project.

“Now I have the confidence that I can finish,” he said. “And I’ll be back to doing it full on.”

But the road back was rough. After five surgeries, eight weeks of monitored rest and intravenous drug cocktails due to a bone infection, Ralston returned to hiking and biking in June, rock climbing in July, alpine climbing in the Tetons by October, then skiing and winter-climbing in November.

A former mountain rescue member in Albuquerque, N.M., Ralston passed a 10-day wilderness first-responder medical course in October and, with that certification, became a junior member of Mountain Rescue Aspen in January.

Still, in order to become self-reliant for soloing, Ralston had to relearn basic functions, from everyday tasks to mountain-specific skills.

“How do I set up a tent by myself with my prosthetics? How do I use a stove by myself? How do I do the pit-zips on my jacket? Re-arranging just how I catalog my belongings when I’m out ” everything’s in my left-side pockets now,” he said. “It takes up so much brainpower when you’ve got to think everything through.”

Ralston’s dad, Larry, said Aron struggled in the early stages.

“As you can imagine,” Larry said, “he wanted things to go very quickly. For every parent, you’d like to see your children avoid the frustrating times, the difficult times, but there were times like that and no one could help him with it. But if you stick it out, things will work out.”

Ralston switched climbing styles, shifting from carrying a single alpine ax on winter fourteener solos to a mixed-climbing approach that employs ice-tools in both hands, in order to favor his strengths. Refining his skiing skills and improving his fitness during the early winter, Ralston balanced time devoted to his physical recovery with writing the book. He didn’t allow himself the luxury of a ski pass, and instead attached climbing skins to his skis whenever he wanted to go downhilling (with the occasional lift ride from midway up on Aspen Highlands).

Ralston had to force himself to sit down and write, and the experience proved therapeutic.

“The act of writing the book got it all sorted out for me,” he said. “It was like solving a puzzle. I’d have really subtle memories of things and I couldn’t remember when they happened, but the exercise of processing it all, documenting it, writing everything down, going back and trying to remember as much as I possibly could, forcing myself to spend hours and hours remembering it, cataloging it, and getting to that place where I could think about it on a daily basis … It made me wrestle with it and really figure out what happened out there, and come to terms with it.”

Revisiting certain Phish tunes, like the album that was playing on his headset when the boulder pinned him, helped Ralston plumb the depths of his memory.

“The smell of my Chap Stick,” he recalled. “After I ran out of food, out of water, that was the only thing I had. I even took a chunk out of it and tried to chew it and eat it, but I couldn’t eat it,” he continued, bursting out laughing. “You can’t eat petroleum goo ” like, what was I thinking?”

Ralstar Enterprises

Ralston is now the owner and operator of newly formed Ralstar Enterprises. With his celebrity, he recognizes some of his privacy is lost and that his public image is important. The producer/director of “Touching the Void” is interested in Ralston’s story for the silver screen, as is the mega-studio Dreamworks. But Ralston says those possibilities are a couple years down the road.

Leaning back and surveying the big picture, one year later, Ralston grins and laughs out loud. Being the center of so much attention sometimes baffles even the unflappable Ralston.

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “I can’t complain about it too much because what it’s done is provide me with an amazing opportunity. I almost said obscene opportunity. I laugh about it sometimes, but it’s this opportunity to write about my life and just let the checks roll in the rest of my life.”

So, the climbing bum who couch-surfed during his first six weeks in Aspen in 2002 now owns a $450,000 condo in Hunter Creek. (Currently, it is being remodeled to include a sound system to rival anything on Red Mountain).

“Eminem wrote a song talking about it,” he paraphrases: “‘Don’t blame me for the twistedness of our society, that I just talk about these things and go to pick up my checks at the mailbox. You guys are the ones paying me to do this.'”

The media blitz in the coming year promises to be another wild ride for Ralston, but he says a long-term vision helps him keep it all in perspective.

“I get bored easily,” Ralston continues. “I mean, as much as I love to recreate, I can only do so much of it before my mind needs some intellectual stimulation. … The speaking engagements, the talks, hopefully the book, they can affect people. But where I want to take all this is to promote a cause for the land, the animals, the wilderness, the places that have inspired me to do what I do in my life. Because If I’ve inspired other people, then I owe something back to that.”

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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