Ralston talks with students about ordeal in Utah desert
Aspen Times Staff Writer
DENVER – It was fitting homecoming for Aron Ralston.
The now-legendary mountaineer, once a terrified, self-conscious seventh-grader when his family first moved to Colorado from Indiana, returned to the same middle school Tuesday where he learned to fit in. Ralston delivered his first speech since cutting off the lower portion of his right arm on May 1 to escape an 800-pound boulder that had trapped him for five days in a Utah canyon.
Looking healthy and energized, and with the arm in a sling, he spoke to two assemblies of students at West Middle School in Cherry Hills Village.
“I remember being in this gymnasium and being teased because my tube socks had colored stripes at the top, and everyone else’s were just white,” said Ralston, a 1989 graduate of West Middle School, in his speech.
“As you can see today, I’ve given in to that pressure and my socks are plain white. The point is that too often, we are too willing to judge others by what we see on the surface.”
While an automatic slide show displayed images from Ralston’s climbs in the background, Ralston summoned climbing and personal anecdotes and combined humorous and serious tones to urge youngsters to pursue their passions. He also urged the students to accept people with differences, to give back to their communities, and, of course, to let their parents or loved ones know where they are.
After the speech, Ralston told media that he hoped the students would take away this message: “To follow your dreams and not let anyone tell you you can’t have something that you deeply want in your life.”
Ralston has undergone five surgeries on his arm since the amputation and self-rescue on May 1. He was discharged from St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction on May 10, but three days later, a Denver orthopedic surgeon discovered an infection in the arm.
That led to three more surgeries, including one seven-hour operation and four more days of hospitalization, in order to maintain the length of the arm “which will make it possible for me to ultimately achieve maximum use,” Ralston said.
He will be fitted with a prosthetic arm in about a month – something akin to a “pirate’s hook,” he joked, in full brogue. In two to three months, Ralston expects to be fully independent again.
Since returning to his parents’ home in Centennial, Ralston has focused on his recovery. Publicly, he had not been seen since the first press conference in Grand Junction on May 8.
With yesterday’s speech, however, Ralston initiated the process of formally meeting the press. He was expected to appear on major network morning shows this morning and plans to sit with print media next week.
And yesterday’s remarks – perhaps an indication of his restored vigor – came just a few hours after Ralston and a group of friends were VIP guests of Phish frontman Trey Anastasio at the Fillmore in Denver.
Ralston reported that he and 25 friends owned the front-and-center dancing space, all night and into the morning.
“What a thrill,” he said.
Ralston’s 10-page speech, which his 22-year-old sister Sonja helped him prepare, ran about 20 minutes.
Only once did he appear choked with emotion, and that was on the second time through it.
Asking students for a show of hands whether they thought he qualified as, “Heroic, courageous, inspirational, amazing, tough or cool?” Ralston did so again, this time asking the same thing of other people with disabilities.
“What were your thoughts then? Did you think, `I’m glad that’s not me,’ or `I feel sorry for him,’ or `I wouldn’t want to be seen at the movies with her?'”
Ralston’s eyes filled, but he swallowed and pressed on.
After each assembly, Ralston fielded a dozen questions from the students.
“When you cut it off, did you go through muscles and vessels?” asked one student, who stood no taller than 4 feet.
“Yes,” Ralston replied, adding that the only thing he couldn’t cut was the bone.
“Will you ever climb solo again?” asked another from high up in the bleachers.
“I certainly foresee that happening because it’s something that’s very important to me … Spending time alone is a very spiritual thing for me as well and sometimes I compare it to going to church. Yes, I do see myself going out alone but not without leaving word about where I’m going,” Ralston said.
“How has it changed your life?” asked another student.
“I think I have a greater appreciation of the time I have here. I wake up every morning with a different sense of what it is that I’m here to do,” he said.
Later, when Ralston sat for the media, a reporter from National Geographic Adventure magazine asked Ralston whether he planned to finish his winter solo project of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. To date, Ralston has climbed 45 of the 59 Fourteeners solo in winter, including all seven of the nearby Elk Range.
“I think that’s a key question,” Ralston said. “That’s something I’ve been talking with myself about, whether that’s an appropriate goal. And then it came to be, `There’s nothing appropriate about it.’ If it’s something that I feel I want to do, I will do it.
“To me, it’s less about finishing the list as it is about going out and having the experiences, and I think that since I’m drawn to having those experiences, I will certainly be drawn to going out and going after it. I am kind of a list completer in some senses, but I’m not tempted to go beyond what I’m comfortable with. And while that might be different than what other people are comfortable with, that’s what I will be doing. Maybe it’s not this winter, but maybe it will be this winter, or maybe it will be over the course of the next few or however it works out.”
In a follow-up question about criticism Ralston received for taking inappropriate risks, Ralston continued on the thought:
“I think that it’s all personal decisions, and I think that’s what freedom is about. … I have to say I accept those criticisms because I understand that we’re all different and we all have different styles. Especially within the climbing community, so much of it comes down to aesthetic, as far as the purity. [And that] is something that we all decide upon for ourselves. I think it’s fair to criticize other people: I would ask for them to at least accept that I have the ability to make my own decisions and that I let them make their own decisions, too.”
[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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After nine months of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Wheeler Opera House will reopen for local acts. A touchless reservation system will be open to 53 people for in-person at the venue. Online live streaming also will be available.