Ralston’s grit grips world | AspenTimes.com

Ralston’s grit grips world

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The pulley system he rigged to try and budge the boulder.

The four tourniquets of climbing rope with which he bound his biceps, then the staggering reports of blood loss after crude surgery with a utility knife.

The technical, one-handed rappel of a 60- to 80-foot pitch, the five-mile march that nearly delivered him back to his truck and the self-rescue before the chopper arrived.

The self-determination and sheer perseverance.

The Aron Ralston saga, and its continuing bittersweet resolution, has gripped national and international media.

But as the world marvels at Ralston and his phenomenal story of survival, and life on the highest of edges, it’s the 27-year-old mountaineer’s friends who are least surprised.

They know his whatever-it-takes resolve.

“When he was missing I told people, `I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m not going to think he’s dead for 20 or 25 days,'” said Rachel Polver, one of Ralston’s close friends from Aspen.

“He’s too incredible, too intelligent; I knew he was capable of overcoming whatever it was,” continued Polver, who works at The Aspen Times.

Doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction planned to operate on Ralston’s severed right arm for a second time today, according to a hospital spokesman.

Listed in fair condition, Ralston needs formal closure of the wound – described as being in the “forearm area” – that will suit a prosthetic device.

Ralston and his family had not spoken publicly as of Sunday night, nor was Ralston seeing visitors yet, but he did contact at least one local friend by phone on Sunday.

“The quote from him would be, `I’m doing well,'” said Bryan Welker of Basalt.

“He said to thank everyone for the care package, and that he was feeling very loved.”

On Friday, Polver delivered a care package to St. Mary’s, complete with cards from friends and supporters, and spoke with Ralston’s mom, Donna.

“I got him like eight different climbing and skiing magazines, and cookies and brownies because we know how much he can eat,” Polver said, starting to chuckle.

“His mom told me when they asked him what he wanted for breakfast Friday morning, the first thing he said was, `Bring on the pancakes. Let’s start with them.'”

Ralston’s six-day ordeal ended Thursday about 3 p.m., when a search-and-rescue helicopter picked him up in the Great Gallery section of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

He was covered in blood and supporting the severed arm, cradled in a makeshift sling made from his Camelback, with his left. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and was still bleeding heavily.

Described as calm throughout, Ralston matter-of-factly began telling rescuers the story as they flew him to the hospital in Moab.

“The only thing he wanted from us was water because he had run out of it on Tuesday – two days before he cut himself free,” one of the rescuers, Sgt. Mitch Vetere of the Emery County Sheriff’s Office, told The Associated Press.

As Ralston scrambled over boulders through a narrow, 3-foot-wide section of Blue John Canyon, the one on which his right hand rested shifted. Rescuers later estimated it rolled 2 feet before re-lodging itself, and pinning Ralston.

That was Saturday, April 26. For five days, he attempted to free himself.

“It was very sobering because we saw the ropes he had rigged to try and get pulley action” on the boulder, said Terry Mercer, the helicopter pilot who returned to the scene with two deputies to try to free the arm Thursday night, May 1, the day of Ralston’s self-rescue.

The 800-pound egg-shaped rock, covered in blood, wouldn’t move.

Last night, authorities said a crew of 13, equipped with winch devices, managed to move it into a more stable position after a half-day’s work. The arm was retrieved and taken to a mortuary.

Upon arrival at the Moab hospital Thursday afternoon, Ralston walked off the helicopter, still bleeding, and into the emergency room. He requested pain medication immediately, according to a story in The Denver Post.

In the first statement released by Ralston’s mother, she said: “During this incident, he was able to rationally consider his alternatives relative to his situation. His spirits are high, and he anxiously looks forward to returning to his love of the outdoors.”

“What kind of person does it take to do what he did?” asked Welker, Ralston’s friend. “Like his mom said, he was in really good physical and mental condition. And anyone who knows Aron, knows that.

“Personally, I think the story is the story.”

Just as Ralston’s rescuers have unanimously saluted him, Ralston has already saluted them right back. Ralston, a three-year member of the Albuquerque, N.M., Mountain Rescue Council, has been attending meetings with Aspen Mountain Rescue in hopes of becoming a member here.

“During the last few days, Aron and his family have reflected on the tremendous work of search-and-rescue volunteers in the planning and logistics of his rescue. … Aron and the family would like to thank everyone involved,” Ralston said in a second statement released Saturday.

In a break from form for Ralston, he did not leave behind an itinerary for the Blue John Canyon to Horseshoe Canyon excursion.

Aspen Police Officer Adam Crider, tracing credit card charges, narrowed the search for Ralston to the Moab area on Wednesday. The day before, Ralston’s friends and family filed a missing person report with Crider after Ralston failed to show up for his shift at the Ute Mountaineer.

The itinerary omission, and Ralston’s affinity for solitary expeditions, has led to criticism.

“Doing technical climbing in there alone was extremely poor judgment,” said Canyonlands ranger Jim Blazik in a Rocky Mountain News article.

Ralston has summitted 45 of 59 Colorado Fourteeners in winter, by himself, including all seven of the nearby Elks this past winter, and all 59 high points in summer conditions. He climbed Denali in Alaska last June and spends most every weekend in the backcountry.

In an interview with The Aspen Times in March, he spoke candidly about the risks and rewards of pursuing his passion.

“It’s all unnecessary, but at the same time it’s entirely necessary for me,” he said.

“It’s ironic that it ends up being such a freak thing that happened to him. But it wasn’t because he made a mistake,” said Ray Peritz, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen, in a wire report.

“Even if he had 100 people with him, would that have made a difference? Probably not. If someone else was there he would have just suffered less.”

A doctor from the Moab hospital told reporters, “There’s no way it didn’t hurt a great deal.”

Dr. Bobby Hudgins, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department, said the amputation was not clean, and that Ralston’s entire arm was damaged.

“I think he gritted his teeth for so long over the five days and that last very painful day,” Hudgins said in a report in The Denver Post.

“It was time to give him some relief,” Hudgins said of Ralston’s request for painkillers.

As of Sunday afternoon, four network satellite TV trucks and one other local TV news team were camped at St. Mary’s Hospital, according to spokesman Dan Prinster. “And it’s our understanding that other crews are en route,” he said.

“Good Morning America” was planning a live broadcast from Aspen today, and The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post (which ran page 1 stories Saturday) and National Enquirer are actively chasing the story, too.

The Aspen Times received e-mails from well-wishers internationally, including one from Jerry Clement of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Clement wrote:

“My daughter Jennifer, age 17, has always said her hero Lance Armstrong was No. 1. However, that has all changed, Lance has been replaced by Aron Ralston.”

Ralston’s friends, meanwhile, are hoping to see him whenever he’s ready. That could be later this week.

The lasting comment, for now, about the epic story was also one of the first ones, reported Friday in The Aspen Times:

“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.

“He really struck me,” said Swanke, who met with Ralston at the Moab hospital for about an hour. “He was superbly strong.”

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

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