Did Climber Have to Cut Off Arm to Save Life?

July 24, 2003

It was Thursday, May 1st, five days after Aron Ralston had first entered Utah's Bluejohn Canyon on what should have been an eight-hour, 13-mile (21-kilometer) day hike. But on his way, while scrambling through a narrow section of the sandstone slot, Ralston dislodged an 800-pound (363-kilogram) chockstone that rolled on its pinch points and pinned his hand and forearm. His supplies—two burritos and three liters of water—were now gone, and there was virtually no chance of rescue. Unless Ralston did something drastic, he would not make it out alive.

Ralston, a 27-year-old mountaineer from Aspen, Colorado, is an experienced outdoorsman and a former member of the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council. Bluejohn Canyon was well within his technical and physical ability, but a freak accident had him trapped. What's worse, Ralston had broken his own first rule: He had failed to leave word with anyone of where he was going that day.

By the morning of May 1st, after five days trapped beneath the massive boulder, Ralston resolved set himself free by amputating his own right hand using his only resource—a multitool. He broke his radius and ulna then cut through the remaining skin and tendons, freeing himself and saving his life.

The media descended on the story in droves. Ralston was deemed a hero, a warrior, even (in one college newspaper headline) a "badass." But some in the local climbing community felt that there was another side to the story.

Rex Tanner is a ten-year search and rescue (SAR) veteran and commander of Grand County Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that is responsible for 3,600 square miles (9,324 square kilometers) near Bluejohn Canyon. His group participated in 80 rescues last year and was on call to aid in Ralston's rescue. Tanner, like many in the SAR community, has high praise for Ralston and his steely resolve, but questions some of the decisions that placed him in such a life-threatening situation in the first place. Here Tanner speaks on what Ralston did right, what he did wrong, and what the media left out of the story.

Describe the area Ralston was exploring.

He was in an area called the Maze. It's remote, probably up there in the top ten in terms of areas outside of population centers and difficulty to get to. To even go in and be able to explore areas in the Maze, you usually have to carry extra gasoline. I've hiked the Horseshoe Canyon area where he was picked up, and it doesn't get a lot of activity.

In such an area, what are the most common accidents?

Thirty to almost 40 percent of our incidents deal with mountain biking situations. For the most part, they're medical and injury circumstances and need assistance out of the backcountry. But it's not unusual to have people do exactly what Ralston did: Get themselves in a situation where they haven't told anybody where they're going, climb down into an area that's questionable, and not be able to get out.

Ralston was trapped for five days in the canyon and managed to self-rescue. How does that compare to other incidents?

Well, I think that he fared a lot better than most people would have. To realize that you're going to have to make a large sacrifice to survive, and acting on it—I have to hand it to him. I mean, there are a lot of people that would not have been as strong-minded to be able to pull that off.

During those five days, what was the most important thing he did to survive?

Continued on Next Page >>


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