Did Climber Have to Cut Off Arm to Save Life?

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I think the number one thing is that he kept his head. Ralston is experienced in the backcountry, and that experience builds confidence. In an emergency situation, confidence builds a stable mental frame of mind. And that's really important. There's probably a lot of people walking around thinking they can deal with those types of situations, but I've seen people end their lives out there because they completely lost their mental stability.

What could Ralston have done to avoid this?

He could have left a note. He could have had a buddy. To me, one of the biggest problems out there is people don't tell someone that they're going to a particular location. It's really not that difficult to do, and to me, it doesn't take away from the wilderness experience.

Once Ralston made it to the hospital, his story was broadcast from England to Brazil. What do you think those reports left out?

What bothered me was the way the media made him out to be quite a hero. But they never talked about how the guy got himself into trouble because he really made some poor decisions. What's kind of irritating is that rescuers have to go out and deal with those types of situations—a lot—and most of the time they're preventable. When one person, in this case Aron Ralston, gets himself into trouble, a bunch of SAR volunteers' lives may be placed in jeopardy in order to help him.

Can you explain that point?

Even when you have trained experts that are conducting rescue activities, the environment that you're working in—whether it be the top of Mount Everest or the North Pole or out here in the middle of the desert, out in the middle of canyon country—is a dangerous environment. No training or equipment can completely remove the danger from the wilderness. If a SAR volunteer is conducting a nighttime rescue, walking along canyon rims with no moon, he can step through a slot just as easily as anyone else. That's something that the public doesn't seem to give much thought to. Because one guy (Aron Ralston) got himself into a particular situation, 15 or 16 SAR volunteers will be placed in a similar, potentially deadly, scenario.

What basic tips would you suggest to help people avoid a situation like this?

You need enough information about what you're getting ready to do, so you're prepared, so you really have an understanding. Having enough water is number one. Being able to start a fire is number two. The proper clothing is important. A cell phone can be a big help. As long as you're not down in the bottom of a canyon, you've got excellent coverage. Also, having your ego in check, realizing that you may be getting in over your head, is essential. In an age of extreme sports, people are getting themselves into more difficult situations all the time. People come into the area, and in a lot of cases they have a kind of superman mentality—they are trying to push the envelope. You must understand your limitations. If you climb down into a canyon slot, have you already figured out how you're going to get out?

What can you do if you encounter a backcountry emergency?

It's a matter of keeping your head and using your resources. That's what's so significant about Aron. He had water, a knife, and the skills that allowed him to pull off what he did—in addition to having the guts to cut his arm off. Survival still goes back to some pretty basic skills and some basic thoughts in terms of how to react. Even in this day and age, it isn't really any more sophisticated than that.

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