Thursday, February 7, 2008

Hiker’s self-amputation for survival ‘transforming’

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
— Aron Ralston took a Yale University audience Wednesday on an emotionally exhausting journey from the poetic high of his descriptions of the Utah wilderness to the despair he felt trapped in a canyon waiting to die, and on to his ultimate survival.
Ralston, now 32, is the experienced mountaineer hiker who had to commit an unimaginable act to save his life back in April 2003.
Pinned by an 800-pound boulder that had shifted as he made his way alone through a narrow passage in Bluejohn Canyon and facing dehydration and hypothermia, he took a cheap multitool and amputated his right hand just past his wrist.
The former mechanical engineer, who left a job with Intel to become a mountaineer guide, talked for about two hours to students at the School of Forestry and Environmental Science about his ordeal and what he has learned.
He often gives talks to corporate sponsors to raise money for environmental causes, but Ralston spoke for free at Yale, where he later signed his book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
It was as much a description of a spiritual journey as one of physical and mental endurance, as the climber recalled his rage at his situation and his black despair when he felt he was “already in his grave” as he stayed wedged between the canyon walls for five days before he broke the bones in his arm to begin freeing himself.
Ralston said after he took responsibility for all his choices that led to that moment, he was then able to take responsibility to get himself out.
“Being accountable for choices in your life is what gives you the power to make new choices and change your situation,” Ralston told the mainly student audience.
The description of his cutting through tendons and muscle and the excruciating pain of severing a nerve was difficult to listen to.
Ralston confronted his mortality by filming what he thought was his last night, speaking into a video camera he had with him and telling his family of his love for them.
He said there was a kind of serenity for a type A personality to let go and to understand what you can control and what you have no control over.
But just as he did that, Ralston said he had a vision of sorts where he saw a small child running toward him, whom he hoisted up on his shoulders.
“It reminded me of what it’s like to be young and full of life,” he said, calling it “a spark of hope in the darkness that carried me through that night.”
He freed himself the next day, and encountered a Dutch family who were hiking in the area. Their timing and the rescue mission his mother had set off days earlier all came together to get him out of the Utah desert and to a hospital barely in time to save his life.
“I really believe it was all a set of miracles that kept adding up,” Ralston said of his survival.
He said the ordeal was not the tragedy, but something that has transformed him.
What you accomplish in life isn’t important, he said.
“It’s about knowing who you are, how you relate to people and about who you love,” Ralston said.
Having regained his athletic ability, Ralston continues to hike and climb mountains.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731 or

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