Now that’s hardcore!
My hand or my life – the hand had to go
By Peter Fray in Amsterdam : October 23, 2004
Aron Ralston still goes back there, to the place deep in the Utah mountains where after six days pinned to a rock and hours from death, he experienced the “epiphany” that saved his life.
He was there again yesterday, in part sharing his amazing survival with friends, in part reliving the moment when he realised that only by breaking his arm and cutting his right hand off would he beat the odds.
It was a euphoric moment.
“There was no hesitation, no should I or shouldn’t I,” he told the Herald three days earlier in Amsterdam. “Break the bones? Hell, yeah! Then I pick up the knife and I’m going at it. It’s just an hour and five minutes, maybe four, from that time and it was over. I was free.
“To me the amputation is the most beautiful experience I’ll ever have in my life because it comes from the contrast of being dead in my grave for six days and [then] having my life back.
“My sense of euphoria is never more intense than when I am actually in that spot. It brings me to tears to be there. It is the tears of joy – how happy can you possibly be to be alive. I like going back there.”
Ralston’s story of self-amputation has rapidly become the stuff of legend. Now he has put the tale into his own words in the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
For once, the cliche seems incredibly appropriate.
The book may not be for the squeamish, but it vividly charts the boundaries of human endurance, pain and spirituality.
“Out of curiosity, I poke my thumb with the knife blade twice,” Ralston writes of his fateful decision. “On the second prodding, the blade punctures the epidermis as if it is dipping into a stick of room-temperature butter, and releases a telltale hissing. Escaping gases are not good; the rot had advanced more quickly than I had guessed. Though the smell is faint to my desensitised nose, it is abjectly unpleasant, the stench of a far-off carcass. I lash out in fury, trying to yank my forearm straight out from the sandstone handcuff, never wanting more than I do now to simply rid myself of any connection to this decomposing appendage.
“I don’t want it. It’s not part of me. It’s garbage.”
Ralston’s ordeal began during a five-day holiday in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in late April last year.
He had arrived there plan-free in a truck loaded with outdoor gear, including skis, camping gear and a mountain bike.
Ralston liked options and liked to climb alone. He chose to do an easy walk, but despite his considerable climbing experience, he made a near-fatal mistake. He did not tell anyone his plans. “I thought it was a low-risk situation … compared to some of the things I do by myself. It was just a walk in the sand,” he said.
On the afternoon of Saturday April 26, as he navigated up Blue John Canyon, Ralston came to what he thought was an easy three-metre drop.
It wasn’t, and in a blinding moment of panic and misfortune, he brought a 400-kilogram boulder down on himself, crushing his right hand against the canyon wall.
“Good Christ, my hand,” he writes. “The flaring agony throws me into panic. I grimace and growl a sharp ‘f–k’. My mind commands my body, ‘Get your hand out of there!’ I yank my arm three times in a naive attempt to pull it out. But I’m stuck.”
Over the next few days, Ralston tried frantically to free himself, first by hacking at the boulder with his pen knife, then by trying to move the rock with a makeshift pulley system and finally by cutting his hand off.
But the blade could not cut through the bone.
He could not sleep in the freezing cold nights and he did not pass out due to the pain. He is not sure why, but thinks that was all part of the “miracle” of his survival.
By day four Ralston was out of water and delusional. By day six he was drinking his own urine. “If I am going to live, why am I drinking my own urine?” he writes in the book published by Simon & Schuster. “Isn’t that the classic mark of a condemned man? I have been sentenced and left to decay.”
But then, the epiphany. A voice in his head tells him the way out: break your arm. “I had stabbed myself on the fourth day but still I knew I had the bones. That was what changed that instant at 10.30 on Thursday morning. Up to that point I was going to be stuck by the bones. I didn’t have a saw. I didn’t have a way to get through the bones.”
Ralston realised that by moving his body weight around against the boulder he could snap the ulna and radius one after the other. Then it was only a matter of stabbing through the skin and carefully cutting away the tendons and arteries. He applied a tourniquet to stall the blood loss. “Prodding and pinching, I can distinguish between the hard tendon and ligaments, and the soft, rubbery feel of the more pliable arteries,” he writes. “I should avoid cutting the arteries until the end if I can help it at all. Why did I have to suffer all this extra time? God, I must be the dumbest guy to ever have his hand trapped by a boulder. It took me six days to figure out how I could cut off my arm.”
Ralston has an answer to that question. The voice was a form of divine intervention, timed perfectly to coincide with a full-scale rescue attempt that was being mounted.
Who or what was the voice?
“I don’t know. Another Aron or God. I think it is some essence of a divine spirit which I think is also part of my spirit.”
After about three hours of hiking, cradling his bloody stump, he found a family of Dutch tourists and was soon after airlifted to hospital in Moab, Utah. His parents and friends had raised the alarm.
In between his love affair with the great outdoors, Ralston, a mechanical engineer by training, now spends his time sharing his story as a motivational and after-dinner speaker. He sees it as his duty, although he concedes it is a way of making a living.
He describes his survival as a miracle, a blessing and a curse.
Several people have written to him to say his story had inspired them to change their lives as he had a year before the accident when he left a well-paid job in the technology sector to dedicate his life to climbing and other outdoors pursuits.
“These people who credit the story with having saved them from depression and suicide – it’s a kind of a burden too. It’s a very heavy thing. It gives me a great sense of obligation then to know my story has that kind of power.
“What kind of responsibility do I have on my shoulders if I ever stop telling it, knowing there’s somebody who has yet to hear it and this makes the difference in their life. It’s not only been a blessing in my life, it’s been a blessing to the world. It’s been a blessing to other people. Things are different now. I live with a sense not just of a deeper appreciation of my life but also a deeper sense of purpose.”
Ralston, an intense, grey-eyed and lithe man, has several keepsakes of his ordeal. One is his new prosthetic arm, a smooth, near-bionic device that enables him to peel a tangerine, play piano (a long-standing passion) and, most importantly, still climb.
Until recently, another was an old enemy: the cremated remains of his hand, wrist and lower forearm.
It took 13 people over four days to retrieve Ralston’s hand. They had to use pulleys, jacks and timber framing. Ralston was told it looked like a “black leather driving glove”. He recently returned the ashes to the scene of the accident, but while he was writing his book, he kept them nearby. “It was in my parent’s house,” he said. “I enjoyed showing it to my friends when they came and visited. Then it was just sitting there on a table beside the bed I was sleeping on in the middle of the living room in my parents house. It had this little label on the front: ‘Contents – the right hand, forearm, bones, thumb and four fingers, Aron Ralston recovered May 4, 2003.’ “
His most poignant and disturbing memories from Utah are on tape. He had a camcorder with him and as the days went on he used it to record a series of messages to his friends and family. The last, taped on the morning of the sixth day, is his own will and farewell message. Slurring and virtually incoherent, he asks his friends to scatter his ashes over some of his favourite climbs.
Ralston said his mother, Donna, hated watching the video. “When I watched with my Mom, we were both crying the whole time, and holding hands,” he said. “It was really hard for her and she wished she hadn’t seen it afterwards … It’s the moving images of seeing how my head was falling all over the place … hearing how my voice changes octaves in the course of the experience.”
Ralston’s rehabilitation took four months and five operations, including 17 days in hospital and six weeks on antibiotics to ward off the blood and bone infections he had caught while trapped. But as soon as he was off the serious drugs, he was back on the adventure trail. He sees climbing as a passionate obligation to himself, and in December plans to climb South America’s Mount Aconcagua,the highest peak in the Western hemisphere.
“I believe my purpose of this planet is to express my soul,” he said. “To figure out what it is that’s going to fulfil my soul’s desires. In doing that I find happiness in my life.”
Ralston’s most-lasting memento is the ghost of his right hand. It tingles all the time. “It feels like my fist is balled up inside, loosely like it was holding something. It never changes.”
How wrong the body can be.