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CMU grad describes cutting off his arm to save his life

'I felt pain and I coped with it. I moved on'

Friday, May 09, 2003

By J. Michael Kennedy, Los Angeles Times

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- The mountaineer who amputated his own arm when it became trapped under a boulder in a remote Utah canyon described yesterday how he had to snap the forearm bones before cutting into his flesh with a dull knife.

Climber Aron Ralston arrives for a news conference at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., yesterday with his father, Larry. (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press)

At a news conference here 27-year-old Aron Ralston, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, detailed the events leading up to the amputation and how he was then able to rappel down a steep cliff and walk to within two miles of his car before being spotted by a rescue helicopter. Until yesterday, a week after his rescue, Ralston had been shielded from the media by his parents while he recovered his strength.

With his mother beside him and his amputated arm in a sling, Ralston first thanked the millions of people who had kept him in their thoughts. He also said doctors told him that he would have lost the arm anyway because the weight of the 800-pound boulder had cut off the blood supply and caused severe soft-tissue damage.

“It occurred to me I could break my bones,” said a composed Ralston, who underwent surgery Monday to facilitate the fitting of a prosthesis. “I was able to first snap the radius and then within another few minutes snap the ulna at the wrist and from there, I had the knife out and applied the tourniquet and went to task. It was a process that took about an hour.”

Ralston, whose five-day ordeal thrust him into the national limelight, then added new details about what happened in the steep, winding canyon, located just outside Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

Ralston said he became trapped when he came upon three large boulders wedged in the three-foot wide canyon that he had to climb over. The second boulder rolled as he tried to scramble over it, trapping his right hand to the wall.

Aron Ralston made this self-portrait from the top of a mountain. He said yesterday he is looking forward to leaving the hospital and returning to the outdoors. (Aron Ralston, St. Mary's Hospital via AP)

From there, it was five days of frustration as he tried to find a way out of his dilemma.

First, he said, he tried to chip away at the boulder and cliff wall with his cheap, multi-tool knife that he described as “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool.” When that didn’t work, he tried to rig up a way to lift the boulder using his climbing gear. But that, too, did not work.

“At no point was I ever able to get that boulder to budge even microscopically,” he said.

On the third day, with his food and water gone and with no hope for rescue in sight, Ralston made the drastic decision to cut off his arm. But when he tried to cut his arm, the pocket knife was so dull be couldn’t break the skin.

On the fourth day he determined that the only recourse was to snap the bones and on the fifth day he summoned the nerve to perform the operation, applying a tourniquet using his biking shorts for padding. He said amputating and bandaging the arm took about an hour. Ralston said he was simply being pragmatic.

“I felt pain and I coped with it,” he said. “I moved on.”

From there, he crawled through the canyon, then rigged his ropes and rappelled 60 feet to the base of the cliff, a technique that usually requires two hands.

And then he began hiking out of the desert, heading for his car. A Dutch couple and their son found him at about the same time a rescue helicopter came into view.

Ralston made frequent references to prayer and spirituality in his news conference. He said he felt a surge of energy on the third day, which happened to be the National Day of Prayer.

"I may never fully understand the spiritual aspects of what I experienced, but I will try," he said. "The source of the power I felt was the thoughts and prayers of many people, most of whom I will never know."

Ralston lives in Aspen and works at a mountaineering shop. He has summitted Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. He has climbed all but a half-dozen of Colorado's 55 mountains taller than 14,000 feet alone during the winter. No one has ever climbed all of them alone in those conditions.

Yesterday he said he was looking forward to leaving the hospital and returning to the outdoors.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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