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Solo climber Aron Ralston forced to amputate his own arm


Hiker Aron Ralston Cuts Off Own Arm to Survive

Scott Willoughby
Mountain Zone
May 2, 2003

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - With no water and as little hope of survival, Aspen mountaineer Aron Ralston, 27, used a pocketknife to amputate his own arm and free himself from a boulder weighing 800-1,000 pounds that fell and trapped him for five days in a remote desert canyon in eastern Utah.

Pinned in a 3-foot wide slot canyon near the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park south of Moab, Utah, Ralston cut through his own arm below the elbow Thursday morning, applying a tourniquet and administering first aid before rigging anchors and fixing a rope to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon and hiking out to meet rescuers. Ralston had been hiking alone when the boulder fell and pinned his right arm as he was moving through the narrow slot last Saturday afternoon, according to information from the sheriff's offices in Emery and Wayne counties.

"Ralston cut through his own arm below the elbow Thursday..." 

Ralston told rescuers that on Thursday morning he realized he would not survive unless he took drastic action. He had run out of water on Tuesday.

Search efforts that had begun Wednesday evening yielded no signs of the hiker until he walked out of the canyon with two other hikers at about 3 p.m. Thursday. Ralston was taken to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab where he was stabilized before transport to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., for surgery.

The episode marked Ralston's second brush with death since February, when he was buried in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in the Colorado Rockies. Ralston, an avid outdoorsman who has climbed 49 of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus mountains, was buried up to his neck in the avalanche, managing to dig himself out along with a completely buried skiing companion within 15 minutes.

Ralston's pocketknife amputation was not the first in the region. In October 1993, Colorado fisherman Bill Jeracki cut off his leg at the knee when two boulders fell on his leg while angling alone in a remote canyon stream. Trapped and yelling for hours, Jeracki made the decision to sever the limb after the weather took a turn for the worse and he became concerned for his survival. He used hemostats from his fishing kit to close the severed artery and vein, then crawled a half mile back to his truck and drove to find help.

— Scott Willoughby

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Our Analysis:

Aron Ralston
In April, 2003, a 27 year old climber who was pinned for 5 days under an 800 pound boulder in Utah Canyonlands, amputated his arm to save himself. He used a dull pocketknife and the operation took about an hour. Once free, he rappelled down 60 feet and walked 5 miles before finding help.

1. What are the dangers of climbing alone?
Folks are welcome to do outdoor adventures solo, but they must take into informed consideration the risks to themselves and to the people who may try to rescue them. Climbing together, one climber can belay or spot the other, a partner can administer first aid and then go for help, two heads are better than one when making route decisions, etc.

2. What happened to Aron Ralston in the Utah Canyonlands?
Aron Ralston left his home in Aspen, CO, for an 8 hour, 13 mile adventure in Utah's remote Bluejohn Canyon. During his hike, he dislodged a huge boulder in a slot canyon and it pinned his hand and forearm. After five days, having tried in every way possible to free himself, he was out of water. He made the decision that resonated around the world.

3. How did Ralston free himself?
He cut off the now dead hand and arm below the elbow, applied a tourniquet and bandage to the stump, and made his way toward the remote trail head, setting up an anchor and rappelling 60 feet along the way. He walked out and by chance alone, met two hikers who assisted him and phoned for help. He walked into the hospital emergency room.

4. How would you characterize his “self-rescue?”
Aron Ralston's self rescue was an inspired act of self preservation. However, it is not the first such amputation. In Colorado in 1993, fisherman Bill Jeracki cut off his leg after it became trapped between two boulders while he was fly fishing alone in a remote stream. Jeracki used hemostats from his fishing gear to close the artery and vein in the stump and crawled a half mile back to his truck and drove to find help.

Search and rescue volunteers praised Ralston's ability to keep his head and to do the unthinkable, but expressed concern that he put search and rescue volunteers at risk in the remote and dangerous complexity of the canyons. Ralston had the Essentials and experience needed to survive for five days and walk out to civilization. He had the determination, self-confidence and intellect to save himself. As always, an emergency cell phone might have helped (after he exited the canyon) and should be carried by all, even the most experienced extreme mountaineers.
--Robert Speik

Copyright© 2004-2006 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated


Read more . . .
Aron's Optimal Experiences On-Line
Notable accidents revisited

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