Climber Who Cut Off Hand Looks Back
In April 2003 climber Aron Ralston entered Utah's Bluejohn Canyon only to become trapped when an 800-pound (360-kilogram) boulder shifted, crushed his hand, and pinned him to the canyon wall. For six days, Ralston struggled to free himself while warding off dehydration and hypothermia.
Trapped and facing certain death, Ralston chose a final option that later made him an international sensation: Using a multitool, the climber amputated his right hand, then rappelled to freedom.
Ralston has written an account of his experience, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Atria Books), which arrives in bookstores this month. National Geographic Adventure recently spoke with Ralston about his accident and lifesaving act.
How did you finally decide to start cutting?
After having enough sleepdeprived, meandering thoughts about how I arrived in the canyon, I realized that [my situation] was the result of decisions that I had made. I chose to go out there by myself. I chose to not tell anyone where I was going. I chose not to go with [two climbers] I had met in the canyon [on the first day].
But I also realized that I had made all of the choices up to that point that had helped me survive. I took responsibility for all of my decisions, which helped me take on the responsibility of getting myself out.
But how did someone who had been repulsed by dissecting a sheep's eyeball in ninth grade manage to sever his own hand?
It was strange. I kind of entered a flow state. I've been there before while climbing. You are not thinking ahead. You are just thinking about what is in front of you each second.
I was so engrossed that I had to catch myself when I got to the arteries so that I didn't sever those without a tourniquet on.
The answer seems obvious, but did it hurt?
Well, I didn't have any sensation in my right hand from the time of the accident onward. However, I did feel pain coming from the area where the boulder rested on my wrist.
When I amputated, I felt every bit of it. It hurt to break the bone, and it certainly hurt to cut the nerve. But cutting the muscle was not as bad.
Overall, it was a hundred times worse than any pain I've felt before. It recalibrated what I'd understood pain to be. At the same time, it was also the most beautiful thing I've ever felt.
Later, you fielded a lot of criticism, mainly from climbers who focused on your mistakes. Do you think their points were justified?
I certainly made mistakes. I think the people that say to never go out alone are completely off-base. But I agree with the people who say to never go out alone without telling someone where you are going. Normally, I do that. I didn't this time, because I miscalculated the risks.
When I climb a fourteener [a 14,000-foot/4,260-meter peak] in the winter by myself, I leave an itinerary and information about where my vehicle will be parked and the name of the county sheriff to contact in case I don't get home. I blew it by not telling anyone about Bluejohn.
You videotaped yourself on a daily basis while trapped. Why?
It gave me a sense of completion. Not only did the camera let me tell my family and friends what had happened, but also it gave me the opportunity to tell them how I was feeling and that I loved them. I liked the thought that I wasn't going to leave an unexplained mess.
What are you going to do with the video?
I hadn't planned on sharing any of it, but in the first week of May I read the transcript from the video of American contractor Nick Berg, who had been taken hostage and eventually beheaded in Iraq. Our messages were very similar: This is who I am; these are my parents; this is where they live.
It struck me that in our last hours, even though we may have moved away from those things, there's a levelheaded understanding of what's important. I decided that that point cannot be emphasized enough, so I decided to share that portion of the tape with Dateline NBC.
Have you been able to return to climbing?
My prosthetic is the key. The part replacing my hand includes a [combination] climbing pick and adze manufactured by Trango. I plug the device into my arm and use it for both vertical ice and rock. Then I just switch it out for a claw attachment for belaying and rope management.
I feel like I'm climbing as well, if not better, than ever. In January I got up a pitch of grade-five ice, which for me is as hard as I've ever climbed.
What do you think about being cast as a hero?
I think that people responded to the way I reacted to what happened, not to the accident itself. I guess there is some irony there. But what are you going to do?