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Rescuers amazed by will of rock climber who cut off arm to live

Monday, May 5, 2003

GREEN RIVER, Utah -- It came, like it sometimes does -- the call about an overdue climber. Sgt. Mitch Vetere had gotten used to the news. Usually it meant tracking down someone who had gotten lost. Occasionally, a fall led to broken bones or even death.

But never had he seen something like this.

A man, bloody from head to toe, in the bottom of a canyon, streaks of red staining his bare legs. Part of his arm was gone.

Vetere wasn't sure what had happened. "I cut it off with my pocketknife," Aron Ralston told him matter of factly.

Then he told his story.

Saturday, April 26, started as a routine day of climbing for Ralston, an avid outdoorsman and expert climber. He planned to spend the day riding his mountain bike and climbing the red rocks and sandstone just outside the Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah -- 350,000 acres of mostly wilderness with areas of buttes, mesas and intricate canyons.

He had climbed alone before plenty of times. He had scaled 49 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in the winter and this outing was a warm-up for an ascent of Alaska's Mount McKinley.

Negotiating canyons

Ralston, 27, of Aspen, Colo., parked his pickup truck in a parking lot, took off on his mountain bike for 15 miles, then tied it to a juniper tree.

He planned to canyoneer down remote Blue John Canyon and end up where he parked his truck, then go back for the bike. Canyoneering is where a climber uses rock-climbing gear to negotiate narrow canyons and moves in a horizontal direction rather than vertical.

Ralston was maneuvering around a narrow slot canyon just 3 feet wide when he put his right hand on the side of a boulder, and it shifted, pinning his hand.

He was trapped.

Ralston tried ropes, anchors, anything to move the boulder, but it wouldn't budge.

Temperatures dipped into the 30s at night, and still Ralston worked to free himself.

By Tuesday, his water ran out.

No climbers had come by.

When Ralston didn't show up for his job at the Ute Mountaineer store in Aspen, friends called authorities.

Vetere, a patrol sergeant with the Emery County Sheriff's Office in Green River, got the call Thursday morning. A climber was several days overdue. His truck had been found, but no one had seen Ralston.

Terry Mercer, a helicopter pilot with the Utah Highway Patrol in Salt Lake City, met Vetere and another deputy about 1 p.m. Thursday at Horseshoe Canyon, where Ralston's truck was parked.

After reading notes and looking at Ralston's equipment in his truck, Mercer and Vetere knew Ralston was an experienced climber. They figured he might have headed north up the trail, since it gets deeper and sharper the farther north it extends.

Hikers and climbers who parked in the same lot as Ralston said they had gone south and didn't see Ralston.

Mercer flew for about two hours. Nothing.

As he was about to land, he, Vetere and the other deputy looked down into the canyon and saw two people waving. They were tourists from Holland who had encountered Ralston as he tried to find help.

Covered in blood

Ralston was covered in blood. Vetere was shocked at the sight -- dry and fresh blood coating his body. His red legs matched the red rocks, Vetere thought.

Mercer radioed back to the command center in the parking lot: "He looks OK. He's walking. He looks pretty strong."

After Ralston was helped into the helicopter, Mercer peeked back at him. Ralston's right arm was in a makeshift sling made from a camelback used to carry water.

"I was wondering what in the world happened," Mercer said.

Ralston leaned his head back in the helicopter and sipped on some water. Vetere kept him talking, so he wouldn't lose consciousness.

After he ran out of water and no one had come for him, Ralston said he knew he would have to cut off his arm to save himself. He used his pocketknife he had stuffed into his shorts pocket. His rescuers didn't ask to see it.

He then rappelled down some 60-75 feet to the canyon floor and walked 4 to 5 miles before he saw the tourists from Holland.

Vetere and Mercer almost didn't believe it.

Ralston was within a mile of his pickup truck. He almost didn't even need to be rescued.

Twelve minutes later, the helicopter arrived at Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, Utah. Ralston walked into the emergency room without help, then pointed out on a map where he had been stuck.

Mercer and two other deputies went back into the canyon, hoping they could retrieve Ralston's hand and that it could be reattached.

800-pound rock

Ralston had called the boulder a 200-pound rock, but Mercer could easily see it was at least 800 pounds.

"We could see his rope that he had left hanging that he had rappelled down on," Mercer said.

"It was very sobering because we saw the ropes he had rigged up to try and get a pulley action. To think he had sat there for five days working at getting his hand loose and finally deciding he had to do something to save himself," he said.

The rock -- covered in Ralston's blood -- wouldn't move. Marks on the canyon wall indicated the rock had fallen 2 or 3 feet.

Ralston was transferred to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., where he was in fair condition.

His rescuers are still amazed at Ralston's will to live. They say he likely wouldn't have been found by a helicopter because of his position on the canyon wall.

"I've never seen anybody that had this much desire and this much tenacity to stay with it and stay alive," Mercer said.

Mercer and Vetere are used to seeing disoriented climbers who lose their way or just give up while waiting for help.

Aron Ralston was different, they say.

He saved himself.

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