Aron Ralston shares his survival story with audience at Southeast Missouri State University

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Aron Ralston spoke to students and visitors of Southeast Missouri State University's Academic Hall auditoriumTuesday evening. Ralston spoke about his experience in a Utah canyon in 2003 that led him to the decision to amputate his arm after it had been trapped by a boulder. (LAURA SIMON)

When Aron Ralston became trapped by a boulder during a rockslide he encountered while climbing the canyons in the remote Utah desert in April 2003, essentially pinned in one place for days without sufficient food or water, he didn't have many options.

Though he frantically ran through possible alternatives and spent the first 24 hours of his ordeal struggling to chip away at the boulder with a pen knife or move it using a pulley system, he knew his only chance for survival lay in finding a way to amputate his arm.

"I was panicking, I was in just an utter terror," Ralston, of Boulder, Col., said Tuesday before a full auditorium at Southeast Missouri State Univeristy's Academic Hall.

Ralston, who spoke as part of Southeast's Speaker Series in correlation with Disablities Awareness month, described being trapped in the canyon with just a liter of water and two burritos, only able to see a wedge of daylight above his head.

"I heard myself say out loud, 'You're going to have to cut your arm off, Aron,'" Ralston said.

By day two of his entrapment, Ralston said he'd managed to fashion a tourniquet out of some neoprene tubing from a canteen and his carabiners, but no sooner had he touched his knife when he realized he would not survive the 8 to 10 hour hike he'd have to face to get medical attention, even if he went through with the amputation.

"At that point, all I could do was wait to to die," Ralston said.

It was then that he turned on the video camera he'd brought on the climb with him to say goodbye to his family and prepare his last will and testament.

"I learned then that hell is not a fiery place with demons shouting; hell is a cold, lonely place," Ralston said.

During his 127 hours trapped in the canyon, Ralston tried several times unsuccessfully to cut off his arm and free himself before he was able to force himself to break the skin, only to find his knife wasn't sharp enough to cut through bone. He'd lost 45 pounds by day six, when he realized he could use the boulder to break the slender bones in his wrist and sever his arm using only a one-and-a-half inch blade.

Ralston managed to escape the canyon and find other people out hiking who offered food and water, but he had lost five pints of blood and they were still miles from a ranger station when he heard a helicopter overhead.

It was days later when Ralston, having awoken in a hospital bed clutching his mother's hand, knew that he was alive because of the strength of love and of faith, he said.

"It may sound cheesy or hokey, but you tell me what else I was living on," Ralston said.

His mother, knowing something must be wrong for him to have missed work, mounted a search and rescue mission that located Ralston in just two days, though he had given no one any indication of his climbing plans, or even what state he'd been in.

"I would have died if not for the most effective search and rescue mission that I have ever seen or heard about," Ralston said.

Ralston said that if he had to live through the entire ordeal over again, though he knew it had been some recklessness that had led to his entrapment, he would not have done anything differently.

In the aftermath of his experience, though he suffered psychological trauma, battled depression, and underwent months of physical therapy, he felt that the lessons he had learned and the doors that had opened to him as a result were worth it, he said.


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