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Front Page » May 3, 2005 » Local News » Yo, gotta believe
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Yo, gotta believe

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Aron Ralston tells his story to local students

Aron Ralston greets Nathan Urie,7, who was born with only a partial arm. Aron has inspired Nathan to try using a prosthetic arm again.

It's pretty hard to mesmerize, entertain and hold the attention of a group of high school and junior high students for an hour, but Aron Ralston did just that at Emery and Green River High on April 25.

Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon introduced Ralston to the students with a brief biography. Ralston now resides in Aspen, Colo. He was the first person to solo climb the 50 tallest points in the United States in the winter. His book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," has attained international best seller status. It is Ralston's first book. He has shared his story on the David Letterman show and Tom Brokaw hosted a show where they returned to the site of Ralston's accident in Blue John Canyon in the remote recesses of Emery and Wayne counties.

Sheriff Guymon said, "His rescuers, Capt. Kyle Ekker, Deputy Greg Funk and Sgt. Mitch Vetere have formed a lasting friendship with Aron and he is here today as a favor to us. He has also donated money to the search and rescue to purchase needed equipment."

Ralston began speaking about the "miracle of his life the last two years." He said he grew up in the Midwest, flat lands, until the age of 12. He was paranoid as to whether he would fit in when his parents announced a move to Colorado. He put forth a lot of effort to be like the other kids and became an expert skier and outdoorsman. He completed his college education in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Mellon University. He became an engineer for Intel and traveled with the company for five years.

Ralston began a project to solo climb in winter the 59 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet. "It was incredibly dangerous, I took classes and training in rescue riggings, ice climbing and climbed with experienced mountaineers. I was halfway done with the most advanced and difficult peaks yet to come. In May of 2002, I took some time to go to Alaska to climb Mt. McKinley, I wanted to do it, but my job would not allow for me to take a month off. This was important to me, a passion, an obsession. I quit my job. I knew that with the help of my teammates I had the potential to do bigger things. I moved to Aspen. I was worried and afraid, I had a townhouse in Albuquerque that I owed money on. I went from a six figure a year salary to working for minimum wage at the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen.

"In 2002-03, I went from 33 of the mountains to having climbed 45. I had near falls. On a back country ski trip in Resolution Canyon we skied into a bowl and we were hit by a grade five avalanche. We were lucky to survive. We dug out and rescued ourselves. In another climb, I suffered frostbite in eight fingers. It was painful, but it taught a hard lesson, like how unsafe your ego can be when played out in the outdoors.

In April of 2003, I set out on a much needed vacation. I was going for five days and I had not a care or worry. I was alone. I read in my guidebooks to decide where to go. On the third day I left my truck at the trail head of Horseshoe Canyon for a 15 mile bike ride. I was going to leave my bike, cut into Blue John Canyon, hike the eight miles on the upper end of Horseshoe and hike back to my truck and then pick up my bike. I had three liters of water, two chocolate bars, two burritos and some climbing gear.

"I met two young women hiking along the trail, Kristi and Megan. When the main fork of the canyon branched to the left, they were going to take that branch to head back to their car. They urged me to go back with them, but I held to my selected course. We agreed to meet later at their camp. Forty-five minutes later, this section of canyon turns from rolling hills to a slot about shoulder width. The walls of the canyon are 50-80 feet high. The canyon has been carved by water eating away at it. There's no water there now, but I came to a 10 foot drop. There is a boulder pushed over the ledge and wedged there. I use the boulder to step down, I push against it first to see if it will hold my weight and it seems stable. I work my way down and around the boulder using it to get myself in a position where I can just drop the rest of the way down. I grabbed the back side of the rock and with my weight pulling on the front edge of the rock, the torque rotated the boulder free and I knew it was going to fall and I needed to get out of the way. I hit the canyon floor and the boulder came bouncing down. It smashed my left hand and then bounced and hit my right hand and ensnared my right hand along the boulder and the canyon wall. I was stuck hard, my head said to pull my hand out and get free. I worked myself into a rage trying to free my hand. Then the pain hit. My entire arm was crushed, it was the worst pain ever. My arm was numb. My entire arm was compressed to the size of my pinky finger. I raged on for about 45 minutes to get loose. The boulder wouldn't budge, I did get it to move once, which only made its hold on my arm tighter. It's now 3:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. I pulled out my water bottle and began chugging it, I drank one-third of my remaining water supply. They say you need a gallon of water a day to survive, and I'd just drank one-third of what I had left. I needed to stop and think and look at what's happening and make a plan. I took an inventory of what I had. Two burritos, flashlight, camera, video camera, extra batteries, climbing ropes and a multi-tool.

"I thought maybe I could chip at the rock and excavate enough material to get my hand out. I thought maybe I could rig up a pulley system to move the boulder up and try to dislodge my arm. I could wait and see if someone comes by. Maybe when I don't show up for work someone will send help. I went through possible scenarios over and over.

Aron Ralston describes the shape and size of the boulder which trapped him in Blue John Canyon.

"With my cheap pocketknife I spent the first night chipping away at the rock. I excavated about as much rock as half a golf ball. What I needed to move was more like a basketball. I hooked up the ropes and a pulley, but it was futile. An army of men couldn't remove that boulder.

"It wasn't a big deal if I didn't show up to meet the girls. They would probably think I had just blown them off. It was improbable I would last more than three days without water. The park rangers might send some help if they saw my truck in the same spot for days. It wasn't too likely that anyone would stumble upon me. I didn't have a tool to amputate my arm with and besides that I'd probably bleed to death before I could get back to my truck. I got out my knife, it felt dull; how could something that dull set me free. By Sunday afternoon, I felt like a dead man. I got out my video camera to say good-bye to my family and friends. I started by asking whoever found the tape to make sure it got to my parents in Colorado. 'Mom and Dad, I love you, I'm sorry for what I've gotten myself into.' My little sister Sonja was about to graduate from college, she was going to be married in August. To have her big brother die would just ruin everything. I felt terrible, I felt sorrow, I felt forlorn and despair.

"I had two-thirds of a liter of water left. I worked the second night chipping rock. I rigged up a harness where I could crouch in a seated position to take some of the stress off my legs from standing all the time. I hadn't slept, I was hungry, thirsty and hypothermic. I was only dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. It was cold in the 30s and 40s. I was hypothermic, it was useless to fight it. Monday, I tried to amputate my arm. I took the tubing from my Camelsbak water canteen and tied it around my arm to make a tourniquet. I held my knife and tried to saw my arm. I gave up. I thought of happier times. I thought of my family and the people I loved and it buoyed my spirit for a time. When thinking of my memories, never once did I think about conquering a mountain somewhere, it was always about people and my family and friends.

"Tuesday morning I was astounded that I was still alive. I broke through the skin with my knife. There was no way I could break through the bones with that knife.

"I was left in despair, I was parched, the dryness was burning and my tongue would stick in my mouth. Five days and going into the sixth day without water was horrendous. I urinated into my water bottle. It was the only liquid I had left. Salt water kills you faster. It tasted horrendous and I didn't know if it was doing good or harm. The worst picnic lunch I've ever had was a burrito dunked in urine. And you guys think cafeteria food is bad. But I was desperate. It was the best thing I could do for myself.

"By Wednesday night it was 35 degrees. The breeze blowing down the canyon was the breath of death. At midnight I carved into the rock above my head, 'Aron -RIP. Oct. 75-April-03. It was my gravestone. My canyon grave, I would never move from there again. I gave myself up. Something else was in control and I knew that I wouldn't affect the outcome. It no longer mattered what I did. I would not determine the outcome. I gave away my will. It is a different feeling to give yourself up. Something else was in control. I was in a trance. I never passed out. I considered cutting my wrists, but I determined that no, if I died in this canyon; it would be from natural causes. I had prayed for a flash flood to drown me. On Wednesday night at 2 a.m. I had a trance vision. I saw my spiritual body going away from my physical body. I went to a room full of friends, I went to random places. I went down a hallway to a room with a wood floor. I saw a little boy about three years old sitting on the floor playing with a truck. He sensed I was in the room and he looked up at me. I took a few steps forward and the boy came running over. I picked him up with my left hand, because I had no hand on my right arm. He shouted out Daddy and then the vision went away. I knew with a certainty, I have a future on the outside of this canyon. For some future son, I needed to make it out of there.

"It was 10:30 a.m. on Thursday and I was expecting death at any minute. I hear a voice in the canyon that spoke outside. It wasn't a voice inside my head, but an outside voice that said, 'That's it. That's it. Use leverage, like with a table vice. Take the free end and break it as a table vice. The boulder became my agent of freedom. If I bent my arm enough it would break the bones. This was ethereal, divine intervention. I smiled a big smile. This was the greatest idea, it was not like a light bulb coming on, but huge stadium lights. I bent in a crouch, the pain, and pow, my upper bone broke, it snapped. A bigger smile. I reached over the top of the boulder, pulling up and forcing the bottom bone to break and an even bigger smile. My two wrist bones broke in exactly the same place, creating the cavity I needed to get the knife through. I was 10:36 a.m. 'Here we go Aron' I said. I worked through the skin for an hour and the dense parts of my arm with the knife and the pliers. When I cut the nerve, a spaghetti noodle thing, it felt as if I had inserted my arm into a lava flow, but the pain was bigger. I knew it was not going to get any worse, I felt that. I was motivated. I didn't black out. Divine intervention is not really explainable. There was only one strand of flesh left and it was stretched tight. I used the wall of the canyon as a cutting board and in a crystalline moment I was free. My chest was heaving from the excitement. I had a big euphoric smile. It was a joy being alive. My memories and people of the past, my lifetime, came flooding back. I looked ahead, it was like being born a second time, but only more powerful. I thought, 'this is a very good thing.' But, I still had a lot to do. I made a tourniquet and sling to hold my arm to my chest with my backpack. I took a picture of that spot, of my bones stuck in the wall and the blood on the walls. To me it was a beautiful photograph, the value of my life was in that picture.

"I started down the narrow canyon, walking sideways sometimes. Twenty minutes later I was on the ledge of the 65 foot drop off. I stepped to look over the edge and I almost swooned. There was a pool of water at the bottom of the ledge. At the possibility of fresh water, I began snaking out the rope. I was going to use the rope to rappel over the ledge. I heard the whoosh of the rope going over the edge, almost too fast. I almost lost the rope down over the ledge. But, I put out my foot and stepped on it, with 15 feet of rope left, before it went over the edge. If I lost that rope, I was as good as dead, I might as well jump off the cliff. 'No stupid mistakes, Aron.' I prayed that if I was going to pass out that it not be in the next minute and a half as I made my descent off the ledge. Standing at the bottom by the pool, I grabbed my bottle and dumped out the urine. I dove into the water. I didn't know if I should sip or guzzle, but I guzzled. It was sweet water. I drank three liters of water and then filled my jugs. I flooded my stomach and I still had seven miles to go. I had to walk and find the trail and then get out and drive. I didn't know yet, how I was going to drive with one arm and shift the gears. I drank two liters of water in my first two miles and I knew I had to slow down or I'd be out of water again. I would hold water in my mouth to keep hydrated. I found another spot in the canyon that had water. I scooped it up, toads and all.

"After two more hours of hiking, I came around a corner and saw people. My relief was infinite. I called, 'Help, I need help.' The three people started to run. Luckily it was towards me, but I wouldn't have blamed them, if they ran the other way; because I looked a sight, with blood all over, and I had lost one/fourth of my body weight in those six days. I looked bad. I started babbling, 'My name is Aron and I was trapped by a boulder and I had to amputate my arm and do you have a phone? The people were from Holland, but they spoke perfect English and they said that they told us you were here. At first I didn't understand, but they said the rescuers at the trail head said to watch for you, you were lost in the canyon. They said you'd been lost a long time,' they related. They wanted me to sit down, but I wanted to get hiking. We set a good pace and they gave me some more water. They gave me all their food which was two Oreo cookies, but it tasted like a banquet.

"We split up and Monique and Andy ran ahead to notify the rescuers that we needed a helicopter. Eric and I plodded along, he took my backpack. I didn't have a sock on my left foot and I got sand in my shoe and it rubbed on my foot and pretty soon my foot hurt worse than my arm and I said I had to stop to get the sand out of my shoe. I guess I was getting cranky and bossy, we sat in the shade of a Cottonwood tree and the moment of truth came when I tried to stand back up. I regained my balance. Monique and Andy were still visible up the trail. I took one step at a time to get closer to help. About 150 yards to the end of the trail I heard a thundering racket and a black helicopter appeared. I felt such a sense of relief that I nearly lost consciousness, I was near salvation.

"Deputy Greg Funk stepped out of the helicopter and motioned for me to come over. I was in rapture. I walked over and they tell me that I said, 'Can I have a ride.' But, I don't remember. Greg asked me if I was Aron Ralston and I told him I was. I looked at the leather seat of the helicopter and knew I was going to make a mess of the back seat, but they yelled 'get in.' I climbed in and the helicopter rose above the rim of the canyon and I could see the horizon. It was a 15 minute ride to the hospital, and I was thirsty, I asked for a drink and Sgt. Mitch Vetere handed me a bottle of water, then he took it back and took off the cap and handed it back. We arrived at the hospital and I was placed on a gurney. I explained where my bike was and where my hand was. They thought maybe they could retrieve my hand and reattach it. They did retrieve my hand, but it took three days and 13 people to get the rock off it. I pass out and wake up on Friday morning in a hospital in Grand Junction. I was unaware I had been transferred from Moab.

"When I awoke my Mom came in and it was a bittersweet reunion of joy and sorrow. I knew that my mom had been going through hell also. I took her hand in mine and we just began sobbing without saying anything. After a few minutes I said, I'm sorry, Mom. I love you," said Ralston.

Ralston spent four months in recuperation. He had five surgeries and survived a severe bone infection.

On March 17, 2004, Ralston climbed El Diente in Colorado. He reached the summit of 14,062, using a prosthesis he helped design.

"This climb signified to me that I got back and I was stronger and I if I could do this with one hand that anything is possible. One month ago, I became the first person to climb all 59 of the peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet in the winter. If I can do that, you guys can accomplish whatever you choose. What are your passions? What do you love? What in your life is so worthwhile that you'd give your right arm for it," said Ralston.

Ralston received many cards, letters and packages during his recovery. One young girl sent him a plaque that was painted silver with gold hearts with the words, "Yo Gotta Believe."

Ralston said he placed the plaque on the mantle during his recovery and it was an inspiration to him, "Yo gotta believe, you'll have your life back, yo gotta believe you will mountaineer again, you can do it. 'Yo, gotta believe," said Ralston.

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