Coping and Overcoming Illness

An Adventurer Severs His Arm to Save His Life

UPDATED 05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Alone in a remote Utah canyon with his hand trapped under an 800-lb. boulder, rock climber Aron Ralston weighed his alternatives. "One was that someone would happen down the trail," Ralston, 27, would later tell his father, Larry, 55, a tour operator. "Second was that I might be able to chip away at that rock and release myself; third was that I might somehow mechanically remove the rock. And the fourth was I would have to cut off my hand."

On May 1—five days after he became trapped and more than 40 hours after running out of water—Ralston resorted to option four. Using a pocket knife, he amputated his own right arm just below the elbow. He might easily have died from blood loss, but Ralston, who left his job as an engineer at Intel in 2002 to work at an Aspen mountaineering store, applied a tourniquet to slow the bleeding. Says Utah Canyonlands ranger Paul Henderson: "He had an incredible will to live."

And then some. After freeing himself, Ralston rappelled down a 60-ft. rock face. He then walked for several hours toward the parking lot, meeting a family of Dutch hikers, who helped him along the way, before he was spotted by a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter and flown to safety. Friends say the bachelor, who has climbed 111 of Colorado's highest peaks, has been in tough spots before: He was once stalked for nearly 36 hours by a black bear and earlier this year was buried up to his neck in an avalanche.

He was on a lone one-day hike in the desert canyon, 40 miles from the nearest paved road, when the boulder shifted, crushing his hand. It took three volunteers with a hoist to retrieve the limb on May 5. (Taken to a mortuary, it will likely be cremated.) After two operations at a hospital in Grand Junction, Co., he is in high spirits and eager to return to hiking. "Part of what got him through," says Donna Ralston of her son, "was a personal challenge: that drive to be the best he can be."

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