05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Peering down from a helicopter at the Utah desert, Mitch Vetere assumed the worst. Hours earlier, the Emery County Sheriff's Department sergeant had been summoned to help search for a hiker missing near Canyonlands National Park. Aron Ralston had been AWOL for five days; that morning a park worker had spotted his truck at a remote trailhead. Says Vetere: "I'm thinking, when you have somebody there that many days, this is going to be a recovery, not a rescue."
Vetere didn't know Ralston. The team spent about 90 frustrating minutes in the air scouring the craggy landscape when they suddenly spotted two hikers frantically trying to wave down the chopper—and with them, a man with his right arm in a makeshift sling. As the pilot touched down, Vetere and a sheriff's deputy scrambled toward the man. "He told us, 'I'm the one you're looking for,' " says Vetere, 43.
Now people across the globe recognize Ralston, 27, who made headlines for saving his life by severing his right lower arm, crushed by a massive boulder, and escaping to safety. Long before that, though, climbing cronies knew Ralston for the savvy and the stamina that propelled him up Alaska's Mount McKinley and all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-ft. peaks, often alone in winter. "I don't think any of us could comprehend what he went through," says Daniel Hadlich, 33, a close friend. "He endured a terrible ordeal and found the strength inside him to live."
All Ralston had in mind was a weekend break from his job at an Aspen mountaineering store. After parking his truck and pedaling his mountain bike 15 miles through Horseshoe Canyon, he briefly joined up with two women he encountered on the trail before heading alone to climb through barren Bluejohn Canyon.
Within half an hour Ralston was descending, without ropes, through a steep "slot" between rock faces in a challenging maneuver that required him to snake over and under boulders that blocked his path. Deep in the slot, where sunlight penetrated for no more than a couple of hours a day, Ralston began to navigate a 10-ft. drop between ledges when a large stone shifted. Ralston had time to pull his left hand away, but his right hand became pinned between the boulder and the side of the slot. "The adrenaline was pumping very, very hard though my body," he would later say at a press conference at the Grand Junction, Colo., hospital where he was taken for treatment (see page 64). "It took some good, calm thinking to get myself to calm down and stop throwing myself against the boulder."
That was 2:45 on Saturday afternoon, April 26. Ralston knew the situation was dire. A desert rainstorm, common at this time of year, would surely have flash-flooded the canyon, drowning him on the spot. And yet with only a liter of drinking water, Ralston feared dehydration. It wasn't until Tuesday morning, April 28, that friends began to worry in earnest after he didn't show up for work. They began calling law-enforcement offices across Colorado and Utah. Meanwhile, Ralston vainly tried to budge the rock, finally concluding that his only hope was to sever the limb (see box at left).
Once Ralston was found, he boarded the rescue chopper with minimal aid, but blood was dripping out of both ends of the sling he had fashioned from a Camelbak water-carrying backpack. During the 12-minute flight to a Moab, Utah, hospital, he requested only water, though all he had eaten in days was part of an Oreo given to him by the hikers he had encountered on the trail. And though he had coolly gathered the gumption to sever his own hand, when Ralston arrived at the ER he was alarmed to see a nurse preparing an injection of morphine. "I heard him say, 'I really don't like needles,' " recalls Vetere. "And I said, 'Aron, that's the least of your worries right now.' "
While Ralston recovered, Terry Mercer, the Utah Highway Patrol chopper pilot, and a crew headed back to find his severed hand. "There was a lot of blood splashed across the rock," says Terry Mercer, 55, who noticed Ralston had rigged ropes and pulleys to try to move the rock. "He had done virtually everything in his power to get out." They also found the three words Ralston carved in the rock with a knife, apparently just before he wrenched his own bones apart: "Good Luck Now." Three days later a crew of 13 took an hour to hoist the boulder enough to recover the hand, which was taken to a mortuary.
Though some criticized Ralston's decision to tackle such dangerous territory alone, search-and-rescue volunteer Bego Gebhart, 56, a veteran climber, feels he understands the young man, now recovering at his parents' Centennial, Colo., home. "Cutting off his hand will stop him for a month, and that's about it," says Gebhart. "It's the mountain-high thing. If it gets you, you can't stop. What a dude."
Vickie Bane and Jason Bane in Colorado