Climbing Higher

updated 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In high school, Aron Ralston earned a quirky nickname: "Hoover." Sit down to brunch with the lanky mountaineer, and it's easy to see why. At an outdoor cafe near his home in Aspen, Colo., the 28-year-old vacuums up french fries covered with Parmesan cheese, a Bloody Mary, a Dungeness crab and egg dish—then caps the meal off with a pile of pistachio ice cream. "I've eaten four large pizzas in a single sitting," he boasts between mouthfuls. His mother, Donna, still can't figure out where he stows it all on his 6'2", 175-lb. frame. "He can consume," she says. "You sit there in awe."

Whether it's eating or the adventure sports at which he excels—telemark skiing, climbing, mountain biking—Ralston goes for the gusto. Never more so than since May 2003, when he made headlines after an 800-lb. boulder crashed down on his right hand as he hiked alone in a Utah canyon. Trapped for six days, Ralston eventually freed himself—by sawing his limb off just above the wrist with a 3-in. pocketknife. Hearing the yarn is enough to make most people cringe, but Ralston is matter-of-fact about the ordeal. When strangers ask about his arm, the soft-spoken outdoorsman says simply, "I got it trapped under a boulder and cut it off." Since scattering the ashes of the amputated limb in the same canyon 6 months after his escape, Ralston, a concert pianist in college, says he hasn't mourned. "I dealt directly with what I went through," he says. "There wasn't a lot of grief left."

What has moved Ralston is the impact of his story on others. Now he's relived the experience in Between a Rock and a Hard Place, a memoir he hopes will inspire readers to overcome adversity. "There was a miracle that was enacted through me," he says of the ordeal. "It's not so impressive that I cut my arm off, but that I survived cutting my arm off."

Ralston acknowledges that luck had a lot to do with it. Out for a day of solo canyoneering on April 26, 2003, he slithered down a steep, narrow stone "slot" in the Utah desert, 120 miles from the nearest gas station. Scrambling over rocks, he loosened a boulder, which tumbled forward and pinned his hand.

A cool head—and some previous rescue training—saved his life. Subsisting on two burritos and one liter of water, Ralston fended off hypothermia during frigid desert nights. By the fourth day he had run out of provisions, and he drank his urine to keep hydrated. Rigging a pulley system with his climbing gear, he struggled in vain to budge the rock. "Twenty-four hours into it, I was sure I was going to die," he says. Taping a will with his camcorder, he asked loved ones to spread his ashes in the wilderness. ("I watched his video last summer—it took me a long time to get up the courage," says Donna, 57, who is director of a landscapers' association. "We watched it together, and we cried.")

Ralston had considered self-amputation early on—going so far as to apply an improvised tourniquet and stab his arm with his small pocketknife. But he believed the blade was too dull to cut through bone. Still, starving, dehydrated, and fading in and out of consciousness on the morning of his sixth day, he probed his wounds and discovered the flesh was rotting. Certain a growing infection would kill him, he writes, "I lash out in fury, trying to yank my forearm straight out from the sandstone handcuff, never wanting more than I do now to simply rid myself of any connection to this decomposing appendage."

In that moment Ralston realized he could snap the bones in his arm by jerking the limb sharply, "like bending a two-by-four in a table vise." Accomplishing the task, he then cut away the flesh, muscles and tendons in his arm for nearly an hour. Save for slicing through a single nerve bundle that felt "as though I [had] thrust my entire arm into a cauldron of magma," he felt more elation than pain, and never screamed. "I don't want it," he writes of how he viewed his dying limb. "It's garbage. Throw it away, Aron. Be rid of it." By noon he had freed himself, wrapped his bleeding stump in a sling, rappelled down a 65-foot canyon wall and hiked 6 miles before running into a pair of Dutch hikers. "I was trying to pace myself," he says. "I'd lost so much blood."

Airlifted first to a Utah hospital, Ralston soon underwent five operations, including two to halt a life-threatening bone infection. In one procedure, doctors grafted muscle and skin from his thighs onto the damaged arm. Those excruciating days and the weeks of depression that followed were "the low point of my life," he says. "It was like, 'I got out of the canyon for this?' "

But with physical therapy, medication and cutting-edge prosthetics (see box), he was back in the high country by September. After his experience, "a lot of people would have thought, 'That's all the reason I need not to go climbing again,' " says Ralston. "But that was the first thing I wanted to do." His mother had other ideas. "I've asked him not to do it," says Donna. "And he said, 'But Mom, you always told us to finish what we started.' "

This winter Ralston plans to complete a long-stated goal of solo summiting all of the state's 14,000-ft. peaks. Aided by prosthetic forearms, he climbed two mountains before this year's thaw. "Since the incident, his enthusiasm has done nothing but increase," says Ralston's Aspen roommate Brian Payne, 26.

Ralston has also honed his first aid skills as a member of a mountain rescue squad, learning how to perform CPR with a prosthesis. "If I detach at the wrist," he says, "I can get really good pressure to do chest compressions." "He's a good team player, tough as nails," says Hugh Zuker, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen. And he's also gotten used to an unlikely celebrity that's led to marriage proposals from strangers. But Ralston, who isn't dating at the moment, isn't ready to settle down. "He's in love with Mother Nature," says sister Sonja Ralston Elder, 24. "I don't know how a girl could compete with that."

Ralston's parents have long supported that passion since moving from Indiana to Colorado when Aron was 12. Not long after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, he quit a job at Intel in Albuquerque to move to Aspen and the mountains he loves. Says Sonja: "He was living his dream."

Although the idyll briefly turned hellish, Ralston says it gave him a mission: to help others live life to its fullest. Still stricken by phantom pain, he takes strength from strangers' letters—including one from a woman who wrote she'd stockpiled sleeping pills until reading his tale, then decided suicide wasn't an option. "My accident has given me an ability to be deep with people very quickly," he says. "Can you imagine how good it feels when a stranger walks up to you, shakes your hand and says, 'I think you're an amazing person'?"

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Vickie Bane in Aspen

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