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Aspen solo climber trapped, severs arm to escape


by Editor

May 02, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

An Aspen mountaineer who was pinned by a nearly 1,000-pound boulder for five days in a remote slot canyon in eastern Utah cut off his arm with a pocketknife, rappelled down a rock wall and hiked until he was found by a search helicopter Thursday afternoon.

The boulder fell on Ralston on Saturday while he was solo canyoneering in a 3-foot-wide section of Blue John Canyon, a remote area adjacent to the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, according to the sheriff's departments in Emery and Wayne counties. He was about 38 miles west of Moab in Wayne County when he became trapped, the sheriff's departments said.

Aron Ralston was in serious condition Thursday night after undergoing surgery at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, where he was airlifted after his ordeal.

"He's obviously one tough guy," said Sgt. Mitch Vetere, one of the Emery County Sheriff's Office searchers who first located Ralston in a remote area 60 miles south of Green River, Utah.

Ralston, 27, a climber and professional photographer, has been engaged in a winter solo mountaineering project in Colorado, summiting at least 49 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks (45 solo in winter), also escaped death in an avalanche on Tennessee Pass in February. He was caught in an avalanche that buried all but his head and one arm. According to his website, the climb last Saturday was in preparation for an upcoming Denali trip, where he planned to attempt a solo speed descent.

Ralston's latest ordeal began Saturday afternoon when he rode his mountain bike alone into Bluejohn Canyon near The Maze district of Canyonlands National Park for what was planned as a day jaunt through the desert country. He had left his bike and hiked into a 3-foot-wide slot canyon when a boulder that searchers estimated at 800 to 1,000 pounds fell on him. It pinned his right arm, according to information from the sheriff's offices in Emery and Wayne counties.

Ralston told rescuers that Thursday morning he realized he would not survive unless he took drastic action. He had run out of water Tuesday.

Ralston told them he used his pocketknife to amputate his right arm below the elbow Thursday morning. He then applied a tourniquet and administered first aid from a kit he had in his backpack. He rigged anchors and fixed a rope to rappel nearly 75 feet to the bottom of Bluejohn Canyon.

He hiked downstream into adjacent Horseshoe Canyon, where he encountered two hikers who flagged down a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter about 3 p.m. Thursday.

The helicopter had been searching for Ralston after he was reported missing by someone who said he had not called in or shown up for work at Ute Mountaineering in Aspen for four days.

Vetere said Ralston, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and carrying a backpack, was still walking when they reached him. He had a tourniquet wrapped around his right biceps but was bleeding profusely and was dehydrated. Vetere gave him a bottle of water, and he was bundled into the helicopter for a 12-minute ride to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab.

"He was in pretty rough shape. ... But he communicated with us all the way to the hospital," Vetere said.

Searchers went back by helicopter Thursday afternoon to the canyon where Ralston had been pinned to try to retrieve his arm. They spotted it under the huge boulder but were unable to move it, Vetere said. Ralston's rappelling ropes were still in place.

Ralston was stabilized at Allen Memorial Hospital and transported to St. Mary's in Grand Junction.

Nature photographer John Fielder said he hired Ralston to carry gear and act as a guide on a photography trip into the Rawah Wilderness Area near Fort Collins last summer. Fielder said he was not surprised Ralston survived the accident in the Utah wilderness.

"He's one of the most skilled outdoors people I've worked with. He's a real tough guy," Fielder said. "He has great survival instincts. He is supremely confident in his survival skills."

Ralston did question his own judgment in the outdoors following his brush with death in February.

He was backcountry skiing with several friends on Tennessee Pass when they triggered an avalanche. A friend who was partially buried dug Ralston out, and the two dug out a third friend who was buried for nearly 15 minutes.

Ralston recently told reporters that he had ignored weather and terrain indicators of high avalanche danger. He said he learned a tough lesson and was wiser for the experience.

"It was a learning experience. It cost me several friendships," Ralston said.

In Utah, Vetere said Ralston was hiking and biking in an area where many people travel alone. A parking lot near the trailhead is often filled with cars on weekends. But Ralston set out south from a trail that most visitors normally take north.

"I would say he is as qualified as anybody else to be out there by himself," Vetere said.

Les Thompson, commander of the Emery County sheriff's Search and Rescue Team, said people come to the wild and remote desert country in eastern Utah without appreciating how rough and dangerous it can be.

"We've killed a lot of people in this country. They just don't pay attention when they come out here," Thompson said.

Story compiled from AP, local news releases, and other sources.

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