Climber recounts decision to amputate arm
By Bryan Long
GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado (CNN) -- Deep within an isolated Utah slot canyon, Aron Ralston faced a difficult decision.
His right arm had been pinned for five days under an 800-pound boulder and he was out of water and nearly dehydrated.
Ralston's only escape, he reasoned, was to cut off part of his arm and hike 8 miles to safety. He did both successfully and discussed his ordeal publicly for the first time Thursday, a week after his dramatic rescue.
"The courage became more a matter of pragmatics than 'could I withstand the actual actions I had to take'," Ralston told a crowd of reporters at St. Mary's Hospital and Medical Center.
"It was more a concern of will I be able to think through this as I do it and will I be able to make good decisions when I'm halfway through it."
Ralston was an experienced hiker and was prepared for the treacherous environment he often used as an emotional escape.
But while descending into the canyon, a boulder shifted. Ralston said he moved quick enough to get his body and left arm out of its path but couldn't get his right arm out of the way of the falling rock.
"It came to rest very snugly in the canyon," Ralston said as he recounted the events dispassionately. He immediately started pushing the rock and using all his weight to lean against it.
"It didn't move. It took some good calm thinking in order to get myself to calm down and stop throwing myself against the boulder," he said.
Ralston had biked several miles and then walked a few more to reach this canyon. While he had met a couple of young women on the trail, he knew that he was now far away from anyone else.
Little hope of rescue
The canyon was "very giving of its solitude," he said. "I was quite alone there."
And so over a period of days he thought through various scenarios and devised possible means of escape. As the days passed, his supplies dwindled.
It was Thursday morning and Ralston had been trapped by the boulder since Saturday afternoon. He was out of water. He had licked clean the wrappers of four candy bars that had been consumed on his hike to the canyon. Once trapped, he'd eaten the only other food he'd brought with him -- two burritos.
His position inside one of the many serpentine canyons with narrow walls, offered little hope that a rescue party could find him alive. He was even concerned they would never find his body. Ralston feared his remains would be washed away in a flash flood.
The man who would eventually fly Ralston to safety told CNN the experienced hiker would not have been saved by the rescue team.
"If he hadn't helped himself, we would have never found him because of where he was pinned. We went back in there and looked at the spot that he was pinned," pilot Terry Mercer said,"and it was in such a narrow canyon and the overlap was so bad that we could [have flown] directly over it and we would have never seen him down there." (Full story)
Chipping away at the boulder with his pocket knife had failed. Rigging a series of pulleys to move the boulder had failed. And simply waiting for help had failed, too.
So Ralston gathered his gear neatly, prepared a tourniquet and planned his route out of the canyon.
Once prepared, Ralston broke two bones in his wrist and then used the dull blade of his multi-tool pocket knife to saw through his flesh.
Good memories and pain
The knife he used was not a surgical tool. He described it as "similar to a Leatherman but not nearly as nice."
"It's the type of thing that you'd get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-tool knife, which I think is what I did," he said.
But Ralston thought of his family and friends and concentrated on a flood of good memories. He remembered previous hikes and thought he'd been fortunate to meet so many wonderful people in his life. He also thought about the future.
He did feel pain, he said. But he persevered. Soon he was free and lowered himself to the canyon floor where he began his trek home.
Eventually he found hikers on the trail -- a couple from Holland and their son.
"They helped me carry my pack, gave me additional water, they gave me two Oreo cookies, the first food that I'd had in several days," Ralston said.
The family escorted Ralston for a couple of miles before Mercer, the pilot of a Utah Public Safety Helicopter spotted them.
Ralston appeared to be in good health but was bloody. He was flown to a hospital where his wounds were closed during surgery. He'll soon get a prosthetic arm.
During the flight, Ralston said he remained conscious and lucid but he was losing blood quickly.
Mercer said Ralston talked to deputies aboard helicopter.
"I just didn't want him to pass out on the way to the hospital," Mercer said. "When he landed at the hospital, again, he got up and walked right into the emergency room."
Ralston hopes to hike again soon, with friends. And when the doctors give him the OK, he's looking forward to a "big tall, tasty, crushed-ice margarita."
"I thought a lot about margaritas while I was out there," he said.