Chewing your own leg off was not an act to be undertaken lightly or performed halfway. At what point and by what process did the coyote make the decision to sink its teeth into its own flesh? Presumably there first came a period of waiting and weighing. But after that?
- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
At 11:32am on Thursday, 1 May 2003, Aron Ralston cut off his own arm using the blade and pliers of a Leatherman-type multi-tool. He arrived at this unfortunate juncture because of a mixture of his own carelessness and some really, really bad luck. The carelessness involved telling absolutely no one where he was going before he set off on an easy day-trip down Blue John Canyon, a remote and infrequently visited sandstone slot in east-central Utah. The bad luck involved an encounter with a chockstone - a chunk of dislodged rock wedged between the narrow walls of the canyon. While going over the top of this, he felt it move. Dropping quickly off the far side, he found it rolling after him. Raising his hands to fend it off, he ended up with his right hand and wrist inextricably trapped between the rock and the canyon wall. Oops.
That was on the afternoon of Saturday, 26 April. Five days later, Ralston had finished the pint of water he had with him, and had started drinking his own urine. He had tried to chip away the rock around his trapped hand, but found it too solid. He had tried to fashion a pulley system to lift the rock, but that didn't work. So eventually he broke his own forearm, tied on a tourniquet, and sawed through skin, muscle and tendon until he was free. Then he walked and abseiled farther down the canyon until a chance encounter with a search helicopter saved his life.
Ralston describes all this well - apart from an occasional long reach for a bit of pointless purple prose, his writing is clear and evocative. He conjures up the long, freezing nights, the hallucinatory interludes, the alternating episodes of desperation and resignation, and the final rush of horrific activity that set him free. (I could, however, really have done without the frequent outbursts of sentimentality and "wilderness spirituality" that seem to be a required part of all American outdoors literature.)
Although the story of entrapment, escape and rescue is central, there isn't enough material there to fill a book - so Ralston interleaves the main story with a series of chapters describing episodes from his earlier life. It's a good idea - we want to know more about the sort of person who has the fortitude to make such an appalling decision and carry it through. We learn that Ralston is immensely fit and extremely independent, frequently setting off alone on huge winter excursions among Colorado's 14000ft peaks. But we also begin to see that he has a long history of behaviour that transcends simple "risk-taking" and might be better described as "death-seeking". He climbs alone during winter storms, rafts white water by starlight or in children's inflatable boats, skis avalanche-prone snow, and leaps fully-clothed into a fast-flowing river for a laugh. Almost every story seems to involve a near-miss survived by a combination of physical endurance and blind luck. Ralston himself reflects on the irony that, after so many narrow escapes from sudden death, he might end up dying slowly in his slot canyon after a simple day out. Even more disconcertingly, it's evident that at some level Ralston's behaviour is a performance, laid on for those around him to admire. A friend once cautioned him with the phrase, "It's not what you do, it's who you are," and during his long period of entrapment, Ralston reflects on this and seems to come to understand that he is trying to define himself through his various dangerous exploits. But after that, the performance goes on: he keeps a video diary while trapped, and it ends up occupying most of a one-hour tape, which he hopes will be played at his funeral; while sawing away at his arm, he thinks, "This is gonna make one hell of a story to tell my friends"; and, most bizarrely, he wastes time photographing the severed remnant of his forearm before turning to hike down the canyon in a race against continuing blood loss.
The language Ralston uses to describe his eventual interaction with his rescuers is revelatory in itself: we find him "barking" instructions, issuing a "command" or interrupting people in a "firm voice"; he crosses space by "hiking at full speed" or taking "half a dozen long strides". For someone who has spent five days standing in one place with no food and little water, and who is estimated to have lost more than a litre of blood, this is a remarkable performance. Ralston is so fit and strong-willed that these recollections may well be entirely accurate ... but what is interesting is his clear consciousness of his own performance, and his careful choice of language to make sure that it is communicated to his readers.
So we have a well-told tale of endurance, resourcefulness and courage, combined with a rather worrying insight into the mind of a strangely driven man. When a park ranger phoned Ralston's mother to tell her that her missing son was safe and in hospital, he asked if there was anything he could do for her. She had two requests: "Please be in touch as you know more," and "Please don't be judgmental." To me, that second request speaks volumes about Ralston's life so far.
TAC 63 Index