Friday, July 01, 2005

What would YOU do to survive? 

Hadn't intended to, but tonight I ended up watching an interview with Aron Ralston, the rock climber who had to amputate his own arm to save his life. The initial story got big coverage here because his parents live here. The show was actually a two-hour special during which he wnet back to the canyon where he'd been trapped and showed exactly what happened.

It's pretty much a miracle that he survived. He drove to Utah on a spur of the moment desire to hike someplace quiet and out of the way. He didn't tell a sole where he was headed, which was nearly a fatal mistake. He chose a remote slot canyon in a park where the opening between the rocks was barely wide enough for a human to slip through. It was a 15 foot drop into a sliver of a crevasse just to enter Blue John Canyon. But I could see the appeal of the place......the layers of rock curved smooth by water were quite stunning and could only be viewed from inside the canyon. He had hiked seven miles from his truck to the opening of the canyon with just enough supplies for a couple of hours. Little did he know.....

In order to navigate the canyon, one must climb over or crawl over boulders that have fallen from above and have become wedged in there. One of these boulders that he scrambled over was not stable. It slipped down between the walls of the canyon, pinning his right hand and wrist. He could not move the boulder, and he was at least 20 miles from the nearest paved road. Certainly no one was close enough to hear him yell for help.

He had hiked on a Saturday, and was not due back to work until Tuesday, so he was not missed for three days. His boss became alarmed enough to file a missing persons report on Wednesday. Aron was stuck in that crevasse all that time. He had drunk all his water, his food, and he was dehydrated, on the verge of hypothermia from the night-time cold, and he was hallucinating from lack of sleep. He had a dull knife with him, and had attempted to cut his arm with it. He stopped when he realized it was not sharp enough to cut through the bones above his wrist. He was certain he would die right where he was.

Amazingly, he had brought a video camera. He used it to film a diary of his experience and farewell messages to his family. Only the first day of video was aired for the interview.....the images from subsequent days were too upsetting for him or his family to view. But they did air the audio, which was haunting. You could hear how weak he was, how despondent. You could hear him fading away, which gave me chills.

Aron's decision to sever his arm came almost by accident. He had been chipping away at the boulder for days, more for something to do rather than out of any real hope he could free himself. Then he slipped and to his surpise, the blade reached his thumb and went in. He finally realized that he could probably cut through his arm as long as he didn't have to slice through bone. So he made the brave decision to break his arm and then slice through the rest. Fortunately, he was able to break both the bones in the same place, a little above the wrist. I honestly don't know, even if I had thought of doing it, if I would have been able to go completely through with it. His description of it was particularly creepy given that he was back in the canyon and you could still see the blood stains from where he'd done it.

Almost more amazing than the amputation, though, was that even after he cut himself free, he had to get out of that canyon, bleeding and weak from dehydration. He lost something like 45 pounds during the six days he'd been stuck. He couldn't get back out the way he'd come in, so he hiked the remainder of the canyon, which ends with a drop of approximately six stories! He had to rappel that distance with one hand. Fortunately, he was discovered before he had to go the seven miles to his truck, or he would not have survived.

Aron now has an artificial limb, but that has hardly slowed him down at all. He goes downhill skiing, kayaking, and of course still climbs mountains. I was amused to see him ice climbing with an axe attached to his right arm. The return to the scene of the accident was an emotional one for him, but memories of that haven't deterred him from living his life fully.

While I am aware that Aron was an althlete in peak form with plenty of outdoor survival experience, I still have to wonder at what I could manage do to in a life or death situation. I probably have a reasonably strong will to live, but just how far could I go? Makes me wonder if I let too much in my life slow me down. Probably one of the more exasperating things about chronic illness is the necessity of avoiding risk to preserve health. I so much want to hike and explore and take pictures of amazing things in amazing places. But leaving my house is too much of a challenge some days.

But I'll never be trapped literally between a rock and a hard place like Aron Ralston was. I suppose I should count my blessings.

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