ASPEN, Colo. As he sawed through the final strands of his own tissue and skin with a dull blade, Aron Ralston was overcome with emotion, awash in a wave of euphoria unlike anything he’d felt before.
Malnutrition and dehydration, delirium, searing pain none of it registered anymore. Held captive by a half-ton boulder at the bottom of a narrow canyon for five days, Ralston freed himself by severing his own arm, gaining an unexpected second chance at life.
Resigned to death the night before, Ralston felt more alive than ever, glowing from what he believed to be the close of one life and birth of another.
And he hasn’t stopped living in the two years since.
‘‘At this point, I’ve got the confidence to know that I’ll get through anything in my life given I have the motivation to do it,’’ Ralston said. ‘‘If it’s an act of survival, we’ve all got a reason to keep living. It may not be pretty, but surviving is grit and determination in its highest form. I learned that I’ve got the capacity to do a hell of a lot more than I thought I could if I have the proper motivation.’’
Heading out on a relatively benign at least to an experienced mountaineer such as Ralston hike through a slot canyon in the Utah desert in April 2003, Ralston became trapped when a boulder dislodged and trapped his right arm. With little food, less water and virtually no chance of being rescued, Ralston used drastic means to extend his life, from drinking his own urine to rigging ropes and webbing to support his weight.
Unable to budge the boulder with a makeshift pulley system or break it with a multitool, Ralston escaped by torquing his arm against the rock to break his bones, then ripping through his flesh with a small, dull knife.
His bloody stump wrapped in a makeshift sling, Ralston rappelled down a 60-foot drop, then hiked six miles through the desert before an improbable sequence of events, including stumbling across a family of hikers and getting to a helicopter just in time, helped save his life.
It was a staggering display of human will and survival, and the tale spread inspiration across the world.
‘‘It really was a miracle that things just worked and fell into place,’’ said Donna Ralston, who spent two frantic days coordinating rescue efforts for her son from her Denver-area home. ‘‘I feel like there was a reason why things happened in the way they did. It wasn’t just happenstance.’’
She’s not the only who sees it that way.
During his darkest moments in the bottom of the canyon, Ralston had a vision of a young boy. Unlike his previous visions that final night, Ralston said he was able to touch this one, lifting the boy upon his shoulder with an arm missing its right hand. Ralston had come to terms with his death the night before and now this boy, which he believed to be his future son, had given him a reason to live.
Though the first few months after the accident were filled with surgeries, a kaleidoscope of painkillers and frustrating inactivity, it didn’t take Ralston long to return to what he loves. It started with hiking and running with friends, and pretty soon he was back scaling 14,000-foot peaks, skiing summits and climbing ice walls.
Using prosthetics he helped develop, Ralston completed a nine-year project of scaling the highest point in all 50 states, then became the first person to solo climb all 59 of Colorado’s fourteeners (14,000-foot peaks) in winter, crossing the last 14 off his list after the accident. In January, he summited Argentina’s 22,840-foot Mount Aconcagua, the world’s highest mountain outside Asia, then climbed and skied 10 peaks of at least 13,000 feet in the spring.
Ralston also got into ultrarunning, first taking on the Leadville 100 high in the central Rockies, then testing his willpower and fitness in the diabolical Hardrock, a 100-mile race featuring 66,000 feet of elevation change. In case that wasn’t enough, Ralston tried his hand at surfing, spent more time mountain biking and did all kinds of hiking and climbing.
That Ralston’s love for the wilderness didn’t diminish with his accident isn’t a surprise; he’s had a spiritual connection with the outdoors since he was a teenager.
What did change was Ralston’s appreciation for those closest to him. Content with isolating himself and doing things on his own before, Ralston now makes sure family and friends are included in his life more and understands how much they mean to him.
‘‘I think my spirituality is very similar to what it was before. It wasn’t as if I went through some kind of enlightenment and figured out all the answers,’’ said Ralston, who’ll turn 30 next year. ‘‘I figured out what was important to me, but I knew that before. I just didn’t express it as much to the people I appreciate, to my family and friends, and I’ve tried to be more practiced in that.’’
As his astonishing story of survival spread, Ralston was inundated with thousands of letters and e-mails from people thanking him for giving them inspiration. The correspondences continued and spiked again when his best-selling book, ‘‘Between a Rock and Hard Place,’’ hit the shelves last fall.
Realizing his story meant so much to so many people, Ralston lifted the spirits of thousands more by reliving his ordeal in person.
And while his speaking contracts have expired, Ralston keeps telling his story, the weight of obligation still too heavy for him to escape.
‘‘We’re proud of him because of the person he is and because he feels so strongly that he has a story that is inspirational, and he’s willing to tell it over and over and share with other people and give people hope,’’ Donna Ralston said. ‘‘I think that says a lot about his character.’’
As for the future, Ralston doesn’t want to look too far ahead. His immediate plans include a tour for the paperback release of his book on Sept. 1, and more writing for magazines such as Men’s Journal and Outside.
Ralston also plans to do more speaking.
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