Aron Ralston: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Aron Ralston: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

How important is one’s personal survival? How far would you, or could you, go, if your very existence was threatened? Faced with no other choice for survival than to cross a seemingly uncrossable boundary, history tells us that many people will choose to cross that line, and deal with the consequences, whatever they might be, later. Even when crossing that line takes us into territory beyond our prior experience, human beings, like many animals, will do almost anything to survive. The title of this week’s newsletter, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, is also the title of a 2004 New York Times best-seller, by American mountaineer and adventurer, Aron Ralston.

Now 35, Ralston was only 27 when he learned the most basic lesson about survival -people will go to incredible, even unbelievable, extremes, when it means the difference between life and death. If you don’t recognize Ralston’s name, or the title of his book, perhaps you are a moviegoer and recall this year’s Academy Awards presentations. One of the movies, titled 127 Hours, was nominated for six Academy Awards, and was based on Ralston’s boundary-crossing, life-altering experience. In southeastern Utah, around the turn of the last century, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their gang, the Wild Bunch, hid from the law in an endless maze of impenetrable canyons called Robbers Roost. The gang would hide out for weeks, with their rustled cattle and horses, swag from bank and train robberies, and sometimes their outlaw women.

The original Wild Bunch corral can still be found in Robbers Roost, along with a stone chimney still standing, and several caves - if you know where to look. Robbers Roost contains countless deep, narrow canyons, called “slot” canyons, which have become popular sites for exploration among the young, desert-hiking, rock-climbing adrenalin junkies from all over the world. One of these slot canyons is called Bluejohn Canyon, named after a Butch Cassidy sidekick named John Griffith, a sometime robber who had one blue and one brown eye. Bluejohn is located south of the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of Canyonlands National Park, an area of countless canyons, mesas and buttes near the Colorado River, the Green River and their many tributaries. In places it is scarcely wide enough to walk in, and requires skillful climbing and traversing of sheer vertical walls, often rising scores of feet to a tiny slit of blue sky far above.

Bluejohn is a typical slot canyon, with numerous branching extensions, switchbacks, entrances, exits and dead ends. It is a favorite among the adventurers who flock to the area every year. And Bluejohn is where Aron Ralston, in April 2003, was hiking all alone. No one knew where he was, and no one expected him to return anywhere, any time soon. He had told no one where he was going. He was utterly alone. While climbing through a narrow section of canyon, a huge boulder became dislodged and fell heavily on his right forearm, wedging itself between the narrow canyon walls a few feet above the sandy floor, and thoroughly trapping Ralston’s arm just above the wrist.

Ralston tried everything to get his crushed arm free from the boulder. He had some climbing ropes, a little food and water, and a video camera. Over the next three days, the ropes proved useless - the boulder was immovable. It was also impervious to chipping or breaking, with the cheap little utility tool he carried. And his yells for help echoed down the narrow canyon, and were lost on the desert wind. Eventually, Ralston assumed he was going to die. He scratched his name, date of birth, and presumed date of death on the sandstone wall. He set up his video camera, and recorded his final goodbyes to his family. Out of water, hungry, in pain and semi-delirious, the only option became apparent: amputation. But how could he cut through the two bones in his forearm? His dull little knife was not capable of the job. Try as he might, the blade would barely even break the skin. On the fourth day, he realized that if he could break the bones, he might be able to cut through the flesh of his arm by stabbing and slicing.

To break the bones, he would have to pull and yank with the entirety of his body weight and all his strength, to snap them against the fulcrum of the boulder. And not pass out from the pain. He would have to tie a tourniquet around his arm, too, or bleed to death. And somehow he would have to carve through his arm with the dull little knife, missing the bones and remaining conscious to finish the grisly job. And then bandage the wounded stump to avoid infection and blood loss, as best as he could. What a plan. But a plan for survival, nevertheless. Cross that boundary, and survive. Don’t cross it, and surely die. On day five of his terrible entrapment, Aron Ralston executed his plan, exactly. He then climbed up and out of Bluejohn Canyon, leaving his severed hand and arm behind. As he stumbled out of the canyon in the hot, blinding bright desert sun, luck was with him. A vacationing couple from the Netherlands, Eric and Monique Meijer, and their son, Andy, heard his cries for help, and cared for him until a rescue helicopter arrived six hours later. Ralston was flown to the nearest hospital. He was alive, and glad of it. Park authorities dedicated themselves to retrieving Ralston’s severed arm. According to NBC’s Tom Brokaw, it took 13 men, a winch and a hydraulic jack to move the boulder.

The arm was cremated, and the ashes given to Ralston. Six months later, on his 28th birthday, he returned to the canyon with Brokaw and the Dateline NBC crew as part of an NBC special about the accident, and to scatter the ashes of his arm. That’s where they belonged, Ralston said. Since the accident, Ralston has written the bestseller, been on countless TV shows, had a movie made about his experience, gotten a little older and a lot wiser, married Jessica, a wonderful woman, and had a baby with her named Leo, in February, 2010. The former mechanical engineering and French student at Carnegie Mellon University, member of honor societies Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi, is now a motivational speaker. He’s still a devoted mountain climber and adventurer, too, who now can afford to climb mountains all over the world. He says Everest is in his future. “I didn’t lose my hand,” Ralston tells his audiences, “I got my life back.” Here at Novus, our patients have also recognized how they were entrapped, but by substance abuse and dependence. They have seen how it’s threatening their lives, and they have each made the tough, personal decisions to get out of the trap, and reclaim their lives, no matter what it takes.

Now they are doing exactly that, through Novus medical detox programs.

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