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October 2006

Blue John Canyon: Feeling Gravity’s Pull

A pilgrim heads into the canyon where Aron Ralston lost his arm to pin down the meaning of survival.

If this sounds rather ill-tempered, let’s pause for a moment to consider the word. "Survival" (and its various conjugations) has been branded as the name of two record albums, a rock band, and a Christian music label; three novels and a writing contest; a video game, a film, and an episode of Star Trek; a racehorse that won the Preakness Stakes; a computer virus; a company that markets emergency preparedness products; and an organization offering group therapy for "male sexual victimization." And most significantly, as we all know, there’s a certain long-running reality-television franchise in which the ordeals are phony, the potential for money and 15 minutes of fame is all too real, and matters of life and death never even remotely enter the picture.

None of which appears to have done us any good. For every Hollywood schlockudrama like The River Wild and Vertical Limit, more people who don’t know what they’re doing head into class IV rapids or five-pitch big-wall ascents. For every $60,000 Everest client who perishes on the world’s most dangerous mountain, another 50 sign up. I’m well aware that some legitimate survival classics have bubbled to the surface in the recent past, but their power has been muted by the mass of melodramatic silliness permeating American culture.

In light of all this, I decided after Ralston’s incident that my interest in stories that dramatize people who get themselves into trouble for the sake of popular entertainment had finally bottomed out. Which, I suppose, is the reason why–without having bothered to speak to the man or taken the trouble to read an account of what happened in Blue John Canyon–I concluded that Aron Ralston was an ***.

Then a friend talked me into accompanying her to the Taos Mountain Film Festival. At the time, I didn’t know that Ralston would be discussing his campaign to climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks alone, in winter–a project he’d started several years before his Blue John debacle and which, despite the loss of his arm, he completed on March 7, 2005.

I discovered a couple of things about Ralston that night. First, I realized he is a hopeless geek. A mechanical engineer who studied classical piano in college and once designed computer chips for Intel, he speaks with a stumbling, unpolished modesty that is both humorous and endearing. The other thing I discovered is that, unlike some professional adventurers and corporate-sponsored extreme athletes, Ralston is not a pseudocelebrity hawking cheesy self-improvement bromides. He is entertaining, self-effacing, and–as I admitted to my friend that evening–actually rather inspiring.

A few days later, I purchased a copy of his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. His account was riveting–and it hit me in a way that no survival tale ever has. Hard enough, in fact, that shortly after finishing it, I decided to put my cynicism to the test and embark on my mission to see what lay at the bottom of Blue John.

A few minutes after struggling over the boulders that choke the slot’s entrance, I reach the spot that Ralston made famous. The walls here rise 50 or 60 feet and stand less than 3 feet apart–tight enough that you have to twist your torso and shoulders to make it through. Towering above my head, the trunks of several massive trees are wedged into the crack. Above these logs, which have been polished to a high gloss by countless flash floods, stretches a jagged ribbon of sky. The canyon is a dark and exceedingly narrow place, but also extremely beautiful, a place where symmetry and chaos are braided together to achieve a highly unstable balance.

Most of us know how Ralston’s nightmare played out. At 10 a.m. on his sixth day of confinement in here, while brushing some grit off his trapped appendage with his knife, he accidentally gouged his hand and realized that his entire forearm had begun to putrefy. The resulting horror caused him to thrash about in panic, and while giving in to this tantrum, he felt his arm bend unnaturally. This provoked the realization that if he torqued hard enough, he could snap the bones in his forearm like sticks of firewood, then saw through the muscles and tendons with his knife and free himself from the sandstone prison.

That’s a brutal and deeply disturbing image, and standing in the precise spot where it occurred was undeniably strange. Until this moment, I didn’t fully understand why I had wanted to do this. But now it struck me: I’d hoped that by standing at the spot where the accident took place, I might get a more visceral idea of what it actually felt like.

That knowledge, I hoped, might answer the question that lies at the heart of human fascination with these situations: Faced with a similar test, what the hell would I have done? Would I have risen to the challenge and persevered, thereby unveiling flattering facets of my character that had never before been revealed? (Which is the scenario I prefer to imagine.) Or would I have collapsed, fallen apart, and died an ignominious death? (The most likely outcome, I suspect.)

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