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Learning About Survival Where Aron Ralston Outwitted Death

Follow correspondent Kevin Fedarko into the remote Utah slot canyon where Ralston famously separated himself from his right forearm.

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Early one Friday last summer, I tossed some gear into my pack and drove out to an area of southeast Utah called Robbers Roost. This stretch of desert, which lies just west of where the Green River spills through Canyonlands National Park, is one of the most remote regions in the Lower 48. It’s a place of dust-broom winds and night skies that burn with the milk-glow of more stars than you’ve ever seen. The landscape is riddled with slot canyons, which are among the strangest and most aesthetically compelling geological features on earth–and which can also be quite dangerous. One of these slots made headlines a few years back when a Colorado alpinist named Aron Ralston got trapped in it, and escaped only after famously cutting off his right arm.

For reasons I was still trying to unravel, I was heading for the exact spot where Ralston’s accident took place. After driving for several hours over rattletrap roads, I hiked into the west fork of Blue John Canyon via a wide wash carpeted in white sand and lined with cream-colored sandstone walls. The ground slopes gently downward here, and for more than 2 hours the trail weaves between stands of gnarled juniper and piñon pine. After about 4 miles, Blue John abruptly slots up, and everything changes.

A flat lip of rock marks a sharp drop of about 15 feet, and now, as I carefully lower myself into this cleft, the walls on either side radically narrow, brushing my elbows and shoulders. The moment my feet reach the bottom, it hits me that I’m entering a different world. The light drains away. The temperature drops 10 degrees. And the sounds of the world above–the wind, the bird calls, the nameless and myriad rustlings of nature as it goes about its business–fall off, replaced by a hush so earthy and so profound that I realize, for the first time, that silence can actually carry weight.
The passage is choked with massive chunks of limestone-shale conglomerate, each the size of a compact car, that have toppled from the cliffs above and now hang suspended between the walls. The only way to get past these boulders is by laboriously clambering over their tops, or by getting down on your belly and slithering underneath–an unsettling enterprise because, as Aron Ralston can attest, the consequences can be catastrophic when one of these monoliths shifts. The 800-pound rock whose balance Ralston disturbed on a spring afternoon in 2003 crushed his forearm, spearing him to the wall like a pin piercing a butterfly.

Calling that event to mind here is sobering business–sobering enough to make me wonder what the hell motivated me to come down this mineshaft. When I’d phoned Ralston a day before setting out, to ask him for directions, he’d wondered the same thing.

Ralston was surprisingly pleasant for a man who has been the target of serious media-hounding. And while cheerfully walking me through a detailed and highly accurate description of Blue John’s tangled topography, he mentioned that he would be making his own trip into the canyon the following week. He has made several journeys back, and it seems this is a pilgrimage that he feels compelled to keep repeating, he explained, because the place represents something he doesn’t yet fully understand, but which he recognizes as important.

Ralston seemed slightly baffled that someone else might be drawn there as well. “It’s an awfully long way to go,” he said, “just to look at a rock.”

Perhaps I should mention that making a trip like this is a pretty bizarre thing for me to do, given my titanic disdain for survival dramas. At the time of Ralston’s accident, I’d heard more than I really wanted to about his miraculous escape. It was hard to miss, what with the endless CNN bulletins; the hospital press conferences; the DVD version of Survivor: The Aron Ralston Story with Tom Brokaw. All of which only reinforced my conviction that the concept of “survival” has been so corrupted that it’s now synonymous with self-serving overexposure and shameless hype.

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 ass.

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.)

What makes wilderness survival situations so fundamentally different from pop-culture contrivances is simply this: These things are not fake. When a person is lost or trapped, alone, and with no hope of rescue, the significance of both action and inaction becomes radically elevated, because the consequences will be measured in terms of life and death. Not someone else’s life or death, but one’s own. And the experience of confronting this predicament often tends to reduce a person–or, depending on one’s point of view, to elevate him–to his core essence.

This can make for some especially raw and unforgiving moments of truth–moments that strip away the veneer of the civilized persona and reveal what most of us never get to see. They are moments when, like it or not, we yield to whatever lies beneath.

Somewhere in Ralston’s experience, I thought I caught a glimpse of something that diverged sharply from the hype ricocheting around the electronic ether. Here, at last, was something real–and I wanted to touch it.

Unfortunately, Blue John did not offer up any easy epiphanies.

At some point during the 3 years since Ralston’s accident occurred, a work crew removed the stone that had trapped his arm so that no one would suffer a similar fate. (Ralston had mentioned this fact in our phone conversation, but at the time I hadn’t fully appreciated the missing-anchor effect it would create.) Then Ralston himself rubbed out the epitaph he’d carved into the wall with his knife. Finally, at least two flash floods had scoured the canyon since the accident.

Thanks to all of these factors, there is virtually no sign that anything unusual has happened here. There are only the smooth sandstone walls, the cool rush of damp air flowing along the pebble-strewn canyon floor, and the massive, sarcophagus-like silence. The place does, however, offer one notable thing. Dark, cramped, and terrifyingly cut off, this narrow little gash offers a pretty visceral sense of what it must feel like to be buried alive.

I’ll never feel the dread or the hopelessness or, ultimately, the morbid triumph that Ralston experienced down here; I know that now. Ralston no doubt comes back here to face down all of those disparate sensations, and to revisit his brush with death–which must surely sharpen his appreciation for life. In other words, he comes to inhabit this place, whereas the rest of us can only be tourists. But in some way, I appreciate his story, and the manner in which it clarified my thinking about the genre, all the much more for visiting this foreboding canyon. You can’t script a survival story, and you can’t re-create one. But what you can do, I realize as I carefully scramble past those same menacing boulders near the slot’s entrance, is feel the power of a Blue John Canyon, and know that the people who come back from such places have something powerful to say.

So, as the genre continues to warp and mutate, I’ll simply develop a filter. I’ll sift out the fluff until the next Ralston comes along. If that person is as attuned as Ralston is to what happened to him, he’ll recognize that he is simply a traveler returning from a forbidden place–

A kind of backwater republic somewhere deep inside the interior regions of the human mind that most of us never get to see. And that the vast majority of us never want to see, for all the magnetic pull of places like Everest or McKinley or Blue John Canyon. After all, real survivors have been to a place whose terrain is at least as terrifying as it is enlightening. And whose most challenging contour lines will always remain a mystery to the rest of us.

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