Redux: A Climber's Survival Tale

Adventurer Aron Ralston was pinned beneath a rock for six days while climbing in Utah in 2003. He cut off his own arm to free himself. Later, he told Alex Chadwick about his ordeal. This story originally aired on September 13, 2004.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen. For your listening pleasure, we've replaying a few of Day to Day's most memorable pieces from our past. Today we bring you an interview with Alex Chadwick and a climber who was forced to amputate his own arm. Aron Ralston was hiking in Utah in 2003 when a falling boulder pinned his arm to a canyon wall. He was trapped for five days. Finally, Ralston was able to pull himself free but only after breaking and cutting off his own limb. Alex Chadwick spoke with him in 2004 upon the release of his book, it's called "Between a Rock and a Hard Place."

ALEX CHDWICK: Let me ask about the amputation, as dreadful a moment as that is. It's something you actually try fairly soon after you trapped in the canyon but you can't do it. The tool that you're using, a kind of a Leatherman, a multi-purpose tool with blades on it, it can't cut through your bone.

Mr. ARON RALSTON (Author, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place): I never even got to the point where I could really experiment with trying to get it through the bone. I just knew that without a serrated blade that wouldn't even be possible. It was only I think two days into it when I first took the blade I held to my skin and poked it myself. On the third day I tried sawing into my arm. On the fourth day, I stabbed myself and opened up a wound but still knowing that the knife - and my mindset was that I had to use the knife to get through my arm and if I couldn't get through the bones I couldn't use the knife to get my hand free. It was mindset that kept me there for the length of that six days.

CHADWICK: I'm not sure I understand what you mean, it was a mindset that kept you there for six days.

Mr. RALSTON: I guess in terms of problem solving, you realized that you've made an assumption. The assumption was that I was trying to use the knife to get through the bones. It wasn't possible. What I wasn't thinking of was in terms of I could use a rock to smash my bones. I could use the boulder as a vice to break my bones. Those options didn't come to me as I was considering amputation up until the end of the time that I spent there when it really came to me almost like a divine inspiration that - interacting with me, I think, spiritually this miracle started to happen wherein for the first time I realized that I could break the bones by bending them, that that what was going to get me free and I didn't have to use the knife. The riddle that I've been trying to solve was how do I use a dull knife to cut through my arm. Whereas, really the riddle was how do I get my arm free.

CHADWICK: That moment when you finally get that is so full of both salvation and horror that I can't even imagine what it was like to go through that.

Mr. RALSTON: Well, and I know you use the word dreadful to describe that experience of the amputation, and I think that's the way people see it and they have a hard time understanding that for me six days of considering myself a dead man, even to the extent that I'd made my farewell messages and my last will and testament on the videotape my family and my friends that I've written R.I.P. over my name etched into the wall on the left side of the canyon. The moment when I figure out how I could get free, it was the best idea and the most beautiful experience I will ever have in my life that it was all euphoria and not a bit of horror. It was having my life back after being dead.

CHADWICK: You do manage to cut your arm off. You do start to hike out of this canyon carrying a rope with you which you need because the canyon leads to the edge of a cliff. You have to rappel off of this cliff down to the floor of another canyon below you. In this moment on the edge of this cliff, you're trying to sort out your rope using your teeth and your one remaining hand, and it almost goes over the edge of the cliff. You almost lose your rope. I mean, I think that's actually the worse moment of this book.

Mr. RALSTON: It was one of the scariest moments that I had to deal with while I was there, it was the idea that I'd gotten myself free, that I'd overcome the largest obstacle to my salvation and then…

CHADWICK: You're going to make it, and you get to this…

Mr. RALSTON: Yeah.

CHADWICK: This point and you hear these ropes slithering over the edge. And, I mean…

Mr. RALSTON: Yeah, as I'm facing the other direction and trying to work it through with my hand and my teeth and it's "ZZZZZZZ." And I just barely got my foot down on it to stop it from falling all the way over the edge. Had I lost it, I would have died, and knowing that, it was just one more thing. No stupid mistakes, Aron. Double back your harness, Aron. No stupid mistakes. Don't pass out when you're going over the edge while you're on rappel. No stupid mistakes. Don't go the wrong way when you get to the canyon intersection. No stupid mistakes. So, it was this voice, this inner drive that kept me focused. And there were times when - the fact that I cut off my arm was the least of my concerns. The sand that was building up on my shoe, grating my skin became so irritating that I was barely able to continue walking and managing the amount of water that I was able to find and then consume as I hiked and how I could possibly hold it in my mouth rather than drinking it in order to humidify the air that I was breathing in my lungs. I think just to emphasize the difficulty and the miracle that came about through that difficulty was that I'd lost almost a liter and a half of blood at the time that the helicopter found me. At the point when the human body loses about two liters of blood is, medically speaking, when it goes into the state of shock at the level where your organs are shutting down including your heart, you have a heart attack and you die. It essentially gave me a window of about another half an hour during which I could be rescued. Had I had the epiphany to get out anytime before or after that half an hour window when that helicopter was exactly where it was, because otherwise it was going to be headed back for refueling and it wouldn't even be in the area, that I would have bled to death in the bottom of that canyon. It was certain suicide in my mind, and the fact that it worked out is just absolutely direct evidence that there's something bigger going on.

CHADWICK: You went back to that canyon, to that spot where the crew from NBC to make a Dateline documentary that was on the air this last Friday. What it did feel like to be back there?

Mr. RALSTON: It was the closure for me, for my six-month cycle of recovery and healing to physically be able to go back through the canyon, as a matter of my capabilities, my actual athletic ability, was a measure that I was back. To be able to do what I did a second time meant that I was also emotionally able to cope and find the end of the cycle to go back there and take my cremated remains of my hand to put them on the boulder that trapped me and held me there and say a prayer of gratitude for being alive was emotionally the final, I think, chapter of that six months of getting back to my life. It was every bit of the emotional - just having intense feelings of revisiting both my grave and my birthplace at the same time.

COHEN: That was Alex Chadwick interviewing climber Aron Ralston in 2004. And with the help of costume design prosthetics, Aron continues to climb today. He's planning to climb Mount Everest next year.

More to come from Day to Day.

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