My plan was to climb all of Colorado’s peaks that were over 14,000 feet high. On the canyoneering trip in Blue John Canyon in Utah, a boulder fell and pinned my right forearm, crushing it. It was the third day of the planned 5-day trip. It was four days later that my mother sent a helicopter to rescue me, the same day that I cut my arm off.
I was trapped there for six days and during that time didn’t get a wink of sleep. I was going through very extreme transformations. I was in an altered state of consciousness from sleep deprivation, blood loss and lack of oxygen to my brain, dehydration, hypothermia and starvation. The days that I spent there were pure hell. The first pain was the pain of being trapped by the rock, my hand was numb but my wrist was crushed so badly it went from three inches thick to half an inch. It felt like when you slam your finger in a car door but sustained over six days, throbbing agony with every heartbeat.
The actual cutting was a different kind of pain. There are nerve endings in certain parts of your arm tissue. So when I broke the bone it hurt of course, but for me it was a happy moment because that was what was trapping me. It was the first time I realised I would soon be free. I broke the top then the bottom by bending my arm in the configurations I knew would snap it. That moment was the key to it all. If you can put yourself through all that and you’re smiling a big beaming, pearly grin, you know you’re winning. That stayed with me for the next hour. I was cutting through the skin, hacking through the muscle, breaking the tendon in my arm. I would feel the pain then I would smile because that pain meant impending freedom.
When I hit the main nerve – which is big like a piece of extra thick spaghetti - I had to snap it like I was plucking a guitar string with an upturned knife. And when I did that it felt like I had just vapourised my arm up to my shoulder. I took a real sharp intake of breath, closed my eyes and just felt the most intense fire burning through my arm. But at the end of that thirty seconds I was smiling again. I hadn’t blacked out, I hadn’t lost consciousness, I hadn’t shed a tear, I hadn’t even said ‘Ouch’.
When I hit the main nerve – which is big like a piece of extra thick spaghetti - I had to snap it like I was plucking a guitar string with an upturned knife.
The best moment was when I got that last piece of flesh cut and I stepped back. It was a real feeling of happiness at all the possibilities available in life. So all that pain was over, and I just headed back to my life. I am so thankful to my mother for spearheading the rescue operation when she did. The synchronicity of that timing to get a helicopter into that canyon to get me out couldn’t have been more perfect. I would have died from blood loss otherwise. I was walking for four and a half hours before I saw the helicopter. According to the physicians who treated me, by the time I arrived at the hospital I had less than an hour to live.
Something I try to share with people is my sense of perspective. When I was trapped there and suffering all these tremendous deprivations, I realised that I really wanted to live. I had the opportunity to kill myself, just put myself out of my misery but I chose life. Trauma, when it happens, can be a blessing or a tragedy. It can be a good thing or the excuse we’ve been looking for our whole lives to just check out and not try. I made a decision that this would be my rebirth, my opportunity to get my life back. It was a gift, and given the choice to erase what happened, I would still go back there and have things happen exactly as they did.
I get a chance to share this joy with people. The thing that it really comes down to for me is that I’ve been able to improve my life and other peoples’ lives. The (always unpaid) public speaking I do allows me to convey the gift that I’ve been given and help people understand their own lives. Don’t just seize the day, but truly appreciate it.
The main reaction I get from people is that they are baffled that I continue to adventure. I started to climb again just two months after the amputation. It was four years before I was climbing at the same level that I was before the accident but I’m finally there now.
Postscript: After Ralston was rescued, his arm was retrieved by park authorities and removed from under the boulder. It was cremated and given to Ralston. He returned to the boulder and left the ashes there.