It was Thursday, May 1st, five days after Aron Ralston had first entered Utah's Bluejohn Canyon on what should have been an eight-hour, 13-mile (21-kilometer) day hike. But on his way, while scrambling through a narrow section of the sandstone slot, Ralston dislodged an 800-pound (363-kilogram) chockstone that rolled on its pinch points and pinned his hand and forearm. His supplies—two burritos and three liters of water—were now gone, and there was virtually no chance of rescue. Unless Ralston did something drastic, he would not make it out alive.
Ralston, a 27-year-old mountaineer from Aspen, Colorado, is an experienced outdoorsman and a former member of the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council. Bluejohn Canyon was well within his technical and physical ability, but a freak accident had him trapped. What's worse, Ralston had broken his own first rule: He had failed to leave word with anyone of where he was going that day.
By the morning of May 1st, after five days trapped beneath the massive boulder, Ralston resolved set himself free by amputating his own right hand using his only resource—a multitool. He broke his radius and ulna then cut through the remaining skin and tendons, freeing himself and saving his life.
The media descended on the story in droves. Ralston was deemed a hero, a warrior, even (in one college newspaper headline) a "badass." But some in the local climbing community felt that there was another side to the story.
Rex Tanner is a ten-year search and rescue (SAR) veteran and commander of Grand County Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that is responsible for 3,600 square miles (9,324 square kilometers) near Bluejohn Canyon. His group participated in 80 rescues last year and was on call to aid in Ralston's rescue. Tanner, like many in the SAR community, has high praise for Ralston and his steely resolve, but questions some of the decisions that placed him in such a life-threatening situation in the first place. Here Tanner speaks on what Ralston did right, what he did wrong, and what the media left out of the story.
Describe the area Ralston was exploring.
He was in an area called the Maze. It's remote, probably up there in the top ten in terms of areas outside of population centers and difficulty to get to. To even go in and be able to explore areas in the Maze, you usually have to carry extra gasoline. I've hiked the Horseshoe Canyon area where he was picked up, and it doesn't get a lot of activity.
In such an area, what are the most common accidents?
Thirty to almost 40 percent of our incidents deal with mountain biking situations. For the most part, they're medical and injury circumstances and need assistance out of the backcountry. But it's not unusual to have people do exactly what Ralston did: Get themselves in a situation where they haven't told anybody where they're going, climb down into an area that's questionable, and not be able to get out.
Ralston was trapped for five days in the canyon and managed to self-rescue. How does that compare to other incidents?
Well, I think that he fared a lot better than most people would have. To realize that you're going to have to make a large sacrifice to survive, and acting on it—I have to hand it to him. I mean, there are a lot of people that would not have been as strong-minded to be able to pull that off.
During those five days, what was the most important thing he did to survive?
I think the number one thing is that he kept his head. Ralston is experienced in the backcountry, and that experience builds confidence. In an emergency situation, confidence builds a stable mental frame of mind. And that's really important. There's probably a lot of people walking around thinking they can deal with those types of situations, but I've seen people end their lives out there because they completely lost their mental stability.
What could Ralston have done to avoid this?
He could have left a note. He could have had a buddy. To me, one of the biggest problems out there is people don't tell someone that they're going to a particular location. It's really not that difficult to do, and to me, it doesn't take away from the wilderness experience.
Once Ralston made it to the hospital, his story was broadcast from England to Brazil. What do you think those reports left out?
What bothered me was the way the media made him out to be quite a hero. But they never talked about how the guy got himself into trouble because he really made some poor decisions. What's kind of irritating is that rescuers have to go out and deal with those types of situations—a lot—and most of the time they're preventable. When one person, in this case Aron Ralston, gets himself into trouble, a bunch of SAR volunteers' lives may be placed in jeopardy in order to help him.
Can you explain that point?
Even when you have trained experts that are conducting rescue activities, the environment that you're working in—whether it be the top of Mount Everest or the North Pole or out here in the middle of the desert, out in the middle of canyon country—is a dangerous environment. No training or equipment can completely remove the danger from the wilderness. If a SAR volunteer is conducting a nighttime rescue, walking along canyon rims with no moon, he can step through a slot just as easily as anyone else. That's something that the public doesn't seem to give much thought to. Because one guy (Aron Ralston) got himself into a particular situation, 15 or 16 SAR volunteers will be placed in a similar, potentially deadly, scenario.
What basic tips would you suggest to help people avoid a situation like this?
You need enough information about what you're getting ready to do, so you're prepared, so you really have an understanding. Having enough water is number one. Being able to start a fire is number two. The proper clothing is important. A cell phone can be a big help. As long as you're not down in the bottom of a canyon, you've got excellent coverage. Also, having your ego in check, realizing that you may be getting in over your head, is essential. In an age of extreme sports, people are getting themselves into more difficult situations all the time. People come into the area, and in a lot of cases they have a kind of superman mentality—they are trying to push the envelope. You must understand your limitations. If you climb down into a canyon slot, have you already figured out how you're going to get out?
What can you do if you encounter a backcountry emergency?
It's a matter of keeping your head and using your resources. That's what's so significant about Aron. He had water, a knife, and the skills that allowed him to pull off what he did—in addition to having the guts to cut his arm off. Survival still goes back to some pretty basic skills and some basic thoughts in terms of how to react. Even in this day and age, it isn't really any more sophisticated than that.