THE MAN WHO CUT OFF HIS OWN ARM; Trapped under a Rock for Five Days, Aron Ralston Hacked off His Arm to Escape. on the Face of It His Story Is Testament to the Instinct for Survival. but, Told Here for the First Time, It Raises Disturbing Questions about the Man and His Motives .

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID JONES

WITH its breathtaking sheer drops, labyrinthine caves and soaring crimson cliffs bearing ancient Red Indian symbols, the Canyonland National Park is one of the most starkly beautiful places on Earth. For those bold enough to climb in its unforgiving terrain, this vast desert wilderness in the remote western American state of Utah - once the hideout of the legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy and his gang - is also fraught with danger.

On a cloudless day, the sun roasts the flesh and parches the tongue.

At night, the temperature often plunges below zero. The rocks are inhabited by poisonous snakes and mountain lions; a sudden rainstorm floods the narrow gorges in minutes, forming a raging torrent that washes away everything in its path.

In such a harsh environment, any slight mishap can quickly become a life-threatening disaster - as outdoors adventurer Aron Ralston discovered during a solo trek through the Bluejohn Canyon on Saturday, April 26, last year.

For Ralston, 27, the spectacular downward climb should have been straightforward. An experienced mountaineer, he had conquered North America's highest mountain, 20,000ft Mount McKinley, unaided, and scaled 36 of the 59 mountains over 14,000ft in his home state of Colorado.

His plan was to park his Toyota truck beside the trail leading to the canyon, cycle 15 miles on his mountain bike to the entrance, dump the bike and climb down seven miles of dark, narrow passages in the rock face, then hike a further eight miles to complete the loop back to his vehicle.

By using ropes for the longer drops, and inching his way down the shorter cavities with his hands and feet, Ralston reckoned he could complete the 30-mile circuit before dusk.

Midway through his journey, though, an elementary misjudgment left him helplessly trapped.

Lowering himself down a narrow 'slot canyon', Ralston found a large egg- shaped boulder apparently lodged tightly between the sandstone walls. He decided to drop down onto the rock, grasp it with both hands, and, by extending his arms, land softly on the dusty red floor below.

Before doing so, he tested its stability by prodding it with his feet.

He did not, however, push down with his full body weight - as climbing textbooks advise - and, as he dangled from the boulder, it began to slip.

Fearing the 800lb rock would fall on to his head, Ralston raised both arms to protect himself. He managed to withdraw his left arm a split second before it was crushed - but his right forearm was painfully compressed between the boulder and the canyon wall, and he could not prise it free.

His initial reaction was to cry out for help, but his voice simply echoed off the walls. He was furious with himself for making such a basic error and, summoning all his pent-up anger, he pushed upwards against the boulder.

AT ONE point it seemed to move just a little, but when it settled his wrist was more firmly pinned than before.

Within hours he'd lost all feeling from his elbow down.

A less resilient character might have given up hope, but Ralston refused to accept his fate. As the days slipped by, and his food and water ran out, the mechanical engineering graduate used all his ingenuity to try to extricate the limb.

He tried chiselling around the boulder with his multipurpose Swiss Army knife, to no avail; he used his climbing ropes to create a pulley to try to budge it a few vital inches, but it was immovable.

After five days, Ralston took the decision which has made his name synonymous with raw courage, and exemplifies the agonies human beings will suffer in order to survive.

He freed himself by amputating his forearm, first breaking its two bones, then using the knife to saw through muscles, tendons, veins and arteries in an incredible act of self-surgery that took more than an hour. …