Friday, February 11, 2011

Excerpt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


Aron Ralston
Aron Ralston near Logan, Utah, June 2004  (Kurt Markus)
This is hoodoo country, Abbey country, the red wasteland.

Under a bluebird sky, I leave my truck at the dirt trailhead for Horseshoe Canyon, the isolated window of Canyonlands National Park that sits 15 air miles northwest of the legendary Maze District. My plan is to make a 30-mile circuit of biking and canyoneering through Blue John and Horseshoe canyons.

This vacation, a five-day road trip, was last-minute. Some friends and I had called off a mountaineering trip, and the cancellation freed me for a hajj to the desert from Aspen, Colorado, where I had a few days off from my sales job at the Ute Mountaineer, an outdoor-gear shop. Usually I would leave a detailed schedule with my roommates, but since I left without knowing what I was going to do, the only word I gave was "Utah."

Though the Blue John circuit will be only a day trip, I'm carrying a 25-pound pack, most of the weight taken up with climbing gear for navigating the steep canyon system, food, and a gallon of water divided between a three-liter CamelBak hydration bladder and a one-liter Nalgene bottle. I'm wearing a pair of beat-up running shoes and wool socks, with just a T-shirt and shorts over my bike shorts.

Pumping against a 30-mile-per-hour headwind on a scraped dirt road, I finally make it to the entrance of Blue John Canyon and lock up my bike. By 2:30, I'm about seven miles into the canyon, at the midpoint of my descent, the narrow slot above the 65-foot-high rappel marked as Big Drop in my guidebook. Now the canyon deepens dramatically over a series of lips and benches.

I reach the first drop-off in the floor of the canyon, a ten-foot dryfall, and use a few good in-cut handholds on the canyon's left wall to lower myself. It's not a difficult maneuver, but I wouldn't be able to climb back up the drop-off from below. I'm committed to my course; there's no going back.

The pale sky is still visible above this ten-foot-wide gash in the earth's surface as I continue scrambling down, over lips and ledges and under chockstones—boulders suspended between the canyon walls. The canyon narrows to just four feet wide here, undulating and twisting and deepening. It's 2:41 p.m.

I come to another drop-off. This one is maybe 11 or 12 feet high. A refrigerator-size chockstone is wedged between the walls ten feet downstream from the ledge, giving the space ahead the claustrophobic feel of a short tunnel.

Right in front of me, just below the ledge, is a second chockstone the size of a large bus tire, stuck fast in the three-foot channel between the walls. If I can step onto it, I can dangle off the chockstone, then take a short fall to the canyon floor. Stemming across the canyon with one foot and one hand on each wall, I traverse out above the chockstone. With a few precautionary jabs, I kick down at the boulder. It's jammed tightly enough that it will hold my weight. I lower myself from the chimneying position and step onto the chockstone. It supports me but teeters slightly. Facing upcanyon, I squat on my haunches and grip the rear of the lodged boulder. Sliding my belly over the front edge, I hang from my fully extended arms.

I feel the stone respond to my adjusting grip with a scraping quake. Instantly, I know this is trouble, and instinctively I let go of the rotating boulder to land on the round rocks on the canyon floor. I look up, and the backlit chockstone consumes the sky. Fear shoots my hands over my head. I can't move backwards or I'll fall over a small ledge.

The next three seconds play out in slow motion. The falling rock smashes my left hand against the south wall; I yank my left arm back as the rock ricochets in the confined space; the boulder then crushes my right hand, thumb up, fingers extended; the rock slides another foot down the wall with my arm in tow, tearing the skin off the lateral side of my forearm. Then, silence.

MY PASSION FOR THE WILDERNESS was ignited when I was 12, when my family moved from Indiana to Colorado, in 1987. Back east for college at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, I pined for the West, and after I graduated I took a job at Intel Corporation as a mechanical engineer, in 1997, working in Phoenix, Tacoma, and then Albuquerque. Even before I quit and moved to Aspen, in 2002, to pursue my adventures full-time, I spent every scrap of vacation exploring the remote West; volunteered for three years with the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council; and, as my competence grew, embarked on more and more solo expeditions.

I'd recently read two best-selling accounts of extremes in the wilderness, both by Jon Krakauer. Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless's dropping out of mainstream society, entranced me. Despite his death in Alaska at age 24, I was inspired with dreams of "rubber tramping" across the country, living out of the back of a truck. As I read Krakauer's next book, Into Thin Air, his chronicle of the 1996 Everest disaster, I wondered what I would have done in those climbers' places. I wanted to reveal to myself who I was: the kind of person who dies or the kind of person who overcomes circumstances to help himself and others.

In 1998, I decided on three climbing projects that would come to occupy my entire recreational focus. I would climb all of Colorado's fourteeners, 59 of them by anyone's highest count; I'd then solo them in winter (something that hadn't been done); and I'd reach the highest point in every state. By the end of 2002, I had climbed the fourteeners, and soloed 36 of them in winter. The further I got with my project, the more I learned about my character. Climbing in winter by myself wasn't just something I did—it became who I was.

I pushed myself on increasingly difficult routes, but I also developed strategies to mitigate the added risks of winter travel. Still, there were a few near misses that prompted me to reevaluate my practices. In February 2003, on a backcountry hut trip with some of my Albuquerque Mountain Rescue buddies on Colorado's 11,905-foot Resolution Peak, two of my more experienced friends and I skied a 40-degree bowl, despite dangerous conditions. When we gathered midslope at a cluster of trees, the entire half-mile-wide hillside released with a quiet whoomph. The slide swept us hundreds of feet down the mountain, swamping two of us and burying the third for long minutes, until our avalanche transceivers pinpointed his location. We survived, but our friendships did not. I lost two friends because of the choices we made.

Rather than regret those choices, I swore to myself I would learn from their consequences. Most simply, I came to understand that my attitudes were not intrinsically safe.

Read the rest here.

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